Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Social computing

Browsing Jyri's del.icio.us links, I see that Microsoft Research has put up some videos of presentations from their recent Social Computing Symposium.

(Incidentally, in Firefox I clicked on the first presentation link and was immediately prompted with "Do you want to upgrade your browser with Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0?" and no ability to see the videos. Sigh.)

Of course, the people and papers I find most interesting are not among the video presentations, but Paul Dourish - like I have many times before - argues that "It is time for the notion of 'social software' to go away. It's a cute coinage, but conceptually it's at best vacuous and at worst downright dangerous ... Social software advocates often seem to miss the fact that many social scientists would question whether social networks exist or have any sort of analytic validity ... [and] the notion of 'social software' perpetuates an artificial separation between 'social' and 'non-social' software."

And Martin Dodge - who has also done excellent work with Rob Kitchin - critically discusses "recording regimes" like surveillance and sousveillance, and suggests that "an ethics of forgetting needs to be developed and built into the development of life-logging technologies" because "rather than seeing forgetting as a weakness or a fallibility ... it is an emancipatory process that will free pervasive computing from burdensome and pernicious disciplinary effects." (As an aside, it's nice to see people outside the disciplines that produce social and cultural theory work so well with it.)

Disappointing, but not surprising, the sociologists seemed particularly taken by analyses of social capital, or rather the relationships between information and social capital, and most people using social science frameworks were drawing from social psychology and 'natural' or biological models. On the other hand, Ken Anderson works with the "shift from social to sociality" - he cites Maffesoli, a sociologist I have long argued has important contributions to make to discussions of collective behaviour. (As far as that goes, so does Canetti on crowds and power.) And Warren Sack argues that "Chantal Mouffe’s theoretical foundations provide a more realistic departure point than the Habermasian ideals assumed by most technologists working in this area." Cool.

The anthropologist on hand - Microsoft's Anne Kirah - focussed on "people not technology" and on "everyday people's everyday lives". If Kirah is any indication, then anthropology at Microsoft is heavily invested in marketing (she uses words like "penetration" - and not in a good way). Plus, she talks about technologically "advanced" and "primitive" cultures and uses examples of cultural differences for humourous effect - and both are a bit dégoûtant in my books. But Genevieve Bell's presentation isn't online, and I imagine she would have taken a different approach.

(When I finally have the means to pursue in-depth field studies of research & design cultures, I can't wait to do conference and workshop ethnographies!)

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