A contribution by Roberto Verzola, previously published in a dialogue on the p2p-foundation mailing list:
“I find myself agreeing somewhat with Doug Engelbart, inventor of the mouse, who said we shape our tools and our tools then shape us. He talks of co-evolution of the human and their tools. We might call this “mutual determinism”. When he says “shapes us”, I presume “us” includes social relations.
E.F.Schumacher (Small is Beautiful) went further and I strongly agree with him too. He wrote (in Work) that when we adopt a technology (shaped by someone else, presumably), we absorb the ideology (mindset, value-system) that comes with it. Schumacher believed that many technologies come embedded with ideologies, and those who think they can import a technology without also importing the ideology that comes with it are mistaken. This is probably more “technologically deterministic” than Engelbart, but I think E.F.Schumacher is correct, for some technologies at least.
In fact, I did an analysis of the Internet, using Schumacher’s perpective, and found several embedded mindsets/value-systems that Internet users are *forced* to absorb, often without realizing it. (For the complete piece, see http://www.scu.edu/sts/nexus/summer2005/VerzolaArticle.cfm) Let me just list three:
1. the universal dependence of Internet technology on the English language, down to the microcode inside microprocessors, forces us to learn English. If you learn the Anglo-Saxon tongue, you are bound to acquire the Anglo-Saxon taste. Learn the language, pick up the culture.
2. the automation mindset: to replace people with machines. This might make sense in a country rich in capital (though that’s still debatable), but less so in countries rich in labor. When we replaced muscle-work with machines, we became less physically fit, what would happen as we replace mental-work with machines?
3. a built-in bias (in fact, subsidy) for global players and globalization.This is best seen in the Internet cost structure of flat rates regardless of distance. A 1mb file sent to a colleague using the same ISP costs as much as a 1mb file sent to someone at the other side of the globe. Yet the latter uses much more network resources (servers, routers, communication channels, etc.) than the former. So local players are charged higher per unit resource than global players, a subsidy for globalization that is built into the Internet, as designed today.
So, do we reject the technology then? Schumacher’s 1970s response was intermediate/appropriate technology. Today, Schumacher remains relevant, through the vocabulary might be different; I would say that we must also get involved in the redesign of the technology. This is why the talk about an alternative Internet on this list interests me a lot.
I would not bind myself a priori to a fixed perpective that “things” determine social relations or that social relations determine “things”. I would explore these perspectives on a case-to-case basis, and make use of whatever new and useful insight can come from either (or both).”