Matt Patterson has emailed me with a great response to my post on humanising technology, which he’s kindly allowed me post here:
I seem to recall making a couple of ill-prepared parries when we talked briefly about humanising technology. The concept has been bugging me and I’ve finally managed to find time to sketch out an argument. (you should try thinking about design and organising a wedding simultaneously…)
> Got very annoyed at the Design Council the other night. They were
> pitching their series of talks on ‘Humanising Technology”. Strikes me
> as a very odd phrase: ‘humanise technology’…
I think that you hit on a fundamental problem with the way we deal with technology. I’m not convinced by your flint axes thing, more of which later.
> To separate and demonise ‘technology’ seems false. It’s what makes us
> human. It’s our evolutionary distinctiveness.
The separation and making occult of technology is the story of late-modern technological development (commercially exploited, industrial revolution onwards). The separation of technology and making it hidden served the purposes of the possessors of technology – it made them money, and prevented other people from competing with them. Even earlier than late-modern we have the fuss caused by the publishing of Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises – the first howto for printing. It told of printing, and of building printing machinery. The ‘black art’ wasn’t called that for nothing – printing was a skill closely guarded and passed on through apprenticeships, thus keeping the number of competitors down. Conditions imposed on journeymen workers – graduated apprentices – bear this out.
> And anyway what’s so bad about technologising humans?
> Would the cro-magnon Design Council be complaining about the
> distinctly un-apelike flint axes that the crazy stonehacker kids were
> coming up with, and staging talks on ‘simianising technology’???
I think you’re missing the point, as are the Design Council. I think you’re both missing by a whisker. Technology has always been about a certain kind of distance, of abstraction. Axes and spears allowed the abstraction of killing – it didn’t have to be by hand anymore. Neither were the axes about technologising cro-magnons, by which I mean moving society’s centre from family grouping to proto-NRA axe clubs. They were about enabling society’s centre to remain where it was in changing times. There is evidence which suggests that agriculture was developed as a response to changing climate forcing people to invent new technology to remain living as they were.
Having said this it’s also clear that as technology begins to change our interactions with the world those interactions begin to change us. Agriculture allowed sufficient quantities of food to be grown to enable people to survive in their changing climate while the need to tend crops forced nomadic peoples to settle.
> the ‘humanisation’ of technology via graphical user interfaces as the
> creation of a schizm between the technologically-adept and conversent
> Morlock elite and a growing group of Eloi in thrall to the GUI,
> living in a dreamworld they have no control or agency within over
> that allowed by their unseen and incomprehensible Morlock captors.
I think that’s probably a misinterpretation of his position (or at least, it’s a misinterpretation of my interpretation…). Mediated experiences are the problem here, where the mediations are obfuscations, enforcing agendas and denying access. As for the thrall and the schism I think we need look no further than the legacy of the industrial revolution’s occult entreprenurial technological capitalism on the one hand, and the desire for recognition and status among techies which has led to l33t h4x0rs on the other. Schism is good for business, and schism allows an poorly-understood morlock workforce to become insular and dependent on that insularity for status and approbation.
An interesting counter here is the shaman. The shaman was the possessor of occult knowledge, to be sure, but they were are critical part of the life and community of the tribe. I think we can blame western society’s stratification and segregation for the acceptance of the schism.
> What’s the middle ground? Can we make technology, and computers easy
> to use while maintaining the transparancy, freedom and agency of
> command-line culture?
I think we have to remember that Unix was conceived as something of a humanising technology thing. It tried to take all the good bits from everything that had gone before and threw in some new bits which would help make everything work better and me easier to understand. I’m under the distinct impression that Unix gave us hierarchical filing systems.
Perhaps we (by which I mean any of us who speak Command Line) are operating under a similar delusion to the people who use GUIs – that we are controlling our computer entirely, that it works the way we want – with the only difference being a generational one (of use not age).
Perhaps the difference between you or I and George in reception is that we have seen the patterns in what happens and can abstract, generalise, and re-use that information. I cannot write C or assembler – they are too low-level, but I can write Perl, and the patterns I have seen in Perl allow me to talk to and understand people who programme in Assembler.
A way forward could be this: that we (as a society) stop seeing techies as a separate breed, but integrate them back into the normal flow of life and work. This ought to have the benefits of making non-morlocks less like eloi and non-eloi more like morlocks – with everyone meeting in the middle. Along with this runs the thread of understanding what other people do, and thus being able to build systems which work for them, and thus re-establishing a degree of transparency in the way things work.
Other things would begin to taught in such a way that the patterns and abstractions would be recognised and emphasised so that people could talk to each other and understand, in part, what the others were saying. More transparency.
I don’t think we can abandon the idea of separate roles. I learnt to do division on paper in junior school. They don’t do that now, they have calculators all the way. This means that other things can be learnt, and new things can be learnt at the other end. This is how we progress, surely: we build on an established base
of knowledge by using it and not reinventing the wheel. We build up dependencies here: to do maths I need a calculator so I need someone to build me a calculator… The critical part is to maintain a diverse community, so that I
understand that there are dependencies, and that things do not exist in isolation.
In a talk at DIS Tom Moran talked about adaptive design – systems which are built on top of by users, so that the systems become shaped by the way people work and not the other way around. Perhaps a notion of diversity will allow people to move the focus of design from the final whole to the unfinished, evolving, connections. I think that a Lego Technics operating system would allow a degree of transparent abstraction: that my mum could use the system arranged as it came (perhaps a racing car [with moving engine, gears, etc]).
However, the fact that the system is a synthetic construction is obvious, even if Mum can’t quite formulate an entirely new synthesis. She probably will be able to add bits, or take some bits away. Someone else (me, perhaps) will strip the construction back to its constituents and reconstruct, reformulate and make the racing car into a space ship.
With Lego Technics set the thing which allows me to do all this is the fact that connectors are almost entirely universal, so I can recombine bits as I like.
Peterme also gave me a good fact-checking and raking over the coals about that post, and I’d recommend you read that too.
I haven’t really got a good response to any of this at the moment, and I think I’ll just be content to stay at an unreasonable, sloppily-thought-out, superposition for now…