Wednesday 21 December 2016

Personal Technologies Reconsidered - from Toothbrushes to Twitter

Audrey Watters has recently asked some deep questions about "personalisation" and the companies making claims for it (see in their online learning tools. Audrey highlights the marketing-speak of "personalisation", and her worries concern issues of privacy, exploitation of learners and the technocratic corruption of education. The outrage of "hands-off our data!" hangs in the background.

Companies claim their tools to be personalised. For the individual, the personal-ness of tools is not something to be shouted about usually. I don't boast about the 'personal-ness' of my toothbrush - to share what is personal to us is to make a gesture of openness and trust in others (even toothbrushes - and when it comes to them, it is a very meaningful and rare gesture of love!). It's not that different with sharing one's mobile number; it's certainly not the same as sharing one's Twitter or Facebook page - although to give somebody your Twitter or Facebook password is rather more like the toothbrush.

The issues that surround these different phenomena are ownership, identity, control and attachment. My Twitter feed is owned by Twitter, not by me, although my password enables me to make my personal contribution to the unfolding public document that Twitter publishes. My car and house are owned by me (at least, I have legal rights, even if the bank has ultimate power). Most social media companies are publishers with no explicit editorial control (although there is 'algorithmic' editorial control); what they do is publish documents produced by users.

When I was part of a team working with Personal Learning Environments (PLE), what interested us were the read-write web tools that enabled people to configure the interfaces of their tools in ways which suited them best. This control could be considered to be 'personal' in the sense that the ideal was that everybody could bring their own tools to do their learning, rather than having to learn how to use the tools provided by institutions (or indeed corporations). In this sense, 'personal' meant not having to change one's dispositions to fit someone else's tooling. Alongside issues of personal tooling, came related issues of 'personal organisation'. I now think these terms need inspecting closer.

E-portfolio, for example (to which the PLE was closely related), provided means for the "personal organisation of learning". What does that mean exactly? If you ask the champions of "personal organisation", they will talk about the activities involved in personal organisation, rather than its precise nature. They will say that with tools like Twitter or Facebook, one can "curate" (another popular term) content, references, etc. The manufacturers of e-portfolio talk a similar language. In my own experience, I have indeed found tweeting, facebooking, blogging (more than the other two) useful as forms of "curation" which I can easily search and retrieve stuff I have found interesting. In the past, scholars would keep "commonplace books", or (in the case of Niklas Luhmann) elaborate card index systems of knowledge. But in what sense are such practices 'personal' - to what extent is it right to talk of "self-organisation"?

Like any practices, these practices (with portfolio, Twitter or Facebook) occur within constraints. The "person" - their identity, history, biology, capability and so on - is a small set of constraints in the mix of social, technical, political, institutional and material constraints within which organisation occurs. The "striking of bargains" with social media corporations, academic institutions, publishers, and so on is the order of the day when it comes to using "personal" tools. When Twitter says a tool is personal, they refer to the possibility that a bargain might be struck between an individual operating within the full gamut of their constraints, and the Twitter corporation hoping to maintain and increase the transactions that users have with them (thereby handing over their data). Interestingly, the key to maintaining this status quo is the deal that whilst the documents published by users are effectively owned by Twitter or Facebook, the individual user secures their personal password. The success of "personal" tools is due to users treating passwords like toothbrushes. If we all exchanged our passwords freely, it would all collapse.

We see passwords like toothbrushes because maintaining a sense of self means maintaining a coherent and (hopefully predictable) set of expectations in others - our friends, colleagues, employers, etc. Only by maintaining this does the world become a predictable place within which we can operate. To maintain a codified set of expectations, we have to hide as much as we reveal. It's not just gum disease: it's the chaotic and embarrassing world of our subconscious, our vulnerabilities and insecurities. To "have an ego" is to actively manage a "set of relations".

I don't think we understood this properly in the PLE - social software was too new. Now we need to understand it more urgently, because the chaotic subconscious is threatening the stability of our social world in the face of dramatic disturbances in the social and political fabric - partly brought about through technology. 

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