Saturday, June 11, 2005

Society ≠ social

MIT Technology Review decides emerging tech is becoming a social issue:
"In principle, we are interested in the impact of emerging technologies on society - and, in fact, it is impossible to write well about commercial and economic matters without glancing at society - but we seldom emphasize social issues. August will be different. That's all it's about.

There are good reasons why we have traditionally eschewed social subjects. Wired already addresses such issues. Also, there is something about the subject that seems to encourage bad journalism: otherwise good, sober, lucid writers go all Asimov: they posit unlikely, seismic shifts in human behavior on the most slender of evidence, their prose turns breathless and hyberbolic, and, in general, everything goes to hell.

But the biggest reason why Technology Review hasn't written about the social impact of technologies so much is that our subject is emerging technologies - and until recently, emerging technologies were mostly purchased by corporations and governments. The reasons for this are simple enough. Emerging technologies constituted an extraordinary capital investment, one well beyond the means of most people in their private capacities. Nor did most people see the need to experiment with really novel technologies. Personal computers, mobile phones, information networks - they all appeared first in commercial or governmental settings.

But this is changing: the spread of cheap laptops, handheld devices, affordable broadband access, WiFi, and a dozen other consumer technologies have led to a wonderful explosion of new, social technologies. Prominent among them is what we are calling continuous computing. I suspect that Technology Review will be writing about the impact of new technologies on ordinary society much more frequently.

These social technologies have attractions for the writer and journalist. Their effects really are interesting. They are aimed at much more than increasing productivity or promoting efficiency. When a lot of diverse people pursue their idiosyncratic interests, unexpected things happen. Lastly, they are much more fun!"

I can't believe we're still waiting for the social effects of technology! This guy makes it sound like new technologies miraculously emerge without any sort of social interaction or intervention. There are two flaws in this sort of thinking: 1) by focussing on society as the ultimate expression of sociality, we miss all the ways in which we are sociable at micro-scales of the everyday, and 2) by waiting to see what happens with already built technologies (including technological components) we tacitly accept that technological development is currently proceeding as it should.

This increasing interest in what the 'early adopter' (or more problematically, the 'common man') does with technology implies that this is where and when technologies go from being neutral to meaningful. Now I'd be inclined to agree that too many journalists and bloggers "go all Asimov" in the face of social dimensions of tech, but I think one of the best ways to dissuade this is to begin by acknowledging that social interaction with - and through - technology does not begin when devices leave the lab and enter the hands of users 'in the wild'. Technology is never without social interaction.

Over at IFTF's Future Now, where I found this article, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang also takes this as further evidence that technologies are becoming more "democratic" - but in inquiring if there may be downsides to this trend he asks "is there an argument that the Old Days Were Better?"

Is that really what we want to be asking? Just because things are better than they used to be doesn't mean they're great. Where are the critical discussions of quality? And what kind of political agency are we actually talking about?

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