Cloud Street

Friday, January 06, 2006

Soft enough for you

Anne:
Is it reasonable to have to learn to ride a bike but expect a computer to be as simple to figure out as a toaster? (Not the perfect analogy I know, but you know what I'm getting at...) Some days I think that user-friendliness was/is a really bad idea, not least because it's obdurate, so hard to change.
If you have to work at using a technology, in other words, you necessarily end up working with it and through it. You work to adapt it to your needs - and you adapt it. Technologies which offer ease of use, by contrast, make it easy to work in certain pre-defined ways - and resist adaptation by the individual user. (There are, of course, technologies which are both easy to use and flexible - ask any Flickr user. But I think the 'user-friendliness' Anne is talking about here is more like the comment a tutor of mine once made on the BBC and 'open access' broadcasting: "They say they'll come and help you, show you how to do it. They don't, of course - what they do is show you how to do what you do because that's how you do it." User-friendliness is very often a matter of HTDWYDBTHYDI.)

But there's more to it than that. What is this thing called obduracy? Anne again:
[Anique Hommels] argues that one way to emphasise the material aspects [of technologies in society] is to focus on their obduracy or resistance to change. (Imagine what it would *actually* take to replace the infrastructure that currently provides our electricity with something more sustainable.) The notion of obduracy is inextricably connected to embeddedness - a matter of interest to any kind of computing that seeks to become part of something else, be it an event, a habit, a skirt, a chair, a building, a street, a city. As Hommels reminds us, obduracy (or embeddedness) is a relational concept:

"Because the elements of a network are closely interrelated, the changing of one element requires the adaptation of other elements. The extent to which an artifact has become embedded determines its resistance to efforts aimed at changing it."
An embedded technology, then, would be one which has behind it a community of people who do a certain thing in a certain way. Becoming a user entails enrolment in that community. In short, the technology adapts you.

Where does this leave user-friendliness? Perhaps we could think of the embedding of a new technology as a process, which can continue to the point of the collapse of the possible ends and uses inherent in the technology and its reduction to the status of tool: a toaster, not a bicycle. And perhaps a 'user-friendly' technology - at least in the HTDWYD sense - is one designed to enlist a tool-using community and collapse its own potential into instrumentality.

(Relatedly, from Dan Hills' essential critique of digital music: "there is a powerful necessity to think long term; to not take such short cuts which may inadvertently delete possible outcomes; to enable the flexibility and endless modifications seen in previous generations of music devices". Dan has a lovely quote from William Gibson: "That which is overdesigned, too highly specific, anticipates outcome; the anticipation of outcome guarantees, if not failure, the absence of grace.")

More broadly, what all this highlights is the value of difficulty, incompatibility, misunderstanding. Dan also led me (indirectly) to this quote from the late Derek Bailey:
There has to be some degree, not just of unfamiliarity, but incompatibility [with a partner]. Otherwise, what are you improvising for? What are you improvising with or around? You've got to find somewhere where you can work. If there are no difficulties, it seems to me that there's pretty much no point in playing. I find that the things that excite me are trying to make something work. And when it does work, it's the most fantastic thing.
One of the great frustrations in my work with ontologies and e-social science is the recurrent assumption that the concepts used in social science data can be documented cleanly and consistently - or, conversely, that if they can't be documented cleanly and consistently they're not worth documenting. The point, surely, is to find ways of recording both the logic of individual classifications and the incompatibilities between them - and the (qualified, partial) correspondences between them. And, of course, to make this documentation changeable over time, without effacing the historical traces which contribute to its meaning. Parenthetically, it's worth noting here that preservation of historical data has nothing to do with obduracy. History is not obdurate, having no power to resist and (by and large) no enrolled community; the erasure of history can facilitate embeddedness and instrumentality, while the preservation of an artifact's history may actually preserve resources of flexibility. (That's enough abstractions - Ed.)

1 Comments:

  • Good stuff! But isn't e-social science predominantly quantitative research? This would certainly explain the tendency to control or eliminate difference and/or uncertainty...

    And I have to disagree that the "preservation of historical data has nothing to do with obduracy". Preservation (archiving, etc.) is quite resistant to change - by virtue of its classification and authority it persists. What you seem to be asking for is some sort of persistently stable record of change, or at least a way to always access and engage the change that has (already) occurred?

    This is a bit strange to me, because the relationship between remembering and forgetting is a weird one. (Would you really want anyone to remember *everything* you've done or said or written?) I think that what we recall and what we forget (both individually and collectively) are actions or decisions made within small- and large-scale social power relations.

    For example, forgiveness requires a certain kind of forgetfulness: an amnesty (from the Greek amnestia, oblivion). It seems to me that what we really need to focus on are the contexts of flexibility: when we need or want to remember and when we need or want to forget - and what that means to everyone involved...

    Make any sense?

    By Blogger Anne, at 6/1/06 23:12  

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