Beki Grinter

Going Beyond Good: Reflections on Rob Kling

In C@tM, computer science, discipline, HCI, ICT4D, research on December 29, 2009 at 3:47 pm

Previously I’ve written about why I’m concerned about Computing4Good.

In writing that blog post, as has also been the case with others that I’ve written, I spent some time reflecting on my career in what I might call “going beyond good” through the careful empirical study of Information and Communications Technologies as human-built and human-used machines.

The person who introduced me to this world was Rob Kling. Rob recruited me to graduate school at the University of California, and there I joined the Computers, Organizations, Policy and Society (CORPS) group. The research focus of this group was on the societal (be it individual, group, organization or society) impacts of technologies. Some of Rob’s ideas (Rob was a voluminous thinker and writer, so I don’t feel terrible when I say some) have remained with me ever since that time, and I thought I would write them down here. It was these ideas that begun to shift my thinking about computerization in so many ways.

Technological Utopianism (Rob and Suzi Iacono)

A concept that refers to visions of Computerization as being nothing but good. These descriptions may describe increased control, change the balance of labour between people and machines (with the potential for deskilling), and a myriad of other potentially problematic situations. But that is largely lost in the vision being offered. Technology is simply going to make things better. It suffers not just from under-estimating the potential for problems, but also from usually reducing computing to a “swap” rather than being involved in a complex socio-technical system (more on that later).

A second component to technological utopianism is that it’s a rhetorical strategy, i.e. it’s a way of selling a vision of computing. Before the outcome there is the positioning that creates the motivation and movement towards the outcome. Technological utopianism is powerful.

I find myself thinking about technological utopianism each time I hear an account that System X will improve our processes. Whether it’s innovation in technologies to increase airport security, or purchasing an expensive customer relationship management system to improve workflow (Harvard Business Review says that 51% of all CRM efforts fail FYI). Arguments focused on technology, which give it agency for good, omit all the other things that will have to happen. Will training to use the machines be sufficient so that their human operator can use them effectively, will the machine be deployed into an environment that is like the one it was tested in, do we know what our current processes are well enough to know whether they are aligned with the management philosophy built into the system itself… all of these questions and more come popping into my mind.

And technological utopianism is at the front of my mind when I think about ICT4D. I should stress that I think it’s an awareness that researchers within the field have, but as I enter it, I am reminded that the proposition that Computerization will make things “better” is extremely problematic. It’s naive at best. It underestimates the socio-technological system, it also stubbornly ignores where the technology comes from and who profits. I think that as ICT4D becomes increasingly “popular” as a field of practice, technological utopianism will/can/should undergo a renaissance.

The Web of Computing

This was Rob’s (and Walt Scacchi’s) term for all the things it takes to make computing work in any form. It was their argument for empirical research and understanding of all the things that computing depends on. Minimally, since computers are human-used, it is all the people involved in the use of the machine, and what they do with each other as well as with the machine and any other system elements. It is not limited to computer users, but also those who support the users (i.e. technical support, those who face or not the customers in the organization that built the system, and those who depend on the outputs of the system usage). It’s all the hardware it takes to make the system work, which is not limited to the machine, but also the networked connections and other infrastructural technologies, like, say the power grid. (Again, well illustrated by ICT4D, where many of those infrastructures are missing). And within the computer itself, it’s not just the application in use, but all of the things that it in turn depends on, the dependencies on operating systems and other applications and so forth. (I think this is always well illustrated by the “lock-in” created once a system is deployed, while all the applications and platforms may make sense at the time of original investment, it is over the course of time that these dependencies can become extremely challenging, particularly if they are outside the scope of control of the application provider). Then there’s also the organizational, legislative, etc… environments in which all computers are used, and which govern how, whom, etc. applications are used. (Consider the household as a microcosm of such operating contexts, how do families create “rules” about how children use the computer).

Social Informatics

Rob’s legacy culminates in social informatics. He’d left Irvine by the time he started using this term more frequently, but to me it describes everything he and his students, and many of his colleagues did and continue to do. And I’ve been thinking a lot about the devolution of Computing as a discipline. Social Informatics, in Rob’s formulation, begins with some statements about the nature of the discipline. “It is defined by its topic (and fundamental questions about it), rather than by a family of methods…” perhaps he should have added to this or being defined by some property of the technology itself (like say areas defined as networking, many core computing,…). Then in a classically Rob move he offered a rich example, this was a hallmark of his writing and what he taught others to do.

Rob was the first person to present me with a vision of social realism, a way to describe computerization and change as a complex endeavour, and one worthy of study. It was one that lured me to graduate school and initially work with Rob as my advisor. It was in the course of working with Rob that I learnt another lesson, from him in a way, which was that I should never do research about something I don’t care about at all. Turned out that while Rob cared deeply about Digital Libraries, which were gaining considerable ground in a pre-Web, gopher-based Internet, I thought they were duller than dishwater. I saw nothing of consequence there, and I was almost certainly wrong about that, but without being able to see the ability to make a difference I couldn’t work up the energy needed to do scholarship.

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