Beki Grinter

Pondering Change

In academic management, research on August 30, 2010 at 4:37 pm

Recently I attended the GVU retreat. Early on, the Director presented the GVU vision. It’s presented as an interplay between technology and people. The argument is as follows: from a technologists perspective, technology changes rapidly while people remain at a constant. The GVU argument is that people do change, in relation to technology, and it’s that space that GVU is pursuing.

So, let me start by saying that this post is not really about the vision itself, but about reflecting on the vision from the research perspective. Visions, including this one, do a particular type of work. They have to be broad, inclusive, easy to understand and take up. This vision does that nicely. And GVU’s success in part is attributable to this good vision.

Vision = good.

So, do people change or not?

Evolution suggests slowly at best. But setting evolution aside, I am reminded of some research I did a long time ago now. In the late 1990s, I studied teenagers using IM and SMS technologies. They had been rapidly adopted among teenagers and I wanted to understand why. The answers were that these technologies were allowing them to do a variety of things despite the constraints that they faced.

The question of change came up in this research though, well one version of it: what are the new activities that these technologies enable? And the truth was that it was hard to answer that question. What we saw a lot of in our data was that technology seemed to provide a new mechanism for doing things that had long existed. Teens wanted to text each other to make arrangements to meet up, to share gossip, and to get help with homework. But teenagers have always wanted to meet up, share gossip, and get help with homework. Technologies for these purposes seemed like new means to get help with old, unchanged, problems. Although you could argue that the process of using these technologies was changing how and when they got access to each other, a sort of time-space shifting.

The goodnight message we concluded was a new practice. The goodnight message is the SMS that is shared among two close friends (perhaps dating, perhaps not). It was the last message sent at night. Even that we felt might not be so novel, it seemed to mirror other behaviors, chiefly among those who could say goodnight to each other last thing at night. And of course, you might say that this is not surprising, practices are very embedded. Just because we get new technology, like the web, that allows us to bank from home, doesn’t mean that we’re going to throw away the banking system as a whole.

So, I’m not sure that I agree that humans use technology to change their experiences by leveraging its ability to facilitate novel practices. On the other hand, I think that it does change the circumstances in which practices can occur, it reconfigures the mixes, then yes, I think I can concur. I think it just depends what change means. And to me, naively change often implies a complete shift from what has been, and I am not sure that technology changes people like that.

Addendum: just re-reading Burrell and Morgan and being reminded that change, at least in some perspectives is far more radical than anything I’ve proposed above. Change implies destablization, overthrow, at least in some perspectives. So, again I guess I don’t think that the majority of technology does that, perhaps it could do that, but not as it is designed. Perhaps not surprisingly the majority of technology we use seems to me to reinforce the status quo, at least from this perspective of radical change.

Perhaps other people have a better answer. But, I think it’s a question worth asking.

  1. hmm. this vision seems over-thought. from an old-skool technological (determinism) perspective, super-cool new technology *does* change people. WEB 2.0 CHANGES HOW WE WORK! CONSTANT CONNECTIVITY CREATES A NEW ADD GENERATION! so the strawman against which this vision argues is a couple of steps beyond where lay people, press, chancellors, etc. are now – and brings them right back to what already seems intuitively “obvious” to them. that doesn’t seem good, if the point is to be provocative.

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