New Era

We are in a new era of computerization, one in which networked computer and communications systems are becoming part of the daily life of a signiŽ cant fraction of the public. Allowing public access to the Internet in the 1990s was arguably the most pivotal public policy choice that stimulated the rise in networked computing.

High levels of symbolic support from the Clinton–Gore White House, as well as the enthusiasm of business, entertainment and technology journalists about ‘information superhighways’ helped to popularize interest in the new capabilities. Widespread Internet use has also stimulated substantial developments in different areas of potential application, such as electronic commerce, distance education, electronic publishing, digital libraries, and virtual communities.

These developments have stimulated substantial speculation about the social changes that could arise should Internet uses become widespread. Would electronic commerce, as illustrated by Amazon.com and eBay, erode the markets for physical stores? Could distance education help most people who desired higher education and who could not attend a place-based college or university to have new opportunities for a sound, inexpensive, and convenient education at home? Would widespread distance education become commonplace and rapidly erode the demand for ‘place based’ colleges and universities.

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Would electronic journals develop rapidly as low-cost alternatives to increasingly expensive print journals. Would digital libraries erode the demand for ‘brick and mortar’ libraries? In turn, if so much social activity shifted from face-to-face place-based settings to on-line forums, would community life erode?

There is a substantial amount of analytical and empirical research about ICTs and social change that could better inform these kinds of discussions. Unfortunately, the research articles are scattered in the journals of several different Ž elds, including communications, computer science, information systems, information science and some social sciences. Each of these Ž elds uses somewhat different nomenclature. This diversity of communication outlets and specialized terminology makes it hard for many non-specialists (and even specialists) to locate important studies.

It was one impetus for coining a new term—social informatics—to help make these ideas accessible to non-specialists, as well as to strengthen communication among specialists. ‘Social informatics’ is a new working name for the interdisciplinary study of the design, uses and consequences of information technologies that takes into account their interaction with institutional and cultural contexts.