Culture, Computers, and Communities:
Two Recent Books

January 04th, 2010 | Category: Reviews

Culture is technology-driven William Gibson once said, and, with the proliferation of digital media, the aphorism is less and less debatable (if it ever was). If technology is indeed the engine and infrastructure of our culture, then understanding it is tantamount to understanding ourselves.

The books written on the topic could fill a library, and two recent ones caught my eye. The first attempts a broad-reaching macro-view. Brian Arthur’s The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves (Free Press, 2009) promises not only to get to the bottom of the technology undergirding our culture, but to be an engaging read as well. I first came across Arthur’s work in M. Mitchell Waldrop’s Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (Simon & Schuster, 1992). Arthur stumbled upon the theory of increasing returns (what are known in cybernetics and systems theory as reinforcing feedback loops) while attempting to apply biological principles to economics. The academic crossbreeding proved fruitful as Arthur deftly outlined the reasons for the dominance of everything from Microsoft Windows to QWERTY keyboards.

Unfortunately, his mixing and matching of intellectual domains falls short when it comes to the science of technology. First of all, The Nature of Technology starts by conceptualizing the two (nature and technology) as opposing forces, calling them “tectonic plates grinding inexorably into each other in one long, slow collision” (p. 11). As often as it has been employed elsewhere, this is a premise of limited promise. Technology is an extension or continuation of nature. They are parts of the same continuum. Viewing them as adversaries leads to many other fallacies, not the least of which is the attempt to draw a line separating the two. For example, on page 10, Arthur envisions a world where all of our modern technologies disappear, yet we’re still left with some. He writes, “We would still have watermills, and foundries, and oxcarts; and course linens, and hooded cloaks, and sophisticated techniques for building cathedrals. But we would once again be medieval.” Drawing such an arbitrary line in the sands of time is exactly the mistake that those against technology make. As if speaking and writing aren’t technology. As if harnessing fire or clothing ourselves aren’t technology. We shape our tools and they shape us, as McLuhan (1964) put it. Our overall developmental lifecycle is the result of a structural coupling—in Maturana and Varela’s terminology (1987; Maturana & Poerkson, 2004)—with our technology. Not that Arthur is against technology, but making distinctions as such is not only treacherous, it’s just ludicrous.

Brian Arthur is a brilliant scholar and subsequently this book is not without insight. “A change in domain is the main way in which technology progresses,” he writes on page 74, echoing Thomas Kuhn (1962). If only he’d based his book on this statement, we might have ended up with a more useful theory of technology.

Another of Arthur’s key ideas is one he calls “deep craft,” writing, “Deep craft is more than knowledge. It is a set of knowings. Knowing what is likely to work and what not to work” (p. 159). Eitienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John David Smith apply their deep craft to technology and the ways in which communities and technology work together. A little over a decade ago, Etienne Wenger wrote a classic text on the ways that we work and learn together called Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (Cambridge University Press, 1999). Applying the ideas to software, networks, and connectivity, Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities (CPsquare, 2009) is a handbook that every IT manager should keep handy. It won’t tell you which specific software tools you need for your business or community, but it will guide you through your needs and illuminate aspects of your community (and its technology use) that you scarcely knew existed. For example, the simple idea that the “always on” of broadband connectivity equals the “always there” of the community (p. 186; an idea that my friend Howard Rheingold has explored in depth in his many books, most recently Smart Mobs, 2003) puts technology’s augmenting role in your community in a new light.

Wenger, White, and Smith’s many well-worn and time-tested insights yield a book rife with the same. In-depth scenarios and quick advice pop up on nearly every page, often bolstered by real-world examples and their relevant URLs, as well as excellent graphs and flowcharts. A lot of the general information in Digital Habitats might be common knowledge for the experienced technology steward, but the experience and research collected here is likely to be useful for everyone interested in creating, fostering, or maintaining a working community augmented by technology.

Technology infiltrates our lives in ways we don’t even realize. Rem Koolhaas went so far as to say that human culture wouldn’t exist at all without technology, calling it “a decaying myth, an ideology superimposed on technology” (1995, p. 210). As much as we may want to grasp a grand unified theory of its ubiquity, perhaps it’s just easier to look at it on the micro-level. Either way, technology is as much a part of us as we are of nature (and vice versa). Drawing lines between us and it or it and nature are useless.

References

Arthur, W. B. (2009). The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. New York: Free Press.

Koolhaas, R. & Mau, B. (1995). S, M, L, XL. New York: Monacelli Press.

Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Maturana, H. R. & Poerkson, B. (2004). From Being to Doing: The Origins of the Biology of Cognition. Heidelberg, Germany: Carl-Auer Verlag.

Maturana, H. R. & Varela, F. J. (1987). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston: Shambhala.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Rheingold, H. (2003). Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. New York: Basic Books.

Waldrop, M. M. (1998). Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E., White, N., & Smith, J. D. (2009). Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities. Portland, OR: CPsquare.

Further Posting:

6 Comments »

  • Dahnyul said:

    Thanks for the review. Great to see Wenger, White and Smith collaborating to deliver such a practical resource.

    My only comment is that, while I may betray my pedestrianism, it feels to me as if practitioners may be guilty of stretching out just a wee bit too far for a new concept where none exists. For example, Mr. Arthur references to ‘deep craft’ and a ‘set of knowings’.

    Is there something more here being expressed than simple experience? Perhaps, but to find out I’d have to actually read the book. I’m not sure I’m that motivated to add to my limited edition boxed set of understandings.

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Thanks for your comment, Dahnyul. Believe me, “deep craft” and a “set of knowings” are the least of Dr. Arthur’s stretches. I don’t mean to be so hard on the guy — as I said, he’s a brilliant scholar — but I couldn’t truck with a lot of the “theory” of technology outlined in this book.

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