Saturday, January 10, 2004

Still in search of technology and the social

When the comments to a post exceed a dozen printed pages, it's probably time to summarise and reposition.

I think it does a disservice to the people and positions involved in this discussion to describe it as binary vs. anti-binary, but I did begin by describing Joi's question "Which comes first, technology or social norms?" as reductive - and I still think it is. So Joi rightly wants to know why that is problematic. OK - but before I say why, I feel compelled to say that I have very much enjoyed my recent conversations with Joi, even though we do not agree ;)

In part, Joi speaks and acts from a position of privilege - he has social and financial influence, he can set agendas. If he is not able to firmly set the terms and positions of a debate, he is at least capable of limiting the terms and ascribing positions. And I'm sure I'm not the only one who believes that with privilege comes responsibility - Joi's concern with fairness suggests he also understands that. But responsibility - accountability - may be different from fairness.

Jean Burgess took Joi's original question and compared it to "issues like media effects debates: 'Is television harmful or not harmful to children' - which implies that we all accept the proposition that the media can have 'effects' in the first place." Michael disagreed with the part of danah and Joi's original discussion "that placed responsibility on the technologist to a) assume that her technology would have transformative effects on society and b) think about those effects and try to design around them" and adds that "binaries tend to get people in trouble when they aren't able to (or no one listens when they try to) unpack the binary positions ... By setting what the terms are, you also set what the terms aren't, and without the ability to unpack and uncover the nuances this can become a big problem."

Jeremy Hunsinger writes that "the problem with binaries is that in all likelihood in the world, what we represent as binaries does not exist in that form at all, rather there is a transition between the two poles, a spectrum if you will, that we tend to leave out." Abe Burmeister says "the act of creating a binary is also an act of exclusion. Now I'd certainly agree that the binary has its uses, like running the computer I type this on for one ... But beyond that it constrains the way people interact with the world."

Frank Paynter says "I am not a person who would argue against the value of binary analysis. But I don't think Joi's question lends itself to same. Rather, I think a better field definition is called for... what technology? What social norms?". Kevin Marks suggests that "people take complex smooth phenomena and turn them into single-bit on/off categories" because that's what single neurons do - and that greater nuance with many variables takes "a lot more neurons or bits." Adam Greenfield says "I hold fast to the idea that 'we shape our tools, thereafter they shape us' - provided of course that you take the trouble to connect the end of the clause back to the beginning, in a chicken-and-egg loop of, yes, overdetermination."

But what about Joi's concerns and questions? He writes "I think that the process of translating and dealing with binaries opens up new views and relationships and I think it is the Venn diagram that I am striving for ... This process of swinging around binaries to outline contexts is a process. Maybe not in the same way you are using the word, but my goal is not to end up on one side of a binary or another, but to synthesize a position that emerges from the 'friction' ... I worry less about rigor or documentation of the process and more about the experience and the direct impact on society. I understand the necessity of rigor, process and structure and am fascinated by it intellectually, but my happiness comes from its application in my life."

In my mind, there is no "direct impact on society" that can be separated from process - and I don't understand how experience or action can be understood without rigour or documentation of process. I don't even think there is a feedback loop between technologies and society, because that would require us to separate the two in the first place. Joi also seems to think that intellect (understanding) and action (application) are two separate fields - and again, I disagree. And to find the "middle ground" in any of these dichotomies still suggests that there is a "true" position we can reach. I don't understand or experience the world in abstract terms of objective truth - although I would say that I am interested in the spaces in-between "truths."

And in the end, Joi says "I think I now understand people's point about the risks of binary simplification ... [but] I'm trying to understand the framework and if not binary, how do you organize 'the issue at hand' so we can begin charting the territory?"

I suggest starting with some reading along these lines:

Feenburg's From Essentialism to Constructivism: Philosophy of Technology at the Crossroads or pretty much any paper at the Centre for Science Studies, Lancaster University.

Bijker & Law's Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change
Urry's Sociology Beyond Societies: Mobilities for the 21st Century
Latour's Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies
Lash's Critique of Information


Update 11/01/04: The Happy Tutor responds to recent conversations: "Anne changed the topic from justice, and fairness and profit, to false binaries. That seems to me to be bad move, and what it privileges is the position of the aloof spectactor who chides those who, in the heat of battle, are fighting for justice, for not writing about justice in a sufficiently skeptical way. If we follow Anne, we will write obscure essays in the now orthodox style of Derrida, but will have little impact on the evolution of social software as either a commons or a mall."


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