Thursday, March 25, 2004

On difference

Every so often I get interested in discussions on social software - although I still object to the phrase itself - and every so often I read something that makes perfect sense to me.

For example, I stand behind the idea that social relationships are far more complex than "friend" or "not-friend" but it never occurred to me that anyone would then try to come up with a broader but still definitive and static set of relations. Formal (machine-readable? predictive?) ontologies really weird me out; they conflict with pretty much everything I understand as a sociologist and anthropologist about social and cultural interaction.

But then I remembered how often I have to come back to the historical influence of cybernetic systems thinking on our understandings of networks and cities - and how that seriously limits the ways we are currently able to engage the social and cultural implications of wireless and ubiquitous technologies on daily life in urban spaces.

And, as Clay Shirky points out, historical debates in artificial intelligence (and, I would add, cognitive science) similarly limit the ways in which we are able to engage questions of social intelligence.

Of course I don't mean to suggest that the varied approaches to cybernetics or AI are wrong - but they do often embody fundamentally different paradigms of what it means to be social, and what comprises cultural practice, than used by many sociologists and anthropologists. I also do not mean to suggest these differences are irreconcilable - people like Paul Dourish are trying to bridge the gap in many ways - but I do want to suggest that we ignore them at our peril.

In 1605, Francis Bacon wrote that critical thinking involves:

having a mind nimble and versatile enough to catch the resemblances of things and at the same time steady enough to fix and distinguish their subtler differences; being gifted by nature with desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; and being a man [sic] that neither affects what is new nor admires what is old, and that hates every kind of imposture.

By acknowledging our own contexts and making a genuine effort to understand and accomodate other paradigms and problematics, we are unable to pretend that our understandings (and technologies) are value-free or unrelated to broader relations of culture, power and history.

And that, I believe, is our responsibility and our challenge...


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