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Friday, August 28, 2009

Understanding Technology

Many people talk about "technology" as if this word needed no definition or explanation. They imagine there is a clear boundary between "technology" and other stuff, and they perhaps also imagine that all technology-literate people have a common view as to where this boundary sits.

For example, I have recently been following a debate between Andrew McAfee (originator of the term "Enterprise 2.0") and several other bloggers, including Tom Graves and Oscar Berg. They complain that McAfee's definition of the term focuses on the software devices rather than on the emerging working practices (possibly supported by these software devices).

Both McAfee and his critics appear to use the word "technology" to refer to the software devices independently of their use. McAfee refers to something he wrote a couple of years back entitled It’s Not Not About the Technology, in which he criticizes two different versions of the statement "It's not about the technology". He argues that it is dangerous to ignore the details of a given piece of technology, and I presume he is referring to the software device. Berg complains that McAfee's definition is technology-centric, and McAfee's response is that his definition refers to people AND technology, from which I infer that he accepts a notion of "technology" that doesn't include people-using-technology.

This is an extremely common view of technology, but it is also highly problematic, as social critics of technology have long argued. Lewis Mumford preferred to talk about Technics, and Albert Borgmann has produced an extremely well-argued analysis of what he calls the Device Paradigm.

In my own work on technology adoption, I have always placed equal emphasis on assimilation (tuning the devices to fit the organization) and accommodation (tuning the organization to fit the devices). (The concepts of assimilation and accommodation come from Piaget via Leonard-Barton.) I don't find it helpful to think of software existing in some purely abstract shrink-wrapped world independently of being used, and I draw a more nuanced notion of technology and its development from sociologists such as Latour and Bijker.

In his latest post A comment to McAfee's "A Defining Moment", Oscar cites some statistics on social media and asks "How much would you attribute to technology for this development, and how much to human attitudes and behavior?"

But this question only makes sense on the assumption that we can cleanly separate "technology" from "human attitudes and behaviour", and I challenge this assumption. Graham Hill quotes an extreme example of how technology is inextricably intertwined with human attitudes and behaviour. "The mobile phone is the most personal of devices. It's like entering the customers bedroom. So brands need to be very sexy!" In other words, the mobile phone is not just a "piece of technology", it is a socially constructed artefact, what Latour calls a "black box".

By the way, I don't agree with everything written by Bijker, Borgmann, Latour and Mumford, and I don't expect you to either. But I wish more people had read them, and I wish more people were prepared to think a bit more deeply about the nature of technology.

Here's another example. In New Swimming World Records: Technology or Training?, Carlos Gershenson classified fancy swimsuits as "technology" but better techniques and understanding of fluid dynamics as "training", points out that different policies (regulations) apply to the two categories, and (rightly) asks where to draw the boundary?

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