Why we use technology: Checkov's gun & expiry dates

This tweet by @Asher_Wolf at 4:25 am on 25 December contains a photo of a tear gas canister used by the police to try to control the Delhi rape riots. The interesting thing here is that the tear gas has an expiry date of May 2009.

The picture got me thinking about different motivating factors for using a certain technology. This post is an exploration. It is not a critique of the decision by the police to use tear gas in this specific situation.

Checkov’s gun

Chekhov’s gun is a metaphor for a dramatic principle a certain inevitability. If a loaded gun is shown in the beginning of a play it will be used before the play is over. Otherwise the gun should not have been shown.

In this case Checkov’s gun is the fact that police have tear gas in their supplies. Any technology we have at our disposal does not simply provide us with an opportunity for action but also creates a demand for action. Possessing the technology creates a desire for it’s use. Checkov’s gun is particularly true of new technology.

The desperation of technology

Spending Christmas in Stockholm this year provided an excellent example of this. The days before Christmas saw large amounts of powdery new white snow fall on the city. Christmas day, therefore naturally saw many kids playing with new winter gear. My home city of Göteborg was less fortunate. Much of the snow had melted due to rain. Despite this many kids were trying to use sleighs on the few icy patches available. They had new technology and were driven to use it.

The frugal cook

One of the common complaint on these days after Christmas is that many are forced to continue eating Christmas food. We may be tired of the taste but we cannot bring ourselves to throw away good food. There is another reason. The Christmas season is a particularly expensive one. So after the main event, after the wrapping paper is cleared away it is naturally that our more frugal natures rise to the fore.

We are not necessarily eating Christmas leftovers because we like them, nor because we cannot afford alternative food – we are eating them as a form of punishment for our excess: the term “waste not, want not” is, in this case, a form of puritanical punishment.

Frugal Riot Control

Therefore the case of the outdated riot gear.

(1) Since the tear gas has been bought it must be used (Checkov’s gun).

(2) If no legitimate situation arises we will redefine reality to legitimize use. (Desperation of technology)

(3) Stockpiles of old technology prevent us from buying new technology. Therefore we must use the old in order to be allowed to by new (frugal cook).

So what?

Attempting to understand why people act is very interesting – but it is also quite impossible to know for certain. While I am sure that all official records of the use of tear gas during the riots will show that the situation warranted its use  – the nagging question always rests in my mind: Why did they use this technology? Why now?

Technology drives human action. It’s not deterministic we have choice. But many of the reasons we decide to use, or not to use, technology may have less to do with us than with technology.

Happily drifting into the cloud…

Jan Nolin over at SociaMediaPedia has written an interesting post about the Swedish municipality Salem that has recently announced that they are the country’s first municipality to place all of their IT services at Google apps. Jan writes:

The involved people seem to be well informed, so maybe they have already thought about things that concern me:

• -What are the ethical and legal implications in moving data and services from computers and servers owned by the municipality to computers owned by an American multinational corporation?
• -What kind of freedom of choice does the municipality have when investing in future information technology?
• -What kind of competitive advantage is Google given concerning associated technology on the local market? For instance, regarding smartphones?
• -In which ways can Google Sweden safeguard its information in relation to the mother company?
• -Did officials of the municipality have the right to take the decision to move information from Swedish citizens to an American corporation?
• -Isn’t information to be seen as a kind of currency? That we are giving away for free?
• -In which ways is the Salem information linked with other nation-based resources? What else was Google given in this deal?

These are extremely important issues that are typically not well discussed when moves such as these are undertaken. One of the reasons for the lack of discussion in situations such as this is that the move to the cloud is viewed a technological issue and therefore best discussed by technicians.

Unfortunately this view is much too limited. While the choice may be one of deciding which technological infrastructure is best for the organization it is not necessarily a technological decision. Different technological (communications) platforms effect the way in which we communicate and interact. This is part of the fundamental thoughts from McLuhan’s work The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962): Communications infrastructure affects cognitive organization, which affects social organization:

…[I]f a new technology extends one or more of our senses outside us into the social world, then new ratios among all of our senses will occur in that particular culture. It is comparable to what happens when a new note is added to a melody. And when the sense ratios alter in any culture then what had appeared lucid before may suddenly become opaque, and what had been vague or opaque will become translucent.

The organization of technology is not a limited technological question. The organization of technology is the organization of society. Since it is a question of democracy it should be dealt with as such.

Social and Technological Determinism

It’s been a long time since I had a real good discussion on determinism but recent discussions online and off have brought determinism back in focus. In particular the differences between technological and social determinism.

As a brief recap technological determinist believes “the uses made of technology are largely determined by the structure of the technology itself, that is, that its functions follow from its form” (Neil Postman). On the opposite side of the spectrum is social determinism which, as Langdon Winner states, “What matters is not the technology itself, but the social or economic system in which it is embedded”. Basically that society is not controlled by technology but innovation and the consequences of technology are shaped through the influences of things like culture, politics, economic arrangements and regulation.

What really annoys me with both these positions is their lack of flexibility. In order to make their positions work both the social and technological determinist attempts to be blind to facts which do not support their pet theory.

Look at file sharing – yes I know that this is a big target.

The regulation of file sharing through social, economic, political and moral attempts have been a failure in attempting to change the way in which certain social groups behave. Given fixed price, high bandwidth Internet connections and high storage – low cost mp3 players there is a high incentive to file share. Technology alone is not enough. The low chance of getting caught is also an incentive to copy.

But being either/or in attempting to explain the reason for file sharing is too narrow minded since it can only provide a limited view of the problem. So when the legislator attempts to regulate the problem it is indispensible to see both the social and technical forces which drive social changes related to technology.