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Artifacts Have Politics. Now What?

September 23, 2011 1 comment

I’ve read Langdon Winner‘s essay “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” a dozen or more times. I first read it in grad school in the 1990s, and now I assign it in… well, almost ever class I teach.  Winner shows that some artifacts have deliberate politics. The highway overpasses around New York City were deliberately designed to keep poor people (especially non-whites) away from the beaches.  We know this because their designer, Robert Moses, said so.  Other artifacts (like nuclear versus solar power)  are not necessarily intentionally political, but lend themselves to certain kinds of power arrangements.

I once attended a lecture Winner gave, and during the question period asked him: “OK, I’m an engineer and I accept everything you say. What would you like my peers and I to do differently?” He didn’t really have an answer. I guess it’s kind of a hard question.  And I’m still pondering it myself.  I suppose “be mindful” is one straightforward answer, but the details matter–and the details in practice aren’t obvious.

When I teach the paper, I often use face recognition technology as a discussion topic. If you could invent perfect face recognition, would you?  If for example you could set up a camera at every convenience store and gas station in the nation that would reliably identify bomber Eric Rudolph while he was on the loose, would you? Are the implications different if, as is inevitable, the technology has an error rate? This leads to a discussion of the checks and balances we have in US law and whether we really trust the government to honor them in practice. If we err on deciding that we will trust the government and work within the system to make sure the limits are respected, that leads to a scarier question: What about use of this technology by totalitarian regimes in other nations?  If you invented it, wouldn’t they eventually get access too?  Is the inventor responsible for all of a technology’s eventual uses?  Knowing this, would you want to be the inventor or not?  It’s reasonable to say you’ll invent it and try to stay involved in the broader sociopolitical context of its use in practice–maybe that’s really all you can do. But you also need to recognize that you will sometimes lose control of what happens next.  Which raises the question, is there any technology that, given that you will likely eventually lose control of its uses, that you would decline to invent?  It’s easy to come up with an absurd example where the answer is yes (Marvin the Martian’s “destroy earth” button comes to mind). It’s harder to come up with heuristics for when something less extreme might fit that description.

I’ve had this discussion with classes over and over. It’s a great conversation–it gets students thinking.  And the discussion time and time again has followed the same path–until yesterday.  In my “Intro to Human-Centered Computing” class yesterday, master’s  student Vincent Martin commented, “I need face recognition technology. I would love to be able to recognize my friends and family again.”  Vincent is blind.  I’m surprised that obvious application doesn’t come up in conversation every time we discuss this issue.  I’ll make sure it comes up in the future.  If you were at all leaning towards refraining from developing face rccognition technology, I hope this would change your mind.  For every basic technology we develop, how many hidden surprise–uses for both good and ill that we can’t anticipate–are there?

OK, artifacts have politics. What does this mean for us as designers and engineers? Beyond high-level platitudes like “be mindful,” what should we do differently? I’m still wondering.

Separation Between Work and Home, from 2001 to 2011

September 12, 2011 1 comment

Ten years ago yesterday, I did a remarkable thing: I went to work. I was having breakfast at the kitchen table, and turned on CNN around 8:40 am. It was on when the newscasters first reported  that “a small plane” had hit the World Trade Center.  I called my mother in New York City–“Mom, turn on your television!”  We watched together for a few minutes.  Before the second plane hit, I went to work.  I had a CHI paper to work on, and the deadline was approaching.

By the time I got to work, it was apparent that something more serious than a freak accident was happening.  My PhD student, Jason Elliott, called the lab–should he still come in today?  I remember  telling him yes, get your sorry posterior in here!  We have a paper to work on! And what is the possible benefit in wallowing in mind-numbing disaster news coverage all day?  The longer we wait to look at the news, the more we’ll get the real story and avoid all the confused false rumors and speculations.  It’s all too terrible to contemplate, so let’s just get some real work done, OK?

Looking back, what strikes me is that in 2001, there was less news at work.  At home, I had television and radio. At work, I didn’t. Sure there were websites with news–but they presented text and still pictures–and much less quickly updated than is the norm today. Video and audio online were rare.  By going to work, I could focus on my work.

On December 25th, 1992 I wrote an essay called Christmas Unplugged about the way the Internet is reducing the separation between work and home.  I tried to publish it in time for Christmas 1993, but no one was interested.  A year later, I sent it out again, and got an immediate positive response. It appeared in Technology Review in January 1995.  Since then, the interconnectedness of work and home via the Internet has slowly increased. Yesterday was a fascinating point of comparison.  In 2001, work was still a somewhat separate realm. In 2011, if something momentous happens, I don’t think going to work could help you block it out. The news is in my Twitter stream. In fact, today news arrives  faster when I’m at work than at home!

The ability to avoid distractions and focus on news is just one of many consequences of this connectedness.  Another is the ability to work at home. Which is both good and bad.  When I was a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab, people were in the building at all hours of the night.  Sometimes we were working late, and sometimes we were playing Diablo.  Two or three nights a week, my graduate advisor, Mitchel Resnick, was nice enough to offer me a ride home–typically around 11 pm.  When I was back to visit recently, I asked if people still kept crazy hours there. The answer I got was: people still work just as hard, but they do it from home.  Whether this is a net gain or loss for either productivity, sociability, or work/life balance I can’t say.

People have always had to make choices about work/life balance.  The difference today is that geography is no longer a tool we can use to help.  Work life, home life, and the greater world around us are with us at all times on our desktops and our phones, all mixed together. We still need to make those choices, but we can’t implicitly make them by choosing to be at the office or not at a given time.  Maybe we need new tools to help.

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