Friday, January 7, 2005

Shaping our technological futures

As a fan of putting half-baked ideas out there in the world, I'll stand behind Howard's draft manifesto for an "open, user-driven, entrepreneurial future for the mobile Internet". But, of course, I think there are a few points that need some refining.

First, let's take his assertion that "people are free and able to act as users not consumers". Sounds nice but, quite frankly, I have no idea what that means. Are the two mutually exclusive? I think it's been adequately demonstrated that consumption is much more nuanced than that and I, for one, quite enjoy being a consumer of all sorts of things because it is another way for me to forge and express facets of my identity and values. What I do find offensive and dangerous, on the other hand, is pervasive commodification - or the idea that anything and everything can (and should) be bought and sold. This means that it's the "entrepreneurial future" mentioned above, and not consumption, that makes me nervous.

On the other hand, all I think Howard is getting at is the idea that we should not deny people agency, or set up obstacles to making technology their own, and I've long thought that designing for hackability is a fine place to start.

This also reminds me of the Designing Technology for Community Appropriation workshop at CHI 2005, which should be a good place to explore some of these ideas. The submission deadline is January 21st, so it's not too late to get in there.

What needs to be addressed more clearly in Howard's manifesto and related dicussions is what kind of openness is desirable or required - something that Howard begins to do in his call for an "open innovation commons" and "self-organizing, ad-hoc networks" of users. But it seems to me that we're talking about many different (and often enough conflicting and competitive) cultural contexts here, from hardware and software development to policy and legal frameworks to the ability, confidence and imagination of individual citizens. And I'm not sure what kinds of "open" access emerge when people organise "according to their own inclinations and mutual agreements". I mean, doesn't that suggest things are only open to particular people in particular contexts? After all, this rhetoric is always already bound up with bits of libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism - neither of which convince me that historical global inequalities will be fundamentally transformed by these efforts.

Regardless, my point is that this is the particularly tricky part and the bit that needs the most clarification and justification. Somewhere in there I think we need to consider some of Adam's ethical guidelines for ubicomp, some of Tobias' recent comments on control and "trecherous computing" and what it will take to locate accountability.

The final point of Howard's manifesto - "the freedom to associate information with places and things" - is particularly interesting to me because it addresses long-standing tensions between public and private interests. He writes:

"People like myself used to think that 'the Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it,' but we're seeing authoritarian governments build their censors into their routers. Is there any better [sic] reason to believe that people will continue to have the freedom to read and write to specific parts of the geoweb?"

I seriously doubt the mobile/geo web will foster any more openness or freedom than the Internet, but it will emerge in different ways and we do have a distinct advantage now: critical discourses about mobile technologies are coming much faster (albeit still way too slowly for my liking) than they did in the early utopian days of the Net.

This also reminds me of another great-sounding CHI workshop that is still accepting submissions: Engaging The City: Public Interfaces As Civic Intermediary.

"The challenge for the HCI community is to design public interfaces that provide citizens with more active access, authorship, and agency. The workshop's field research component will involve visiting the city of Portland as a case study for processing and refining these theoretical considerations..."

Hear hear! On a practical level these discussions remain rather isolated and the sooner we can take them to the streets and into people's everyday lives, the better chance we'll have of shaping all our technological futures.

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