Friday, January 13, 2006

You are Here.

The other day I read a paper by the late Rob Kling, with Roberta Lamb, entitled "IT and Organizational Change in Digital Economics". In this, they say:

"In practice, the boundaries between what is social and what is technological blurs because some of the system design encodes assumptions about the social organization..."
In conjunction with some other stuff I've been reading and writing, this has triggered something that's difficult to put into words.

There's a lot of discussion over whether technology shapes society (the technological determinism side) or whether society (and people) influence the way technology develops (the social constructivism side). Some people think one is more at work than the other, some people think it's more complicated than that.

When I was younger, I was probably of the former kind - a technological determinist. I liked technology, it made sense to me. More recently, I think I've been a lot more of the other - I've noticed the flaws in technology, but I've also questioned the idea that technology exists independently. But now I'm not even convinced of that. In fact, I think there's another alternative that defies both of these arguments.

The diagram above is supposed to illustrate the constituent colours of white light. White light, it can be seen, does not exist independently. You do not have "blue light and white light" - you have blue light in white light. White light is nothing but the sum of its constituent colours.

This helps to explain the X, then, in the middle of the diagram. This is where I see "us" - as a whole. A lot of the time, it feels like the discussion between technology and society is an "us versus them" thing - a struggle for power over ourselves. Are we the masters of the slave technology, or do the machines hold us in their grasp?

But the light analogy sees things differently. Instead of setting up a dichotomy, a split, it instead accepts that what "we" are is a necessary combination of both of these things - technology on one hand (including our ability to create and use it), and our "welfare", for want of a better word, on the other (including our emotions, our interactions with each other, and all the non-technical aspects to the human psyche). These two aspects exist in "harmony" with each other to produce "us" - what is, effectively, a part-tool, part-biology hybrid. That is our nature.

Why is this important? Because it gives up this struggle for control mentioned above. It accepts and understands both sides of the coin, realises that you can have the two so long as they're in balance, and helps put either in context of the other.

But the coin has a third side too - the third circle above is also important. To truly grasp who or what we are, we need to remember that there are things that are neither our physical form, nor our tools. This is the "environment" that we inhabit/cohabit, and is much larger than simply the ecological concept of forests and air usually pushed at us. This is, in effect, everything that affects us, and that we can affect, but that is not part of us and is not directly under our control. We need to remember that we are not the centre.

Kling talks of "socio-technical networks" rather than "technological tools". But this extension goes in all ways. We need to think of "techno-societies" rather than societies - and not in a "modern", industrial sense, but in a very inherent, "this-is-what-we-are" kind of way. And we need to extend that to a "techno-socio-ecological system" approach that hangs everything on different sides of the tree.

In short, we need to diffuse the idea we hold of ourselves.

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