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August, 2009

Socialness and the Inevitability of Technology

Exploring the social use of digital technology and its impact on society, compared to the tool itself.

Commenting on a Pitchfork article titled The Social History of the MP3 (which I know have as an open tab to read), Dan Visel had this to say over at if:book (via Snarkmarket):

I don't know that there's a direct analogue to the way the publishing industry is attempting to transform itself in the face of the digital, but Harvey gets it right by noting how the social use of digital media is more transformative than the move to the digital itself. Simply generating electronic versions of existing print books won't be enough: forward-thinking publishers need to think about how reading changes when it becomes networked.

This is a very interesting point. I, like most people I think, have been focused on the tool itself, the digitalness of digital and what that means for its use and societies growth as a result. The suggestion that the social use of digital technology is an innovation inline with the technology itself is a pretty interesting theory. Theoretically one could not exist without the other, but maybe it could. What if the technology is merely a means to better collaboration, a blip along the path of humans working together rather than one on the path of technology innovation.

Kevin Kelly has been invading my head lately, especially with his Technium posts Progression of the Inevitable and Expansion of Free Will (give yourself an hour to get through those two). In the former, Kelly writes:

"Inventions are culturally determined. Such a statement must not be given a mystical connotation. It does not mean, for instance, that it was predetermined from the beginning of time that type printing would be discovered in Germany about 1450, or the telephone in the United States in 1876," warns Kroeber. It means only that when all the required conditions generated by previous technologies are in place, the next technology can precipitate. "Discoveries become virtually inevitable when prerequisite kinds of knowledge and tools accumulate," says sociologist Robert Merton, who studied simultaneous inventions in history. The ever thickening mix of existing technologies in a society create a supersaturated matrix, charged with restless potential. When the right idea is seeded within, the inevitable invention practically explodes into existence, like an ice crystal freezing out of water. Yet, as convention and science have shown, even though water is destined to become ice crystals when it is cold enough, no two snowflakes are the same. The path of freezing water is predetermined, but there is great leeway, freedom and beauty in the individual expression of its predestined state. The actual pattern of each snowflake is unpredictable. For such a simple molecule, its variations upon a theme are endless. That's even truer for extremely complex inventions today. The crystalline form of the incandescent light bulb or the telephone, or the internet, will vary in a million possible formations, depending on the conditions evolving it. In practice, its appearance is unpredictable.

As usual, not sure I'm going with this (and to be honest I'm having trouble giving a conclusion the concentration it deserves), but it's definitely interesting.

Update (8/24/09): Russell Davies ponders some of the same stuff (or maybe I'm just reading into it and wishing I was as articulate as he is):

All of which makes me wonder if I/we've been over-egging this internet revolution pudding quite a bit. Is it that much of a revolution? It certainly has been for me, but not so much for my Mum and Dad, or my son. Or for most people outside the West. Is it that epochal or is it just part of 'gradual improvement'?

I sometimes suspect we're living though a media and communications revolution because the people chiefly effected by it are the people who get to decide if we're living through a revolution or not - the opionistas, the commenters, the thinkers and talkers.
August 24, 2009
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