[iDC] Table Tennis, Schmeb 2, List Dynamics, and Autonomous Uses of Sociable Web Media

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Mon Jun 12 10:34:29 EDT 2006

Activism, Web 2.0-- Schmeb 2.0, the future of the Internet, and many
other big big topics: we discuss it all on this list. Arguments
ping-pong back and forth: one person serves the ball and the other uses
her paddle racket to hit it ... or take the ball and run off with it.


Now we are talking about technology¹s relationship to social change
again. Yesterday a friend suggested that it might be useful for us to
look for a typology of positions that resurface in this discussion. We
could frame certain actors in relation to technology & social change: we
can map our position and that of others, being fully aware that such
positions shift over time. 

Andrew Feenberg in ³Questioning Technology,² my friend suggests,
identifies a typology of actors, beginning with the technological
essentialist, in the Preface of his book. 

³Essentialism holds that technology reduces everything to functions and
raw materials. Goal oriented technological practices replace practices,
which embody a human meaning. Efficiency sweeps away all other norms and
determines an autonomous process of technological development. From this
standpoint any attempt to infuse the technical with meaning appears as
external interference in a rational field with its own logic and laws.
Yet rational though it may be, technology engulfs its creators,
threatening both spiritual and material survival.²

And the non-essentialist approach:

³This ... approach has political implications. Awareness of the meanings
embedded in technology is more immediately available to ordinary users
than to managers and technical personnel. The manager may see the new
machine as more efficient, but the worker condemned to using it notices
that it also removes skill and initiative from the shop floor. The
polluter is less likely to see the relevance of environmental ethics to
technology than the victim of pollution. And so on. Thus what
essentialism conceives as an ontological split between technology and
meaning, I conceive as a terrain of struggle between different types of
actors differently engaged with technology and meaning.²

Perhaps sketching a typology of different actors would help us in this

In addition, the topic of technology & social change is hard to really
think through with fast writing on a mailinglist where, based on my
experience, very long posts (with notable exceptions) rarely lead to
discussion. The zestful dynamic of mailing lists is not the most
suitable format to actually get to the core of this problem beyond the
daily flicker of news feeds or even the latest policy debate. The
strength of list discourse I see in collaborative learning and research.
From my experience, lists are mainly fueled by shorter dialogical
sparks, brief controversial statements, conflict, exchanges of
references, reflections, personal anecdotes, comparisons, perhaps even
flame wars. 

In contrast, the less dialogical format of the essay (or dare I say:
book) allows for an argument to be cautiously formulated over as many
pages as it takes. Admittedly, the audience for such publication format
is different and limited by all means. But the reading of the text, on
the other hand, is perhaps slower: people go back to a text more often.
But, how many people read a book in comparison to the number of lurking
readers on a medium-sized list such as this one?

I appreciate mailinglists that have both: a little bit of noise and tons
of signal.     

To some extent I agree with David Golumbia¹s call for the integration of
technology into its social contexts. Jon Ippolito¹s proposal to ³insist
on and maintain a critical distance between our research and our shiny
gadgets² is of course also welcome. 

Nonetheless, a consequential debate about such arguments would be
interesting if it¹d identify a range of common actors in relation to
technology & social change. What do you think? 

Yochai Benkler achieves amazing complexity in ³The Wealth of Networks.²
Sociology, economics, law, and political science inform his discourse.
He patiently and passionately argues from a perhaps slightly too
optimistic, techno-embracive point of view (but at least he does not
hide his own investment). He takes on many often-heard criticisms,
namely technodeterminism and network utopia and argues through them step
by step and at a length that is hard to quote from in full as it really
takes him many (deserved) pages to finish his argument.

³... it is important to keep in mind that the relevant comparison is
always between the public sphere that we in fact had throughout the
twentieth century, the one dominated by mass media, that is the baseline
for comparison, not the utopian image of the ³everyone a pamphleteer²
that animated the hopes of the1990s for Internet democracy. Departures
from the naive utopia are not signs that the Internet does not
democratize, after all. They are merely signs that the medium and its
analysis are maturing.² 

These considerations connect to our discussion about imagined futures
for the Internet (Web 2.0, Business 2.0, Internet 2, Lambda Rail, and
Internet of Things). 

Kevin Kelly speculates that in 2015 ³the Web continues to evolve from a
world ruled by mass media and mass audiences to one ruled by messy media
and messy participation. How far can this frenzy of creativity go?
Encouraged by Web-enabled sales, 175,000 books were published and more
than 30,000 music albums were released in the US last year. At the same
time, 14 million blogs launched worldwide. All these numbers are

Tim O¹Reilly is correct when he describes the use of the term Web 2.0 

³I guess it's the old debate between language purists, and language
pragmatists. The right words are the ones people actually use, and this
word is catching on.²

But the sea of Web 2.0 non-believers is growing by the day and it seems
to now also include Mr. O¹Reilly himself. 

Nicholas Carr:

³Not long ago, the big-time tech publisher and conference impresario was
talking up Web 2.0 as a means of achieving a "technology-mediated"
higher consciousness. But a shadow seems to have fallen across
O'Reilly's optimism. In a commencement speech last month, he cautioned,
"If history is any guide, the democratization promised by Web 2.0 will
eventually be succeeded by new monopolies [which] will have enormous
power over our lives - and may use it for good or ill." A couple of
weeks ago, after being mugged in abstentia by a hysterical blog mob,
O'Reilly said the experience "has shaken my faith in the collective
intelligence of the blogosphere."

Craig Bellamy: 

³Web 2.0, schmeb 2.0. For many of us, the term Web 2.0 induces a
visceral response that is not at all dissimilar to hearing the word
dotcom, social network, or blogosphere. We are sick of the associations
with these words and tired of the endless babble and speculation
surrounding an idea that is misconstrued and misunderstood by most


Call it whatever you like, sociable web media will be my term of choice,
but the question of autonomous uses of these participatory web
architectures despite their enormous potential to turn into a
participatory panopticon, still matter a great deal. 


Benkler, Y. (2006) Wealth of Networks. New Haven: Yale University Press,

Feenberg, A. (1999) Questioning Technology. London: Routledge.

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