Thursday, October 19, 2006

Nardi and O'Day, Information Ecologies

Nardi, Bonnie A., and Vicki O'Day. Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999.

Nardi and O'Day make a case for the ecological metaphor as it is suited to studies of technology in situ. This preference combines concerns about enframing metaphor, methodology, and scene as each relates to technology studies. Invoking Shakespeare, they emphasize "local habitations" while seeking to moderate the sharp divide (especially acute in works like Postman's Technopoly) between technophiles and neoLuddites. Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart is an effort to articulate a middle position that improves on metaphors of technology as tool, as text, and as system. Information ecologies introduce scalability (and other factors), while navigating the extreme positions by placing value on participatory design. For Nardi and O'Day, there is a vested emphasis on discussion and questioning because "new technologies tend to be mystifying" (13).

The book opens with reference to Rotwang the Inventor, a character from the film Metropolis (1927), who developed a perfect robot. The workers revolt, dashing the machines to pieces, and in so-doing, the film confirms a moral about the relevance of "heart" in technological development. This project seems to grow out of the technological booms of the 1990's, when the ratio between control (choice/agency) and technological determinism was generating high anxiety, particularly for those who felt they weren't keeping up with change. Nardi and O'Day cite Jacques Ellul, who suggested the powerful, if low profile, wave of technological determinism could be found in "the accretion of thousands of small decisions" (42) leading unto "a boundless kind of feedforward" (43): more+more=moreanxiety.

Information Ecology: "a system of people, practices, values, and technologies in a particular local environment" (49). Ex.: a library, a hospital ICU, a self-service copy-shop. The emphasis here is on site and scope: "An ecology is complex, but it does not have the overwhelming breadth of the large-scale systems and dynamics Ellul and others describe" (50).
Ethnographic case studies constitute the second half of the book: observations of sites and activities-in-situ.
Critiques of Norman (28-30) on technology as tools and of Latour (31) on technology as text appear in chapter three, "A Matter of Metaphor."
Technique: "a cultural mindset in which pure, unadulterated efficiency is the dominant human value" (34).

How to evolve information ecologies? 1. Work from core values (67); 2. Pay attention (68); and 3. Ask Strategic Questions (70).

Qualities of information ecologies:

  • system: "strong interrelationships and dependencies among its different pats" (51)
  • diversity: "different species take advantage of different ecological niches" (51)
  • coevolution: adaptations lead to change both locally and across the system (52)
  • keystone species: central actors "whose presence is crucial to the survival of the ecology itself" (53)
  • locality: "a local habitation and a name" - the identifiable location (55).

Information ecologies inhere a certain urgency because, like their biological counterparts, they are alive (see Steven Johnson on web 2.0 as rain forest).

Key terms: local habitations (ix), inattentional blindness (15), invisibility of work and informal collaboration (16), inevitability (17), tool (27), affordances (28), text (31), system (33), technique (33), Winner's "reverse adaptation" (38), Winner's "technological drift" (41), participatory design (43), local settings (47),

"Technology development and use must be mediated by the human heart" (x). Emph.: an ethic of caring.

"Social understanding, values, and practices become integral aspects of the tool itself" (21).

"Metaphors matter because they suggest particular avenues for action and intervention" (43).

"However, we can argue that the view of technology as system washes out the distinctions among different local settings" (47).

"We urge people to get involved in the evolution of their information ecologies--jump into the primordial soup, stir it around, and make as many waves as possible" (58). Emph.: agency. But what's odd is that there's no accounting for an ecology-free zone. In other words, what's not an information ecology? Even the in-between spaces are subject to the information ecology as scene (or as a concatenation of scenes).

"There is a complex dance between two nonneutral forces at work here: technology with its texts and affordances, and people with their values and choices. The choreography of the dance is up to the human side of the equation, but only if we choose to 'overcome necessity' by engaging our values and commitments as we shape our information ecologies" (64). Emph.: freedom and determinism in dialectical relation (64).

Related sources:
Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. New York: Knopf, 1965.
Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
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