Posts tagged “use”

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • Report: Real-world police forensics don't resemble 'CSI' – Even before the popularity of shows like CSI, there was presumably a cultural belief in the "science" behind these techniques. But the report finds that:
    – Fingerprint science "does not guarantee that two analysts following it will obtain the same results."
    – Shoeprint and tire-print matching methods lack statistical backing, making it "impossible to assess."
    – Hair analyses show "no scientific support for the use of hair comparisons for individualization in the absence of (DNA)."
    – Bullet match reviews show "scientific knowledge base for tool mark and firearms analysis is fairly limited."
    – Bite-mark matches display "no scientific studies to support (their) assessment, and no large population studies have been conducted."
  • NJOY electronic cigarette – Looks like a real cigarette, complete with glowing tip on inhale, and exhaled vapor that resembles smoke. Gives an inhaled nicotine experience, while messaging to the rest of the world that you are really smoking a real lit cigarette. Paging Erving Goffman?

    Someone was using one a party last week; someone else got out their simulated Zippo lighter (an iPhone app) and lit it for them.

Technology evolves with use

I love blog convergence. The discussion on this post fits well with this article in the the New Yorker that I read yesterday. It’s ostensibly a book review, but also a stimulating essay on adoption, evolution, and social construction of technology/innovation. I’ve pulled my favorite pieces out here (it’s not a long article, but the extracts make for a long blog post).

It’s common to think of technology as encompassing only very new, science-intensive things-ones with electronic or digital bits, for instance. But it’s also possible to view it just as things (or, indeed, processes) that enable us to perform tasks more effectively than we could without them. The technologies that we have available substantially define who we are. The nineteenth-century Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle didn’t much like the new industrial order, but he did understand the substantive relationship between human beings and their technologies: “Man is a Tool-using Animal. . . . Nowhere do you find him without Tools; without Tools he is nothing, with Tools he is all.”

The way we think about technology tends to elide the older things, even though the texture of our lives would be unrecognizable without them. And when we do consider technology in historical terms we customarily see it as a driving force of progress: every so often, it seems, an innovation-the steam engine, electricity, computers-brings a new age into being. In “The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900” (Oxford; $26), David Edgerton, a well-known British historian of modern military and industrial technology, offers a vigorous assault on this narrative. He thinks that traditional ways of understanding technology, technological change, and the role of technology in our lives, have been severely distorted by what he calls “the innovation-centric account” of technology. The book is a provocative, concise, and elegant exercise in intellectual Protestantism, enthusiastically nailing its iconoclastic theses on the door of the Church of Technological Hype: no one is very good at predicting technological futures; new and old technologies coexist; and technological significance and technological novelty are rarely the same-indeed, a given technology’s grip on our awareness is often in inverse relationship to its significance in our lives. Above all, Edgerton says that we are wrong to associate technology solely with invention, and that we should think of it, rather, as evolving through use. A “history of technology-in-use,” he writes, yields “a radically different picture of technology, and indeed of invention and innovation.”

Learning how to make new technologies is one thing; learning how, as a society, to use them is another. Carolyn Marvin’s illuminating book “When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century” (1988) notes that, during the early years of the telephone, there was confusion about what codes should regulate faceless and socially clueless speech. The telephone operator, typically female, often had the responsibility of waking up the master of the house, and so joined the wife as a woman who could talk to the man in bed; Marvin writes that “sweet-voiced” telephone girls at the turn of the century “were often objects of fantasy.” It was also thought that, if just anyone could use the new device, its utility would be completely undermined. Marvin notes the firm opinion of the British postmaster general in 1895 that “the telephone could not, and never would be an advantage which could be enjoyed by the large mass of the people.” He was wrong, but understandably so. The story of how we came to terms with the new technology-how we adjusted to it, adapted to it, domesticated it, altered it to suit our purposes-didn’t come with the technical spec sheet. It never does. No instruction manual can explain how a technology will evolve, in use, together with the rhythm of our lives.

The tendency to exaggerate the impact of technological innovation follows from an artifact of historical consciousness. When we cannot conceive what life would be like without e-mail, say, we correctly note the pervasiveness of the new technology, but we may incorrectly assume that the things we now do through e-mail could not have been done in other ways. Of course, we must know that many things now done through e-mail were once done, and to some extent are still done, by telephone, fax, snail mail, or actually stopping by to see someone. But we can never know how the technologies that existed before electronic communication would have developed had e-mail not become dominant, or what other technologies might have come along whose development was forestalled by e-mail.

In many African, South Asian, and Latin-American countries, used vehicles imported from North America, Western Europe, and Japan live on almost eternally, in constant contact with numerous repair shops. Maintenance doesn’t simply mean keeping those vehicles as they were; it may mean changing them in all sorts of ways-new gaskets made from old rubber, new fuses made from scrap copper wire. “In the innovation-centric account, most places have no history of technology,” Edgerton writes. “In use-centered accounts, nearly everywhere does.” John Powell’s marvellous [sic] study of vast vehicle-repair shops in Ghana, “The Survival of the Fitter: Lives of Some African Engineers” (1995), describes a modern world in which vehicles imported from the developed world initially decay, and then something changes: “As time goes by and the vehicle is reworked in the local system, it reaches a state of apparent equilibrium in which it seems to be maintained indefinitely. . . . It is a condition of maintenance by constant repair.” Much of the world’s mechanical ingenuity is devoted to creating robust, reliable, and highly adapted “creole” technologies, an ingenuity that is largely invisible to us only because we happen to live in a low-maintenance, high-throwaway regime.

Maintenance has implications for the identity of technological artifacts. There’s a traditional conundrum about “my grandfather’s axe“: over its lifetime, it has had three new heads and four new handles, but-its owner insists-it remains his grandfather’s axe. Philosophers have their proprietary version of the axe problem: “Locke’s socks” developed a hole, which he had darned, and then darned again. The socks kept the philosopher’s feet warm, but they troubled his head. Many people make their living repairing things; a very few make their living pondering whether repaired things are the same.

The astronomer Carl Sagan once said, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” If he meant that we are unfamiliar with the principles on which the technology around us works, he was right-there’s an enormous gap between the knowledge of makers and the knowledge of users-but this is exactly as it should be. As users, we typically want our technology to be a black box; we don’t want to be bothered with adjusting it, monitoring it, repairing it, or knowing about its inner workings. A sure sign of the success of a technology is that we scarcely think of it as technology at all.


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