Wednesday, January 7, 2004

In search of technology and the social

It's been a long time since I've had any interest in meta-blogging discussions, and I admit to being more than a bit surprised that Clay Shirky's Power Laws essay is still making the rounds but I am grateful that danah boyd has the sociological & cultural wherewithal to note that blogging is a privilege, and to claim that "until we decipher how our technologies promote privilege, we cannot create equalizing technologies."

If I had the time (and the inclination) I would attempt a systematic survey and critical rhetorical analysis of "social software" discussions over the past two years, mostly because I never cease to be amazed by the lack of (post-structural) social studies in the discussions. (danah can be an exception, although I believe she has a background in the social sciences & humanities.) Now this isn't to say that technologists are incapable of discussing social issues, but they inevitably discuss them from technological perspectives. On the other hand, I discuss technology from social and cultural perspectives, and my favourite tech and design bloggers are distinctly sensitive to social, cultural, philosophical and artistic perspectives.

Anyway, I've been following an interesting conversation between Joi Ito (start here) and danah (start here) - catalysed by Cory Doctorow's brilliant "I have a special request to the toolmakers of 2004: stop making tools that magnify and multiply awkward social situations."

I was thinking that when Joi asks "Which comes first, technology or social norms?" the debate is made one of cause and effect (binary logic), and the question of what might actually constitute EITHER technology OR social norms is neutralised. When Joi suggests that we should be building norms together with the technologies, he is still working with binary logic, just of the BOTH/AND variety.

When danah responds to Wendy Seltzer's position (cited by Joi) that social norms may be "falling behind" technology with

"Social norms aren't behind; they're baffled at the direction in which things are going. They're pushing for a different direction and they aren't being heard. People are using technology to meet their needs, but they are not prepared for how the architecture is pulling them in a different direction ... Social norms pull in different directions than the market, the law or the technology. This does not mean that it is behind. Quite often, social norms leapfrog everyone else."

we get a position that also implies a closed system, where the cause and effect relationship has effectively been reversed (social norms shift from being behind, to in front of, technological innovation and use). In both positions, technology and social norms are givens - affecting and/or effecting the OTHER.

Is this what Lago read when he suggested both positions are technologically determinist? On this trajectory the debate shifts to more academic terms: danah clarifies her position and distances herself from both technological determinism and "pure" social constructivism. Certainly a preferable place to be in an academic debate - "bi-directional, non-deterministic process" - but not outside the starting dichotomy, where I would want to be - and I giggled when I read Joi's response that he's glad he's not an academic.

On another trajectory, Ross Mayfield also seems to stick with the binary in his Users Drive Policy round-up. And yet Joi seems to have taken another route recently by looking at ethics and the concept of fairness or justice - indirectly interrogating the concept of social norms, if not technology.

Please forgive the quick-and-dirty deconstructionist account of these conversations, but I do it in part to suggest that despite the mix of answers, the questions are only ever binary - and IMO these dichotomies do not make good social studies.

Update: Clay responds to Joi's question of whether blogs are just, and accepts critiques of his position on access and power laws.

And with a big (if somewhat sly) grin, I wonder if my words have less opportunity to enter that broader conversation because I don't use trackback?

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