Thursday, November 18, 2004

Social/Tools

ZeroDegrees is sponsoring a new blog project - The Operating Manual for Social Tools - where paid contributors discuss, well, social "tools" like "social networking software".

In considering the goals of social network modeling danah boyd offers an interesting way to approach social networks, although I disagree that anthropological or sociological (or even cultural studies for that matter) perspectives are as homogenous and clear-cut as she suggests. I appreciate her desire/need to position herself as other to designers and engineers, but we do comprise an unruly bunch with divergent interests and interpretive frameworks.

For example, while the overall desire to stress the importance of people in sociability first, technology second certainly resonates with my own work, I take issue with the claim that "the tool is not a primary actor in sociability, but a tool that mediates. People should not be framed in terms of the tool, but the tool framed in terms of their use."

I've always disliked the characterisation of technologies as tools, "mere" or otherwise, separate from us and somehow meaningless (i.e. neutral) until we use them. In our desire to stress the importance of people, we risk positioning the social in the same sort of rarified way we find so unsatisfactory in current conceptions of technology. This is the same mistake made by unflinching social constructionists in the "science-wars" and I believe this sort of absolutism risks creating a similar backlash against certain qualitative perspectives.

Put otherwise, I don't think we can dismantle the master's house with the master's tools. Whether exalting technology over people, or people over technology, we are not moving beyond the binaries that are currently limiting us. We need to find ways of entirely reconceptualising the relationships between people and technologies: ways that allow for greater slippage between categories and allow us to redefine both technological and social agency.

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