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Roger Clarke's 'IS Future and Past'

What the Dickens is 'The Ghost of ChrIStmas Future'??

Notes prior to a Panel Presentation on 'Transforming the Future with Sensitivity to the Past', at ACIS'13 at RMIT, Melbourne on 5 December 2013

Version of 4 December 2013

Roger Clarke **

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Historians R Us

We're all IS historians.

Every article that we write rehearses the underlying theory on which we're building, and we often present an exposition of the research technique as well.

These are, quite simply 'intellectual histories'.

They're 'logical', and they're often largely chronological as well.

And they present facts - maybe not the names and years of kings, queens, invaders, explorers and bushrangers; but facts of one kind or another, particularly about IT artefacts, but also about organisations and their activities, i.e. they're also 'history' in the secondary-school sense of the term.

So, to some extent at least, the 'History in IS' movement is simply extending what we've already got.

Why History?

We're all historians, but also rationalists, in that we expect to know why we're doing something. So why are we interested in intellectual histories, and, beneath that, factual histories?

The usual exhortations are:

or, less didactically:

But those were just rhetoric and philosophy respectively. In an operational sense, what do such homilies really mean? Especially given that Edmund Burke also said "You can never plan the future by the past".

Here are some possible incentives to understand history:

But what do we mean when we exhort people to 'understand history'?

Technology History

Far too much of the IS discipline is obsessed with technology, and can't imagine IS life without it, so let's start there. There are considerable benefits in understanding the origins of particular technologies, and the paths that they've followed. Those paths are seldom straight lines. They bifurcate and rejoin, and draw on unexpected sources. So, conceptually, the history of any given techology can be modelled by means of a directed graph, provided that the formalism chosen supports many starting-nodes, zero or more incoming and outgoing arcs per node, preclusion of arcs from a node going to any predecessor node (i.e. no loops, because time-machines are banned), but no other limitations on which nodes link to which other nodes.

No doubt we can all think of misunderstandings about technology that would be easy to have, but harmful to analysis. An example that's still fresh in all our minds is the mania about 'cloud computing'. The notion isn't new - it's a very marginal next step in 'outsourcing'. And one of the key notions on which it depends - running multiple, independent processes in a powerful processor - isn't new either. It was called 'timesharing' in the 1960s. Without understanding the background, a researcher is very likely to overlook such key questions as 'how much of what we know about outsourcing doesn't apply to cloudsourcing?' (Clarke 2012a).

Another example is peer-to-peer (P2P). When the successive waves of Napster, Kazaa, Limewire and the rest emerged, everyone thought that it was a new architectural form. Well, it was, once. The DNS and FidoNet from 1984, USENET from 1979, SMTP servers from 1972, oh yes and of course ARPANET from 1969, were all what was now being called P2P (Clarke 2006b). So the smart entrepreneur (commercial or academic) simply had to look into the features of those predecessor instances of P2P architecture, find a couple of features that hadn't been implemented yet, and implement them, or write about them, and bingo, they were ahead of the market. From history, to the future.

Cultural History

But IS is not about technology:

"Information Systems' (IS) is the study of information production, flows and use ..." (Clarke 1992)

So much of the history that's relevant to IS is about concepts of information, about people (without whom information doesn't exist), about various forms of human activity, and about human organisational structures and processes.

It's common for us to think about cultural differences and comparisons, studying, say, a particular intervention in the USA, Italy and the PRC. Cultural differences are highly relevant to the history of the IS discipline around the world, for example, because of the very different stories that need to be told, in, for example (and in roughly chronological order of emergence during the mid-1960s - Clarke 2008):

A vignette may help convey the different outcomes that arise, depending on which of those various glasses the researcher is wearing, or prism that they're gazing through. I worked in strategic information systems theory for a few years. I endeavoured to apply the theory in non-competitive contexts, such as government agencies and non-profits. I was astonished at the outright rejection, particularly by US scholars, of the very idea that strategic thinking could work in such areas. The reason is that Strategy Theory began in US Business Schools, and had competition embedded in it. Added to that, US Business Schools thought that they owned it, and resisted flank attacks - that's inherent in the Theory after all.

Inadequacies of the early body of theory exposed themselves fairly quickly. The absence of any concept of oversight or regulatory agencies in the Porterian model was one substantial problem. Also, after the early, heroic years (typified by the SABRE project), it became clear that few large-scale projects could be successful if a single corporation tried to do it all. Collaboration among organisations was critical. But how could that be reconciled against the 'strategy is competition' model? Or, indeed, in a manner compatible with anti-trust / ant-monopoly / trade practices laws? The notion of 'collaborate to compete' had to be invented before even EDI (remember EDI?) could make progress (Clarke & Pucihar 2013). Klein et al. (2012) documents the progression 'From Strategic Systems to Information Infrastructures'.

This isn't an isolated example. We ask for trouble every time that we fail to ask ourselves what precepts our thinking is based on, and what depth have we reached in our analysis. As a reviewer, I quickly get bored by the many formulaic papers that are submitted. Many of them are of high quality - but conceived and conducted inside a narrow room, locked into a particular tradition that is just a few years old, and wafer-thin in its appreciation of the big picture. It doesn't matter whether you're mainly an empiricist, mainly a philosopher, or mainly an instrumentalist like me, there are invitations to show your ignorance at every step along the way.

Cultural Change over Time

The idea of comparative cultures represents a cross-sectional approach. There are also enormous insights to be gained by adopting the longitudinal approach. By that I mean that many units of study may change substantially in a very short time. For exmple, organisations and information processing have developed in lock-step:

Without an understanding of the culture at each stage in the flow of history, interpretations of observations of a single small-scale organisation in a single location, are massively confounded. We need at least 'a rough guide to cultural change'. One small element of it is the cohorts model that distinguishes Baby Boomers, GenX, GenY and iGens (Clarke 2010). An appreciation of history helps us posit what may have been the key factors in each phase, and the key factors in the transitions between those phases.

What Historians Teach Us

After publishing quite a few papers on historical topics in reasonably good outlets (AJIS among them), I made the mistake of submitting an IS History paper to a Special Issue of a top-end journal. Forced to think much harder about my research method, I went searching for a 'history research methods' literature. Interestingly, in the same way that computer science has a limited research methodology literature, only a small proportion of the history literature appears to directly address such questions - under the heading of 'historiography'.

I summarised a number of discernible historiographic principles in Clarke (2011):

The highlighted passage in the last bullet-point suggests a tension between the discipline of history (an perhaps the humanities generally) and the discipline of IS (to the extent that it is in the social sciences). IS is still a highly insecure adolescent. It is simply a given that we must have 'a strong commitment to a particular intellectual framework or body of theory', to the point that it's quite difficult to get a paper accepted in the upper-end journals unless it is shown to be driven by such a framework or theory. I satisfied the leading journal's requirement by working my story of the first few years of the World Wide Web in Australia into a frame provided by innovation diffusion theory (Clarke 2013). [Declaration: This was my greatest-ever act of academic hypocrisy. A decade earlier, in the refereed literature, I had pilloried the widespread abuse of innovation diffusion theory as a 'convenience theory' (Clarke 2001). My rhetorical defence is that 'that was the point' - I had to fly a flag of convenience in order to be published.]

What Giants?

What about history within the IS discipline itself? We're exhorted to 'stand on the shoulders of giants', but in many aspects of IS history, very few have gone before us. In terms of the history of the Australian Internet, for example, the series of versions culminating in Clarke (2004) was the first, and remains one of very few. And the history of the IS discipline in Australia had barely been scratched until (Clarke 2006, 2008). Feel free to pretend that I'm a giant. But search hard to see if I missed any predecessors.

At least two conference-series have attracted attempts to document their histories. ECIS (1993-2002/06) was reviewed by (Galliers & Whitley 2002, 2007), and the Bled eConference (1988-2011) in Clarke (2012b).

One element of the AIS History project is an emergent self-registration index of papers. (A research project awaits on 'Does crowdsourcing with free-form tagging, complemented by self-interest, beat scholarship and structured indexing?'). In addition, substantial bibliographies are in Bannishter (2002), Clarke (2008) and Hirschheim & Klein (2012).

The longstanding IEEE Annals of the History of Computing (currently at Volume 35) is a relevant source on technological aspects. Equivalent sources in cultural aspects are less easy to locate. However, despite the name of the journal, there are important cultural threads in a recent 10-paper Special Section of the Journal of Information Technology - 28, 1 (March 2013) and 28, 2 (June 2013). The article-length Editorial introducing that Special Issue is a valuable source for IS researchers (Bryant et al. 2013).


In a never-ending story such as 'from the past onwards to the future', it's incongruous to have a section called 'Conclusions'. A couple of observations that may help us all along the way are:

Apology: The allusion in the title is explained only in the slide-set, not in the text.


Bannishter F. (2002) 'The Dimension of Time: Historiography in Information Research' Electronic Journal of Business Research Methods 1, 1 (2002) 1-10

Bryant A., Black A., Land F. & Porra J. (2013) 'Information Systems history: What is history? What is IS history? What IS history? and why even bother with history? ' Journal of Information Technology 28, 1 (March 2013) 1-17

Clarke R. (1992) 'Fundamentals of 'Information Systems' Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, September 1992, at

Clarke R. (2001) 'If e-Business is Different, Then Research in e-Business is Too' Invited Keynote Presentation for the IFIP TC8 Conference on e-Business, Salzburg, June 2001, republished in Andersen K.V. et al. (eds.) 'Seeking Success in E-Business' Springer, New York, 2003, at

Clarke R. (2004) 'Origins and Nature of the Internet in Australia' Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, January 2004. A variant was published as 'The Emergence of the Internet in Australia: From Researcher's Tool to Public Infrastructure' Chapter 3 of 'Virtual Nation: The Internet in Australia' Goggin G. (ed.), UNSW Press 2004 , at Origins and Nature of the Internet in Australia, at

Clarke R. (2006a) 'Key Aspects of the History of the Information Systems Discipline in Australia' Australasian Journal of Information Systems 14, 1 (November 2006) 123-140, at, PrePrint at

Clarke R. (2006b) 'P2P's Significance for eBusiness: Towards a Research Agenda' Journal of Theoretical and Applied Electronic Commerce Research 1, 3 (December 2006) 42 - 57, at, PrePrint at

Clarke R. (2008) 'A Retrospective on the Information Systems Discipline in Australia' Published as Chapter 2 of Gable G.G. et al. (2008) 'The Information Systems Discipline in Australia' ANU e-Press, 2008, pp. 47-107, at, PrePrint at

Clarke R. (2010) 'The iGeneration' Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, February 2010, at

Clarke R. (2011) 'Notes on the Writing of Histories of ICT and IS' Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, December 2011, at

Clarke R. (2012a) 'A Framework for the Evaluation of CloudSourcing Proposals' Proc. 25th Bled eConference, June 2012, at

Clarke R. (2012b) 'The First 25 Years of the Bled eConference: Themes and Impacts' Proc. 25th Bled eConference Special Issue, June 2012, at

Clarke R. (2013) 'Morning Dew on the Web in Australia: 1992-95' Journal of Information Technology 28, 2 (June 2013) 93-110, at

Clarke R. & Pucihar A. (2013) 'Electronic Interaction Research 1988-2012 through the Lens of the Bled eConference' Electronic Markets 29, 4 (December 2013), at

Galliers R.D. & Whitley E.A. (2002) 'An Anatomy of European Information Systems Research - ECIS 1993 - ECIS 2002: Some Initial Findings' Proc. ECIS 2002, June 2002, Gdask, Poland, at

Galliers R.D. & Whitley E.A. (2007) 'Vive les differences? Developing a profile of European information systems research as a basis for international comparisons' Euro. J. of Infor. Syst. 16, 1 (2007) 20-35

Hirschheim R. & Klein H.K. (2012) 'A Glorious and Not-So-Short History of the Information Systems Field' Journal of the Association for Information Systems 13, 4, Article 5, at

Klein S., Reimers K. & Johnston R.B. (2012) 'Inter-organizational Information Systems: From Strategic Systems to Information Infrastructures' Proc. 25th Bled eConference Special Issue, June 2012, at$File/08_klein.pdf

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., and a Visiting Professor in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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