Alienation and Information Communications Technology




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De Montfort University


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Peer reviewed


This study explores the contradiction of the heart of ICT: the technology presents to us all manner of possibilities yet it habitually fails to deliver on those promises. This failure is often seen as arising from either a problem with the technology or end-user proficiency. Thus better technology and/or more effective end-user education are seen as the solutions. This study is based on the premise that such approaches are inherently faulty and explores how applicable notions of alienation can be in researching the contradictory nature of ICT. By using a critical realist methodology allied to tools available through PAR, this investigation engaged with participants in three distinct settings: ICT professionals; scholars concerned with researching the ethical/societal implications of ICT; and a group of pensioners living in South East London, UK. The research interrogated the literature concerned with themes of alienation and ICT to show there is a consensus that something called alienation does exist but that the term is used as a poorly defined descriptor of dissatisfaction with ICT. It also revealed that minimal research in the subject area has been undertaken using theories of alienation and none which involve multiple settings. The thesis makes an original and distinct contribution to the field by utilising one approach to alienation, that presented by Marx, in three seemingly disconnected settings to draw out the underlying commonalities shared by participants of these settings. In doing so, the findings challenge widespread assumptions about end-user experience of ICT and offer new insights into the much mentioned but little understood alienated way we experience ICT. Moreover, the thesis, in moving beyond description of alienation, to reveal the genesis of the condition, indicates the inadequacy of simply using the term alienation as an ill-defined label to describe people’s experiences of ICT. It argues for embracing a more rigorous approach to the issue to realise the significant potential offered through investigating and applying theories of alienation in research. Additionally it advances knowledge in the area by emphasising shared experiences of user groups which has considerable implications for future research. Finally the thesis is unique in highlighting the prospective benefits to be realised by researchers in adopting a CR methodology working in tandem with PAR methods in ICT research.


This thesis is a study of Marx's theory of alienation as it applies to ICT. By looking at three different scenarios concerned with ICT, the research investigates the relevance of Marx's theory of alienation in explaining the way we experience ICT. The results of the study indicate that Marx's theory of alienation has much to offer in research in this area but that more work needs to be undertaken to deepen our understanding of the complex relationship between ICT and alienation.


Alienation, ICT, Marx, Information Communications Technology, computing, Participatory Action Research



Research Institute