Anticipation, innovation and the narratives of technical development

Ubiquitous computing is an interesting yet peculiar (empirical) focus for study by virtue of there being no devices or systems widely available commercially or publicly. This is at the heart of my research interest, the point of friction I feel compelled to address: ubiquitous computing largely exists as a confluence of anticipatory, imaginative and research & development practices. It is these assemblages of practice and the fields of relations therein that I hope will form the empirical focus of my project.

Computing systems development is clearly well described, there are a plethora of books, courses, articles and papers that espouse various rationales and orthodoxies. Yet, whilst there are practical differences in methods of development they largely assume the same beginning – a problem. To plan is apparently, according to a number of computer science texts, to problematise – rhetorically. For in practice the plans for development are frequently not formed by identifying a problem that requires a solution but are instigated by imagining what technologies could do for us. This anticipation or future-gazing is, of course, not new, but these practices of imagination face little scrutiny.

Amongst discourses of management within and about the development of technology, the conceptualisation of innovation is often used to explain these imaginative practices. Innovation in many cases implies a continual progress in technological development, for example Everett Rogers suggests a linear diffusion of innovations (2003), and even when its source is proposed as end-users (von Hippel 1988) a form of telos, progress towards some end, remains an implication. Intel ‘Enterprise Architect’ Eleanor Wynn illustrates this in a recent article. Differentiating between invention, as any ‘novelty’ in development, and innovation, as successful inventions that form ‘new niches’, inventions can fail, innovation cannot. Accordingly, as with other conceptualisations (cf. von Hippel 1988), innovation is always successful regardless of the metric of measurement. Many of those involved in the practices of imagining and predicting ‘new’ technologies may well adopt such theories. However, given such theories’ reliance upon society-technology dualisms and a teleological progress in development, management conceptualisations of innovation arguably elide precisely those phenomena social sciences research, not least my own project!, seeks to investigate.

Anne Galloway has highlighted the contradictions in the accounts technological researchers and designers make of their work:

"there is the tendency for (software) designers to refer to some sort of autonomous (hardware) technology that exists before them, and without them, and yet requires activation by them – a phenomenon I witnessed in my dissertation research …

"Most of the mobile media researchers and designers I spoke with described their work as possible only because particular wireless technologies, or technological capacities, already existed. At the same time, they described the value of their work in terms of finding socially compelling uses for these technologies …

"there is something simultaneously technodeterministic and utopian about all this. I see it in popular discourse on ubiquitous computing in general; you know, the position that goes something like ‘Ubicomp is present, but it’s not very good. Ubicomp is the future, but only if we design it better.’ In either case, the technology itself is considered inevitable, but there is still hope because it is design-able, and therefore somewhat controllable." [From: Anne Galloway – Activating new technologies]

Purely ‘instrumental’ conceptualisations of technology figure technologies as ‘things’, which allows the cataloguing of codified objects. Yet, as Bruno Latour argues, this sets a dichotomous relationship between the human (subject) and the technological (object). Two prominent examples of binary narratives that are imposed on our uses of technology are technological determinism and social constructivism.

Technological determinism describes theories of technology as the driver of social change, a ‘ubiquitous discursive scaffold [“¦] according to which an unproblematic and stable distinction can be drawn between technology, on the one hand, and society on the other, with the former further assumed to ‘impact’ on the latter, causing various effects’ (Bingham 2005, 202 cf. Fischer 1994). A social construction of technology, or ‘social constructivism’, suggests that innate properties and faculties are built into objects by virtue of their design and development. Whereas with technological determinism technical objects are strong and social elements are weak, with social constructivism the situation is reversed. These are all (following Heidegger 1977) ‘instrumental’ definitions of technology, ‘a means to an end’, which is ‘in obvious conformity with what we are envisioning when we talk about technology’ (Ibid. 4-5). Even so, as Heidegger goes on to say, however ‘correct’ the instrumental definition of technology, it still does not describe the instrumentality itself (cf. Mackenzie 2002).

Where does this take us? For my own research, it leads me to ask how we can identify events of innovation in the context of ubiquitous computing and how the imaginative practices of anticipation and future-gazing are integrated (or not) into ubicomp research and development. So… more to come!

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2 Replies to “Anticipation, innovation and the narratives of technical development”

  1. Your comments in this post were helpful to me as I attempt to conceptualize my ideas for further research and study. I noticed that you are approaching Ubicomp from the perspective of a geographer. It is refreshing to see someone “out-of-field” thinking about similar issues. For a variety of reasons, I did not become a computer/technology student until mid-life, approaching my studies with a background in psychology, education, and social science. I recently started a new blog, “Technology-Supported Human-World Interaction” to share perceptions and reflections about technology and Ubicomp-related research. I’ll add a link to your site soon!

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