This book should be required reading for all librarians and for anyone using technology. Oh, yeah, everyone.
I read this immediately after Brown and Duguid which was about “information” and thus IT, and which sought a middle ground. This is about seeking a middle ground for “technology.” They are more or less contemporaneous with this being 1-2 years older.
- 1 Rotwang the Inventor
- 2 Framing Conversations about Technology
- 3 A Matter of Metaphor: Technology as Tool, Text, System, Ecology
- 4 Information Ecologies
- 5 Values and Technology
- 6 How to Evolve Information Ecologies
- 7 Librarians: A Keystone Species
- 8 Wolf, Batgirl and Starlight: Finding a Real Community in a Virtual World
- 9 Cultivating Gardeners: The Importance of Homegrown Expertise
- 10 Digital Photography at Lincoln High School
- 11 A Dysfunctional Ecology: Privacy issues at a Teaching Hospital
- 12 Diversity on the Internet
- 13 Conclusion
“A key to thoughtful action is to ask more “know-why” questions the new typically do. Being efficient, productive, proactive people, we often jump to the “know-how” questions, which are considerably easier to answer. In this book we talk about practical ways to have more “know-why” conversations, to dig deeper, and reflect more about the effects of the ways we use technology” (x).
The book uses the movie Metropolis by Fritz Lang as an insight into technology with the first chapter providing a synopsis of the movie.
“We believe that we can and should argue about how technology is created and used. Lang suggested in Metropolis that technical sweetness is not enough. Technology development and use must be mediated by the human heart” (x).
Part I Information Ecologies: Concepts and Reflections
1 Rotwang the Inventor
A synopsis of Metropolis.
2 Framing Conversations about Technology
Nardi was trained as an anthropologist and O’Day in computer science. They have worked in industrial research labs at HP, Apple, and Xerox. (14)
“This book is addressed to people who work with and around technology. This includes schoolteachers and school administrators, engineers, salespeople, professors, secretaries,journalists and others in publishing, medical professionals, librarians, people who work in finance and banking, and many more. [Everybody!] We believe that our colleagues in technology design will also find this book useful.
For all of our readers, what we hope to accomplish is a shift in perception” (15).
“We have noticed two blind spots people seem to have in considering work settings: informal practices that support work activities and unobtrusive work styles that hide valuable, skilled contributions” (16).
The rest of this chapter consists of three sections: The Rhetoric of Inevitability, Conversational Extremes: Technophilia and Dystopia, and A Different Approach. They discuss the unfortunate trend for technology development to be frequently characterized as inevitable; the two extreme views this inevitably drives discourse to, “the ends of a continuum [that] leave us with poor choices for action” (20); and call for a third way.
“Technological tools and other artifacts carry social meaning. Social understanding, values, and practices become *integral aspects* of the tool itself” (21).
“The issue is not whether we will use technologies, but which we will choose and whether we will use them well” (22).
3 A Matter of Metaphor: Technology as Tool, Text, System, Ecology
This chapter discusses the metaphors of technology as tool, text, system and ecology to reveal certain facets of technology because metaphors “both illuminate and obscure the relationships between people and technology” (25).
§ Technology as Tool
Discusses “affordances” (J.J. Gibson): “those properties of an object that neatly support the actions people intend to take with the object” (28).
“The tool metaphor is useful for questions and discussions about utility, usability, skill, and learning” (30).
“People who see technology as a tool see themselves as controlling it” (27).
§ Technology as Text
” … as a form of communication, a carrier of meaning that may be reinterpreted as the technology passes through different social situations” (31).
§ Technology as System
“[P]rovides the richest, most troubling and most mind-altering perspectives” and breadth of vision (33).
Jacques Ellul and Langdon Winner are the theorists mentioned here. I have read a fair bit of Ellul, and taken a few seminars which focused on much of his work, although I have only read a small bit of Winner. I admire and agree with much of Ellul’s take on technology as a system but, as the authors state, these views leave us little room to act. They are totalizing. “This view does not address with enough force the possibility of local and particular change” (43).
The themes in the section on the Neutrality of Technology include how technology conditions our choices, “reverse adaptation”: the adjustment of human ends to match the character of the available means, and the pervasive adaptation of standards.
4 Information Ecologies
Definition: “a system of people, practices, values, and technologies in a particular local environment.” The spotlight is “on human activities that are served by technology”; not the technology itself. (49)
The concept of information ecologies is introduced “in order to focus attention on relationships involving tools and people and their practices” (50).
§ Characterizing Information Ecologies
- Keystone Species
metaphorical – ” to foster thought and discussion, to stimulate conversations for action” (50).
“Like a biological ecology, an information ecology is marked by strong interrelationships and dependencies among its different parts.” Change is systemic. (51)
Different kinds of people, tools, roles, ideas, resources (51-2)
“Information ecologies evolve as new ideas, tools, activities, and forms of expertise arise in them” (52).
“The social and technical aspects of an environment *coevolve*” (53).
§§ Keystone Species
“An ecology is marked by the presence of certain keystone species whose presence is crucial to the survival of the ecology itself” (53).
“Mediators—people who build bridges across institutional boundaries and translate across disciplines—are a keystone species in information ecologies. Ironically, their contributions are often unofficial, unrecognized, and seemingly peripheral to the most obvious productive functions of the workplace” (54).
With references to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Faust we get that “[t]he name of a technology identifies what it means to the people who use it” and that “it positions the technology more directly under the control of its users” (54).
“The habitation of a technology is its location within a network of relations;” “its set of family ties in the local information ecology” (55).
There is an opportunity but also a responsibility for “the participants of an information ecology [to] establish the identity and place of the technologies that are found there” (55).
§§ Why Ecologies?
“We are suggesting that people act locally in a committed, reflective way that acknowledges technique as Ellul documents it, but having recognized it, chooses to respond with initiative that is grounded in local understanding and values” (56).
6 How to Evolve Information Ecologies
- work from core values
- pay attention
- ask strategic, open-ended questions about use (65)
Part II Case Studies
7 Librarians: A Keystone Species
Based on studies at Hewlett-Packard Library and Apple Research Library (82)
§§ Information Therapy (reference interview) (85-92)
8 Wolf, Batgirl and Starlight: Finding a Real Community in a Virtual World
A text-based virtual world centered on Longview Elementary School in Phoenix, AZ, with Phoenix College, Xerox PARC and some senior citizens
9 Cultivating Gardeners: The Importance of Homegrown Expertise
- tinker with computers
- learn software a little better
- often good at configuring hardware
- troubleshoot/solve problems when others are stumped
- likes to help others with tech tasks
- learn about computational things on their own
- translate concepts and mechanism back and forth between domain of work and the technology
- occupy a special niche = bridge
11 A Dysfunctional Ecology: Privacy issues at a Teaching Hospital
“Information was taken out of its original context and presented in a new context, without the buy-in of the people who generated the information.
Information changes shape and function dramatically when its broadcast boundaries are altered” (182)
Exactly! Begins to explain some of the issues in our networked, “broadcast” world as I see them; thinking primarily of the Internet and re-sharing/purposing of information and how it changes context. Multiple ecologies must be added in/considered.
12 Diversity on the Internet
“We view the internet as a set of environmental conditions that provide a substrate for the growth of ecologies that span traditional geographic and social boundaries. The Internet can serve as connective tissue between and within information ecologies” (185).
“We want to avoid being taken in by the rhetoric of inevitability. This rhetoric is powerful in part because it takes two seemingly opposite forms: the despair of dystopia and the don’t-worry-be-happy optimism of technophilia. A key impediment to creating and nurturing robust information ecologies is believing (optimistically or pessimistically) that technical “progress” is ungovernable and inevitable. The most extreme but not uncommon manifestation of the rhetoric of inevitability is believing that any kind of technology is desirable as long as it can be reasonably engineered and manufactured.
We have adopted an ecology metaphor because it matches the dynamics we observed in the settings we studied” (211).
This is an important and still timely book which pairs quite well with Brown and Duguid’s The Social Life of Information.