Wednesday, June 4, 2003

On the virtual, some thoughts on social computing and the value of disciplinary heresy

I need to reflect on the feedback I got on my conference presentation, so I'm just going to think out loud for a bit. If you weren't there (and even if you were) you can take a look at the (829 kb) powerpoint version, and I should post a full draft paper within the week. If you're terribly keen on what inspired my position, I can suggest reading Bergson, Calvino, Deleuze, Latour, Shields and Urry. (And as an aside, I had to buy the latest issue of Wired while I was waiting for my flight, because it seems that Latour has now hit the American mainstream. No shit.)

First, I got plenty of positive feedback, which certainly helps make up for that brand of criticism that runs along the lines of "this is postmodern/deconstructionist/airy-fairy/useless bullshit". I have theories about why some people rail against this sort of research, but they're best left for conversations with wine and friends. For now, let me just say that I'm pretty damn sick of people (academics and designers) reacting with hostility and/or dismissal, so I'll move on to comments that actually compel reflection and discussion.

AKMA writes on digital bodies and states that "If the physical is different-not-realer, though, then we’re in the position of giving an account of differences that respects our physicality without rendering it the index of our reality. Anne introduced the language of “flows” and “intensities” (from some of the theory — Foucault, Irigaray, Deleuze, Guattari, — that other DG participants roundly blasted), terms that help me point to the body as a distinctly intense locus of my identity — but not the only, the true, the real me."

Yes, indeed! Part of what I had to deal with was comments that sought to rearticulate my argument in either/or terms (i.e. virtual OR real), which was particularly frustrating given that the purpose of my presentation was to eliminate that dichotomy and replace it with a framework that is more capable of articulating social action as spatial and temporal movement between categories of the real, the abstract, the concrete and the possible.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I had the pleasure of many hours of discussion with Trevor, in which he was able to convince me that notions of risk and ethics could play a greater role in my interpretations. Thank you! (And for you, Trevor, here is a good critical discussion of reflexive modernisation to enjoy.)

And some of the best feedback I got was from a game designer in the audience who took excellent notes of my presentation, understood my position perfectly, and offered insights into how to keep people from creeping back into binary arguments. Thank you! (Unfortunately I did not get your contact info, so if you're reading this, please email me as I would love to continue our conversation.)

Now, all of this also reminds me of some discussions around social computing that happened while I was gone. I was especially interested in Bill Thompson's article for the BBC, in which he writes that:

[T]he discussion about social software is valuable ... It marks a vital and necessary stage in the development of our thinking about the internet, since instead of talking about it as a technology we are arguing about how we relate to other people, and the software and networks are just the ways in which we do it. The technology will always be fascinating to some of us, and we do need programmers and skilled hackers to make it all work in the first place. But it is now possible to have a serious debate about the social impact of the internet without mentioning protocols, packets or programming, and that in itself is significant progress.

But I am very doubtful about whether the ongoing debate, in the blogs and mailing lists and conferences, is actually taking us anywhere interesting. First, because treating all the many tools and services that allow people to interact with each other over the network as a single thing, demonstrates yet again the Western desire for simplification and regimentation instead of seeking to understand complexity. Second, and more significantly, I am saddened that the last 20 years of research into human computer interaction, and the last 100 years of research into human psychology and the ways we manage communication with each other, has been totally disregarded by the people discussing social software ...

There has been decades of research into these problems, but many people seem to think that the insights of someone who has built a few web sites and runs an entertaining blog count for more ... This lack of awareness about what has been done before means that, by and large, the ongoing debate about social software is generally uninteresting, intellectually shallow and largely irrelevant.

While I think he seriously underestimates (and belittles) the role of bloggers, I completely agree with his frustration with the lack of historical and inter-disciplinary perspective taken in many of these discussions. Doc Searls also makes a point that is related to my frustrations with the DG conference discussions: "We need AND logic here, not OR. And some very creative thinking about how to do it. Not just more arguments about which way is better, or why it can't be done." (And here I am also reminded of Molly's call for more imaginary architectures. Thanks for the pdf Molly!)

As another case in point, Jonathan Peterson writes "Coming from an engineering background, I've been told that my opinions are invalid because I don't have a cultural studies background. Whatever; I have little time for people who seem most interested in hearing themselves use $5.00 words to describe $.05 concepts." And while I take offense at his blanket characterisation of cultural studies - because words actually do things, it seems rather silly to fault people for striving towards precision in language, rather than using sloppy overgeneralisations - I agree that it's absurd to dismiss perspectives that differ from our own. (Engineers have been quick to dismiss my arguments as well.) But my point is that this should not be a competition between those who are "right" and those who are "wrong". I cannot support rigidity of perspective - how shallow and limiting that is - and will always prefer understandings and practices that flow.

As Trevor astutely writes, "I think that one of the reasons why so much of the conference worked so well was because many of us are already disciplinary heretics. We aren't just interested in the world beyond our discipline ... we are committed to pollinization from any source worthy of furthering our several concerns and discourses. And, when necessary, willing to sacrifice disciplinary orthodoxy to achieve this end. I'm not saying everyone at the conference thought this way. Some were careful but rigid thinkers. But many of us were and our meeting of minds was made all the more sociable for our heresy."

(Interestingly, I was also told that I am not a "real postmodernist" either, which is actually quite true, but then we just get back to who's right and who's wrong, and I don't want to play that game.)

[Update 04/06/03] I have been trained as an anthropologist and sociologist - social sciences if ever there were - and as a qualitative researcher. My interests and knowledge run broad, and at times, quite deep. My favourite conversations have included sculptors, domestic servants, theoretical physicists, writers, zoologists, theologians, farmers, materials scientists, shamans, architects and dogs.

And so, here's to taking good beginning lists like Liz Lawley's for social software inspiration, and rounding them out to include work from HCI and CSCW, as well as cultural studies and social studies of technology approaches more closely allied with my own research.


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