The attempt to describe the changes wrought by information technology by situating it in relation to the Industrial Revolution has proved less than satisfactory for two major reasons. Firstly, the industrial revolution is badly named in that it seems to imply the notion of a radical break, an implication that cannot be substantiated. So-called revolutions often succeed by introducing a very limited number of changes, which nevertheless can only be introduced because they are in fact intermediary stages capable of being perceived as not fundamentally dissimilar to what came before. A revolutionary history of industrial technology identifies instances or artifacts such as the steam engine, the spinning jenny or changes in poor laws, to argue that such artifacts or instances are either causes or effects of sociocultural change.
In the same fashion, theories of the sociocultural changes wrought by communications technology tend to stress the role of artifacts such as the computer, television and telephone in isolation, accentuating the way in which they changed their environment but ignoring the ways in which these new devices had in some sense to be already familiar to their users in order for them to be accepted. The second major problem with a reliance upon the industrial revolution as a paradigm of sociocultural change is that it often ignores the necessary discursive element involved in revolutions. Very often the most revolutionary thing about a revolution is its rhetoric. This is not to say that such rhetoric is meaningless; revolutionary rhetoric is in fact vital for convincing people of the necessity for change, in effecting change, and in convincing people that change has in fact occurred.
We need then a way of talking about the changes wrought by informational technology that is capable of comprehending what is distinctive and new about them as well as the ways in which their apparently revolutionary import has been carefully prepared by other, sometimes apparently minor, social, cultural, political, economic and technical developments. Where comparisons with the industrial revolution do make a crucial contribution is to remind us that, in ways we poorly understand as yet, perhaps the most revolutionary thing about the industrial revolution was not its particular material changes, but the alterations it wrought in the way it was possible to talk about change per se. And if the impact of new forms of information processing and storage will fundamentally change our lives in the future, an essential component of both the change and the attempt to come to grips with it will be the evolution of other new ways of talking about change.
As a first step toward a more useful rhetoric of sociocultural change we need to stop thinking of a technology as a particular innovation but to define technology as the interrelationship between an innovation and its material, conceptual and discursive conditions of possibility. Technology constitutes an interrelational force-field where the way in which we talk and think about an artifact and its actual and potential uses will modify each other. Thinking about technology in this way demands that we dispense with a number of perspectives that have, at least since the industrial revolution informed the way in which we talk about technological change.
Firstly, technological change has always been seen as a distinctly rational process of cause and effect; either technology emerges as a the effect of certain social causes, or technology causes a set of social effects. Of course such determinations only emerge in glorious hindsight as part of the pattern we impose on events in order to render them logical. When we no longer have this luxury, when it is a matter of trying to understand what is happening to us in the present, the assumption of rational process takes the form of a simplistic instrumentalism in which the application of a technology to a particular problem or site (illiteracy and the classroom, for example) yields an identifiable solution or result (better writers and/or greater participation). This instrumentalism points to another problem with many theories of technology: when their pronouncements are not so sweeping as to be true only in the broadest sense, they tend to treat a single sociocultural site in isolation, cut off from larger social processes.