Four Pillars: On Social Aspects of Technology

Ron Silliman recently linked to me and stated in his blog: One technology blogroll I like a lot – because it focuses to a surprising degree on the social implications of technology – belongs to J.P. Rangaswami, whose blog is Confused in Calcutta.

Ron, I appreciate the feedback. But it made me think. Am I unusual in this? I think not, except perhaps as a result of the extent my thoughts are influenced by the following books: The Social Life Of Information, The Cluetrain Manifesto, Emergence, The Tipping Point, The Future of Work, The Modern Firm , Open Sources 2.0 , Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital, Community Building On The Web, How Buildings Learn, 109 Ideas for Virtual Learning, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, Maverick, The Borderless World and Blink.

I could have made the list bigger, but this is enough to make my point. These are some of the most important books ever written about how information flows within an organisation, how to make the flow better, how to organise around it, how to get the best value out of people.

IT is about Information and Technology. ICT is about Information and Communications and Technology. Enterprises and markets are made up of people. If we don’t concentrate on the social aspects of what we do, we don’t do our jobs.

If only I had the data to defend the statements, I would say:

  • 90% of the cost of implementing systems is about the social aspects
  • 90% of the reason projects succeed or fail is to be found in the social aspects
  • 90% of the value to be derived from ICT comes from the social aspects
  • 90% of the joy of working in ICT comes from the social aspects
  • 90% of the challenges in ICT come from the social aspects.

Well, I’ve said it anyway. So I might as well go further. If ICT was a new discipline today, it would (and should) be classified as a social science.

7 thoughts on “Four Pillars: On Social Aspects of Technology”

  1. Yes, I agree with that assessment completely. It’s not an accident that Manuel Castells, for example, was an early chronicler of the space.

  2. I am just on the brink of starting my MBA dissertation. I am basing my research on the social aspect of IT Development. There is little research in my opinion into the social aspects of IT systems. I believe that by doing more research into social aspects of technology will help organisations understand the positivist nature of IT systems. Other social aspects to consider could be hegamony and ICT and the social construction of reality by ICT.

  3. Richard, if by “IT Development” you mean software development, then there is a very rich literature out there (that might drown you before you write a word of your dissertation)! This was a very big thing in Sweden in the Eighties. The best book from that time and location is Pelle Ehn’s WORK-ORIENTED DESIGN OF COMPUTER ARTIFACTS. It will probably be easier for you to find a copy if you are on the European side of the pond. PARC has a copy, but that will not do you much good! Then there is a lot of stuff by John M. Carroll, which should be easier to locate on EITHER side of the pond! Finally, the mouldy-oldie (we’re talkin’ 1978 here) textbook on DECISION SUPPORT SYSTEMS by Peter G. W. Keen and Michael S. Scott Morton takes a decidedly social approach to development, making it decades ahead of its time and probably totally ignored by just about all development geeks alive today. Is that the sort of stuff you need to get started?

    Regarding the positivist connection, I think Ehn is the only one of these authors who uses the term flat-out. However, Keen and Scott Morton are very good at pointing out the dangers of following that party line of that UR-positivist, Herbert Simon. Carroll also has little truck with positivism; but he did not confront the topic in the stuff of his that I read (which does not mean that he does not confront it elsewhere, since he has written a lot of stuff)! Anthony Giddens, of course, is the social theorist PAR EXCELLENCE who took on positivism with great relish; but I do not think he ever wrote explicitly about technology development.

    Unfortunately (with apologies to Joyce) positivism is the nightmare from which many of us are trying to awaken; but, in most enterprise settings that are obsessed with such concepts as ROI, the bean-counters keep pushing the sleeping potions into our system!

  4. I would also recommend reading Christopher Alexander, Stewart Brand and Jane Jacobs. Software development means something to me only when it builds ecosystems.

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