Instrumentalist Futurism:
A Tool for Examining I.T. Impacts and Implications

Roger Clarke

Principal, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University

Version of 6 October 1997

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1997

Paper prepared for submission to The Information Society

This document is at


Writings about the impacts and implications of information technology fall into a variety of genres. This paper extends a recent analysis by Kling & Lamb by identifying an additional approach, referred to by this author as 'instrumental futurism'.



Empirically Anchored I.T. Implications Literatures

Speculative I.T. Implications Literatures

Intrumentalist Futurism




Kling & Lamb (1997) use the term 'genre' to refer to "any body of work that is characterised by a set of conventions". They give as examples "Romantic comedies, impressionist paintings, horror films, newspaper editorials, and popular movie reviews".

Genres are highly valuable, because they make a work "readily intelligible and accessible" by its target audience. On the other hand, genres place serious limitations on the substantive content of works, and commonly also on the the analytical processes undertaken by authors: they "amplify some kinds of ideas and mute others". If scholars, professionals, policy-makers, and the general public read these genres without an appreciation of the ways in which they are crafted, they are very likely to misconstrue the work's real import.

Kling & Lamb examine several common genres that are apparent in the information technology (I.T.) implications literature, identifying two broad approaches. The speculative approach comprises utopian and anti-utopian literature; and the empirically-based approach comprises social realism, social theory and analytical reduction.

This paper provides a brief review of the Kling & Lamb thesis. It then extends their analysis by identifying a related but distinguishable approach, referred to by this author as 'instrumental futurism'. This alternative approach is contended to enable more effective contributions to be made to the vital field of I.T. implications futurism.

Empirically Anchored I.T. Implications Literatures

Kling & Lamb identify several genres that derive from conventional, empirical traditions.

The social realism genre "uses empirical data to examine computerization as it is actually practiced and experienced". Works of this nature report "fine-grained empirical detail", with varying degrees of intensity in the extent to which the observer attempts to limit the imposition of their own perceptual, cognitive and judgmental biases on the subject-matter. The methods employed derive variously from journalism and ethnography.

Social realism frequently offers "compelling, frank portraits which suffer from particularism", and rarely provide generalisations across technologies and social settings.

The social theory genre, on the other hand, deals in "concepts and theories that transcend specific situations". Relevant theories include reinforcement politics, web models, structuration theory, post-structuralist theories, social control theories, and language-action theory.

This approach provides "relatively concise general explanations and concepts which help guide enquiry in new situations, but they are much less accessible to a broad audience". Kling & Lamb see great potential in works that "combine the generalizing capabilities of the social theoretical approach ... with an empirical grounding".

Kling & Lamb use the term analytical reduction to refer to an identifiable subset of the social theory genre. It involves a researcher "working within a tightly defined framework", and focussing their accounts of the social world and the technologies involved on a few key concepts.

Kling & Lamb acknowledge the existence of other genres, such as expert surveys. An important example of these is so-called 'Delphi studies', in which a population of specialists are requested to respond to a series of propositions, and then, in second and perhaps further rounds, to respond to the cumulative reactions of their peers to the same questions.

Empirically based approaches to I.T. implications restrict the researcher to that which can be observed. This enables the work to be rooted in reality, but it limits the work's relevance. As Kling & Lamb express it, "These ... genres ... rest on the empricist's faith that, by examining the world as it is, we can learn something important of the worlds that might be".

New applications of existing technologies, refinements to existing technologies, new technologies, as-yet-uninvented technologies, and new organisational forms are, by definition, not available for observation. Hence these genres are severely limited in their ability to support the real function of futurism, which is to investigate the impact and implications of both evolutionary and revolutionary change.

Speculative I.T. Implications Literatures

The largest volume of I.T. implications literature is not strongly empirically based, but rather is speculative. Kling & Lamb detect a sharp division between what they refer to as 'utopian' and 'anti-utopian' literatures. They appear not to be intending to include within these genres novels such as Orwell's '1984' and Gibson's 'Neuromancer'; but there is clearly a close relationship between formal, futurist speculation and that of novellists, and "attention to genre conventions blurs the crisp boundaries between fiction and non-fiction".

Utopian literature is directly traceable to Plato and Thomas More. Its application to I.T. implications futurism is typified by Vannevar Bush's 1948 vision of a computer that would provide convenient access to the world's literature; by Alvin Toffler's works generally, especially 'The Third Wave' (1980); and by Tom Stonier's 1983 book on 'a wealth of information in the post-industrial economy'.

Utopian literature is accessible, exciting and even inspirational. Although expressed in breathless prose and applying "seductive images", the information is presented as being realistic or factual. This is despite the fact that the evidence is actually either a visionary depiction (i.e. it comprises a description of an imagined future situation), or scenario-based (i.e. it uses a story-telling technique).

In a scenario, some form of technological intervention is introduced into a social setting (e.g. the implementation of network computers in an organisation, or of ubiquitous voice-recognition software in the home, or of biometric identification techniques in society generally), and the ramifications are worked through in prose. Generally a degree of systemic or causal reasoning is embedded in the story-line, showing how some future state naturally arises from the intervention. The reader is encouraged to 'suspend disbelief', and accept assumptions, both explicit and implicit, about consequential changes in the social setting. There is an apparent inevitability of the actors' behaviour.

A skilfully conceived and written visionary depiction, or a scenario, can significantly improve a reader's capacity to appreciate potentials contained within a technology; but it at the same time such an approach imposes tunnel-vision on the reader, at least for the duration of the reading-experience.

Anti-utopian literature utilises the same depictive or story-telling techniques, but paints an apocalyptic vision of the future: "The technological anti-utopians' characterizations of the tragic possibilities of computerization provide an essential counterbalance to the giddy-headed optimism of the technological utopian accounts".

The archetypal work is Weizenbaum's 'Computer Power and Human Reason' (1976). Other well-known instances include Dreyfus (1974), Reinecke (1984) and Davies (1996). Such works focus on the harm that technology is going to do to its social setting. Like the utopian genre, the literary style used is unashamedly polemical, but phrases the speculations as though they were realistic or factual accounts.

Anti-utopian works are far less numerous than utopian writings, and tend to encourage "a sense of despair and inaction". Their causal simplicity is their greatest strength (because it communicates with the reader, and shapes discussion), but also a crippling limitation to their substantive value.

Intrumentalist Futurism

This section identifies an additional genre. The technique is expressly instrumentalist, in the sense that it is intended to assist in the formulation of strategy or policy, rather than to establish or extend a body of theory, scientific or otherwise. It is accordingly referred to here as 'instrumentalist futurism'.

The approach reflects the communications advantages embodied in visionary situation-descriptions, and in story-telling, scenario-based documents. It addresses the weakness of the utopian and anti-utopian genres, by expressly adopting both optimistic and pessimistic attitudes. At the very least, this challenges the reader to appreciate the ambiguity of the technology, and consider the factors that are likely to influence which of the potential outcomes is likely to eventuate. Skilfully used, the approach can go much further, and assist strategists and policy-makers in determining what actions to take, and what forms of monitoring to institute.

An important feature of instrumental futurism is that it is not 'predictive' in its tone, but rather 'depictive'. By this is meant that no attempt is made to imbue the work with breathless excitement, or to imply that the scene or story is the future, or even a likely future. Instead the tone, as engendered by the tenses, modes of speech and adjectives used, is oriented towards painting a credible, feasible situation or path of development. On the other hand, works within the instrumentalist futurism genre have an explicitly motivational agenda.

There are many flavours of instrumentalist futurism; for example, they draw on available empirical evidence to varying degrees; and some works use visionary descriptions of a static future state, whereas others examine the dynamics that give rise to a future state, through the use of scenarios.

An example of a 'visionary description' of a static scene at a point in the future, is to be found in Clarke (1992). This depicts (prior to the emergence of the world-wide web) a future context of university administration. It includes both optimist elements, intended to spur the appreciations of opportunities that can arise from I.T., and pessimistic themes and incidents, intended to lend a cautionary tone, and to lead readers to consider what complementary measures might be needed, in order to ameliorate the potential disbenefits of technologies and their applications.

A straightforward, scenario-based approach has been adopted in several consultancy assignments conducted by the author in conjunction with David Jonas, of the Sydney-based strategic consultancy group Electronic Trading Concepts (ETC). Drawing on ideas espoused by Schwarz (1991, 1996) and Van Der Heijden (1996), it involves the creation of 'high road' and 'low road' scenarios, which reflect respectively utopian and anti-utopian perspectives. These enable clients to appreciate the 'upsides' that make the application of particular technologies attractive, and the 'downsides' that need to be risk-managed.

One stream of such works that is publicly available comprises analysis of the implications of chip-cards in financial services (Clarke 1996), and in identification (Clarke 1997). In each case, the potentials are acknowledged, the risks identified and argued, and measures sought that should have the effect of ameliorating the negative effects.

Some of this author's work on the impacts of data surveillance technologies has been undertaken within the instrumentalist futurism genre, in particular Clarke 1988, Clarke 1994a, and Clarke 1994b. Each of these papers is strongly anti-utopian in tone (although supported by empricial evidence where it is available). They argue that the 'natural' implications of unbridled, uncaring use of technologies that support the monitoring of identified individuals is extremely threatening to individual freedoms and to the social fabric. The later sections of each paper, however, build upon the momentum generated by the analysis, to present propositions as to how the technologies can be applied, or controlled, or subverted, in order to balance the various interests.

The approach that I have dubbed 'instrumental futurism' is unabashedly agenda-driven, and designed to lead to policy conclusions. Information technology's impacts on people and societies are now very substantial. Hence it is essential that researchers into the implications of technologies sustain scientific rigour to the extent practicable; but not to the extent of undermining relevance.


Kling & Lamb's 1997 paper provides a valuable analysis of various genres evident in I.T. implications literatures, including warnings about the inadequacies of each of them. Additional genres are feasible, and in a field as vital as this, it is critical that appropriate genres be developed and applied.

This paper identifies, describes and argues the merits of, an additional genre that applies scene-depiction and scenario-development that is both utopian and anti-utopian, and drives the reader towards policy conclusions. It is contended that instrumentalist futurism should be recognised, and adopted, by writers in the field of I.T. implications.


Bush V. (1948) 'As we may think' The Atlantic Monthly, 1948. Republished in Greif I. (Ed.) 'Computer-Supported Cooperative Work: A Book of Readings, Morgan-Kaufmann, San Mateo Cal., 1988

Clarke R. (1988) 'Information Technology and Dataveillance' Commun. ACM 31,5 (May 1988) Re-published in C. Dunlop and R. Kling (Eds.), 'Controversies in Computing', Academic Press, 1991, at

Clarke R. (1992) 'A.N.U. Admin. Computing: Status Report of 10 September 2001', Working Paper, 10 September 1992, at

Clarke R. (1994a) The Digital Persona and Its Application to Data Surveillance' The Information Society 10,2 (June 1994), at

Clarke R. (1994b) 'Human Identification in Information Systems: Management Challenges and Public Policy Issues' Info. Technology & People 7,4 (December 1994), at

Clarke R. (1996) 'Privacy Issues in Smart Card Applications in the Retail Financial Sector', in 'Smart Cards and the Future of Your Money', Australian Commission for the Future, June 1996, pp.157-184, at

Clarke R. (1997) 'Chip-Based ID: Promise and Peril', Proc. International Conference on Privacy, Montreal, September 1997, at

Davies S. (1996) 'Monitor: Extinguishing Privacy on the Information Superhighway' Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 1996, reviewed in 'The Information Infrastructure is a Super Eye-Way', Privacy Law & Policy Reporter 3, 5 (August 1996), at

Dreyfus H.L. (1974) 'What Computers Still Can't Do : A Critique of Artificial Reason', MIT Press, Boston Mass., 1974, 1992

Kling R. & Lamb R. (1997) 'Analyzing Visions of Electronic Publishing and Digital Libraries' In Newby G.B. & Peek R.P. (Eds.) 'Scholarly Publishing: The Electronic Frontier' MIT Press, Cambridge Mass., 1997

Reinecke I. (1984) 'Electronic Illusions: A Skeptic's View of Our High-Tech Future' Penguin, New York, 1984

Schwarz P. (1991) 'The Art of the Long View: The Path to Strategic Insights for Yourself and Your Company' Doubleday, 1991

Schwarz P. (1996) 'The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World' Doubleday, 1996

Stonier T. (1983) 'The Wealth of Information: A Profile of the Post-Industrial Economy' Methuen, London, 1984

Van Der Heijden K. (1996) 'Scenarios: The Art of Strategic Conversation' Wiley, 1996

Weizenbaum J. (1976) 'Computer Power and Human Reason' Freeman, San Francisco, 1976


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Created: 5 October 1997

Last Amended: 6 October 1997

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