Making Money: Notes on Technology as Environment
Doctor of Philosophy, 2001
Faculty of Information Studies
University of Toronto
[If you are interested in an electronic copy of the thesis, send me an email: felix_AT_openflows.org]
This thesis focuses on the role of new technologies in current social transformations. It is centered around an exploratory case study of the attempted introduction of Mondex, a smartcard-based electronic cash system, in Canada between early 1997 and early 2001. The case study makes accessible the scope of social and technological transformations associated with the introduction of a new type of money. Methodologically, it is based on document analysis and interviews with key actors in Canada and the UK, as well as observation in the two communities where Mondex has been tested during this period.
The aim of the thesis is twofold. First to advance our conceptual tools for framing the interrelation between technological and social change and, second, to apply these tools to assess the social and political implications of Mondex electronic cash so far.
Drawing from Actor-Network Theory the concept of a technological environment is developed. A technology is understood not as a set of isolated artifacts, but as a process emerging from, and impacting on, an often very extensive set of interconnected social and technological actors. An environment is the specific configuration of all those actors that are necessary for a technology to gain and maintain a particular social functionality. The role of new technologies in social dynamics is to be found in the way they contribute to changing the relationships among, and thus the characteristics of, those heterogeneous actors. This study shows how ANT can be used to map very large and distributed environments that include local and global actors. It also shows how the notion of the environment can support a critical analysis of a new technology by focussing on how actors initiate and adapt to change during the phase in which the new environment takes shape.
This approach enables us to understand better why Mondex failed achieve its initial objective: to establish itself as an alternative to physical cash. More importantly, it facilitates going beyond a simplistic analysis of success or failure of a particular technological program and to capture the gradual process of environmental change to which such a major technological project contributes even if it does not stabilize in its first incarnation. Mondex, one of the most extensive smartcard projects ever undertaken by the financial industry, has already contributed to adapting banks and smartcards to one another to a degree that smartcards are now beginning to be widely used as a new delivery platform for variety of financial services, although not (yet?) for electronic cash. As far as electronic cash is concerned, Mondex has helped to push a number of actors, particularly regulators, to accept, or at least indicate likely acceptance of, new roles that could facilitate the future creation of an environment in which private, global currency schemes for electronic cash could indeed stabilize. Mondex, then, can be seen as a small step in the long-term stabilization of a comprehensive global financial system.
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