New Article: Ross, Problematizing the User in User-Centered Production

Philippe Ross, Problematizing the user in user-centred production: A new media lab meets its audiences, Social Studies of Science, 306312710385851, first published on December 7, 2010 doi:10.1177/0306312710385851

Haven’t read it yet, but from the abstract: “this study shows how producers distinguish and mediate between users and partners; how they sustain the notion that there is a group of users ‘out there’ whose existence and requirements can be substantiated prior to the creation of specific technical choices; and how user involvement in and of itself is used for the strategic purpose of enticing partners and asserting their control over the production process.”

The History of Social Networking

Hey, I think the Tim Wu virus is spreading. Stupid uses of history are popping up all over in TechCrunch… this time, a three part “history” of social networking (Past, Present, Future) that starts off “kids these days…I was into social networking waaaay before it was cool…” but ends up in the standard silicon valley eternal future.

The End of Internet History: Wikileaks

TechCrunch post about the end of internet history, basically arguing that Wikileaks is like the wall coming down (direct comparison to Francis Fukuyama’s book). Wikileaks is in fact interesting in what it means for the state of transparency and the attempt to control information by governments, but it’s not the end of history…

Interesting for us why? Because “leaking” is not “participation”– or is it?

Clinical Trials as a case for participation

I’m reading Roberto Abadie’s book on the class of people known as professional guinea pigs: people who are paid to participate in clinical trials and who make a living (or what passes for one) doing trial after trial. The idea of this as a form of work (or labor, or job) bears some nice resemblances to the other cases we are considering, such as participation in Amazon Mechanical Turk or the life of the free lance journalist. The book starts with the claim that many of these guinea pigs recognize their participation as a kind of labor, and a form of labor that consists in suffering for money and a kind of work that doesn’t produce anything. It would be interesting to apply our framework here: what is the resource exactly?

Compared to other forms of participation in science, where the inclusion or engagement of people is presumed to be positive, democratizing, etc. this is a clear case where participation is, if not coerced by social circumstances (poverty, joblessness, lack of skills, ease of access to money etc) then at least a morally suspect version of participation. In terms of our analysis, there is obviously no participation at the level of goal setting or at the level of task design (i.e. clinical trial design)–only participation in the execution of the task. What’s interesting here though is the creation of an OP by an FSE (pharma companies, who do a ton of work to locate and enroll trial participants) which includes a sub-OP of “professional guinea pigs”–people who come back over and over, communicate with each other, organize and resist.

Part.Public.Part.Lab

Participation, partial, partable, partisan, particular, party

In the Nature of Participation.

All too easily do we identify the need for and importance of participation:  participatory democracy, audience participation, user-participation, participant-observation etc.  Usually, it’s a good thing, though for the darkly minded, it’s akin to exploitation—free labor.  But rarely, if ever, is it simply identified and distinguished.  This lab aims to make its object of study participation in its “natural” settings, the changing ecology of global information and communication. 

Natural is a strong word. But it has the advantage of producing a distinction between first and second order observations of participation. On the one hand, participation as a strategy and problem for those who create, network, market, promote, entice, fund and even research; on the other participation as a problem, as an emblem of democracy, perhaps as a kind of character or trait: “Nothing in democracy makes sense except in the light of participation.” (Apologies to T. Dobzhansky)

The OED suggests that the definition of participation has more than just the immediate connotation of taking part in:

The process or fact of sharing in an action, sentiment, etc.; (now esp.) active involvement in a matter or event, esp. one in which the outcome directly affects those taking part. Freq. with in. Cf. audience participation at AUDIENCE n. 7d.

In this definition, there is a loop: one participates because the outcome directly affects the one participating.  Participatory democracy, by this definition is not representative but direct.  In the nature of participation there are proximate and distant outcomes, and only those whose effects are direct really mean much in the way of participation.

The Internet changes all this, of course, with the proliferation of modes of direct participation.  But how, how long and with what effects?  In what does one participate?  How active is that participation? Who controls or displays the outcomes (be they proximate or distant)? And how do you know when that participation affects you?

But it is not only the participant’s perspective that is at stake here: increasingly, and for obscure reasons, those who provide the capacity for participation expect something as well.  For instance, citizen science creates an expectation not only for participants to become involved and see direct benefit, but it also creates an expectation that science might be done differently, end up with different results.  Similarly, a project like Current TV or Indy Media began not just with the hope that participants would see themselves making media and having an effect, but that the media itself would be transformed (if not destroyed, some fantasized) by this practice of street-level democratizing journalism.  Always we have assumed that more participation makes democracies better, but rarely before now have we been able to so precisely measure, visualize, and form expectations of that participation.

Of course by 2010, the callow fantasies of a liberating cyberspace, of a democratizing web, or of the Internet as a neutral and equalizing force have come to an end, and the future of participation looks messy. The Nature of participation is ever-changing.  And by this we mean, the place, the ecology, the environment within which participation becomes as possible as foraging, dwelling, preening or sleeping for that matter.  There is no return to a 20th century of mass democracy, but nor have we actually seen a revolution, despite it’s frequent announcement.