Can Networks Face Systems Head On?

HighWire at Lancaster University has requested a series of six blog articles.

The Curiosity Bureau’s Founding Partner Rebecca Taylor responds to the Narratives and Meta-Narratives seminars on Digital Innovation – its impact on the world, the economy and society.

Article 5: Digital Innovation Series

On Tuesday evening we had an informal meet-up of the Network of Curious Folk this was a great example of a group of like-minded people with a collective interest in curiosity. There were no expectations of the evening it was simply an informal and enjoyable meeting of minds.

Not long after and I’m facing the challenge of this week’s blog entry and in the context of a week of sensory overload, AKA London, and its array of curiosities, lots of people, lots of data, lots of science and art and architecture and food and drink… lots of noise, I had to make time to focus, to see sense and find meaning in the madness.

When applied to digital information systems The Network of Curious Folk becomes messy and multi-layered, not owned by anyone specifically, not me or the partnership, or any one person across the network, we have established an open network based on a collective interest in something we intuitively believe interests people: curiosity. This collective interest spans across our network, across the world, through physical and digital connections. So would a creative approach to the design of an information system, one that could become a digital realisation of The Network of Curious Folk be at all helpful? For the benefit of the legacy of the network would we ever face the complexities of designing an information system head on?

Collective Wisdom

At the risk of returning to 2006 and regurgitating Jaron Lanier's 2006 manifesto - Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the new Online Collectivism I did wonder if collective wisdom can exist at all, and between people when physically brought together? Do we see collective wisdom in a social gathering? And if not, why not, what could it look like? Or, if so, where is it and why does it matter?

My interest in ‘collective wisdom’ began when I was researching user-generated content in arts institutions (2007-09), I was researching during a time when New Media departments were becoming more visible in the otherwise traditional management structures of institutions such as Tate, Royal Opera House, ICA, and I looked at the exciting examples of Shelly Bernstein at the Brooklyn Museum and Cogapp and The Metropolitan Museum in New York.

It was a fascinating time and yet I never really felt I got to the bottom of what - with hindsight - feels a little like an ill-defined use of the term 'collective wisdom'.

Nicholas Maxell has written much about wisdom, believing that it lies in the transformation of academia, and in his paper From Knowledge to Wisdom: Assessment and Prospects after Three Decades (2013) he states “global problems have arisen because some of us have acquired unprecedented powers to act without acquiring the capacity to act wisely.”

The challenge here is without the capacity to act wisely, whether we’re in a technological and/or social context we will always struggle to create individual wisdom. Collective wisdom is therefore almost an oxymoron, is it seemingly impossible to act wisely on mass, as a collective?

Saying that, there are examples, one of which is Fairsay, a site that works with the world’s leading campaigns (mostly charitable or social activism) to increase their effectiveness within weeks and help them win via strategy, analysis, training, events, advice and support. Although requests across the collective are managed, and therefore not completely open, it is attempting a crowd-sourced collective wisdom, but does it work? My brief research into this area of online community activism and digital information systems has yet to attempt to answer this, and the field is not simple, it reveals sticky social theory territory.

If we rewind somewhat, Lanier argues that the question “What kind of society will come out of the internet?” was only posed in the 1980s and he stresses that we need to remind ourselves that “it was only because in the 1960s that Ted Nelson imagined social networks and economic systems as coming together, with a micro payment system” it was then from this idealized vision that the tech community of the 60s, which then also included Tim Berners-Lee, collectively decided to keep the momentum going, keep the system open and not holt the development of the internet and its possibilities. This openness resulted in a messy space of trial and tribulation, but as Lanier says "digital is correcting for errors all of the time… that’s what it is, a science, that’s what it does"

Courtesy of Rachel Claire of I Love London Town:

Jim Campbell's Exploded View 2010 at Hayward Gallery, London

Social Construction of Technology

When we reached the 1990s, inquiry into social construction of technology was prevalent - Langdon Winner argued that there is a social elitist approach to social constructivism and the philosophy of technology, whereas the academic community leading this methodological charge – SCOT – Social Construction of Technology scholars, whilst they have differences of emphasis, Trevor Pinch, Wiebe Bijker and Bruno Latour were in 1987 writing and researching how SCOT tradition has enriched our understanding of technology, society and its environment or actor-network theory – therefore placing the social context at the heart of the technology, its reason and its purpose suggests technology design is an open process that ‘can produce different outcomes depending on the social circumstances of development’. They proclaimed the need to unite structural sociology and technology studies and dismiss any concern for technology to obtain any power.

Return to Winner and we see him say “The sheer multiplicity of technologies in modern society poses serious difficulties for anyone who seeks an overarching grasp of human experience in a technological society.” Winner concludes that “In the late 20th century a great many people have begun to realize that the key question is not how technology is constructed but how to come to terms with ways in which our technology-centered world might be reconstructed?” and stresses that “How tragic it would be to find that, at the moment of greatest challenge, many leading scholars of technology and society had retreated into a blasé, depoliticized scholasticism.”

So if we remain open and democratic in the design process of technology (in all contexts) perhaps we do run the risk of becoming too generalist, too idealistic and as such these loosely conceived notions are revealed and become unhelpful. However, if we build upon last week's blog post that presented Borgmann's fight (or fear) of mind versus machine, I have since spent some time studying Jaron Lanier's biography and been somewhat in awe of the sheer content of his MIT talk: 'How to love and criticise technology at the same time'. He talks so clearly and methodically of the beginnings of the Internet and the system it was attempting to be compared to the one that actually now exists within our world, as we know it and the social connection and interaction it continues to evolve.

The Presence of People

At least, in my attempt to seek some clarity of collective wisdom, digital information systems and social construction theory, I have not lost faith in the presence of people - and I’m thankful there are significant leading technology contributors who share my views on people and personality. Life is not utopian and there will be problems, but if we can collect our thoughts together and with the intent to do good then surely that is better than doing nothing?

Allow me to end here with a question that was posed by a member of the audience at Lanier’s talk. He really made me think, and if you ask this question from the perspective of the intention to sustain ‘collective spirit’ with the capacity to act wisely, how would you attempt to answer this: “Why do all our [information systems] solutions look like the more we can do with the less people the better?”