Posted: May 31st, 2013 | Author: Rob Goodspeed | Filed under: Government, Technology | 1 Comment »
On the Radical Anti-Institutionalism of Internet Intellectuals
I recently attended a talk by Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the MIT Center for Civic Media advertised as addressing the question “is digital media changing what it means to be an engaged citizen?” As a blogger, founder of three hyperlocal news websites, and now student of technology in (government-led) urban planning, I was interested in what he would have to say. The talk, which lasted at least 45 minutes, was ostensibly on this, but I found it deeply troubling. Zuckerman, officially a “research scientist” at MIT, talked about government, media, technology, and society with little mention of any previous research. I waited –- in vain –- to hear even the barest mention of previous thinkers on these topics (for example: the Federalist Papers, de Tocqueville, Dewey, Lippman, Schumpeter, Arnstein, Pateman, Castells, Fung, work in communications and political science journals, etc.). (It looks like what I heard was very similar to his keynote at a recent conference, see notes and a video of the talk.)
I have no doubt he is familiar with some of these thinkers, and probably has something to say about them. But they were largely omitted from the talk aside from perfunctory mention of several recent popular books. This presents a puzzle: why? Is it possible to conduct research on a topic by ignoring previous research? If so, why would you want to do it?
In hindsight, I should have not been surprised. The talk was an example of a broader milieu of “Internet intellectuals” who eschew previous research and thinking, or treat it in fragmentary or limited ways. I am sympathetic to the arguments put forward by Evgeny Morozov, who has gleefully attacked the most notoriously vapid talking heads (notably Tim O’Reilly and Jeff Jarvis), but I lack his indignation. The standards for public debate have always been fast and loose, and it’s probably good that way. In the long sweep of history, the junk is forgotten and gems of insight are remembered. However, academia is different. There is a norm of at least acknowledging other points of view, and attempting to take them seriously. Certainly, deep cleavages remain between fields, but they are for the most part about differing basic assumptions about reality or how to conduct research, not a willful ignorance of the alternatives. Good scholars read broadly and continually question their own basic assumptions.
In light of this, I concluded Zuckerman was choosing to omit previous research from this talk because he believes, at some level, that it is not required for the discussion. Perhaps the Internet has rendered everything totally new. We need new ways of thinking, and therefore the old ideas are not only a hindrance but must be deliberately exorcised. There is something to this point of view. Existing theories and worldviews are powerful blinders, and good empirical research often involves looking closely at reality before considering how to interpret it. This is required to make new insights, whether tweaks to earlier theories or totally novel ideas. However, research cannot be done in a total vacuum. All new knowledge is related, in some way, to previous thinking. Even boldly innovative work should acknowledge the flawed models it hopes to supersede.
Working on my dissertation, at the urging of my dissertation committee member Annette Kim, I explored some of the literature on institutions in society. Scholars in multiple fields began to realize in the late 80s that institutions play a key role in understanding the economy, government, and other social phenomenon. Economists focused on analyzing why institutions might be efficient for “rational actors,” but sociologists pointed out that institutions consist not only formal rules and structures, but broader cultural norms and ways of thinking. For example, companies follow lots of standard practices not because they objectively know they are efficient, but because they are influenced by broader cultural assumptions about how things should be done. Sociologists also argue that organizations and companies have missions broader than simply making a profit. In some deep way, institutions actually organize our behavior and create structures of meaning.
I realized the Internet-centric worldview is radically oriented towards deinstitutionalization. In short, since institutions are “socially constructed” (meaning they exist partly because we believe in them), if you get enough people to believe they don’t exist they actually won’t. Now, this may be useful if the institution you are attacking has no value or is harmful, but I’m not sure this is always the case. I don’t fantasize about the possibility of some type of benevolent anarchist utopia. Not only because my political opinions differ, but also because I think institutions perform valuable functions for us.
An example will help illustrate this. In a classic study of an impoverished town in Southern Italy in the 1950s, political scientist Edward Banfield (whose later work I would criticize) tried to figure out why it lacked a functional government and anemic economy. He concluded it was because of a local culture that made it difficult, if not impossible, to create institutions of any type. In short, institutions are important because they do stuff. Without them, modern life would be impossible.
Luckily, for the most part the deinstitutional thinking of “Internet intellectuals” has run up into the hard brick wall of reality. A key example is copyright laws, where despite the valiant efforts of activists it remains as deeply entrenched as ever, although there have been great strides made in voluntary copyright liberalization. Activists like Aaron Schwartz are subjected to (in my view, expectedly although not appropriately harsh) unrelenting state power. Moral arguments aside, good activism must be able to diagnose the nature of the enemy. In this case, copyright laws are held up by powerful organized interests such as corporations that are deeply invested in their maintenance. I don’t like or condone what is happening, but I understand it.
Another example of this tendency is in online education. To a certain degree, universities define what higher education should be. There is the idea that students select a major or field of study, which has a set curriculum, and then students pick specific topics and use accepted research methods to build on or challenge the existing knowledge. The idea of liberal arts education is that education isn’t merely for career purposes, but to broaden and deepen the human experience, attuning students to arts, ethics, and other dimensions of culture.
Needless to say this is in sharp contrast to many popular online education models. Curriculums are largely nonexistent, and the focus is on chopping up complex ideas into discrete snippets presented through short videos or exercises. The more nuanced practitioners are aware of these dimensions, but the loudest proponents of new online education models, inevitably from engineering or computer science, are throwing out the babies (curriculum, liberal arts, in-person seminars, the social experience of attending college, etc) with the bathwater, because they never valued the baby very much to begin with. For them, education is a set of discrete, narrow skills that are valued in industry. Full stop. The rest is for your spare time.
I am not a luddite opposed to technological innovation. However, institutional reform should be done carefully, not unthinkingly. We accept “disruption” in the private sector, but always under the watchful eye of regulations. But private businesses merely (for the most part) make stuff. Government and educational institutions play a much central role in our society, and we may be blind to their deep and nuanced functions. They are not all good or bad, and certainly should not be above thoughtful reform. In fact, I wrote previously that technology-centered efforts to reform city government are significant specifically because they are at least interested in the important issue of government reform.
I don’t think most of this is very original or profound, and the naive anarchism of Internet-centric people is legendary. However, what is surprising to me is the extent to which is has penetrated MIT, an elite educational institution. In fact, the entire MIT Media Lab, by design independent from formal disciplines, has been engaging more and more in social questions with limited links to existing scholarship and theories in the areas they are moving into.
Oddball centers exist throughout academia if you look hard enough, and maybe some of them are actually onto something the rest of us are missing. The point though, is universities share a spirit of inquiry and examination. All knowledge should be provisional and open to scrutiny. Therefore this is a direct address to the MIT Center for Civic Media. What have I got wrong? How do you engage in previous research, and if you ignore it, why? Not everyone shares your assumption that everything is totally new. I’s a too-rare academic willing to entertain the idea that some things may be, and new models are needed. Let’s meet in the middle and see where it leads.
Posted: December 17th, 2012 | Author: Rob Goodspeed | Filed under: eGovernment, Technology | 1 Comment »
Eight Theses on the Civic Technology Movement
In recent years, an exciting movement has been building in cities across the U.S. and around the world. Public officials, nonprofits, activists, and companies are experimenting with new ways to use new digital technologies to improve urban life by expanding access to data, upgrading government systems, and developing new apps. These loosely coordinated efforts have been dubbed by some a “civic technology” movement.
Recently the nonprofit OpenPlans and foundation collaborative Living Cities published a “field scan” of how the use of digital technologies and social media “has the potential to transform cities and the lives of their low income residents.” The report is based on interviews with 25 people and has a self-professed goal of sparking a broader dialog about the present and future direction of this movement. This blog post is a response to the report, and is intended to be critical and constructive.
What is the ‘civic technology’ field that is surveyed? It includes several components:
- Public officials working towards technical innovation in government, such as Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (where I worked in 2010).
- The creation of city data portals, and associated events such as application programming competitions and third party apps they encourage.
- The rise of nonprofits, such as Code For America, a group that pairs programmers with cities to produce useful technology.
- The development of private initiatives that work within this “space” such as websites that re-use government data, integrate with service delivery systems, and collaborate with public agencies to create new technologies.
- An emphasis on open technology standards, open source software, and interoperability as key values that should influence civic technology.
Assessing such a large and diverse set of activities is no small feat, and this report is a laudable effort to identify some of the key issues. The report also takes a particular interest in how these developments are (or could) impact the lives of low-income residents. My reactions below are somewhat impressionistic and presented as a list for discussion. Because of my background, I emphasize issues around government agencies, which I believe play a crucial central role in the civic technology discussion.
1. Technology Will Not Necessarily Help the Poor
While it may be true technologies could be used (and maybe are in some cases) to help the poor, technology does not exist separate from society. To the extent its design and use is shaped by dominant economic and political forces, technology won’t necessarily be transformative of existing relations. In the scholarly literature there is a debate between those who view technology as an independent force, imposing its will on society (epitomized in the title of the book “What Technology Wants“), and those who view technology as merely the servant to existing interests (much of mainstream social science). I take a moderate approach advocated by some scholars in the general field of “science and technology studies” (STS). Technology does matter because it can influence our individual choices, available knowledge, and collective action. Information systems always contain policies and values, and therefore their design is an opportunity to push in one direction or another. However, using technology for “good” requires deciding on our goals and pushing technology to pursue them, sometimes against substantial opposing forces.
2. The Poor Are Moving to Suburbia
The report largely assumes the poor live in central cities, and the report informants include participants from large cities including New York, Chicago, Boston and Newark. While historically these cities contained large poor populations, increasingly the ongoing revitalization of core cities mean that now the majority of the metropolitan poor live in suburban areas. How these areas will handle these changes is a major social and policy issue, one being tackled by one of my doctoral classmates at MIT, Christa Lee-Chuvala. This doesn’t mean inner-city poverty is obsolete, only suggests we may need to shift to regional perspectives or be attuned to different contexts. Big cities are typically more sophisticated at providing services and have more resources at their disposal than suburban or rural communities, impacting the types of technologies that might help in each place.
3. Cities Don’t Necessarily Want to Help the Poor … Or Might Not Agree on What to Do
There is also an assumption in the report that helping the poor is an unambiguous public goal. I’m not so sure. One doesn’t have to push very far to see where a consensus on this point might exist breaks down. First, even liberal cities aren’t exempt from political claims about who government should help and what constitutes a fair distribution. Even scholarly research on what interventions “work” to address poverty is remarkably varied. A great article by Teitz and Chapple that reviewed some of the scholarly theories about why inner-city poverty exists and found that while some have stronger evidence than others, the issue is sufficiently complex there may be several valid perspectives, meaning “fixing’ it is a tricky proposition. Foundations like those involved in this report are eager to push aggressively on issues of poverty and equity since they are usually only accountable to a board of directors. But cities operate in the real world of democratic accountability. While I believe professionals and leaders have a responsibility to lead, they must work within a broader civic landscape to get things done.
4. Changing Technology in Government is Hard Because it Requires Changing Government
Everybody knows there are some things money can’t buy, like love of happiness. It turns out another is often organizational change. The New York Times last week ran an article about an Air Force computer system that was cancelled after $1 billion had already been spent on it. $1 billion! For a presentation to earlier this year, I found this list of high-profile “IT project failures” costing companies billions of dollars. To be fair, the civic technology report does note to “ensure that civic tech solutions address real problems” technologists should use incremental and agile development methods. This is sensible advice but it was created in private sector contexts, where there can be tremendous impetus for organizational change and the market will impose strict discipline on firms. But governments are largely monopolies, and the larger issue isn’t lost funds (although that is important), but the ability to make changes at all, as seen in the Air Force example.
These large-scale “failures” occur establishing organizational technology doesn’t merely involve purchasing a tool, but instead requires developing a complex sociotechnical system. Implementing or changing technology therefore requires organizational changes (of roles, processes, values, etc), something that is so difficult it has sparked a mini-industry of scholars, consultants, and methods. Technologists often assume organizations with readily replace existing technology with new tools because they are clearly superior — faster, cheaper, easier to use, etc. While this is sometimes true, the inherent conservatism of organizations present an invisible barrier that must be overcome. And resistance to change may not be a bad thing, given the history of technical fads and unjustified hype. The known system that works adequately may be a better choice than the new one associated with unknown risks. As an example of this, I remember technologists advocating governments use mongoDB for open data portals several years ago, arguing it is technically superior than relational databases. Although it might be clearly superior along some dimensions (open source, more flexible, faster, etc), these are not dispositive in an organizational settings. Also important is interoperability with other systems, staff capacity and skills, and perhaps even the skills of citizens. The lesson to draw is that technology cannot be evaluated without considering the specific context in which it will be used, or implemented successfully without considering the necessary organizational changes.
5. Civic Technology is Hard Because Governments are Diverse … and Don’t Just Fill Potholes
Implementing civic tech means deciding on what goals it should help achieve. The report doesn’t dwell on the precise nature of government, and for good reason: governments are involved in a a bewildering variety of activities. When civic technology advocates do talk about governmental functions, they often focus on service delivery. Providing public services is an important and highly visible function, but governments do much more: establishing and enforcing regulations, administering grant programs, planning events, running facilities, orchestrating economic development, etc. These functions evolve in unique local contexts, and therefore what they do and their exact legal powers vary widely. (See Frug’s City Bound for a discussion of municipal legal powers). The diverse nature of governments has baffled scholars for years, and the best theory on the subject I have found is the one John Dewey’s sketched out in his classic The Public and Its Problems. In his view, government is by definition an ill-defined institution under continual change, as the democratic public deliberates about what problems exist and how they should be resolved.
More narrow views focusing on inputs and outputs, popular in some branches of public administration and popular discussion, can often lead to dead ends. For example, the high profile See Click Fix famously focuses on filling potholes and other discrete service requests. What is the broader public goal this achieves? What if the government just refilled potholes over and over, instead of determining a more durable or better pavement? Would pothole money be better spent a pavement management system that could avoid potholes, or should it be spent on other things, like public transportation? Given constrained resources, what services should government provide, exactly? It’s tempting to avoid these issues and their associated debates about the role of government. But any argument for change in the public sphere, even in the name of mere efficiency or services, is inherently political.
In light of these difficulties, what should we be doing? I will only suggest some ideas here.
6. Find Allies for New Partnerships
Amid the tremendous hype of civic technology, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that they constitute just a small interest group contending for resources and power in cities. Plenty of others have equally laudable goals, and therefore this community must consider critiques seriously and seek out allies. Partnering with domain-specific allies could lend much-needed legitimacy, expert knowledge, and resources. These could include groups working in fields as diverse as vacant property, public safety, public health, or education. Although collaborations can flop, where they work the result can be greater than the sum of its parts.
7. Involve More Scholars and Community-Based Organizations in the Civic Technology Discussion
As a first step, continuing a self-reflective discussion is a constructive step. However this must involve a broader set of people, and include more scholars and representatives from community-based organizations. I couldn’t help but notice only only academic was interviewed for the report (U. of Albany’s Theresa Pardo, Judith Kurland only recently moved to a university after a long career in government). Most informants were city officials and technologists. City officials, especially elected officials and their aides, have a powerful interest in seeming innovative and effective, but are loath to tell you want they can’t achieve or what seemingly unsurmountable obstacles they face. Technology advocates also have specific perspective, and are often wedded to particular approaches or technologies and lack detailed knowledge of what cities need. I recognize there’s a supply problem as well involved in reaching out to these groups. A vanishingly small group of academics take any interest in the field, for a variety of reasons, and plenty of public officials don’t “get” new technology and so will require education and engagement. One encouraging development was the consultation of Kathy Pettit for the report, a leader of the Urban Institute’s National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP). This group of community-based practitioners has been working with data and technology in poor urban neighborhoods since the 1990s, and the network could provide rich experiences from this experience.
8. Focus on Building Long-Term Capacity and Infrastructure
Second, I think there should be a focus on building government capacity and infrastructure in the long term. This means engaging more deeply with existing IT staff, and focusing on efforts to institutionalize changes. The change strategy in many cities in this area has been to get some “quick wins” with unambiguous positive effects. However, these efforts are vulnerable to being swept away with changing administrations or shifting priorities. More lasting reforms have been the result of small groups working within government, often with limited resources, and not from “hack day” events or short-term fellowships, however important these can be as part of a larger strategy. Focusing on capacity will also require deeper engagement with the existing “government technology” ecosystem, understanding the existing tools in the marketplace and nature of the public purchasing process. Recent interest in focusing on the Request for Proposals (RFP) process is an exciting step in this direction.
Civic technology efforts represent a spirit of innovation and social hope, but one that should be combined with humility and a long-term perspective. Many fields can contribute insights to smooth the way and anticipate pitfalls. In many cases, there is no one “best” way forward. Despite Obama’s recent victory, there is no identifiable government reform movement in the United States, and existing institutional structures and bureaucracies are often viewed as hopelessly ossified. (The last visible effort in this area, Reinventing Government, was during the Clinton administration). For good or ill, today’s technology reformers are the vanguard of public sector reform in the U.S. In his prescient 1927 work The Public and Its Problems, John Dewey foresaw how modern technologies would “create means which alter the modes of associated behavior which radically change the quality, character, and place of impact of their individual consequences.” If social media has done anything, it is powerfully transformed our “associative behavior,” as Dewey predicted. Urging we avoid “short-cuts of direct action” Dewey argued the state is and should be always under debate, advising that “formation of states must be an experimental process … Only through constant watchfulness and criticism of public officials by citizens can a state be maintained in integrity and usefulness.” For these reasons, the civic technology field bears an importance beyond its important but modest achievements so far, since the field embodies the potential for a better democratic society that harnesses technological change as it is transformed by it.
Posted: March 14th, 2012 | Author: Rob Goodspeed | Filed under: Smart Growth, Technology | Tags: big data, Planning | No Comments »
I thought I should note here two blog posts I recently published elsewhere.
I discussed some of the challenges involved in making “big data” accessible to low income communities in a post on Planetizen: “The Democratization of Big Data“.
I posted a guest post on PlaceMatter‘s blog about an innovative planning process for transit-oriented development in Metro Boston that used CommunityViz for indicators and 3D visualizations: “Planning for Transit-Oriented Development with 3D Visualizations.”
Posted: December 16th, 2011 | Author: Rob Goodspeed | Filed under: Technology | Tags: GIS, municipal data, open government | 3 Comments »
My first peer-reviewed journal article was published this month by the Journal of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA), an open access journal published by a leading geographic information systems (GIS) professional organization. Titled “From Public Records to Open Government: Access to Massachusetts Municipal Geographic Data,” it reports the result of a public records request for GIS data I submitted to all 351 Massachusetts municipalities. Here is the abstract:
Increasingly, citizens are demanding access to raw data from governments to hold public officials accountable, look up facts, conduct analysis, or create innovative applications and services. Cities and towns create data using geographic information systems such as layers describing parcels, zoning, and infrastructure that are useful for a wide range of purposes. Through a public records request to all 351 Massachusetts municipalities, this paper investigates whether these data are accessible to citizens in practice. Some response was received by 78.6 percent of the municipalities. Two municipalities refused access to all electronic records. Many others charged fees ranging up to $453 or placed legal restrictions on the data through licensing that could chill or prohibit creative reuses of the information through emerging technologies. Other practical barriers limited public access to data, such as limited resources, government officials’ limited technical knowledge, and outsourcing to private vendors. A followup survey among municipalities that did not respond to the request was conducted to determine if they had GIS systems or data policies, and this information was collected for 80.3 percent of the municipalities. Finally, the paper discusses the legal, policy, and technical steps that can be taken by governments to move from a “public records” to an “open government” paradigm for transparency of government data. The policy recommendations for municipalities include publishing GIS data for free online and with minimal legal restrictions.
The paper started as a class project for the MIT class “Ethics and Law on the Electronic Frontier” I took in Fall 2010. This research is related to the work I did at the City of Boston, where in 2010 I developed an open government strategy proposing how the city could use technology to achieve transparency, participation, and collaboration goals.
Goodspeed, Robert. 2011. “From Public Records to Open Government: Access to Massachusetts Municipal Geographic Data” (PDF) Journal of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association 23 : 1, p. 21-32.
> What Government Data Should be Transparent?
> Public Sector Innovation: Learning from History (on local GIS technology adoption)
Posted: September 9th, 2011 | Author: Rob Goodspeed | Filed under: Government, Technology, Urban Development | Tags: cybernetics, smarter cities | 1 Comment »
Periodically I come across an old article that seems very relevant to the present, such as the article about public sector innovation I posted in January.
The ongoing expanded use — and declining cost — of sensors and computing technologies has sparked a renewed interest in using them to solve persistent urban problems. A similar wave of interest occurred during the early history of digital computing. In his influential 1950 book, Norbert Wiener popularized the term “cybernetics” to refer to the emerging science of communication and control of organized systems. If the city is an organized system, then cybernetics in city hall would involve creating information feedback loops to be used by the manager (or “actuator”) to minimize the effects of disturbances and maximize achievement of urban goals. Sound familiar? It should: IBM inked a multimillion dollar deal to open a real-time “public information management center” in Rio de Janeiro (right) as part of their smarter cities initiative, and Wired magazine is keeping up a drumbeat about the power of feedback loops.
In an astute article published in Science in 1970, E.S. Savas considered the challenges this approach might face in the real world of New York City government. I don’t doubt the importance of real-time control for management tasks like transportation system management and emergency response, but the article describes some important challenges such a system would face if applied more broadly. Savas described how the five elements of the cybernetic loop would play out in the city: (1) dynamics of urban government, (2) information system, (3) administration, (4) goal setting, and (5) disturbances.
1. Dynamics of city government: The election cycle faced by big city mayors would limit the range of solutions considered, resulting in smaller goals and visible acts, which “may be more symbolic than effective.” Government itself is very slow-moving and one solution — delegating power — may have unintended consequences.
2. Information system: Arguably today much more information is available than was in 1970 about what’s happening in the city. But another crucial input is as tricky as ever — gauging the will of the people.
3. Administration: Making a decision is one thing, but implementing it requires an administration with appropriate personnel and structure, a well-known weakness of big-city bureaucracies.
4. Structure of government: Not only are city governments organized in anachronistic ways, the article omits another key fact: the fragmentation of powers. In Boston, for example, in addition to municipal fragmentation itself, separate entities manage many utilities, the transit system, parks, etc.
4. Goal setting: Identifying a common set of goals may be impossible. The chief executive can use judgement, but it is for good reason that power is delegated to elaborate systems of commissions, boards, and advisers on many topics.
5. Disturbances: These are unpredictable, often external to the city, and often not visible to the public (who sets the goals) until it is too late to prevent their impact. (e.g., climate change)
There are, in general, two responses to most of these concerns. Savas himself took one approach: give up on city government and advocate for privatization of service delivery. Presumably the cold logic of the profit motive would sweep away administrative, regulatory, and decision-making quirks of city governments. The other approach is to attempt to reform the government. In fact, IBM staff have admitted the “challenges” that will face a contemporary agenda for cybernetics. I think the need for contemporary urban government reorganization and reform is acute in many cities, but interest in it seems limited.
Notably, neither of these approaches truly addresses the challenges posed by the short time-horizon of elected officials, difficulty setting goals or forming consensus, and unpredictable disturbances. These three point to the need for planning to solve urban problems: a multi-stakeholder process involving analysis, deliberation, and solution design that both forges a consensus about the definition of a public problem and crafts a desired solution. It seems to me that in the face of the enormity of the challenges we face we need both smart planning and an efficiency-driven smart cities movement willing to push for reform but respectful of democratic systems.
> E.S. Savas in Science magazine, 1970: “Cybernetics in City Hall“
Posted: April 4th, 2011 | Author: Rob Goodspeed | Filed under: Technology, Urban Development | Tags: Urbanism and Planning | Comments Off
The Spring issue of the newsletter of the the Technology Division of the American Planning Association, which I edit, was just published. The issue was timed to coincide with the American Planning Association conference here in Boston next week. The issue includes articles on the following topics:
Or, read the entire issue in PDF format.
Posted: March 28th, 2011 | Author: Rob Goodspeed | Filed under: Social Networking, Technology | Tags: platforms, social construction theory, sociotechnical systems | 3 Comments »
It seems that every day the word ‘platform’ becomes more ingrained in the way we think about online tools to do good and address public problems. The ubiquity of the term may be due to its fundamental ambiguity, which it shares with other terms like ‘sustainability’ and ‘participation.’
In an incisive article on the subject last year, Tarleton Gillespie analyzed how the word “platform” was used by major players like Flickr, YouTube, and Google. (I mentioned his article previously but will summarize the thesis here.) In the article, he points out the contradictory ways the companies use the term as part of a rhetorical strategy to serve their interests. On the one hand, as platforms they argue for limits to legal liabilities for actions of their users. On the other, as a platform of opportunity for advertisers, they define and enforce restrictions on users’ speech and activities. He concludes “the discourse of the ‘platform’ works against us developing such precision, offering as it does a comforting sense of technical neutrality and progressive openness.”
However, as we consider how to apply innovating online technologies for community engagement or governance activities, talk of ‘platforms’ can be troubling from another point of view as well.
Discussions of sociotechnical systems argue humans are just as important as the technical artifacts. An extensive literature on usability and systems development has developed a nuanced understanding of any system as a composite of technical and social components. As a simple example, what an expert user can do with a laptop is much different than what a grandparent can do upon first receiving one. In a larger case one theorist argues “the remarkably low accident rates in commercial air transport, for example, reflect the success of vigilant organizations, legal apparatus, and social learning about accidents as much as the demonstrate the quality of aircraft design and maintenance.” Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating discussion of air safety in Outliers describes how improving air safety often entails new social rules, such as banning idle chatter in the cockpit during key times, not simply technical ones.
Just as it obscures the internal tensions between different interests, the term “platform” alienates us from this more contextual view of technology. We often jump to the position that solving the problem entails designing the platform, implying it is a neutral system equally usable by any visitor. In reality, according the theory proposed here, solving any problem involves modifying or creating both social and technical components. We are dimly aware of a first-mover advantage in a “space,” but much less aware of the process of creating a useful system. In fact, social construction theory argues technologies are mutually constructed between system designers and engineers and users. Internet “platforms” such as Facebook and Twitter are both powerful independent companies, and in a subtle dialog with their users about how their systems should evolve. The simplest examples are how Twitter has incorporated hashtags and @ tweets into their technical architecture, and Facebook has gone through a well-publicized dance about how to manage the news feed, privacy settings, and even whether you can delete your account.
Of course, this links directly to broader debates about the merits (and measurement) of investments in physical versus social infrastructures. Although it can never be fully resolved, the purpose of the post is to temper technical enthusiasm with a more nuanced view of the origin and evolution of a new category of sociotechnical systems: online platforms.