Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Challenging mobile technologies

Seven Challenges to our Shared Mobile Future by Marko Ahtisaari

More questions than answers, and a couple of good ones at that.

1. Reach

Following The Economist - assuming that mobile phones lead to economic growth and that economic growth is crucial to increasing quality of life - he asks "How can we viably scale down the cost of appliances, use and infrastructures to increase reach?". I'll give credit for his questioning access "as an end in itself," but I'm not convinced that access leads to improved quality of life. Plus, it's not clear what he considers to be "viable" means of getting more technology to more people, as this conflating of quantity and quality is tricky business.

2. Sometimes Off vs. Always On

I too am inspired by Sufi qawwali, but less so by Derrick de Kerckhove's brand of cognitive McLuhanism and the notion that "it is the world itself that has become always on." Nonetheless, I'm a big proponent of being able to make myself less available, less on, less connected. The key, it seems to me, is having real choice in everyday life - and I don't think that tech design alone can ever give me that.

3. Hackability

Yes, yes, I support notions of hackability, adaptability, etc., but am I the only one who has begun to hear a certain hollowness in these words?

4. Social Primitives

I don't need convincing that mobile technology is by-and-large about sociability, but I'm wary of basing decisions or actions on "big human fundamentals" or "primitives" such as gift-giving or sharing. Such practices are so highly contextual that I hate thinking about a universal or systems theory approach to them. And don't even get me started on the commodification of sentiment advanced by Hallmark and others.

5. Openness

I admire his ability to move beyond claims of openness as goodness, and ask more pragmatic questions like "Where is the architecture open and where is it closed? How and when do we transition between open and closed architectures?"

6. Simplicity

I'm quite taken by his parenthetical reference to hiding "irrelevant" complexity. In black-boxing, who gets to decide what makes a certain kind of complexity relevant or irrelevant? How does this impact hackability or adaptability if we can't - or don't want to - determine the ultimate use (value) of any given technological artefact?

7. Justice

This final challenge is positioned as a normative issue, but just as in Clay Shirky's work, the matter of how these very questions normalise certain relationships gets glossed over. Still, I like his hard questions: "What arrangements of inequality are preferable over others from the point of view of justice? How do we justify to each other the rules, architectures and tools we adopt in a world of freely forming networks?" Nonetheless, let's not forget that the question of justice itself is a hard one and it only begins with "for whom, where and when?"

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