The vision of a digital information superhighway, highlighted by BT's declaration last week that it was ready to invest up to |pounds~10bn on a fibre optic network connecting homes, schools and offices, is starting to provoke predictable forecasts about the social impacts of technological change. Larry Ellison, the president of software company Oracle, recently declared that "the impact of this revolution will rival that of the electric light or the telephone or, perhaps, printing itself."
This viewpoint assumes that technology transforms the way people think, interact and consume. Yet by itself technology changes nothing, instead it is the interaction of technology with social, cultural and economic factors which brings about change. The key question is, therefore, not how will technology change the world, but how will people integrate aspects of technology into their everyday lives and what specific roles will these particular aspects of technology actually play in those lives?
An analysis of the key social features common to successful technological applications shows the value of consumer-led focus on questions of technological effects. Successful new technologies simply replicate, more efficiently, what is done already: only much later may they change the world. In other words, we accept new technologies when they are justified by established needs. …