Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Tech Race against the Masses

(Hmm, the Blogger wysiwyg editor might have screwed the formatting on this one up a little. Will post and find out... ;)

David Wilcox has done a great job recently of explaining the importance of new social tools, and at the same time noting the confusion around "them". I put "them" in quotes as it really refers to a culture, or even a vision that draws a distinction and defines "a new sort of digital divide", as David puts it.

This got me thinking a bit about the role that "we" as techno-chasers have, and reminded me that Language is Power. Why do we define things as "Web2.0"? Why are we so keen to engage entire communities, nay entire populations with "radically" different concepts and technologies? Who do such definitions serve and, more importantly, what do they mean to everyone else?

David mentions "Silicon Snakeoil", but I think the current trend encompasses more than mere snakeoil - I think a lot of the "new-tech" posturing comes about from a real desire to see change, an attitude and approach to politics from an extreme problem-solving point of view. That is, "we" define terms such as "Web2.0" and "e-citizen" to:

a) provide some continuity between the "old" and the "new" - the Web in one case, and what it is to be a citizen, in the other.

b) simultaneously set a "breakpoint" that declares a boundary, and claims that what we're doing right now is fundamentally "different" somehow and therefore "better". This is, of course, partly motivated by a keen desire to appear as "worth something" - an important point when getting paid...

But this suffers. For firstly, as David points out, it's very difficult to define exactly what we mean here - what is the difference between old and new? One could say, instead, that the difference is more hope than reality, more a teleological drive for a new country than an actual identification of a shift in how the world works. This, I think, is where the "hype" comes from.

Secondly, the terms are defined within a subculture. The biggest problem I see is that this "hope" is being exported into a "wider" culture that doesn't necessarily understand, or even need to understand the same point of view that the subculture sees. In other words, why should I become an e-citizen, rather than, say, simply a citizen that happens to use the technology around them. Do I care if my local council use "Web2.0" technologies when I didn't really realise there was a Web 1.0? Thus, by attributing a name to what we see as the "future", there's also some possibilty that people will be put off as well.

Capitalism has seen some considerable success in getting people accustomed to change - but onyl so long as they don't have to do anything. Buy, use, upgrade, repeat. So far, this has translated relatively well into one-line technologies (central servers make things easier, although areas such as firmware and security updates are still "slow" in comparison). But politics is about participation. As such, we should be asking whether enforcing rapid, radical change upon people in order for them to participate is necessary to "reclaiming" politics. In parallel, then, we should also be asking what effect on the non-subcultured, non-"2.0" populace we are having by declaring that everything's changed, and that we need to change in order to remain citizens.

That's not to say we should revert to some pre-internet Athenian-style form of debate, of course. It just seems, sometimes, that we can be so fixated upon clearing away the "old" (off-line discourse, and now Web 1.0)  and re-inventing the "new" from the ground up, that it's easy to forget that people will usually quite happily put up with defects in the mechanism if it lets them focus their energies on the issues that matter to them.

Where do we draw the line between improving the infrastructure, and getting some real work done? ;)

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