Thursday, September 13, 2007

Activating new technologies

NY Times: Who Needs Hackers?

"Most of the problems we have day to day have nothing to do with malice. Things break. Complex systems break in complex ways."

"The threat is complexity itself."

"It is complexity of design and process that got us (and Murphy’s Law!). Complexity in the sense that we, the ‘software industry,’ are still naïve and forge into large systems such as this with too little computer, budget, schedule and definition of the software code."

“If you design the thing right in the first place, you can make it reliable, secure, fault tolerant and human safe. The technology is there to do this right if anybody wanted to take the effort.”

“We throw this together, shrink wrap it and throw it out there. There’s no incentive to do it right, and that’s pitiful.”

From a sociological point of view, this article is interesting because it gets at some of the tensions that shape technological innovation. In particular, there is the tendency for (software) designers to refer to some sort of autonomous (hardware) technology that exists before them, and without them, and yet requires activation by them - a phenomenon I witnessed in my dissertation research as well.

Most of the mobile media researchers and designers I spoke with described their work as possible only because particular wireless technologies, or technological capacities, already existed. At the same time, they described the value of their work in terms of finding socially compelling uses for these technologies.

While it's tempting to infer that these pre-existing technologies were considered neutral in-and-of themselves, and given meaningful qualities through use alone, all of the researchers and designers mentioned the limitations of existing technological protocols. In other words, these mobile technologies were treated more like materials for research and design, each associated with some kinds of malleability and not others.

But these attitudes still suggest that wireless technologies were considered inevitable in the sense that someone was going to create them and push them out into the world. Interestingly, no one I spoke with considered herself or himself to be that someone. Nonetheless, almost everyone described their work as something they felt compelled to do so that these technologies were rolled out in the best (according to them) ways possible.

I think there is something simultaneously technodeterministic and utopian about all this. I see it in popular discourse on ubiquitous computing in general; you know, the position that goes something like "Ubicomp is present, but it's not very good. Ubicomp is the future, but only if we design it better." In either case, the technology itself is considered inevitable, but there is still hope because it is design-able, and therefore somewhat controllable.

Now, before you think that researchers and designers suffer some sort of god-complex, everyone I spoke with also simultaneously subscribed to some variation on William Gibson's famous claim that "the street finds its own uses for things." In other words, no one was willing to suggest that they could ever totally plan, or account for, how people would actually use the stuff they make. And although it would be easy to describe this as either genuine humility or false modesty, I'm more inclined to believe that this is all part of the bigger - and often contradictory - mess of technological and social agency at play.

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