Friday, October 25, 2002

Sociable computing

Given my interests in sociology, anthropology and technology, I've been following some recent discussions on social networks and sociable computing.

The weird part is seeing an almost complete lack of input from social scientists outside the field of psychology (and related disciplines that focus on cognition) or folks in the humanities and arts. In many cases, designers and engineers are working with sociological concepts that have been revised or entirely abandoned within our disciplines over the past few decades - an all too common effect of working with another discipline's knowledge without having contact with its practitioners and innovators (something that plagues all academics). Also disheartening is the apparent lack of awareness of how much social and cultural theory has evolved in response to, in tandem with, or in anticipation of, new technological developments and their place in social and cultural life. Furthermore, in definitions of the social and sociability deployed by technology developers, the focus still remains on notions of social psychology and philosophy of mind, which are often tangential (albeit informative) to the work of sociologists and anthropologists.

So what's my point? Traditional academic and industry divisions and competitions are impairing our ability to design good products.

Some of the work being done by Microsoft's Social Computing Group is promising, and I am especially fond of the Comic Chat, where "your online conversations are the beginning of an interactive comic strip that unfolds in real time. Comic style balloons display your conversation, and gestures generated by conversation semantics give your character a variety of emotions and movements." But the emphasis still remains on emotion and gesture (interesting psychological categories of inquiry) to the exclusion of social concepts of agency, or what we (are able to) do with the world. For example, no one seems to be working with (and please correct me if I'm wrong) notions of non-human or artefact agency - the ability of things to act in the world, and the subsequent reciprocal construction of people and objects. In other words, most developers are still looking to how we think and learn, rather than how we do and be.

This may seem like a trivial point, or just a semantic argument, but I would argue that the implications are quite profound as they will inevitably impact what we are able to do and who we are able to be - as individuals and collectives. No small consequence is the difficulty in locating accountability - for what we build, how we build it, and how it can be used. And again, this is a bigger issue than the usability of an interface (even when designed around ethnographic principles), or the cultural ecology of new technologies. There are matters of power and control at stake, as well as more "essential" notions of what constitutes humanity and social interaction.

There you have it. Rant over.


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