Wingert: HT 2000

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The Concluding Paper 

The concluding paper by Jonathan Grudin, for the past two years with Microsoft Research, dealt with "Irresistible Forces and Immovable Objects." The "forces" referred to technologies and their development, while the "objects" were people. His key statement is summarized in the abstract of his paper (which is the only text existing in the Proceedings) in this way: "I am of the persuasion that the Web and wireless technologies are 'irresistible forces' that will merge and transform the world more than all but a handful of past technologies. But everything is possible. The most immovable of objects is human biology..."

In a way, Grudin connected up with central statements of his presentation in 1996, which I mentioned initially. The results he explained then about handling electronic diaries indicated how new technology added different structures to the visibility of information (in this case, dates of appointments, etc.), and also led to different patterns of behavior. In this paper, in which retraced important stages and factors showing how "scholarship" is changing in times of the Internet, he also, and primarily so, referred to this "visibility." In the same way in which neighbors did mind how I, as an owner, built and painted my house, the information presented in the Internet had to be seen: "The increased visibility has constrained the way we use our proprietary, the way how we act on our machines." When we return to a web site after some time and no longer find it, we are forced to conclude that the person concerned had the right to remove it. However, he or she may also receive electronic mail with inquiries, and the pages removed will be renegotiated as a consequence. Technology had always both liberating and restricting forces; how they acted together (or against each other) in the long term was the decisive question. 

In actual fact, Grudin, as he found out by initially inquiring among the audience, rather tends to feel that the technological forces play a decisive role. On a four-level scale ranging from "hard technological determinism" to "soft determinism" to "co-determinisms" (with a balance between technological and social forces), and to "non-determinism" (dominance of social control over development), he ranked himself "1.5," while the majority of the auditence were more inclined towards the softer control concepts. That this point of view triggered off lengthy discussions after the presentation, was to be expected. However, this self-characterization should not be understood to imply that the author failed to recognize cultural integration and domination. Quite on the contrary, many of his examples show that he does perceive the cultural superstructure dominating technical developments. However, whether a society is truly the master of technical developments and their applications, is something which we can justly doubt along with him. 

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