Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Still searching for the social in mobility

In thinking about differences between Nokia and Motorola, and mobile tech industries in general, I browsed Matt Jones' and Timo Arnall's del.icio.us links, and a few things keep circling around my brain.

In a podcast of an interview with Anssi Vanjoki of Nokia on social computing, I got a slightly vague, but definitely people-centred, picture of mobile computing. Like Matt, I find their position to be generally encouraging, but I harbour some serious reservations about how industry seems to be incorporating ideas and pratices from academic and other cultural contexts.

Now, it strikes me that Nokia has been proclaiming this 'social turn' as the next big thing since at least 2000, and I'm not entirely sure where it's got them - or us. Should we really assume that all people everywhere want to collect digitial ephemera and log their lives as they go by? I don't mean to accuse or pressure the fine folks and friends who work for them, but what other kinds of mobile sociability can I look forward to? Are open APIs - or other solutions that assume technology is a mere platform or stage for social interaction - really the best we can do?

After 2001, when Motorola released Sadie Plant's report On The Mobile (pdf), I bet few if any people in the mobile industry kept up on, say, the resulting Nettime critiques, which exhibited their own biases and unsupported assumptions but nonetheless raised crucial questions about how to understand mobility and social interaction.

So, when Nokia says they support social or more "humanised" computing, what are they really talking about? What kinds of sociability? What kinds of humanity? And how can we tell the difference between marketing hype and the complex actualities of production and consumption?

Social computing doesn't begin in the hands of users. It emerges in discussions and decisions made in corporate boardrooms, government offices, design specifications, marketing strategies, etc.. Contrary to popular opinion, we're not dealing with discrete pieces here. Unless everyone acknowledges and becomes accountable for their roles in making and re-making technologies, no amount of openness or hackability or respect for users will lead to "social" computing.

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