Thursday, November 14, 2002

London Social-Software summit

Tom sums up Clay Shirky's talk on social software. One comment in particular catches my eye:

"We are ill-served by the current metaphor of architecture and space, instead we should consider the construction of social software as like building a ship: Ships are places where people come together... but they come together in order to get somewhere."

My bias: I can't imagine a concept of sociality that disregards space. I don't just mean architecture (although that is surely a part of it) but the actual socially constructed, lived space of everyday life. But it's the shipbuilding metaphor that really gets me. In The Black Atlantic, Gilroy writes about the ship as container and suggests that it wasn't just that slaves were being transported across the ocean, but that slavery - or Black consciousness - was. And perhaps more importantly, just as the ships moved through space and time, so too did concepts of slaves and slave-owners. In other words, diasporas involve the movement of people, and everything they take with them - including things that don't survive the voyage and new things acquired along the way.

So what does this have to do with ship-building? Imagine how the ships themselves may have been different if the builders knew this and built for it...

First, I guess I just don't see how a ship is different from a building, since both provide contexts - possibilities and constraints - for human interaction. They are both places. Second, I'm not sure that people necessarily come together in order to get somewhere. User-centred design can have a tendency to reduce social interaction to the completion of tasks, a sort of social-Darwinism that assumes we are motivated to achieve. And while I don't mean to suggest that there are no such things as user-goals to be facilitated, I believe that focussing on notions of effectiveness and productivity can be overly restrictive. Of course this is not black-and-white, and sometimes this approach is exactly what is needed. But I'm interested in the ways in which we might learn to identify when it is useful and when it isn't - and what, then, we might do instead.

It seems to me that designing for sociality/sociability (for community?) requires greater metaphorical flexibility than concepts of ship-building. For me, the ships themselves are never as interesting as what is, or can be, moved in them. And while I can appreciate the connotations of craft - of beauty and utility of construction - we would still be creating containers, and some things don't fit in certain vessels. This suggests that our first challenge is to figure out what can and cannot (should and should not?) move...

A typical needs assessment, or a proposal, outlines goals and objectives - to contain a project's scope and clearly delineate boundaries. This eventually leads to setting design parameters, which in turn tend to set contexts of interaction. And that can be fine. But what difference does it make if we don't set constraints? Do we - and our projects, our jobs - really fall into chaos and anarchy? And so what if they do? I think of Hakim Bey's Temporary Autonomous Zones as the (contingent) absence of containment - and my experience as a social anthropologist, a woman, a person, suggests that if spaces of real creativity exist, this is them. They are spaces of becoming, of possibility, of exploration, of leakage.

But I'll be the first to say that it's a little frightening if what I am effectively suggesting is that we build leaky ships...


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