Friday, April 15, 2005

Software and sociality

Interesting post from Jyri Engeström on what he sees as :

"a profound confusion about the nature of sociality, which was partly brought about by recent use of the term 'social network' by Albert Laszlo-Barabasi and Mark Buchanan in the popular science world, and Clay Shirky and others in the social software world. These authors build on the definition of the social network as 'a map of the relationships between individuals' ... The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They're not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object."

"The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people." Yes, exactly!! This is related to my recent gripes about a tendency towards modelling people in functional, essential or systemic terms. You know, very machinic. And in part it's a problem connected to the use of discrete and singular categories. For example: social interaction is only about people, systems are only about (open or closed) systemic relations, etc.

The post I linked above gives a nice overview of 'object-centred sociality' or what Karin Knorr Cetina calls 'objectual practice'. He's interested in 'socio-material networks', or just 'activities' or 'practices' instead of social networks. I get that--I also focus a lot on practice or what we do rather than what we think. And I see a lot of what we do having little or nothing to do with functionality or systems.

But here's where I get really interested. In the post Jyri writes "in my experience, developers intuitively 'get' the object-centered sociality way of thinking about social life". Oh, I want to know more! I've had many conversations with programmers about these perspectives on sociality, and I've more often than not heard the coder exclaim "Of course! Like object-oriented programming!" Um, well, only sort-of.

Now Russ Beattie was totally impressed by Jyri's post, and what he says reminds me of conversations I've had with my friends Bob and Diego. And I think they really do get it - or more specifically they get that some things we do just aren't amenable to code. They get that when it comes to people, code is limiting but not determining. I also think that most, if not all, people take for granted that we're linked together through things. And I'm interested in what constitutes these things and how they connect--because it is in those definitions and relations that code takes shape.

For different social and cultural takes, Adrian Mackenzie has done some really interesting work on software and sociality, and my students liked Steve Graham's discussions of the software-sorted society. And now there's also a growing body of design and innovation studies: Jyri's PhD sounds fascinating, as does Alex Wilkie's doctoral project.

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