Monthly Archives: October 2011

Social Informatics – Where good ideas come from

I came across this video the other day while I was preparing a guest lecture for an undergraduate class on participatory culture and while it’s perhaps old news to many, it was the first time I had seen it and I wanted to share it.

For the last few days this little video has been inside my head; I keep thinking about it, pondering it, so here are some of the thoughts that I am thinking.

Social informatics is, will, and should be an environment where hunches are born of our interactions and discussions, where hunches collide with one another, and where eventually after incubation those hunches develop into great ideas. I suppose every environment in academia would make this claim – I mean we all want to cultivate great ideas, right? But social informatics has something going for it that Johnson discusses in this video; it is a connected space. It is a connected space in a way that is different from either traditional disciplines or areas of study that have a more strongly defined community.

One of social informatics’ biggest strengths, and simultaneously biggest challenges, is its (inter/trans/anti)disciplinarity. As a relatively new and emerging area of study, social informatics is difficult to define. It is difficult to identity a community of people whose work is labeled social informatics. The kind of work that goes on in our group here at IU is also done all over the IU campus (and other campuses as well, of course) by other folks using different labels. While this presents a challenge for a doctoral student trying to decide where to publish, who to talk to, who to work with and so on, it also facilitates an amazing amount of connectedness if we can make those connections happen.

Almost two weeks ago I successfully completed my doctoral qualifying exams. In the oral defense I was asked to explain more about why the work I have done should be considered social informatics. Part of that answer had to do with this very idea: there are many areas of study (media and fan studies, communication, human computer interaction, computer supported cooperative work, anthropology, and sociology) that work in what I have defined as my problem space, but each has a different lens through which they view the space and as a result each has something that is missing from the others. When these pieces are placed together, we can garner a more holistic understanding of the problem space. One strength of social informatics, and hopefully all (inter/trans/anti)disciplinary environments, is such a perspective that can see these connections, put different hunches or ideas into conversation, and use these convergences to cultivate great ideas.

I haven’t read Johnson’s book and I haven’t decided if I completely agree with all of the claims he makes in this video, but I can stand behind the sentiment that “chance favors the connected mind.” I think that’s what we’re trying to do here, both as a social informatics program at IU and with this particular blog.

A few weeks ago the IU campus was able to host both Henry Jenkins and Mimi Ito for a set of talks and gatherings. During a joint brown bag for graduate students, Henry and Mimi gave the students some of the best advice I have heard in awhile. They told us that when we feel like we don’t fit into a nice neat disciplinary space, we need to work on growing our own network of colleagues.

So. Let’s get on with incubating and colliding those hunches.

Billionaire Steve Jobs, an Inspiration to the Occupy Wall Street Campaign?

A week ago we lost a leader in the field of social informatics. Though Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs was not a scholar, he was keenly aware of how important people, their desires and mental frameworks were to the design of computer technologies. In the design process he consistently resisted collaborators who designed with code and machinery in mind instead of actual, human users. Like most social informaticians, he called for design principles to reflect culture and make communication, work and entertainment more efficient, intuitive and beautiful.

His passing happened at an interesting economic and cultural moment as so many people today are out of work (some might even argue that this is due to the success of technology developers like Apple and Steve Jobs) and political tensions have never been higher. A growing number of activists who lament the US government’s apathy toward wealthy corporate entities has emerged also in recent weeks. In just under four weeks, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) campaign has quickly spread all over the country and has observers around the world taking note.

In the OWS protesters’ mission statement, they say, we organize “at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.” Their efforts are to express animosity toward corporate greed and the US government’s apathy toward this greed. Furthermore, they feel the government should be more active in correcting this problem. Namely, they call for the taxing of the richest one percent of the population so that the other ninety-nine percent might face less financial uncertainty.

Protester holds a sign that reads Jobs

Protester's Mourn Jobs' Passing

It occurs to me that the passing of Steve Jobs and the emergence of the OWS campaign intersect in an interesting way. Jobs, worth about 7 billion dollars, was undoubtedly in the one percent of people the protesters are asking the government to tax. In spite of this, many groups of protesters took time away from the protests to mourn his passing. A tweet from Twitter account @OPWallStreet on the night of his death said, “Sad to announce the death of Steve Jobs.”

While some may see this as an inconsistency in the message of the OWS, perhaps noting the genealogy of certain core values of the OWS campaign will help illuminate why OWS protesters, and so many others, feel a sense of grief at Jobs’ passing. Jobs was not just an innovator of technical artifacts. In many ways he also created new ways for communication to occur, new ways for entertainment to happen, new ways to work, to travel, to fall in love, etc.

One can easily trace the ideology and socio-technical structure that the OWS relies upon to share information and establish their movement back to innovators like Steve Jobs.   First, Jobs is a product of the sixties. He was a flower child and hung out with anti-war protesters and activists while he was beginning to develop his desire to work with computers. This influence impacted the design of Apple technologies and made past and present underdogs fall in love with him. In the world of conservative tech companies, Jobs was almost always on the lunatic fringe. He fought for the things his artistic, and humanistic intuition told him were right. OWS protesters see themselves in Jobs’ shoes: They are fighting against the status quo in an effort to put the human back in the center of the system’s design.

Second, Jobs developed technologies that were networked. His masterpieces the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, etc. are windows into the social world. Social informaticians know that these technologies bear a certain internal structure which predetermines a certain kind of use, requires certain skills, etc. The structure of a computer network is at the heart of both the OWS campaign and Jobs’ most influential Apple technologies. As information is exchanged, the OWS campaign is replicated across the country. It’s copied and pasted. A new instance emerges in a new location because people have seen pictures of others, read stories, watch videos and are inspired by others through their iPhones & iPads. The OWS information structure, which is the heart of the movement, is itself an instance of the computer network Steve Jobs envisioned in the design of his most influential Apple technologies.

The protesters aim to upset the government’s apathy. They, like Jobs, suggest that the system should reflect today’s socio-technical culture and empower users by giving them more tools to make life easier and more beautiful.

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