September 22, 2004

10 principles of technology

Howard Rheingold recently posted some responses to Neil Postman's 10 Principles of Technology. I've been thinking about them in relation to Urban Tapestries, Social Tapestries and what we've learnt over the past 18 months of the project.

1. All technological change is a Faustian bargain. For every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage.

One can read this several ways in terms of the digital divide, ecological impact of technologies, changes in social praxis and behaviours that disempower older generations but perhaps the emphasis in the principle tends towards thinking in 19th century ideals of progress. If we seek to understand broader social practices and uses of technology, then change ceases to be a revolution replacing one system with another and moves towards being a more complementary process of augmentation. With UT and the concept of public authoring we chose to explore the relationship to place that people construct and then design a technology that assists in revealing the interconnectedness of the relationships.

2. The advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are never distributed evenly among the population. This means that every new technology benefits some and harms others.

I agree with Howard that, in general, "It's a matter of literacy" but history teaches us that literacy does not just come about without people having to strive for infrastructures to support it. With Social Tapestries one of the key aims is to design sustainable and transferable practices that do not require specific technologies, but build upon people's own capabilities.

3. Embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea, sometimes two or three powerful ideas. Like language itself, a technology predisposes us to favor and value certain perspectives and accomplishments and to subordinate others.

Yet language is constantly changing to suit the needs of people to express their situations... perspectives change with the ebb and flow of beliefs, ideologies, aspirations. I'm in favour of seeing technology in a similar light to language... it explains why there are so many lovers of 'dead' technologies, just as there are lovers of 'dead' languages. What UT and similar projects do is create a language for representing relationships to place and space, forming their own idioms and syntax. Being iterative and experimental they twist and turn, endlessly seeking to evade fixed definitions in favour of deliberate ambiguity, where each user can reconstruct their paths of meaning to suit themselves.

4. A new technology usually makes war against an old technology. It competes with it for time, attention, money, prestige and a "worldview".

Such a Darwinian concept of technology would better be served by Adam Smith's concepts of the market. Whilst it might reflect the internal pressures of the hi-tech industry I suspect that it can be challenged at the level of individual users if not more widely. People adopt technologies for many and varied reasons, primarily subject to the needs and desires of their own lives, the least of which is decided in a gladiatorial arena of warring technologies.

5. Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. A new technology does not merely add something; it changes everything.

I do not believe that technology is a driver of change but a symptom. People are the drivers of change and we (generally) get with the technologies we can best imagine using and adopting. Sometimes we surprise ourselves, but usually I think that technologies are playing catch-up with our imaginations.

6. Because of the symbolic forms in which information is encoded, different technologies have different intellectual and emotional biases.

And different cultures adopt and develop different technologies to suit their cultural inheritance.

7. Because of the accessibility and speed in which information is encoded, different technologies have different political biases.

The network effect of the internet is still only just seeping into our daily lives, pre-conditioned (as most of us older than 15 years old) are to 19th and 20th century forms of centre-to-the-margins, or broadcast, mass media. Since political ideologies have blurred to the point of relative indistinction, the bias is perhaps more an economic one. The recent struggles with peer to peer technologies and digital rights management point to the real issue being property law and what could be described as an intellectual property landgrab by those with the capital to squeeze out new entrants. Yet on the other side we see an increasing acceptance that the idea that knowledge is developed more richly in the open, shared and built upon by the many, different people adding their own unique perspectives and difference. UT is designed to support such a concept of social knowledge

8. Because of their physical form, different technologies have different sensory biases.

In the West it is clear that digital technologies have primarily served a visual sensory bias, with audio as a secondary labeit important part. Whilst much research is conducted into haptics, wearables, olfactory and other sensory interfaces, they have yet to make a serious in road into our daily lives. UT was originally developed out of our Sonic Geographies project in which we tried to imagine what sound maps of a city might be and how an deeper appreciation of the sonic environment could affect how we occupy and navigate the city. Even building in the audio location annotation functionality into UT we observed that it was hardly used in the trials perhaps it is just a step too far for the moment and needs time to become as common as writing a note.

9. Because of the conditions in which we attend them, different technologies have different social biases.

It is not only the "conditions in which we attend them", but the social and cultural structures that affect the ways in which different technologies form part of everyday life. It would be perhaps more accurate to place the subjectivity back onto the users rather than the technology.

10. Because of their technical and economic structure, different technologies have different content biases.

Technology could be described as a set of reproducible processes sometimes locked into physical forms. Some will be limited in terms of the kinds of content they can work with, others not. Just as a screwdriver is limited in its application to writing, and a pen to hammering nails, the issue here is perhaps accepting (and celebrating) that we need different technologies for different purposes. UT is designed to augment what people have to say about their relationships to places, things and other people, not to replace that existing communication.

On Thursday I am running a Creative Lab at the LSE on the theme of public authoring and civil society I'm hoping there'll be some outcomes that build upon these reflections from there.

Posted by Giles Lane at September 22, 2004 01:17 AM