When New Technologies Come Up Against Old Ways Of Doing

The computer is no more than an instantaneous telegraph with a prodigious memory, and all the communications inventions in between have simply been elaborations of the telegraph’s original work. 

So begins Carolyn Marvin in one of my favourite books around material [media] history When Old Technologies Were New.  But recent changes in development environments, social software and gaming have pushed this generalisation to it’s limit.  Whilst acknowledging the similarities between the various types of communication inventions from the telegraph onwards, I think that each has it’s own ‘logic’, it’s own relationship to the the user as part of a network.  A [socio-technical] network that mutates. 

And the networks are mutating.  Recent eye witness reports from the edge of geekdom have reported back news of radical changes afoot, of web accessible applications [e.g. Rails] that are near stateless, stripping the home from homepage.  I’ll be intrigued at how identities [personal, corporate and community
based] are played out when our now familiar ‘virtual’ geography needs
a different cartographic system.

But what implications do these changes have for us?  Is Fraser right to be so neologsitic?  Marvin helps us to understand:

When audiences become organized around these [new technical] uses, the history of a new medium begins.  The model here is different.  Here, the focus of communication is shifted from the instrument to the drama in which existing groups perpetually negotiate power, authority, representation, and knowledge with whatever resources are available.  New media intrude on these negotiations by providing new platforms on which old groups confront one another.  Old habits of transacting between groups are projected onto new technologies that alter, or seem to alter, critical social distances.  New media may change the perceived effectiveness of one group’s surveillance of another, the permissible familiarity of exchange, the frequency and intensity of contact, and the efficacy of customary tests for truth and deception.  Old practices are then painfully revised, and group habits are reformed.  New practices do not so much flow directly from technologies that inspire them as they are improvised out of old practices that no longer work in the new settings… In the end, it is less new media practices, which come later and point toward a resolution of these conflicts … than in the uncertainty of emerging and contested practices of communication that the struggle of groups to define and locate themselves is most easily observed. [p5]"

The answer? We should look to the effects of consuming the ‘media’, the ‘network’ effects and the reactions that take place.  Some are easier to ‘find’ and document than others. 

One example for me is something that happened last week – it made me think of this idea of practice and of social norms and ways of doing.  I went to a ‘ball’ and took some photographs of colleagues, new colleagues with whom I’d only been working a few days.  I put them on flickr and sent and email to a few people [those I’d met] to have a look.  One said i should send them to ‘all staff’.  In my last job I would have sent them to everyone because people were familiar with the often quite personal nature of digital photography and of presenting this through a website [in this case flickr].  In the new job all I got was silence, until lunchtime in the canteen when one or two people said "oh, so-and-so’s not happy about that".  People were unsure of what to make of my irreverent captions to quite mundane photos.  I had upset the delicate balance of what ‘acceptable’ behaviour meant, not that it was ‘bad’ behaviour, but the digital photos and captions enabled through flickr had taken them to a place where the norms and conventions were unfamiliar… 

I’m back from Coventry now btw.