[iDC] The "electricity" of near future participation

trebor at thing.net trebor at thing.net
Wed Oct 11 08:58:40 EDT 2006

If you think of the cheerleaders of technological progress (yes, corporate labs
and the military)--  I think few people would disagree that these are the
driving forces. Sure, then there are also artists, architects, and hobbyists.
The magic, to pick up on that a little bit, is hidden behind the glitzy
surfaces of our devices. It looks like wizardry to many of us because we don't
understand how it works, we don't know the code that makes things function, we
can't screw with the hardware behind the scenes.

It's cool that there are so many sociable web applications bubbling up online,
surely not all designed by people who have advanced science degrees, but such
more participatory design behavior can hardly be claimed for the hardware area
where complexity calls for experts. When was the last time you witnessed a
public debate about technological standard (?)-- short of seeing some
scientifically ill-informed congress man pushing his agenda on C-span? It's
high time to support DIY movements (community mapping efforts in the UK are a
good example but also _hm_  O'Reilly's Make Magazine: "If you can't open it,
you don't own it").

I mainly think that magic stinks not because of how it mystifies the workings of
the technology around us but mostly because it messes with our minds when
thinking about the future. IBM, Samsung, Microsoft and other folks who are in
the foresight business-- they project a glorious, omnipotent future technology.
This, in turn, keeps our brains set on what is to come; it makes us more willing
to attach an aura of possibility to the flimsy pieces of silicon and metal in
front of us.

>There is the illusion of control at the consumer end, but I think that illusion
>is akin to the illusion of
>the junkie being in control of the heroin fix he uses...

Howard Rheingold was part of a Pew Institute survey recently. There, computer
professionals were asked if addiction to computers would be a big deal in the
future. "I like reading books. Does that make me a reading addict?" his
response was quoted. I would not sign on to that rhetorical question because I
do think that it is different to be immersed in a world of interaction than in
a book. Networked screens lead to an addiction to interaction: we sit and wait
for a trigger, an excuse to respond. The inbox causes a near Pavlovian reflex.
Having read Putnam and observing the television habits of a majority of U.S.
Americans, I'd also be rather pessimistic but still hold that there are and
will be people who have a strong will to self-govern their lives-- to think of
their lives in terms of possibilities.

In the emerging world of the geo-spatial web these tendencies will most likely
be even more amplified. We will find ourselves in the midst of a sea of
*trivial* every day choices as Schwartz would put it. This excess of choice
contributes to the massively increased level of depression and anxiety in North
America over the past decades already.

>When there is an end of war, then we may find that all our competitive memory
>enhancing labor saving devices
>are redundant -- we can sit
>with other humans who in our immediate vicinity and live lives of connection
>and generosity rather than alienation & greed..

This is too romantic for my taste, John. I think here we just differ. Technology
can help us to live lives of connection and it does not even matter if we
believe that-- unless you want to blow up the Internet. The question for me is
rather how to help shape the developmental process. There, the participatory
Danish model may well be useful. Similar approaches were also tested in Texas
in the 1990s. Nye argues for such deliberative polling combined with the sorts
of controls used to evaluate new drugs. I brought up issues like the working
poor not in the naive belief that technology can autonomously fix society
(don't ask for bread in the Mac store) but rather because in our market-driven
information society, technological development does not aim for the improvement
of human dignity and well-being. It rather strives for, tada... profit. Goals
are not healthcare-for-all or a global distribution of knowledge but
optimization, speed, and market share.

>Emancipation?  we have not yet managed to do this with human-to-human
>connections, why should the projection
>of that concept onto material objects be somehow less fraught with the
problematic nature of the creators of
>such systems?

Surely many designers happily live their techno-tunnel vision and that is
reflected in social inaptness of designs, wastefulness, redundancy, and
nonsense indeed. Friends, don't let friends buy stupid networked objects. It's
obvious that the world in the brain of a  programmer shapes database tables
features of the machine but how can this be changed?

Micro-political interventions are a short-term response, however little they can
achieve: they do re-arrange (urban) sociality. If we look at the long-term,
well, not so bright a future, unless you are willing to push over the societal
cart altogether. Feenberg has fabulous ideas about all this but they kinda
depend on a different type of society. If we get impatient waiting for that,
concrete proposals will be more likely to get alliances than vague future
predictions. This brief response is empty of such specificities. Hardin
suggests that it is easier to shake people out of their inertia by giving them
something specific to work against rather than something warm, fuzzy and vague
to aspire to. If we leave enough room for play, and play in research and all
that "magic," however you define it, then researchers may not feel that their
work gets suffocated by over-determined theory (like it was done painfully in
the past). If we don't take the wind out of their creative sails, well, then we
can maybe more successively reclaim some criticality in thinking about the
future and all its geo-spatial networked craziness.

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