Friday, May 9, 2003

Social Prostheses

Tom Coates is an incredibly articulate and thoughtful writer - must be that background in philosophy ;) - and a couple of recent posts caught my eye. You see, Tom's been working on definitions of social software that draw on Doug Engelbart's work from the 60s on augmenting human intellect, and he's put forth the idea that social software may be understood in terms of social prostheses. But before we get too excited, he raises an important issue:

the very principle that we balance out inbuilt human limitations with protheses and band aids ... is potentially wrapped up in a much larger and scarier and less morally or politically obvious debate that [sic] we tend to acknowledge

Potentially? Definitely!

In the grand deconstructionist tradition, I am interested precisely in the "larger and scarier" and "less morally and politically obvious" implications of current definitions of social computing. Explicitly advocating a functional systems approach to understanding technology and people, Engelbart’s ‘conceptual framework’ was based on the interconnectedness of users, input and output devices. Engelbart's computing machine would serve the architect as a clerk would, but with the augmented capability of being able to process and display information in multiple ways more quickly, thereby allowing the architect to create and modify models more efficiently. Hmm. Where to start?

The most obvious implication of this sort of thinking is that it assumes that efficiency is always superior to, well, inefficiency. People are understood to be inefficient creatures, and that is assumed to be a flaw. It assumes we should *prefer* to be efficient - a notion very much historically and politically located within Western traditions of capitalist production and industrialisation. By implication, people would be better - that is, produce more - if only we were more like machines. OK. Not quite, but close enough ;)

Aack! I have to run now, but I'm sure this will continue to bounce around my head for the rest of the day and I'll pick it up again later ...

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