Salsa Scoop> It's the Use, Not the Tech

It's the Use, Not the Tech

Our resident programming recluse emerged yesterday to pronounce upon the peculiarities of elevating a format into a standard. Seems it's another one of those problems which upon scrutiny dissolve from the technical to the social. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our code. Tangentially, Chris' ruminations reminded me of a book review in the month's backlog of New Yorkers awaiting my return from vacation last week. Subtitled "How uses, not innovations, drive human technology", it surveys the "use history" of technology -- the relationships people form with tools, and perseverance of old technologies amid new, the ultimate centrality of human experience and society vis-a-vis gizmos and "futurism".
no one is very good at predicting technological futures; new and old technologies coexist; and technological significance and technological novelty are rarely the same ... Above all, [David] 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."
I hadn't seen it remarked upon in my scan through the nptech chatter of recent weeks, but that sounds like a description anyone who's worked at a nonprofit -- or taken a support call from one -- can readily identify with. Software bought through the manager-salesperson interaction for which staffers end up jury-rigging workarounds that outlive the use of the original tool; space-age offices dependent on the donor relationships in the president's head; data palimpsests of laptops, cell phones, and ball-point pens. It's a situation to be celebrated (not least because railing against it won't change it), not reviled, and mined for the wisdom everyday users bring to the experience of technology, old and new alike.
The piano is one thing to a pianist, another to a piano tuner, another to an interior designer with no interest in music, and yet another to a child who wants to avoid practicing. Ultimately, the narrative of what kind of thing a piano is must be a story of all these users. It’s a narrative in which we turn out to know a surprising amount about the technologies that have infiltrated our lives, and in which knowing only as much as we want and need to know about them is, in a sense, to know a lot.


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