Saturday, January 28, 2006

Against disambiguation

In Disambiguating the terminology (a sketch), Mike writes:

'As I see it, the different terms--pervasive computing, ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence and physical computing--come from different historical contexts that are based on geography: PARC coined "ubiquitous computing," so it's big on the West Coast; IBM likes "pervasive," they get the East; Philips was responsible for "ambient intelligence," so that's what it's called in Europe. In reality, it's just a blind men and elephant problem. They're all describing the same idea, but alliances and territoriality create clusters of terminology...The definitions aren't totally separate, but it's an interesting exercise to see the focus of the groups who fly a particular flag. I still think it's all the same elephant and that maybe it needs an even yet different term. There's great value in creating a good term that encapsulates a set of ideas, but it has to accurately capture the essense of an idea as it is perceived by others to take off. Which means it needs to be externally-focused, and not about the process.'

And in the comments:

AG: Why do you think I felt it necessary to create a whole new term for these activities, even at the risk of collapsing valid distinctions?...[I] argue that even things that seem peripheral to the ubicomp argument...will in fact be for most of the people experiencing it the signifiers of the ubiquitous experience.

Mike: If people's associations with it are going to be with the objects, not the ideas, I believe that names for the idea should reflect THEIR perspective.

The elephant analogy doesn't sit well with me if it implies that there is, in fact, a stable thing-in-the-world that constitutes an elephant (and that the men are wrong because they don't know they're describing the same thing). As I understand it, the parable's moral is rather about not clinging too hard to any particular perspective because there are many truths. And I take that to suggest not only that inflexibility is problematic, but that disambiguation is as well - precisely because of "the risk of collapsing valid distinctions" and becoming too invested in getting the 'one ring to rule them all'.

The erasure of difference is never neutral, and this desire to master a subject, to bring it to order and unity, to suggest its discovery and conquest through neologism, is at the heart of what feminist studies of science and technology have long criticised as exclusionary practices rife with power struggles. This belief in necessary wholeness is also associated with a concern for the "effects" of technology, and can reflect the kind of technological determinism present in the "guns don't kill people, people kill people" way of thinking and its ethical implications.

Plus, can any term "accurately capture the essense of an idea as it is perceived by others"? What's the purpose of that anyway? Why not let it be all messy? Leaving aside my opposition to essentialism and the idea that there are discrete things in the world, I was struck by Mike's claims regarding who should decide a new terminology. Anthropologists have spent many years debating the merits of emic (intrinsic cultural distinctions) versus etic (imposed by the anthropologist or outsider) classifications*. After all, what would make one better or worse than the other? And why would we choose to use just one? Furthermore, when Mike suggests that it is others-outside-the-process who should be naming things, he naturalises distinctions between "us" (designers, presumably) and "them" (users, people), as well as between design and use, process and product. Ultimately, this elides internal variation within each category, over-emphasises external variation between categories, and leaves little room for hybridity except in terms of overlap.

* "Emic" and "etic" are themselves neologisms (derived from "phonemic" and "phonetic") coined in the 50s by linguistic anthropologist Kenneth Pike.


Anonymous e-tat said...

Y'know, the respondent is at a disadvantage here, because the author (yourself, in this case) has a clear train of thought leading to and through the post. That's the impetus for blogging, right? So the respondent is left with the equivalent of a reactive, off-the-cuff reply. Therefore, my excuse for the brevity of this comment is that it's just not as well inspired, nor as decisively executed. Plus, Blogger is a bitch to compose with!

I agree with you about the unneccesary collapse of valid distinctions. I also agree about the heightening of distinctions between the laboratory and the world outside. But I find myself stuck, hung up, with this notion of hybridity. More to the point, I think hybridity is jut another example of the thing we're both being critical of: the collapse and/or heightening of distinctions for political purposes within the laboratory/academy, and 'between' the laboratory/rest of the world.

Put another way, what is hybridity? What conceptual function does it serve? Is the intent to erase and create difference?

Under what circumstances is hybridity a) the order of things, and b) necessary?

I cannot think of any examples.

Aside from that, the OUP blurb about Latour's latest book seems to address some of the issues you raise:

"When the adjective is applied to a phenomenon, it is used to indicate a stablilized state of affairs, a bundle of ties that in due course may be used to account for another phenomenon. But Latour also finds the word used as if it described a type of material, in a comparable way to an adjective such as 'wooden' or 'steely'. Rather than simply indicating what is already assembled together, it is now used in a way that makes assumptions about the nature of what is assembled. It has become a word that designates two distinct things: a process of assembling; and a type of material, distinct from others."

Blogger adamgreenfield said...

I'll leave whether or not there is a definite thing-in-the-world hiding behind the word-idea "ubicomp" as a question for philosophers to resolve.

At some point, though, we have to come to terms with the collection of associated ideas, roles and technologies bought and sold under that name. What is it, in other words, that people think they're getting when they buy a house with instrumented floors, apply for a credit card with a built-in RFID chip, or otherwise transact with ubiquitous information technologies? (For that matter, what is it that people think they're getting when they buy a book on the topic?)

So I'd argue (and have actued on the idea that) discussions of the broader set of ideas with nonspecialists does require some word to hang everything on. In my experience, people don't have much patience for discussions about the implications of ubiquitous or pervasive services that aren't about something concretized. ("Is an Octopus card everyware? How about the EZPass tag on my dashboard? Or my new Adidas sneakers?")

Definitions are invidious, sure, but I don't see any way around them if you want to be able to talk to people about their experiences. People chunk ideas and then hang names on them.

Blogger Anne said...

e-tat: i'm still thinking about the hybridity're right to point out that it is a peculiar object itself ;) and latour has long argued that the product of inscription always hides the processes that created it...

adam: i suspect that people think they're getting *all sorts of things* in your examples, not any one particular thing regardless of what it gets called. and who said anything about getting rid of definitions? my point was that definitions *do* things, and that if we mean to actually communicate with people who have different vocabularies, we would do well to not dismiss or ignore that it is, in part, our definitions that "concretise" these things and their relations.

Blogger Glen Fuller said...

i'd thought i'd better write something considering my blog has 'disambiguation' in the title. lol! which is really just a cheap proviso for saying something totally unrelated to why I have disambiguation in my blog title. ha!


Firstly, the debate around terms is happening between 'technological' elites and may filter across different thresholds in only very specific circumstances, as adam puts it, "to be able to talk to people about their experiences." well, unless they work as a super-geek or academic they are not going to have these terms in their vocab. often, i have found in my car stuff, if you talk with people about technology they discuss what it allows them to do if they do not know the 'correct' terminology. this may just be in car stuff.

Second thing. I wouldn't discount the affective angle in this. Relating to this line:

"but alliances and territoriality create clusters of terminology."

The terms are on the discursive end of technological assemblages. As assemblages the definitions do not signal a discursive reality so much as an affective plane that is modulated through discourse and connects people, technology and ideas. The use of _clustering_ reminds me of Colman and McCrea's brief essay on the "digital maypole":

In this instance the 'maypole' is literally a _term_ (or constellation of terms). The use of a different term (or constellation) for what (may be) the same 'thing' indicates a different fold (or 'pinch') in the single assemblage.

Blogger Glen Fuller said...

oh, you have replied and said similar things during my reply formulation! digital maypole! we just swung under each other!

Blogger Anne said...

glen - yes, and i also thought of folds...

Anonymous Francois Lachance said...

e-tat's quotation from the Oxford University Press blurb to Latour's book and its illustration of the modifying role of adjectives brings to mind Tzvetan Todorov's passage in _Theories du Symbole_ about distinctions made by Condillac: "Mais si l'art de penser attire l'attention sur la 'comparaison' du sujet et de l'attribut, l'art d'ecrire, lui, nous apprend avant tout de nuancer la 'modification'".

The passage offers an interesting analogy applicable the use of terms such as "ubiquitous computing". Is the discursive intent accompanying the deployment of such terms to compare states of possibility and actuality? Or is to intervene at one remove closer than comparaison offers? i.e. how much at play is a urge to modify?

Participant-observer as a way of characterizing the researcher perhaps misses the value in observer-participants (where the sites of observation and the sites of participation do not necessarily coincide in time and space). Just another way to ask the for whom question: ubiquitous for whom?

Researcher as compartivist...
Researcher as intervenor-modifier...

Blogger Mike Kuniavsky said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I think that language is a tool, and a fluid one at that. I agree that it's wrong to assume that once something is named, it's conceptually whole and can then be used as a weapon to repress opinion. However, names are very useful as temporary packages for referring to a set of concepts. Without a doubt, definition is constraint, and sometimes constraint is good, and other times it's overly reductive. However, I believe that controlled vocabularies (to use the information architecture term) are useful. They allow for a baseline for discussion. Ultimately, language is insufficient to capture the subtlety of experiences, events and thoughts, but I don't believe that the practice of gardening language is sinister in itself, or should be avoided. It's a valuable exercise to understand where the boundaries of the definitions lie in order to understand the boundaries of the phenomena they're trying to describe.

Emergent phenomena are not solid elephants, and their shape changes as people discover them, but I believe that through definition, redefinition and refinement we can understand the core of what makes this phenomenon different from others, to talk about it and attempt to guide it. Ultimately, active creation is the reason for definition. It allows for the direction of innovation in light of limited resources, and it is in this context that I am trying to approach disambiguation. It's also why I favor external definition, because I believe that in order to create things for people, you need to do it on their terms. Literally.

Also, here's the original poem (or a sufficiently early source, anyway) of the elephant parable, which is about religion.


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