Friday, July 8, 2005

Socio-technical obduracy

Studying Obduracy in the City: Toward a Productive Fusion between Technology Studies and Urban Studies by Anique Hommels

"In contrast to earlier STS studies that focussed on the early stages of technological development, I propose to concentrate on conceptualizations of the process that involve the negotiations and attempts at undoing the sociotechnological status quo in a city, changing the taken-for-grantedness of its reality, and making its obduracy flexible."

In demonstrating how technologies are always already socially constructed, STS studies have too often been confused with the position that technologies are only social constructions. Hommels effectively argues that one way to emphasise the material aspects is to focus on their obduracy or resistance to change. (Imagine what it would *actually* take to replace the infrastructure that currently provides our electricity with something more sustainable.)

The notion of obduracy is inextricably connected to embeddedness - a matter of interest to any kind of computing that seeks to become part of something else, be it an event, a habit, a skirt, a chair, a building, a street, a city. As Hommels reminds us, obduracy (or embeddedness) is a relational concept:

"Because the elements of a network are closely interrelated, the changing of one element requires the adaptation of other elements. The extent to which an artifact has become embedded determines its resistance to efforts aimed at changing it."


Seems pretty straight forward, although I would oppose any notion of determinacy. I guess the important thing is that some technologies do stabilise and endure over time, just as others change or decay and slip away. In any case, Hommels describes three ways of understanding obduracy: 1) as constrained ways of thinking and acting, 2) as the close interconnectedness of social and technical elements, and 3) as the long-term persistence of tradition. Despite their differences, in each case neither structure nor agency is absolute. But if we're going to apply this to technology or cities, the three perspectives should be clarified.

I would say that current discussions of computing are dominated by the first model. Broadly interactionist in approach, Hommels associates it with the SCOT school, technological frames, paradigms and mental models. This kind of thinking can also be seen in the work of Stewart Brand, Christopher Alexander and Kevin Lynch, as well as the ethnomethodological work of Garfinkel and Goffman. I sum it up as "We shape and are shaped by our others" - a kind of discrete feedback loop that appeals to individualistic but structural and functional systems thinking, and seems particularly amenable to programming.

I think the third approach has more in common with the first, and it also appears more often in discussions of computing. Hommels associates it with the Large Technical Systems (LTS) approach in the history of science and technology, which takes a diachronic structural-functional view of society and technology while often focussing on issues of business, governance and regulation. Just think of the history of mass transportation as supersystems and megamachines, or Bill Mitchell's discussions of urban evolution, and if we put it in computer terms it is the kind of thinking behind most current discussions on privacy, surveillance and control.

In my mind, the second approach stands apart and, in certain ways, in direct opposition to the two above. Hommels associates it with Actor-Network Theory and its mutations, where non-discrete relations and mobilities are more interesting than, say, structures or functions. Although not without controversy (speaking of the obduracy of paradigms!) it is nonetheless considered a viable and productive critique of the models above. My work falls in this broad area, and it's increasingly being explored alongside more traditional approaches to understanding technology, although the sometimes incommensurable differences between the two can make this rather awkward.

Hommels concludes by arguing that none of these approaches is entirely well-suited to understanding "efforts aimed at reshaping urban technology" because they all focus on sociotechnological objects rather than sociotechnological change. I don't agree that is necessarily the case in the second approach, but in the end Hommels concedes that the first model demonstrates the importance of obduracy in design and redesign processes, the second stresses obduracy in the heterogeneity and interconnectedness of it all, and the third focusses on the role of tradition and duration in obduracy - all of which should be taken into consideration when understanding people, cities and technology.

I find the paper's focus refreshing simply because it kicks at our dreams of brave new technological worlds - both utopian and dystopian - that too rarely acknowledge what would actually have to be built or rebuilt, as well as who or what would try to stop that from happening.

See also: Ordering and Obduracy (pdf) by John Law

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