A comment by Hyungsub Choi, a history of science graduate student at Johns Hopkins, to my last post helped me clairfy a distinction in the literature on IT and thinking. Basically, I realized that I see works that show how IT plays a role in social movements, political campaigns, etc. as different from works that argue that IT changes the way people reason. It’s the difference between thinking about an issue, versus Thinking, capital T. The former is now a relatively easy argument to make: we’re awash in examples from all over the world. The latter is a harder, but more profound, phenomenon to nail down.
In a way, this is a replay of the progress of externalism in the history of science. First you had people like Robert Merton, Joseph Ben-David, Randall Collins, et al making the case for examining social structures, institutions, and norms in science, but NOT arguing that those structures had an effect on scientific knowledge: they asked questions about the production of knowledge, of the shaping of research agendas, and the uses of scientific knowledge, but didn’t connect those to questions about the content of science. The next generation of historians and sociologists of science, represented most vividly by the Edinburgh School, argued that in fact, those social factors DID play a role in shaping scientific knowledge.
So you might see someone like Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi as making the “soft externalist” case that cassette tapes and leaflets played a significant role in disseminating the message of revolutionary forces in 1970s Iran (“small media” that lead to a “big revolution”), while Eric Havelock makes the “hard externalist” case that the invention of alphabetic writing leads to the rise of philosophy and skeptical thinking in ancient Greece.
Is this correct? Maybe so, maybe not. For the moment, I think it’s a useful way of thinking about the literature, though.
Thanks, Hyungsub. And tell Bill Leslie “Hi” for me when you see him next.