Historical-conjunctural changes in the discourses of information and communication technological innovations in the UK press 1964-1999


In the past 30 years, digital information and communication technologies (ICTs) – along with famous ICT entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley – have often been singled out as forces that best represent capitalist dynamism. These mainstream discourses have offered powerful legitimations of ‘the new spirit of capitalism’ (Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello), conceived as the coming of a new type of capitalism that has replaced the bureaucratic structures of earlier state-directed capitalism with de-centralised network structures that allow innovations, entrepreneurship and human creativity to flourish.

Such ideological discourses did not emerge out of thin air. The aim of this paper is to conduct a critical historical comparison of how ICT innovations have been discussed in the UK press in different decades. As the word ‘conjunctural’ in the title suggests, I am interested in how ICT innovation discourses and their political-ideological framings have developed over time, in relation to different phases of capitalism. This forms my main research ques­tion.

To study such changes, I gathered data (news articles) from digital newspaper archives on the coverage of ICT innovations in the UK press (The Times, the Guardian and the Financial Times) in five-year intervals between 1964 and 1999. This time frame covers the period from the first major public discussions in the UK on the impact of computers to the emergence of the Internet. This paper is part of my broader research which examines similar themes in different countries' media (USA, UK and Finland). The UK provides an interesting case, as following the Second World War it pursued a ‘techno-nationalist’ (David Edgerton) path to technological development (including ICTs), but often with feelings of inferiority to its main competitors.

Methodologically, the paper involves quantification of the frequency of different types of ICT innovation discourses and institutional actors who appear as ‘primary definers’ in different time periods. More importantly, I will conduct a thematic qualitative content analysis of the data. In particular, I will register and illustrate changes in what kinds of themes, narratives and visions concerning ICT innovations dominate in the newspapers in different times (e.g., shifts in how the role of the state vis-à-vis private corporations and entrepreneurs in their development is conceived; or shifts in how the overall social impact of ICTs is assessed – is it considered positive/empowering or negative/threatening).

Theoretically, the paper relies on political economy and Gramscian-inspired ideology theory. I am specifically interested in analysing how and to what extent changes in media coverage of ICTs can be understood by linking these to the political-economic paradigm shift from Keynesian-Fordist to neoliberal capitalism, that is, to a shift in ‘accumulation regimes’ and to shifts in the balance of political power. This will be the paper’s main theoretical contribution. In addition, I will call into question ahistorical celebrations of ICTs by examining how they have been publicly discussed in the past in different political-ideological contexts.