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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Sunday, December 20, 2009

technological extravention

technology can solve any problem. or at least, that’s what plenty of folks seem to believe. lots of work (I’m thinking here largely about research on computational technology, but this line of thinking can also be applied more broadly) describes a problem and then presents some sort of technological intervention intended to solve the problem. every so often, I’ll see a paper describing how, in the process of attempting to solve one problem, the technological intervention actually led to more problems than it solved, and once in a rare while someone will argue that perhaps the best approach would be not to introduce the technology in the first place, but such critical reflection is, in my experience unfortunately rare. I’ve ranted about related notions in the past, particularly with respect to the ways in which companies and NPOs foist technology in places where it might not be wanted or needed, but never with a specific alternative course of action.

I want to suggest such an alternative approach here. rather than studying the impacts of a technological intervention, what if we to conduct a technological extravention? that is, how might our understand technology use, particular the ways in which that technology is interwoven among larger social and cultural constructs, by removing the technology? being a bit of an etymological enthusiast, I’ll admit that the etymology here is a bit off; something like “technological extraction” or perhaps even “technological extradition” might be a bit more accurate, but I think the neologism I’ve used helps emphasize the nature of the critique.

envision conducting a study of preventing a group of people from, for example, using text messaging, or sending email, or reading blogs, or tweeting (I suspect there might be a difference between forcibly preventing people from using some technology and people willfully avoiding its use, but I’d hesitate to speculate what the exact differences might be without further consideration of the specific technology and specific individuals involved). how would people adapt to such situations? how would the renegotiate their various social interactions that are currently mediated via these technologies? at the conclusion of the study, how might people’s long-term patterns of use change? obviously, there would be plenty of logistical challenges to overcome (how would you find people willing to participate in this sort of a study? how would you ensure that participants were complying with your requested non-use? what if the study disrupted the conduct of their work, connection with their families, or some other basic aspect of their lives?), but I suspect the results could be highly informative and worth the difficulties. while an admittedly small step in the direction I’ve suggested, such a study might be a concrete way of suggesting that, in some cases concerning technology, perhaps less is better.

(thanks to various members of the Social Code Group, conversations with whom started my thinking along these lines)

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