Context matters, and nowhere more than in information technology. IT is such a powerful force in all our lives that we are fixated on the current moment, and usually have a hard time recalling how things were massively different, only a few years ago. For those of us of a Certain Age, it’s now almost impossible to recall the time when telephones were the private property of The Phone Company (TPC) and hardwired into wall sockets; you could be prosecuted for unplugging one unless you worked for TPC. In 1992, barely a score of years ago, Mark Zuckerberg was eight years old and probably wearing braces. If you left your monitor on too long you’d get little green letters permanently burned into it. And “Microsoft Windows” referred to nothing more than all the panes of glass in Redmond WA office buildings.
Why 1992? Well, that was the year than Lynne Marcus and I, leading a crack crew of Claremont graduate students, conducted a cutting-edge project called Case Studies Of Technology Use In Adult Literacy Programs, under contract to the US Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), regarding how information tools were being used to teach adults to read, and some of the policy and organizational issues and constraints involved. I recently had occasion to re-read the study, and if I do say so myself, it was a really excellent piece of IT research – six case studies of very different programs, serving as the base for a fine introduction and discussion of scope and some conclusions that could be easily applied today to many different kinds of IT settings. And the word “internet” doesn’t appear in the report at all.
It wasn’t that there weren’t emerging online resources in 1992; there were lots of them. It was just that they weren’t linked in any useful ways. I’d been using email since 1980, but even in 1992 there were still half a dozen kinds of email systems none of which could share messages with any other systems. Every university had a lot of computer resources; every company had its databases; every library had online stuff. But if you were in one place it was almost impossible to get information from somewhere else. Even if you could manage to connect computers, there were so many completely incompatible operating systems and protocols that figuring out how to get a file across town in readable form was a nightmare. My former employer the National Science Foundation had built a “backbone” for a coast-to-coast information superhighway, but there was little traffic on it because no one could find the on and off ramps. And that was just how things were.
Lynne Marcus, Tora Bikson, Bonnie Johnson, I, and lot of smart colleagues had been studying emerging applications of information technology in workplaces and society for a good many years by then. At NSF in 1980, our section had funded the first empirical studies of such applications. Certainly as researchers we understood in a way that few in the general public did the kind of information revolution about to be unleashed on society. Certainly we stressed the importance of being able to exchange information online, and how pervasive change was coming soon to the infospace. We just didn’t call it an “internet”. More to the point, few of us actually invested in it, which is why we’re now driving Toyotas instead of Teslas.
It’s said that ideas begin as “wild and easily scoffed at”, and then pass to “well, everybody knows THAT!”, often without much of an intermediate stage involving “recognition as wisdom”. Much of this report illustrates this. While many of the issues raised in it may now seem like commonplace wisdom, for its time the ideas presented here were new and highly unusual. I’m going to point out some of these in a future post, and consider the degree to which wisdom generated from IT research does and does not generalize to the future.
I commend the report to your attention; it’s not just a period piece. But researchers, like practitioners, are embedded in their own time context. It’s always vital to remember the environment of any study in order to evaluate its contribution to the Body of Knowledge.