Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Here we go again: English 534

I was debating whether or not to go into Kristin Arola's course on teaching technical and professional writing with a clean slate. After all, this is a new class, with a new cohort, and new goals. Why clutter up the interface with the ghost of my old ramblings from a year ago?

Obviously, you'll notice that I decided not to go with the clean slate route. I made this choice for two reasons: the first is old-fashioned laziness. I have a hard enough time managing my personal digital footprint without also needing to keep track of my academic one. The second reason is a bit more noble. As I delve deeper into the study of technology, this space will, in some ways, serve as a timeline to track my own development as a digital humanist. I suspect that my opinions about technology will remain mostly the same (I'm still a dogged positivist and techno-optimist despite my discipline), but hopefully my ability to see (and discuss) the increasingly varied considerations that actually go into studying technology will show some evolution. In a way this blog keeps me honest by keeping my scholarly evolution all in one place.

But enough about me. On to the reading: User-Centered Technology by Robert Johnson.

I liked the questions raised in this book. I felt that the problems proposed by Johnson were aptly observed, and, while I liked the ideas behind his solutions, I found his calls to implement them a bit too vague or grandiose.

1. The problem Johnson discusses in the book is a broad, systemic one despite the book's specific focus on academia. His overarching argument is that, by viewing technology as a collection of artifacts handed down from on high by the superior ("Experts") to the inferior ("Users"), we fall into the trap of thinking in a "system-centered" way about technology, which reinforces hierarchical systems of power and renders users helpless to shape the ways in which technology influences their lives. He argues early on that in taking for granted the notion that technological innovation and development is best left to the experts who possess a "knack" for it that "we also surrender fundamental democratic rights and responsibilities" (11). Essentially, if technology dictates how we work, learn, and communicate, than only those who control technology's development can really have a voice. He argues that this attitude of the user as helpless or "idiotic" stems from the system-centered view of technology, which he defines as a view that is "based upon models of technology that focus on the artifact or system as primary, and on the notion that the inventors or developers of the technology know best its design, dissemination, and intended use" (25).

2. To solve this problem, he argues throughout the text that scholars and technologists need to cultivate a "user-centered" approach to technology by changing, from the bottom up, the intended "end" of a technological artifact or process. His argument is that the current "end" or goal of technology is to serve the developers, disseminators, or researchers, and that a more democratic, user-centered approach would focus more on providing technology that serves practical uses to a wide variety of the different, subjective goals and experiences of its users (21). He argues that this can be done by using the rhetorical concept of the techne to give users of technology a say in its use, and a personal sense of responsibility over the course of its development. Rather than burden experts or companies, he argues that this would invite a variety of different considerations into the technological process: "Users as producers have the knowledge to play an important role in the making of technologies; users as practitioners actually use the technologies and action; users as citizens carry user knowledge into an arena of sociotechnological decision making: the area of the polis, or, if you prefer, politics" (64).

3. My question with this book, then, comes from the "how" of it. Some of  Johnson's ideas have already, in some ways, come to fruition: his argument that a user-centered approach to technology casts the users as "active participants in the design, development, and maintenance of technology" (32) reminds me of websites like Wikipedia or Kickstarter. However, in other areas it seems like Johnson's reach exceeds his grasp. I therefore have two questions about this user-centered approach.

A) According to Johnson, user-centered views of technology emphasizes "the localized situation within the user resides" (129). A user-centered designer must created technology with a mind to the specific time, place, needs, cultures, and circumstances of the artifact's users. How, practically, is this to be done? Johnson argues that this is a viable approach in terms of long term vs. short term costs, but I'm more concerned with the logistics of actually implementing this. How is a designer, whose own rhetorical situation is limited, supposed to predict the needs of a potentially infinite audience across a potentially infinite period of time, with a potentially infinite set of different, sometimes mutually exclusive, needs? He briefly mentions the possibility of "user analysis" as an essential, but under-appreciated part of the development process, but how much analysis can be reasonably conducted during a development cycle? The only solution I can imagine are data-mining algorithms, like those used by Google, Facebook and the NSA, but that leads to other kinds of problems. Moreover, with technology (and the uses of said technologies) changing at such a rapid rate, isn't even trying to predict the needs of users a Sisyphean task?

B) My second question relates to how this argument applies to the classroom. Johnson argues that technical writing instructors should teach students to act according to the Aristotelian concept of acting, and thus develop curricula that incorporate "the good." (156). Throughout the text, he argues that users should not only be given the power to develop the technologies that they use, but should also be aware of the ethical responsibilities behind those technologies. To be blunt, though, what if our students don't care? If a student comes into a classroom with the goal of learning a set of skills, is it fair for us, as teachers, to decide that they should instead want to learn to deconstruct, critique, and politically engage with these skills? Moreover, what if the students' ideology is in contrast to ours? Johnson speaks of his students as critical agents who participated in efforts against a local uranium processing plant, but suppose one of his students worked at, or supported that plant. Johnson writes that "we do not want our students to become ballot box-filling or check-writing automotons" who are content to indirectly advocate for change (161), but doesn't this risk casting the teacher as a kind of moral "expert" and the student as an "idiot" user of the technology of the classroom? How can we integrate the techne Johnson describes into the classroom without falling into the same system-centered trap?

4. Finally, I'd like to know more about the critical and theoretical background that informs Johnson's methodology. This book was published in 1998. How have ideas about technological determinism and user-centered technology changed (or evolved) since then? Does this approach still hold up in the modern context of the digital humanities? What is the current consensus (if there even is one) on technological determinism, and how might that relate to our efforts in the classroom?

It seems one thing hasn't changed: A year later, and I'm still wordy and opinionated.

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