Saturday, September 16, 2006

Variations in technological critique

Ulises Mejias has a solid socialist mind when it comes to things technological, whether it be his take on Social Media and the Networked Public Sphere, Social Media and Ultimate Consumerism or A Different Kind of Net Neutrality. If you're not familiar with his blog ideant, I suggest checking out how he mashes up old-school social scientists, French poststructuralists, and revolutionary educators. I mean, it's not very often that you get C. Wright Mills, Deleuze and Guattari, Paulo Freire, Foucault, Edmund Leach and Ivan Illich rallied for the same cause!

Anyway, Ulises recently posted some thoughts on 'the internet of things':

"Hurray! The freedom to move around while being invisibly tethered to the market, digitizing things or information about things outside the market and putting them in circulation within it . . . What I find most troubling is that the discourse of the 'internet of things' suggests a certain inevitability: the true potential of the internet of things can only be achieved to the extent that it encompasses everything (it is not accidental that the internet of things is an extension of the discourse of ubiquitous or pervasive computing). Shouldn't we question this inevitability? After all, the act of 'outsourcing' (to use Trebor's term) our memory and social functions to internet things is not without political and social consequences: The mobility of us cyber nomads —our ability to detach and re-attach ourselves to reality at will— is usually acquired thanks to the drudgery and exploitation endured by someone else (the call center worker in India, the Cassiterite miner in Congo, the factory worker in Mexico or Taiwan, etc.)."

I've written before on my concerns about technological inevitability, and I share Ulises' skepticism of the current 'production is the new consumption' promise, albeit in less structuralist terms. I also try to teach students to understand their personal technological devices at global scales: Project Censored recently reported on high-tech genocide in Congo, for example.

But mostly this makes me think about everyday life, and if the current state of pervasive computing is actually RFID (via) then it seems to me that the fundamental social and cultural practices at hand are collecting, sorting, storing and circulating--and the accompanying political and ethical issues revolve around a sense of belonging (and not belonging). Extend these matters of inclusion and exclusion to the practices of people working to bring us new technologies and you have the particular interests, and tastes, of consultants, fiction and non-fiction writers, corporate researchers and designers, technologists, academics, artists, activists, marketers, consumers and more--both converging and colliding.

But before we go on making sweeping generalisations (both positive and negative) about emerging technologies, it seems to me that we really need to better understand the practices of actual people and projects. (Without drawing a hard line between the two, ANT may be known for its theoretical perspectives, but I think its greatest contribution has been methodological.) So let's start identifying relevant players and trying to understand their games--because who and what don't get to play are just as important as who and what do. When it comes to socially ethical research and design, we don't need to judge best and worst, but we shouldn't be afraid to judge better and worse. And we also need not fall prey to a desire to convince others of our 'rightness'--ultimately, we can agree to disagree.

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