Friday, November 22, 2002

Theory - Part 3

This brings me back to my post on social software because I implicated Mr. Shirky in those comments, and accordingly, if unwittingly, suggested something beyond my particular position or context. As field-notes, my comments are always placed in a broader context of study - of which readers may not be aware. And to be honest, I can't always find a way to make them relevant to everyone who reads them. (You may find it interesting that I tag my posts with certain words that help *me* remember other connections and hint at larger life experiences that impact my thinking. It's a way of tracking relationships between events and ideas.)

This morning I received a message from Mr. Shirky that expressed confusion over what the hell I was talking about - and not the expected confusion that arises when one cites D&G ;) I could have made it more explicit that I used his post as a way to jump to something else I was interested in. I've been working at textual analysis, and what caught my interest was the possibility of using constitutional documents to say something about online sociality. But again, as a theory wank, my concern really revolved around how these texts could be interpreted (there is never just one answer and every answer has its consequences). It was never my intention to suggest that his *goal* was to develop models for online social systems. He was quick to point out that he shares my sense that "human social relations defy systematization" and that he couldn't "understand what [I] read in those documents that led [me] to assume they were proposing such systems." First, I tend to believe that intentionality is not something we can get at, and it never occurred to me that I might be suggesting what such documents propose or intend. I was interested in what such documents might do - in the sense of what sorts of boundaries they create and how those boundaries impact sociability in particular spaces and times.

But this also suggests to me that Mr. Shirky and I are working with different notions of what constitutes a system, a problem I also acknowledged in my responses to Peter Merholz, as well as with different notions of what constitutes sociality. Truth is, I didn't provide clear definitions, and that led to generalisations and possible misunderstandings that could fuck things up. Anthropology and sociology use related, but different, definitions of systems than those employed in the hard sciences and engineering... and I fear I became involved in a conversation where we may have been speaking at cross-purposes. So, shame on me for not recognising this sooner! Add to this my understandings of sociality, which have nothing to do with the cognitive sciences, and we find ourselves in a mess ;)

Without wanting to be antagonistic, Mr. Shirky raised a point that I've already responded to him on, but that I think is worth opening up to broader discussion. He wrote that "These constitutions, in other words, are ways of governing without systematizing, and the simple automations in these systems (karma, posse mailing list, whatever) are ways of helping the core group, however defined, identify exactly those events that are most in need of human intervention. Seen in this light, a constitution is a kind of filter for identifying anomalous social events."

I would begin by arguing that there is no way to govern without systemisation (the question remains what might constitute any particular form or texture of systemisation) - so in that sense, I am interested in how boundaries are negotiated, in what remains fluid and what remains stable. This, of course, assumes that the role of any system or framework is, in part, to define what is relevant and what is not (the problem of context). These criteria need not be fixed or rigid, but I do not believe that these criteria are ever value-free. Mr. Shirky acknowledges that in the documents at hand, it can be difficult to identify the boundaries - and I completely agree - but that shouldn't absolve us of our responsibility to find the boundaries and try to understand even the most temporary of their implications. By claiming that *any* social event is anomalous it is implied that there is a norm which is being violated, that there is something that doesn't fit in the container.

And my task is to identify the container, figure out when and where it leaks, and what the implications or consequences are. And this brings us full-circle to my position as theory wank. I don't always succeed at making this information useful to people - and in that sense, I have indeed failed at what I consider an academic duty. But I can't let that stop me trying to answer my questions and I only hope that occasionally I am able to provide ideas that will help you answer your own questions...

Peace out.


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