Another Theoretical Perspective

Metaphors: Tool, Text, System – Ecologies.


Another set of theories about digital technology and how it affects us looks
at the affects of information technology on us from both sociological and anthropological
perspectives. These are more practical theories; more based upon how people
are using technology, how it is being used on them, and how they might be able
to affect the development of social and community arrangements to get the best
out of their technology.


Some of the most useful parts of this theoretical stream centre on the way
citizens of western societies are being acculturated to the use of computers.
In their book Information Ecologies, Bonnie Nardi & Vick
O’day contend that the technology industries have a bad habit of delivering
the “rhetoric of inevitability (Nardi & O’day: . pg. 17)” which
limits our thinking about how we should shape the use of technology in our society.
The authors go on to point out that technological tools and other artifacts
carry social meaning. And that this becomes integral to the tool itself. The
telephone is a good example of this. Our use of telephone far surpasses the
imaginations of those who invented and installed the first phone systems. We
have adapted telephone signals to include data and recorded messages; both sending
and receiving telephone calls with recorded voices. This is crucial to an understanding
of the digital cobbler: Cobbling together your digital environment is both a
way of understanding the social implications of technology and a way of implementing
an understanding of these implications. Once again, a complete examination of
these theories of technology are available from other sources but for our purposes,
here is a summary of the theoretical underpinnings of Information Ecologies
by Bonnie Nardi & Vicki L. O’day (which is, of course, highly recommended):


Technology as tool can be a useful metaphor but technology goes far
beyond just a device to get something done. The social environment in which
a tool is used makes a difference. Computers are far more complicated, flexible
and ambiguous than is a “tool” whose use is, for the most part, self-evident.


Technology as text refers to applying critical theory to technology
in a similar manner as to written text. This theoretical approach can stumble
when information moves away from text-oriented documents and includes collections
or results that are based on some routine that the user has initiated.


Technology as system is a deep and all encompassing theory. I has
become a popular negative view of technology since Jacques Ellul wrote Technological
in 1954. His is a powerful analysis of technology: that it’s
autonomous and proceeds without significant control by people.


Information Ecologies , as Nardi and O’day define them, can be summed as such,
“the scale of an ecology allows us to find individual points of leverage,
ways into the system, and avenues of intervention “(pg. 50). In an ecology,
each piece of technology, especially computers, have a “habitation and
name”. This “identity and place” within the ecology is only established
by the participants in that ecology, not by the creators of the tool, and it
is the participants responsibility to find that place for them that
makes sense (pg. 55). In this way, Ellul’s all-encompassing view of autonomous
technology is shown to be lacking. His view does not allow for this obvious
individual and ecological control of technology.


In a broader view, an “information ecology” can be seen to be analogous
to an information community or, as we like to call it, a “digital environment”.
Although the definitions of these theoretical places may not exactly coincide,
there is sufficient overlap to see that our digital environment is a kind of
information ecology that we build for ourselves and those around us.


Let’s next look at some specific examples of media that is becoming digitized
and see how that changes our perspective of how we look at each of those media


More: Physical Properties don’t Change?