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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Wednesday, January 02, 2008


I recently came across a quote from Ursula Franklin (via Kevin from Question Technology) about a donation of computers for an educational institution. to her colleague who had just negotiated the donation, she asks, "Think about the analogy between your computer gift and the gift of free Bibles" (the link above has a more extended quote). bibles were once used to teach people to read, but obviously more was learned than just how to read. Franklin calls for greater, more reflective awareness of, and explicit dealing with, "the social assumptions that are embedded in every design." Kevin connects this to the $100 laptop project, and an important connection it is. I however, am left thinking of other connections.

Ong's Orality and Literacy examines the cognitive, social, and cultural impacts of the technology of writing. oral cultures have certain aspects to their communication: anything that needs to be remembered must be said in a memorable way, otherwise it will be forgotten due to the ephemeral nature of speech; speech is heard and sometimes felt, internalizing it, while written words are seen, making them external and objective; speech requires narratives to be of a very formulaic character, so as to be memorable by the bard and comprehensible by the audience, while writing allows for more complex narrative structure because the reader can refer to what was said in the last paragraph. these are just a few of the interesting implications of the adoption of the technology of writing. Ong goes on to discuss the "second orality," communication media that resemble speech but also have characteristics of writing. while he had in mind media like TV and radio, much of what he said applies to email, IM, txt, etc. what unintended results will come from use of digital media?

I'm also reading Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, so I can't help but make a connection there, as well. Weber's thesis is that the protestant ethic (a moral calling to hard labor, the accumulation of wealth for its own sake, that an individual "exists for the sake of his business, instead of the reverse") results largely from the doctrines of several protestant sects, particularly Calvinism. I'm only part way through, so I can't yet sum up his whole argument, but this is another interesting example of unintended outcomes. Weber goes so far as to say that the worldly spirit of capitalism is in some cases in opposition to the beliefs of those from whose teachings that spirit derives.

in these cases, it's possible to conjecture about potential consequences and implicit values, but one cannot always make entirely accurate predictions or account for every possibility. I don't think this means that we should throw up our hands and abandon hope of responsible use of technology. however, it does leave me somewhat unsatisfied. must we just be reflective about the values we are incorporating into our designs? while awareness about factors such as gender bias are certainly important, I doubt that introspection is not enough. can we be explicit about the values in our designs? I'm not sure that explication will help, either. how does one say to the average consumer something like "this device incorporates the semiotic notion that a sign can stand in for the thing being signified" without having their eyes glaze over?

what's a socially conscious (technology) designer to do? I suspect that part of the answer is certainly a raised awareness on the part of designers. however, I think an important, but often overlooked, factor is raising awareness on the part of the consumer/user/prosumer(/wrangler ::shudder::). I would love to see technology that not only causes the user to consider the values explicitly or implicitly incorporated into the device, but furthermore causes that same user to consider the technology itself, to question it, to ask, what does this technology do? what does this technology do to me? how do I use the technology? how am I intended to use the technology? how do I actually use the technology? what does this tell me about the designer? what does this tell me about the marketing/manufacturing of this technology? what does this tell me about me? obviously, in order to make such technology requires socially responsible designers. however, technology has far more capacity for impact in the hands of socially aware, critically reflective users of the technology. the very use of a technology should cause the user to question her or his use of that technology. I want to see technology like that. I want to make technology like that.

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  • I have 2 copies of Ursula Frankin's "The Real World of Technology" - it was a book I had read in 1993 or so that initially got me thinking about the philosophy of technology. Lemme know if you want to borrow it.

    By Anonymous Garnet, at Friday, February 01, 2008 1:35:00 PM  

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