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Socialness and the Inevitability of Technology

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


  • Ana Andjelic says:

    Hey, maybe some of this can help you in your thinking …:

    a. There’s no causality or one-way influence of tools on people’s behavior, there’s only their co-evolution. Will explain. But first: maybe people in digital industry indeed do predominantly focus on tools, but sociologist really long ago figured out that technological determinism does not really make much sense (i.e. treating technology and society as separate, or even worse, as in a causal relationship).

    So these days they choose to focus instead on a co-evolving networks of connections between tools, people, standards, rules, etc. The question is not what influences something else, but how is some activity translated from one thing (that thing being a tool or a human) to another = if an act of reading is treated as a “socio-technical” network, then the question is how a certain change in some elements of this network get translated throughout the rest of it.

    The catch is that translation and emergence of change are actually super-related to the point that they may be regarded as the same thing. Changes never occur inexplicably, but are always results of some previous translations in the network. So what we perceive as “big” changes are in fact the outcome of a lot of incremental changes that can be traced throughout the whole network.

    And this is also why “generating electronic versions of existing print books” does not work: the activity of reading is today is a considerably different network than it used to be, so having an electronic version simply does not fit with all other elements of that network. In order for something to “fit in”, it needs to go through a series of incremental translations. Where those translations don’t exist, well, it’s a dead end.

    The bottom line is that, instead of trying to figure out who comes first – a tool or a social activity – it makes more sense to just trace how an activity is relayed through a network. (this relaying is also called inscription and translation; inscribing social, cultural, and economic activities in tools/technology and translating tech back into those activities).

    b. Re: Kevin Kelly and his claim that inventions are culturally determined. An invention is seemingly a network effect (“when all required conditions … are in place”). The thing here is that inventions are not only an inevitable effect/outcome of some network already, they are also actually creators of a new network. A super-old example is how Thomas Edison invented a lightbulb. He did not sit in his lab figuring out purely technical problems of a lightbulb (altho he did that, too :). What makes him an inventor is that he created a whole wide network where his lightbulb made sense: he built relays, meters, cables in people’s homes, electicians, laws, regulations, etc. Only when this whole system/network was stitched together and put firmly in place, his invention made sense.

    In contrast, poor Nikola Tesla, while a brilliant inventor, was not such a savvy businessman so his inventions still sit in some dark vault. So yea, inventions create networks.

    c. The real question for me is not when/why innovations emerge, but when/why they succeed. This is somewhat related to what Russell Davis says, and it’s again related to a network of conditions that permit an invention to take place = how invention is conceptualized and evaluated (“internet revolution” or something else less dramatic) in the process of reshaping our social practices…

    If you are interested in this topic, here are some recommended readings … “The Social Shaping of Technology” and “Shaping Technology, Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change”.

  • stephanie gerson says:

    completely agree with Ana that you’d benefit from reading some foundational texts on philosophy/sociology of technology.

    another way to think about this that has surely already been thought about: will cultures that are stereotypically characterized as collectivist (e.g. Latin American), and which already use technologies socially (the mate bomba in Argentina is a fine example) fare better than cultures stereotypically characterized as individualist (e.g. US, yalls) at transitioning into social use of digital media?

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