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IMS5048: Information Continuum -- Lecture 3

Topic 7: Technology

14 September 2005.




Within the framework of the Information Continuum Model, Technology is one of the concepts to which Agency is attributed. Technology is denoted as interacting with Structure, and being affected by it. Technology relates to ‘how' parts of the I.C.M. work. Technology has enormous capacity to effect change in what Kaufer & Carley (1993, p.209) call the 'socio-cultural landscape' through participation in communicative transactions. It must be remembered that not all categories in the ICM are not mutually exclusive -- sometimes they are 'fuzzy' categories.

An obvious example of the impact of I.T. on an information-intensive activity is to be found in the business of real estate. A recent U.S. research study of the changes in sales of real estate brought about by the use of the Worldwide Web is described in the article titled ‘Investigating the Interplay Between Structure and Technology in the Real Estate Industry', by Kevin Crowston, Steve Sawyer and Rolf Wigand, of Syracuse University School of Information Studies, at: http://crowston.syr.edu/real-estate/aom.html . The survey found that the use of ICTs changed the ability of actors to access information, the key resource in real estate. Buyers search the listings themselves and then come in to an agent with list of houses already picked out. This change in control over this information resource changes the structures of domination in this industry.

Third parties are getting involved with listings -- local chambers of commerce list real estate in the hope of luring new businesses to move to an area, for instance. As buyers search for properties on the Web, it will become more important to sellers to have their properties on the Web. Real estate companies may start to lose business to individuals. Part of the commission an agent receives currently is used to pay for different types of advertisements. In this world view, listings on the Web are simply another form of ad and agents are prepared to pay a fee to have their houses shown in this way.

However, from the point of view of Website developers, information like house listings are content. Content for a Website developer is something valuable that will attract visitors to a site, to view advertisements or be steered to some other services. Developers expect to pay for valuable content. This clash of interpretive schema leads to interesting situations, such as agents paying someone to put their listings on the Web and Website developers paying again to get access to these listings for their site. The WWW is changing the nature of selling property. It is also changing the role of travel agents and stockbrokers in a similar way.

One could get by with just the single notion of interaction between Action and Structure, which is the foundation of Giddens' Structuration Theory as well as Kaufer & Carley's Constructural Theory -- but the four Agency Attributes concept-sets in the ICM seek to carry that idea further. The core idea of Action/Structure is elaborated through the gradation from Individual to Inter-societal manifestations of the reciprocative Action/Structure dynamic; and by the specification of the Dimensions, which further explain those Agency sets which focus on the ‘how?' (i.e., Metadata and Technology). Questions of both ‘how' and ‘why' are further addressed by the Modalities. The Purposes focus on questions of ‘why?'

By way of reminder, Giddens' encapsulates the relationship between action and structure in perhaps his most pivotal concept -- the duality of structure. He explains the notions of 'duality of structure' and 'structure' as follows (see Giddens 1984):

Duality of structure -- Structure as the medium and outcome of the conduct it recursively organizes; the structural properties of social systems do not exist outside of action but are chronically implicated in its production and reproduction.

Structure -- Rules and resources, recursively implicated in the institutional articulation of social systems. To study structures, including structural principles, is to study major aspects of the transformation/mediation relations which influence social and system integration.

To Giddens, therefore, action and structure are inseparable. All actions by humans -- 'Agents' -- in some way affects the structure within which it occurs, and structure in turn both enables and constrains the ways in which agents may act. The ICM -- like Kaufer & Carley -- uses an expanded view of agency which includes artefacts or systems capable of participating in communicative transactions. Thus a book possesses Agency Attributes as it is capable of communicating with a reader independently of its human author (see Kaufer & Carley 1993, p 233).

The relationship between action and structure can be observed on many levels. An argument can be made that all Action is human action, and that all the rest is Structure -- but this would not take into account another key concept offered by Giddens, namely Space-Time Distanciation:

In structuration theory 'structure' is regarded as rules and resources recursively implicated in social reproduction; institutionalized features of social systems have structural properties in the sense that relationships are stabilized across time and space. (Giddens 1984, p xxxi)

As we have seen already, social patternings can be 'stretched' across time and space by Memory (Storage/Memory). Memory is achieved through systems of labelling or classification (Categorisation/Metadata), and systems for enabling communication (Technology). Storage/Memory, Categorisation/Metadata, and Technology are certainly aspects of Structure, but are singled out for special attention in the ICM because of the particular potency as surrogates for human Agents by means of communicative transactions. They are the means by which a human Agent -– perhaps long dead, or spatially distant -- can nevertheless participate in communicative transactions.

Recently some interest has focused on virtual interactions in online communities where Technology and social Structure interact. For example, at http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman/publications/index.html , you will find an interesting study by Barry Wellman (2001), sociologist, at the University of Toronto, titled ‘Does the Internet increase, decrease of supplement social capital? Social networks, participation, and community commitment', published in the American Behavioral Scientist , v 45, no 3, November 2001, pp 436-455. Evidence from 39,211 visitors to a researched website shows that people's online interactions mirror their face-to-face communications, without increasing or decreasing it. Those who are already involved in voluntary or political associations perpetuate their habits online. The Internet just provides another supplementary form of communication, though this may change when use of Voice-Over-internet-Protocol increases. Wellman observes that ‘the Internet may be more useful for maintaining existing ties than for creating new ones … The Internet is especially used to maintain ties with friends … Distance still matters: communication is lower with distant than nearby friends.' (pp 3-4).

The effect of the use of technology on information-seeking behaviour can also be observed in the many devices provided for online information searching, some of which are growing more and more ‘intelligent'. Google has the reputation of being the most thorough search engine, yet it searches perhaps only one percent of the entire web. See Dibya Sarkar (2005), ‘Going where no search engine has gone before; Connotate Technologies uses information agents to extract data from Deep Web', an advertorial which asserts (on behalf of Connotate Technologies' Web-mining Technology Pty Ltd.) that searchable databases contain about 500 billion pages, including intranets and other password-protected sites; at: http://www.fcw.com/article88982-05-30-05-Print.

Such systems need not possess 'intelligence' per se to create useful communication, but they facilitate it. A traffic light can serve as a powerful Agent on its own in the assertion of both Authoritative and Allocative Resources during communicative transactions with motorists: Authoritative because its instructions are backed by the force of law; Allocative because it determines how much of the road capacity shall be used by whom at a particular time. It has been asserted (in the Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traffic_light#Unusual_traffic-light_usages ) that traffic light colours can apply also in social contexts:

In some areas of the USA patrons of various social gatherings use traffic light color-coding to indicate availability: red clothing would indicate that the wearer was in a monogamous relationship, amber would indicate a non-monogamous relationship, and green would indicate that the wearer was single.

An unintelligent technological communicative artefact such as a traffic light, using a very simple set of categories (red, amber, green), obviously possesses strong agency attributes.

Technological agents are resisted by many human agents. Think of the continual protests about the use of speed cameras in Victoria, and the accusations that they are aimed not at reducing the road toll, but simply at revenue gathering for the government (see: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/05/04/1083635132318.html?from=storyrhs). On a more academic level, Giddens provides guidance about resourcing structure:

'Structure' can be conceptualized abstractly as two aspects of rules -- normative elements and codes of signification. Resources are also of two kinds: authoritative resources, which derive from the co-ordination of the activity of human agents, and allocative resources, which stem from control of material products or of aspects of the material world (Giddens 1984, p.xxxi).

Devices incorporating some elements of artificial intelligence have the potential to engage even more fully as Agents in communicative transactions. A number of these devices are described at http://agents.umbc.edu/ -- to help with selling online, for example, agents can monitor and audit mentions of your product in trademark databases, domain name databases, specialty databases, publications and catalogs, messageboards, visible web, newspapers, usenet news groups and webfeeds. Each week a new report can be created for you which outlines the latest developments with regards to your trademarks, brands and famous names in these various sources.

Andrew Treloar, a Ph.D. graduate of this School, Project Manager, Strategic Information Initiatives, Information Technology Services, ARROW Technical Architect, Monash, gives three examples of communicative transactions, and their extended significance, at http://andrew.treloar.net/:

•  Print

Print can ‘speed diffusion, stability, and consensus' (Kaufer & Carley 1993, p 291). For Kaufer & Carley print provides an extension of an author's reach beyond oral communication, origination of an awareness of societal reach, by creation of stability and consensus by encoding information. They state that print enables wider communication through speed of transmission.

•  Professions

In the case of the modern professions, Kaufer & Carley argue for a necessary role for print (p. 311) in the sense that large diverse professions need to be structured around printed texts. Print is merely a supporting technology, not a deterministic one. The nature of professions depends on the characteristics of a group and not the medium through which they communicate. Like the later technology of electronic mail, print increased the reach of individuals within a profession and thus supported a wider geographical spread of members. Print also bound the members of a profession more closely together through shared experiences of common printed materials in the forms of journals and newsletters. Using simulation models, they argue that a constructural analysis of the impact print confirms the following hypotheses:

•  Academe

In their analysis of academe, Kaufer & Carley find all these hypotheses also confirmed. They also discuss the scientific journal as a particular print artefact. They argue that in diffusing new ideas journals are simultaneously faster than book publication or face-to-face interaction (due to their frequency of issue and increased reach respectively), and slower than newspapers (due to the gatekeeper function of peer review). The obvious question is whether the current system is too fast or too slow. The consensus according to Kaufer & Carley is that many scientists regard the speed of journals as too slow, particularly in very fast-moving fields. They refer briefly to electronic journals as a possible solution.


Robbins, S., Barnwell, N., Organisation theory: concepts and cases , 4th ed. French Forest, N.S.W.: Prentice Hall, 2002, pp.157-8) define Technology as follows:

Technology refers to the information, equipment, techniques and processes required to transform inputs into outputs in an organisation. That is, technology looks at how the inputs are converted to outputs. There is also agreement that the concept of technology, despite its mechanical or manufacturing connotation, refers to all types and kinds of organisations.

Technology is not limited to devices or equipment -- which is often its colloquial meaning. It encompasses the totality of means by which things get done by individuals and groups. Robbins & Barnwell cite Thompson's classification of technology, which associates categories of technology with different kinds of interdependencies, namely:

The diagram which illustrates this was shown in the last lecture also:

Robbins also cites Perrow's classification of technology, ranging from Routine to Non-Routine. There is a correspondence between the Perrow and Thompson conceptualisation, with Thompson's Long-linked category being the most Routine, and his Intensive category being the most Non-Routine.

Another illustration of the Thompson categories includes examples of its applications with red text on the right column:


Which of Thompson's categories best describes a library? Answer: Most likely Mediating technology, but libraries also engage in Long-linked activities (e.g. accessioning, re-shelving) and Intensive activities (e.g. briefing papers for Members in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library). Which categories best describe a publisher? Which best describe a website?


It is difficult to proceed any further in this discussion without addressing issues about differing fundamental perceptions of real world. We are thinking of mechanistic and romantic worldviews and the person-machine paradox (thanks to Larry Stillman).

The mechanistic worldview began with the scientist-philosophers Galileo (1564-1642), who used computation and observation to explain the world, Descartes (1596-1650), who philosophised, ‘I think therefore I am,' and Liebnitz (1646-1714), who devised a universal calculus for representing and reasoning about the world. Their mechanistic worldview involved:

By way of contrast, later large-scale theorists presented t he romantic worldview. Karl Marx (1818-1883) focused on the class struggle, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) on the centrality of the unconscious mind, and Friedrich Nietzsche (1644-1900) declared the end of religion altogether (‘God is dead'). The romantic worldview involved another way of seeing the universe:

Today both worldviews exist concurrently, and neither can be defined without the other. The paradox is that they are contradictory, yet inter-dependent. An illustration of the tension between them can be found in the machine-human interface. In systems development, for instance, the theory behind technologies is prescriptive and mechanistic, relating to cognitive psychology, maths, economics and computer science. At the same time, in systems development there is a strong element of concern for human needs, for specifications that human agents require, for business acumen, for strategic thinking, all of which derive from the ‘romantic' description of human behaviours.

With technology/human agency we are forced to consider a number of deep philosophical (romantic) questions, such as:

Some answers to some of these deep questions can be found in Lucy Suchman's work. She asks if technical expertise is a necessary and sufficient form of knowledge for the production of new technologies? She argues that technology is essentially a human construct and it incorporates all of the ambiguities and complexities of humans. Refreshingly, hers is not a traditional view of positivistic technological determinism. (See: Suchman, L. (2002), ‘Located accountabilities in technology production', in the Scandanavian journal of information systems . (http://www.hcirn.com/ref/refs/such02.php).

Prospects for the spread of artificial Intelligence keeps many of these questions alive. If cognitive states and processes can be expressed as algorithms, then they can be implemented in non-human agents in all sorts of structures – at work, at home, at leisure. Alan Turing (1912-1954), a computing and philosophical genius, worked on code breaking in World War II, developed a philosophy of computing, built early computers, ran marathons, and was harrassed because he was homosexual. In 1950 in a paper titled ‘Computing machinery and intelligence', h e proposed a hypothetical test for computer intelligence, involving a computer program which generates a conversation which cannot be distinguished from that of a real human. The test aimed to determine whether or not a computer can be said to think like a human brain. It proceeds as follows: a human judge engages in a natural language conversation with two other parties, one a human and the other a machine; if the judge cannot reliably tell which is which, then the machine is said to pass the test. It is assumed that both the human and the machine try to appear human (see: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing_test). Such a test is easy to imagine, but difficult to conduct in reality.


Turning from philosophical questions of universal importance, to the more mundane and practical -- information – you will recall that we defined it in earlier lectures as 'the content and context of communication'. It can also be seen as the equivalent to the term that knowledge management writers refer to, as 'explicit knowledge' -- as contrasted with 'tacit knowledge'. Tacit knowledge resides only as meanings in the minds of individuals. For some aspect of it to be conveyed to another person, it must be abstracted and encoded as information or explicit knowledge. Giddens refers to ‘Knowledgeability', by which he means

everything which actors know (believe) about the circumstances of their action and that of others, drawn upon in the production and reproduction of that action, including tacit as well as discursively available knowledge.

Much of Information Technology – not only within the aegis of knowledge management -- is concerned with phases of this process, as represented in the ICM by the Agency Attributes of Storage/Memory, Categorisation/Metadata and Technology; and the Dimensions of Create, Capture, Organise and Pluralise. A problem of definition arises as to whether all knowledge can be identified at any a moment in time. Is prior knowledge always conscious?

This diagram (by Don Schauder) illustrates the way in which the conversion of explicit to tacit knowledge and vice versa is mediated by technologies which encode communications in either analogue and/or digital form. Language and speech; gesture, mime or sign-language; writing and printing; and digital multimedia all exemplify technologies which contribute to this process.


Max Boisot identifies as an important role of Information Technology, the potentiality to reduce usage of physical resources (ranging from human time and effort to natural resources such as en energy and water). Information feedback loops and iterative learning by individuals and groups allow much more precise and targeted use of physical resources, e.g., more efficient energy usage in the home or factory. If you have a map, an index, or a search engine, then time and effort in information retrieval can be greatly reduced.

See especially chapter 2 in Information space: a framework for learning in organizations, institutions, and culture , edited by Max H. Boisot. London; New York: Routledge, 1995. Boisot shows how groups progress up an initial learning curve, incrementally improving their use of information technology and saving physical resources. At a certain point this incremental progress may be interrupted by a quantum change in technology (e.g., the invention of the World Wide Web) which shifts the whole curve -- and the incremental learning process re-commences.

We have now reached the point where the physical resource being replaced is itself information! For example, compression technology is a way of substituting small data files for large ones, thus economising on storage and bandwith required.


The ability for I.T. to create surrogates of the real thing, to make substitutes to simulate reality, to simulate real-time events, leads to a consideration of the need for preservation of ephemeral human thoughts and actions.

An excellent example comes from Brett Leavy of ‘Cyberdreaming' in Brisbane, an indigenous multimedia developer, who creates simulations for indigenous Australians to record their oral culture:

Australians of all backgrounds will soon be able to experience an authentic Aboriginal dreaming, witnessing the landscape and its significance through indigenous eyes. The experience is the result of a remarkable fusion between cultural knowledge dating back 40,000 years or more and 21st century virtual reality technology.

Developed by the Australasian Cooperative Research Centre for Interaction Design (ACID), researchers James Hills and Brett Leavy have taken the concept of 'virtual heritage' -- a visit to some ancient place, monument or event -- a large stride further. Their Digital Songlines project is a narrative that allows the viewer to follow an Aboriginal songline through the landscape, encountering the legends, lore, totemic items and practical issues of day-to-day living as a traditional person would.

Designed primarily to help Indigenous Australians to retain their cultural knowledge and share it with their descendents, the project also offers people of non-indigenous background a unique window into how the continent's first inhabitants saw and experienced it.

The project aims to protect, preserve and promote Australian Indigenous culture, its practices, myths and legends, expanding and re-vitalizing it through the visualization of its most prized asset -- the land. It is building a virtual landscape of oral histories and mythological stories based upon the eternal sense of land and spirituality understood by the Aboriginal people, where feeling, knowing and touching the country, kin and spirit can be experienced.

‘It's simply like being there, as an Indigenous person,' Brett Leavy explains. ‘The experience is that of a person who is owned by the country, not a person who thinks they own the country. For example, you might go down to the river to catch a yellowbelly. On your way you encounter various keepers of knowledge, from the elder who instructs you how to do it, to the Creator of the River who explains how it came to be.'

Hills and Leavy are using a computer game engine for the simulation, creating an easy-to-use virtual world that individual Indigenous communities can populate with their own landscapes, cultural memories, legendary figures and items of significance. Their approach fuses topographical data gathered by satellites from outer space with cultural objects and traditional memories that may be thousands of years old into a living story line which the viewer participates in. It contains animated dreamtime stories and avatars – virtual representation's of the participant.

‘You can be a wedgetailed eagle and soar above the landscape.

You can be the hunted kangaroo or the indigenous hunter who pursues it. You can view the landscape from the perspective and speed of an echidna. You can follow the cycle of the seasons as you travel from one water source to another,' Brett Leavy says.

‘The whole project has been carried out in very close consultation with traditional owners. It's designed so they can retain their own cultural and sacred knowledge for their own community and update it themselves -- or create their own experience of landscape and tradition to share with others.' (See CRCA Media Release, June 28, 2005, 'VIRTUAL DREAMTIME SPRINGS TO LIFE', at: http://www.interactiondesign.qut.edu.au/news/in_the_news/media_release_20050628.html).

Many national organizations, including the National Library of Australia have been very active in planning for the preservation of all sorts of digital information, but mostly linear text. See the National Library of Australia

Electronic Information Resources Strategies and Action Plan 2002-2003, at: http://www.nla.gov.au/policy/electronic/resourcesplan2002.html . This was report -- edited by Colin Webb -- was accepted on 10 October 2003 at UNESCO in Paris (http://portal.unesco.org/ci/ev.php?URL_ID=8967&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION>=201&reload=1049879672).

UNESCO is concerned about the long-term preservation of the world's knowledge:

Digital materials include texts, databases, still and moving images, audio, graphics, software, and web-pages, among a wide and growing range of formats. They are frequently ephemeral, and require purposeful production, maintenance, and management to be retained.

Many of these resources have lasting value and significance, and therefore constitute a heritage that should be protected and preserved for current and future generations. This heritage may exist in any language, in any part of the world, and in any area of human knowledge or expression.

The purpose of preserving the digital heritage is to ensure that it remains permanently accessible. Accordingly, access to digital heritage materials, especially those in the public domain, should be equitable and free of unreasonable restrictions.

In the short term, the NLA Plan refers to the following broad trends which will influence access to electronic information resources:

Consider the relationship of these trends to the ICM, and their implications for professionals. Clearly there is a link between Technology and Memory here.

A summary of the strategies for managing the risks is outlined ( http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0013/001300/130071e.pdf ) on p 115 as follows:

The predictable threats to digital knowledge are: ordinary errors; carrier breakdown; malicious attacks by hackers, viruses, intruders; collateral damage from other attacks not directed at the information system. The impacts will affect data integrity, file identity, and equipment. The chances of these final events occurring are almost certain, and they will occur suddenly, even if after a gradual build-up.

The practical effects will range from complete data destruction, corrupt data, to damaged data. The known prevention options are error checking, data correction and transfer; use of more stable carriers, serviced frequently, and transfer of data regularly; security measures, both logical and physical; firewalls, access controls; and storage of data offline; and backup data with secure access.


Some of humankind's most ancient stories (e.g., the Garden of Eden, The Flood, the Delphi Oracle, Pandora's Box) suggest that some knowledge, once released into the world, cannot be 'undiscovered' -- humankind is saddled with it, for good or ill, for ever. The notion of determinism stems from the philosophical concept of causality -- that the world is ordered by causes and consequences. Since the Renaissance in the 16 th century there has been a widespread view that technological change is inevitable, and that such change will determine the future shape of society. Cybercitizens are the subject of intense political interest; see U.S. policies about good ‘ net behaviour', for example, and the lobbying power of the Internet Technology Association of America (http://www.itaa.org/eweb/StartPage.aspx). Cyberlaw is a new form of international convention.

The ICM aligns more with a probabilistic rather than a causal view of history and the future. The uptake or demise of technology and other ideas is seen to result from an evolutionary process where many factors interact to influence which technologies survive and which do not, and why. It is the approach taken by Richard Dawkins in proposing the notion of memes -- the cultural equivalent of genes -- in his books The Selfish Gene and River out of Eden (1995). See examples at: http://www.aleph.se/Trans/Cultural/Memetics/ . See also Blackmore, Susan J., The meme machine . Oxford [England]; New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

The ICM attempts to highlight the most important factors in this evolutionary process, so that -- through understanding -– individuals and groups may act with greater insight to influence what occurs, in large ways and small.


The following ‘Glossary of Terms for Structuration Theory', from The Constitution of Society , by Anthony Giddens, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984, pp. 373-77, may help you in revision:

Allocative resources -- Material resources involved in the generation of power, including the natural environment and physical artifacts; allocative resouorces derive from human domination over nature.

Analysis of strategic conduct -- Social analysis which places in suspension institutions as socially reproduced, concentrating upon how actors reflexively monitor what they do; how actors draw upon rules and resources in the constitution of interaction.

Contextuality -- The situated character of interaction in time-space, involving the setting of interaction, actors co-present, and communication between them.

Double hermeneutic -- The intersection of two frames of meaning as a logically necessary part of social science, the meaningful social world as constituted by lay actors and the metalanguages invented by social scientists; there is a constant 'slippage' from one to the other involved in the practice of the social sciences.

Duality of structure -- Structure as the medium and outcome of the conduct it recursively organizes; the structural properties of social systems do not exist outside of action but are chronically implicated in its production and reproduction.

Knowledgeability -- Everything which actors know (believe) about the circumstances of their action and that of others, drawn upon in the production and reproduction of that action, including tacit as well as discursively available knowledge.

Mutual knowledge -- Knowledge of 'how to go on' in forms of life, shared by lay actors and sociological observers; the necessary condition of gaining access to vaild descriptions of social activity.

Reflexive Monitoring of action -- The purposive, or intentional, character of human behaviour, considered within the flow of activity of the agent; action is not a string of discrete acts, involving an aggregate of intentions, but a continuous process.

Reflexive Self-regulation -- Causal loops which have a feedback effect in system reproduction, where that feedback is substantially influenced by knowledge which agents have of the mechanisms of system reproduction and employ to control it.

Reproduction circuit -- An institutionalized series of reproduction relations, governed either by homeostatic causal loops or by reflexive self-regulation.

Routinization -- The habitual, taken-for-granted character of the vast bulk of the activities of day-to-day social life; the prevalence of familiar styles and forms of conduct, both supporting and supported by a sense of ontological security.

Structuration -- The structuring of social relations across time and space, in virtue of the duality of structure.

Structural properties -- Structured features of social systems, especially institutionalized features, stretching across time and space.

Structure -- Rules and resources, recursively implicated in the institutional articulation of social systems. To study structures, including structural principles, is to study major aspects of the transformation/mediation relations which influence social and system integration.

System -- The patterning of social relations across time-space, understood as reproduced practices. Social systems should be regarded as widely variable in terms of the degree of 'systemness' they display and rarely have the sort of internal unity which may be found in physical and biological systems.

System integration -- Reciprocity between actors or collectivities across extended time-space, outside conditions of co-presence.

14 September 2004.