Phoebe Sengers praises the optimistic, self-aware conversation
mapped by Warren Sack and First Person.
Warren Sack's work on the Conversation Map is an example of what Phil Agre calls critical technical practices. For Agre, this means a practice of technical development in which technical impasses are recognized as philosophical problems, and where philosophical and critical methodology is applied to find ways around these impasses. More generally, we may be able to speak of a critical technical practice as a practice of technology development that incorporates as an essential component critical self-reflection. Following this definition, there are many examples of critical technical practitioners represented in First Person: Natalie Jeremijenko combines a critical art practice with mechanical and electrical engineering; Michael Mateas combines art and Artificial Intelligence; Simon Penny combines art and robotics; I combine cultural studies and Artificial Intelligence. In Sack's work in particular, questions of algorithms weave together with a philosophical reflection on the place of the technology created in society and on the choice and design of the technologies involved. An interesting question to ask, therefore, within the very small-scale conversation First Person represents, is how Sack's work instantiates a critical technical practice, and what it tells us about what critical technical practices are and what they could be.
Sack's work is based on a dream, a beautiful dream: the transformative potential of a device that can make very large-scale conversations self-aware. Using such a device, the people engaged in conversation on a massive scale gain a meta-level understanding of how the conversation works, who is engaged, what is discussed, how it is understood. This device is not simply a news reader or browser, which allows you to collate, sort, and otherwise organize incoming messages; it displays not only where we, as a group, have been, but who we are in relationship to one another and, subtly, where we could be heading.
"Ordinary" technical work is often also based on dreams; ubiquitous computing dreams of physical objects interconnected and alive with information, distributed computing dreams of the ability to seamlessly interact from any location. These dreams are often, in contrast to the social-utopian direction in which Sack leans, dreams of efficiency, control, and marketability. But, I would argue, the more fundamental difference is that "uncritical" technical dreams are usually not open to questioning within the technical discourse. They are proffered as a motivation -- that which lies behind and breathes life into the real work of algorithms and technology development, but is not itself a primary part of the work involved.
In a critical technical practice, such dream-transparency is not appropriate; one must also be self-reflective about one's motivation. An essential part of the work is to ask the difficult questions about why one does what one wants to do and whether it is appropriate in the bigger scheme of things. And so we see Sack, reflecting carefully and within the context of broader conversations in cultural studies, on what it means to navigate through a conversation and what it is his technology shows about and might be able to add to them.
"Ordinary" critical work also asks careful questions about motivation and methodology as part of an ongoing, philosophical academic conversation. Critical technical practices add to this the ability to instantiate critical considerations in a machinic artifact. In Sack's case, this artifact provides an empirical demonstration of critical concepts, a test-bed for their limitations and an opportunity to reveal their possibilities. It allows us - Sack's fellow academics - to understand the nature of very large-scale conversations better. But is this all that technical implementation can provide? I hope not, and I suspect, based on his stated dream, that Sack hopes not, too.
What I hope critical technical practices can create is technical artifacts that themselves not only reflect a cultural critique, but can also make a difference in the cultural situation being addressed. In Sack's case, this would mean a newsreader based on the Conversation Map that would help the members of a newsgroup to gain a self-understanding of their conversation of the kind that Sack maps out for us in his essay. Sack mentions that he is speeding up the Conversation Map to make this practical. But whether the new Conversation Map can help bring such self-understanding will be determined not only by whether one can actually read messages in real time with the system, but also by whether the way in which the Map structures the reading experience is likely to lead to self-reflective moments. Sack analyses the Conversation Map of the newsgroup discussions of the war in Kosovo in a way that provides for a potential point of agreement between the participants; is it likely that newsgroup posters using the Conversation Map to read their newsgroup come to the same conclusion? I don't know. It does seem that this perspective could be fruitful for continuing work - how can the Conversation Map be restructured and extended to serve as well as possible the goal of helping to make very large-scale conversations more self-reflective? And, to share in Sack's refreshing optimism, I hope that critical technical practices like his may make such cultural changes possible.