History and Technological Change
Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing
Two major points today:
Technology isn't technique. Nor is it machinery.
Technology is culture.
It is an orientation toward meaning-making in the world as much as it is about problem solving.
Beyond basic animal issues like getting food and not freezing, all 'problems' are culturally situated. And so are their solutions.
Getting at the actual dynamics of how this plays out in the real world is what a century of technology theory has attempted to do.
Let's go back to Xerox Parc.
Xerox PARC - after Personal Computing
A re-orientation away from the design and development of "personal computers" and toward the organization of work and learning.
Led by Xerox Chief Scientist Mark Weiser in the 80s and 90s
Part of this came from the top-level research directors. Mark Weiser led with a vision of "ubiquitous computing" as what he called "calm technology" -- that is, it was integrated into larger systems of life and work, rather than being a thing that demanded attention in itself.
Studying how people actually get good at their jobs, share information, etc.
Part of it also came from PARC's research in "institutional anthropology," a study of how people actually do their jobs. PARC researchers studied workes such as Xerox' own field service reps (the people who fix photocopiers), and looked at how they managed and shared technical information.
... or distributed cognition
a response to the old, AI-influenced model of the individual mind as "information processor"
Much of this was influenced by a contemporary movement in education and psychology: situated cognition, or distributed cognition. The old model of cognition, enormously influenced by behaviourism and Artificial Intelligence research in the 50s and 60s, looked at the individual mind as an information processing device.
In the 1980s, researchers began to be dissatisfied by Cognitive Science in its original approach, and turned to a more distributed, social, situated approach, where cognition, thinking, intelligence and so forth are better seen as
Minds in partnership with:
- other people
- symbol systems, language, and so forth
- tools and artifacts
- history and memory
In digital media, Alan Kay's early-1970s move from the idea of a computer as a tool to computer as media—as an expressive medium—presages this.
At PARC, people like Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown led research into how technologies can be woven into the fabric of daily life.
Ubiquitous Computing Research
- ubiquitous wireless connectivity
- portable, mobile devices
- wearable computing
- interactive surfaces and objects
- "ambient intelligence"
Instead of computers as devices unto themselves, Weiser measured computation "by the inch, foot, and yard" - as Dourish & Bell have it.
What is the Role of Design in Technological Change
Stepping back a bit, it's instructive to think about the role of vision and design in how technological change plays out.
The researchers at PARC didn't say "computers are too big! we need tablet computers," in the same way that Pentagon researchers weren't really in a position to say "Our computer networks are too vulnerable to a nuclear attack! We need the Internet"
Bell & Dourish (06) point out that PARC is pretty special in deliberately developing for a far distant future (10 years out) -- most R&D is much shorter in scope.
"The best way to predict the future is to invent it."
- Alan Kay
And this became an unofficial motto for PARC.
What they were able to do, however, was to design and develop prototypes as the embodiment of their ideas. What happens to those prototypes afterward is much more complex.
"The street has its own uses for things."
– William Gibson.
And yet—what happened to Kay's vision? It was transferred and translated into other things. It was subsumed within Apple's vision, buffeted by the constraints of the early PC market; submerged and then re-surfaced within software engineering (C++, Java). None of it turned out the way he planned.
Similarly with Ubicomp.
It has ever been thus. A look at technology theory is instructive.
Theories of Technology
from Andrew Feenberg's Questioning Technology (1999)
Technical design is not determined by a general criterion such as efficiency, but by a social process which differentiates technical alternatives according to a variety of case-specific criteria;
That social process is not about fulfilling "natural" human needs, but concerns the cultural definition of needs and therefore of the problems to which technology is addressed;
Competing definitions reflect conflicting visions of modern society realized in different technical choices. (Feenberg 1999, p83)
Feenberg suggests the following typology:
Autonomous Human-controlled Neutral
(progress: technology follows its own natural course)
(common sense: technology is merely the solution to a problem)
(romantic: technology imposes its own logic on humanity)
"it could have been otherwise")
Feenberg champions an approach in the "critical theory" quadrant, drawing on the "left dystopian" tradition of the 1960s in France (Marcuse, Foucault, etc.).
"Social Construction of Technology" – 1980s.
Classic example is the bicycle.
The rise of the modern form of the chain-driven bicycle, leaving older design approaches (such as the Penny Farthing) behind. It is easy to think of this as simple evolution at work: a better design, etc.. But in examining the historically situated development of the technology, it becomes apparent that early bicycle designs served lots of different kinds of people; there were competing values at work. Ultimately, the "safety" bicycle design won out, for complex and interrelated reasons.
Who would have thought that fixies would catch on in a city as hilly as Vancouver.
Latour's Critique of Constructivism
What exactly is this "Social" anyway?
The trouble with the Social Constructivist approach is that it relies on an idealized notion of what "the social" is. Bruno Latour has led the best critique of this approach, where he points out that nothing is purely social, nor purely natural, nor purely technical. The real world is composed of "hybrids" -- which is a fancy way of saying that it's a lot more complicated than we like to admit.
The "hybrid" idea also implies that the natural and technical worlds push back on us; that what we end up with is partly social construction, but also partly a kind of agency on the part of the things and systems themselves. Latour's work begins to sketch out a "network" model of techno-culture, where lots of forces add up or are aligned to produce real value or effects.
Latour: The Nonhumans have Agency too!
Result is a Network model of techno-culture.
In historical perspective, this starts to make sense; in the early 20th century, when someone said "technology," we thought of industrial machinery. After the second world war, "technology" began to invoke thoughts of nuclear power and suburban sprawl. Much more recently, "technology" makes us think of the Internet and digital devices; hence a "network" theory of technology seems more apt than it would have a generation or two ago.
But even right now, it is not hard to think of technological examples that demonstrate all of these approaches to technology theory.
Examples of Modern Tech that Demonstrate:
- social constructivism?
- actor networks?