Tuesday, April 29, 2003

On failing systems

A conversation involving Elizabeth Lawley et al. performs the, um, social bits of social computing, and Tom's comments/questions offer an interesting point to explore:

As the discussion about social software has, in one place at least, been derailed by what some might call certain anti-social behaviors, it might be worth raising, vis a vis SS as a means and end, whether the software is imagined by designers and theorists as neutral to (or transcendent of) personality and socially obtuse gestures or acts? If so, is it still “social” software?

It seems to me that current explorations of social software still fit within more general notions of cybernetic and evolutionary systems, which have always been understood as neutral in the same sense that the natural is neutral. Is Tom suggesting that (social) "deviance" can infiltrate the "system" (of social software) and render it (non/dis)functional? ... Social cybernetics is basically structural-functionalism, which is concerned with the smooth running of the social programme. Of course, this raises issues around the order of things and notions of agency, or our ability to act in, and change, the world in which we live.

Now, a structural-functionalist might interpret Liz's account in terms of a breakdown in the proper functioning of the mailing list, or perhaps as a necessary deviance that maintains larger group cohesion. Both explanations mirror the binary nature of code by articulating the debate in terms of internal/external or public/private dichotomies. If social software uses structural-functional models of social interaction, then this could be seen as an example of a failed system, and people could discuss how the irrational behaviour of humans broke the programme. It could also be seen as a boundary transgression that demanded dominant boundaries rearticulate themselves, and people could argue about who has power and who doesn't. In either case, the system can only fail or prevail - there is little room for changing the system itself.

To be honest, that sort of explanation really leaves me wanting, and I find myself hoping that social computing is not actually being modelled on these understandings of social interaction.

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