Dec 08 2008

Community as lens

Published by at 9:08 pm under Uncategorized

IT University lobby during the AoIR 9.0 Conference

IT University lobby during the AoIR 9.0 Conference

CPsquare has a long tradition of holding “sidecar events,” where we meet before or after (and hang out together during) a related conference. In October, we had a sidecar event after the AoIR 9.0 meeting in Copenhagen. The larger conference justifies the effort and expense of travel and gives a smaller (day long) CPsquare event a special focus. Having a CPsquare posse during the conference makes it much more fun and more useful, too. The posse acts as a kind of “search and comment upon” social lens: I find it tremendously useful to have a known set of interacting people debriefing the parallel sessions, even when we all go to different ones.  When many of us go to the same session, like a plenary talk, “the posse” focuses on what was presented over a longer period of time and with more depth than if the group of fellow-attendees were less connected.

One of the plenary sessions at AoIR was Rich Ling’s (http://www.richardling.com/ on “Taken for grantedness of technologies.” He spoke as a sociologist about how a technology becomes so common that it’s taken for granted and thus becomes invisible. At that point someone who doesn’t have access to it becomes a problem or a burden for everyone else. He talked about automobiles and mobile phones as examples. It seems to me that communities like CPsquare and our AoIR posse are a lens that makes technologies visible some of the time and then invisible at other points in time.

I had the opportunity to experience “taken for grantedness” of cell phones first-hand. I didn’t have a mobile phone that works in Europe. It would have been very handy while I figured out the train, metro, and bus system in Copenhagen. But not having one made me kind of a problem for the rest of the group whenever I was lost or late.

There were several ways in which the CPsquare posse was a lens on my ownership of and access to a mobile phone.

  • I probably wouldn’t have heard Rich Ling or have started thinking about technology adoption at that society-wide level without CPsquare’s side-car event. As a result I’ve been paying a lot more attention to mobile phone adoption.
  • A connection with Thomas Mathiasen through CPsquare (I got to know him in one of the Foundations of CoPs workshops in 2001) made attending the conference more economical and was a great opportunity to get reacquainted. But staying at the Mathiasen household caused me to travel further and more frequently in Copenhagen than the rest of the CPsquare posse, all of whom stayed in the same hotel. Hence more of a need for me to have a mobile phone.
  • The reason it didn’t occur to me that I needed a mobile phone was that I’ve observed other CPsquare members who are based in the US, spend far more time than I do in Europe, and seem to get along just fine. Why bother figuring something out when I can just copy the technology adoption behavior of others in my community?
  • The posse’s schedule of meeting times and meeting points was constantly under re-negotiation, as people arrived by train or plane or automobile and as individual schedules dictated. Some CPsquare folks didn’t participate in the the AoIR conference at all, some participated for four days running and some just picked a few of the events. The EPIC conference and our CPsquare dialog complicated the schedule. All of that meant that a mobile phone was a necessity.
  • Once I was synchronized with the CPsquare folks, I could depend on others for phone contact (we published several mobile phones internally, so that people could request that a locked door be opened, etc.). A mobile phone was indispensable, but I personally did not have to have one.

It seems to me that good wifi connectivity enables posses and networks to form at big conferences, bringing all kinds of social and technical opportunities into focus. I really like it when you can actually see a community participating in a conference on Twitter. (Not just for esthetic reasons, either, because it provides a nice way to pick up useful stuff when people are chatting with each other and you can overhear.) IT University provided pretty good service at the AoIR Conference, although the conference volume was too much for it some of the time. During Rich Ling’s talk, I happened to be sitting next to Shirley Williams and Tim Jordan, who had just given a talk about hackers immediately before the presentation I did with Beverly Trayner and Patricia Arnold. I noticed Shirley gave up tweeting about the plenary talk because the wifi crashed. I managed to buy Tim Jordan’s Hacking: Digital Media and Technological Determinism before I gave up. (That’s a very good read, by the way.)

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Community as lens”

  1. Thanks for the glimpse into the AoIR conference and side car events (which I would have loved to have attended). Reading the post reminds me–again–of the power of networks. I heard about this blog post on a CPSquare call today. I had not realized you’d heard Rich Ling. He is a friend of Fred Steier’s (a Norway connection) and I bought his book about cell phones (etc.) several months ago thinking it might feed into my dissertation work.

    I think of the dissertation in terms similar to your description of The AoIR conference: as a big thing that justifies travel for a range of experiences. One of my favorite experiences in the dissertation travels this fall was taking Ling’s book with me to an interview in a harbour, where I walked around on wharves and sat on benches amongst fishing boats talking with a participant and recording our conversations. He was intrigued by the book, and took out his cell phone to photograph the cover for future reference.

    I must add that I’m a pure observer here in the sense that I have refused to buy a mobile phone. I was an early adopter of Skype, pay for a teleconference service and also for a flat rate land line plan. Being cell-less didn’t keep me from watching you and others trying to connect at the conference through other technologies. Almost felt like I was part of the f2f community.

  2. John Smith says:

    It’s interesting how you use lots of different technologies but would be “left out” as far as a mobile phone user, Alice. As the number of possible tools to adopt increases, I wonder what happens to Ling’s idea of taken-for-grantedness? Does “tout le monde” refer to “me and the 80 other enthusiasts” for some specific tool?

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