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How Societies Embrace Information Technology: Lessons for Management and the Rest of Us

Patterns of IT Diffusion

by Jon Agar

James Cortada has carved out a useful role as a historian who offers comprehensive surveys of the literature dealing with computing and societies. His past works include Annotated Bibliography on the History of Data Processing (Greenwood Press, 1983), A Bibliographic Guide to the History of Computing, Computers and the Information Processing Industry (Greenwood Press, 1990), Archives of Data-Processing History: a Guide to Major Collections (Greenwood Press, 1990), and Best Practices in Information Technology (Prentice Hall, 1998). Cortada also has published numerous monographs, including Before the Computer (Princeton University Press, 1993) and The Digital Hand, three volumes published by Oxford University Press over the past decade on how computers changed American manufacturing.

This record of scholarship is continued in the present text. How Societies Embrace Information Technology examines the many reasons and contexts in which governments, companies, and other organizations have taken up computing. The focus is on today's world, but Cortada places developments in a historical perspective with valuable insights.

He starts by painting a big picture of the megatrends that dominate IT use contexts. These include globalization and the demographic movement toward older populations in some parts of the world but not others. He also describes the broad ways in which technologies in general are taken up and used in societies. He sees eight discernible patterns of IT diffusion.

The first is government-supported/private-sector driven. Much history of computing fits this model, including the development of mainframe computing in the US and the Silicon Valley phenomenon. The second pattern is "national champions." Cortada is thinking here primarily of French policies from Machines Bull to CII-HB. The third pattern is found in Asian countries such as South Korea (again), Taiwan, Singapore, and Japan, where government did not pick champions but rather encouraged and supported home industry to acquire know-how and international partnerships. The fourth model, the planned economy, describes both the largely extinct practices of the Soviet Union and the current approach of China and some African countries.

The first four models therefore place government policy and whole-sector matters at their heart. The final four are diffusion models that focus instead on how individual firms behave: industry-driven, corporate, application, and technology standards diffusion models.

Crucially, Cortada relates these eight modes back to the megatrends and notes that deployments can blur the patterns and lose their distinctiveness. In turn, the eight patterns of diffusion have helped support the integration of the global economy.

Another chapter of major interest to historians of computing comes toward the end of the book. Cortada asks, "Do we now live in the information age?" His answer is gently skeptical, especially toward notions that we live in a singular, uncontested, and easily identifiable Information Age. In fact, this is also the chapter that historians should encourage others to read because it is a plea for the essential usefulness of history to guide present policy and strategy.

The bulk of the book, however, is less historical in nature — even though history clearly informs Cortada's lessons for management and the rest of us. The book contains plenty of useful information for managers in the private sector, either by showing the variety of current practice or by offering advice on how to use information technologies more effectively.

Jon Agar is a senior lecturer in Science and Technology Studies at the University College London. Contact him at jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk. This review excerpts a longer version that appeared in IEEE Annals of Computing History (vol. 34, no. 3, 2012, pp. 68–69).