Technologies aren’t neutral

Digging around to find a link to explain who Arie de Geus is, for a recent entry, I found this excellent interview, well worth reading for anyone who is interested in what is going wrong in so many organisations. Going a bit deeper into the site it was on I found a number of gems that got me thinking and feeling grateful that there are people challenging some of the mechanistic nostrums floating around today. Since I having been thinking a lot about tools recently, (prompted by conversations with Nick Durrant, who really ought to get a website or some other form of public presence, so his insights could be more widely appreciated), I was particularly drawn to the interview with Wanda Orlikowski and her remarks about the nature of technology:
“I think there are a group of us who would say we know that technologies get implemented with particular agendas, with particular social interests. Technologies aren’t neutral tools with neutral objectives. We know that when people appropriate technologies into the work places, they end up using them in all sorts of ways that go way beyond what the designers ever anticipated. We know that there is an evolution, an emergence of different and new uses of technology that change how people work, and that this in turn changes the technology and its uses. Its recursive. We know that technological artifacts are not closed, fixed, or deterministic. We talk about technology as if it were one thing, as if it were monolithic and fixed and stable, but, of course, its constantly shifting, it breaks down, it wears down. Technologies are evolving, changing, emerging they are not stable. Likewise, our practices of use are constantly evolving, constantly changing as we change, as our understanding of the technologies changes, as our organizations change, as our responsibilities or interests change…”

In a nutshell

Looking through the FT today, I found a quote in an article by Michael Skapinker (subscription only) talking about “The Living Company” by Arie de Geus that seemed to capture the essence of my notion of Purposive Drift:
“In his study of long-living companies, Mr de Geus found they had several common characteristics. One was that they were cohesive, with a strong sense of identity. The second was that they were sensitive to their environment. ‘As wars, depressions, technologies and political changes surged and ebbed around them, they always seemed to excel at keeping their feelers out, tuned to whatever was going on.'”

The Politics of Civility

The other day, quite by chance, I picked up a book I had forgotten I had. It was by Bill Stumpf , who, among other things, was co-designer of the Aeron chair . When I had first got the book, “The Ice Palace That Melted Away: How Good Design Enhances Our Lives” , I was disappointed if not dismissive. I had bought the book, because I wanted to find out more about his approach to design, particularly the way he used research to inform what he did. There was nothing of that there.
What was there was a plea for civility:
“Civility is the something extra – the added measure of grace – in the way we shape human behavior through objects and custom. Civility is comfort, hidden goodness, social lubricant, personal worth, helping others, play – civility is the joy we take in human achievements and the compassion we show to all-too-human faults. Civility can be extended by technology and can be obliterated by it. Civility is toleration, understanding. It is the integration of differences, not the heightening of them.”
Reading this again with fresh eyes and a different set of pre-occupations, it struck me that Bill Stumpf was on to something very important.
If we look at the politics that really seems to engage many people today, it tends to fall in the category of protest – against globalisation, against big corporates, against the destruction of the environment and so on. There is a lot going on, but on the whole it seems a bit incoherent and often ineffectual. The machine rolls on despite the protests. It is a politics of resistance and as such is perceived as negative. We know what people are against, but we don’t know what they are for.
But, if you look more closely, what seems to unite many of these protests is that they are against assaults on civility. If we were able to reframe these issues in terms of civility and move on from a posture of resistance to one of positively seeking to extend, “the added measure of grace – in the way we shape human behavior through objects and custom”, we might have the basis for a new politics that would have a wide popular appeal.