Philip Edward Howard
This course on the political economy of information societies will critically assess theories of international development from across the social sciences. From political science, theories of modernization, dependency, underdevelopment help explain both surges of economic wealth from high tech sectors and the persistence of international institutions for extracting wealth from poor countries. From sociology, world systems theory puts the development of new economic systems into deep historical perspective, and the new institutionalism highlights systems of institutional isomorphism, competitive mimicry, normative emulation, and coercion that might explain how hardware and software systems become global standards. Communication offers theories of technology diffusion, cultural production and consumption online, and topical expertise on how engineering standards and telecommunications policy become tools of social control. Many social scientists are studying the impact of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) on our economic, political and cultural lives. The range of phenomena studied across the disciplines is impressive: the global economy, the organizational behavior of firms, and the dot-com boom; the structure of the world system, the bureaucratic efficiency of states, the international politics of technical standards; cultural production and consumption, intercultural communication, and ownership diversity of digital media systems. The use of new ICTs, such as mobile phones and the internet, is also being studied in different contexts, from small and local organizational field sites such as work places, households, and schools, to large institutions such as states, firms, social movements and justice systems. In addition, there are new social forms of organization in cyberspace, forms of organization that help define and indeed constitute information societies. The goal of this class is to
• to understand the role of information and communication technology in international development; • to understand the theoretical perspectives on technology and development from different disciplines by exploring their use in cross case comparisons; • to critically assess these theories, applying them in a personal research project or case study of selected by the student.
There is a burgeoning literature on the role of ICTs in transforming the institutions of state, diplomacy, and citizenship. What is an information society? How do well do these theories—proposed to help explain transitions from agrarian to industrial society and the evolution of late industrial capitalism—help explain what may be a new stage in political economy: the network society, open society or information society? Is e-government a straightforward means of building state capacity and further rationalizing public bureaucracies, or are there signs of a deeper transformation in the institution of the state? What is the role of blogs, wikis and other digital media systems in the culture and news diets of people living in authoritarian regimes? While the role of mobile phones and the internet in democratic movements has been feted from Iqaluit to Indonesia, no political revolution has occurred because of the internet. But today, are democratic transitions possible without it? How has the international high tech sector been structured to limit the types of technology production and consumption in different countries? If there are persistent international institutions for extracting natural resource wealth from poor countries, do these institutions have a similar role in extracting informational, innovation, or ingenuity from poor countries? We will critically explore the concepts often used to in discussions of the contemporary international political economy, including “network society”, “digital divide,” and “information society”. We will also review the theories of modernization, dependency, and underdevelopment that have been used to understand the problems and prospects of development. Case studies from around the world will be used wherever possible. Students will have significant freedom to develop their own research interests through a paper on a topic of their own choosing. Through diverse readings, students will also learn about the various methodologies for studying technology and society. Although this course has no formal prerequisites, students with at least one substantive course and one methods course in the political, social or communication sciences will be best prepared for the pace and expectations of this course.
Student learning goals
General method of instruction
Class assignments and grading
Students will be evaluated through their participation in class discussions (25%), the drafting of a publishable review of a recent scholarly book on some aspect of information societies (25%), and the submission of a manuscript, the content of which can be negotiated at the beginning of the course (50%). Students are encouraged to draft or redraft a conference paper, thesis proposal, dissertation chapter, or other manuscript as appropriate for the stage they are in for their academic career. Case studies of particular countries or particular ICTs are welcome. In important ways, the freedom to develop a manuscript over the course of our 10 weeks of conversations is more challenging than writing a class-specific paper, so students should come to the first meeting with a sense of what they want to draft or redraft.