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New Technologies at Work: People, Screens and Social Virtuality

Editor: Christina Garsten, Helena Wulff
Publisher: Oxford, UK: Berg Publishers, 2003
Review Published: March 2007

 REVIEW 1: Petra Sonderegger

New Technologies at Work: People, Screens and Social Virtuality, edited by Christina Garsten and Helena Wulff, is a set of ethnographies, and as such it is no surprise that the authors aim to bring people, place, and social interactions to the forefront in their discussion of technology. Computers and the internet are treated as objects in a world still bound by geography and sociality. Computers are objects bought and sold; technology and its application are subject to rhetoric and false expectations; people integrate the virtual into their lives with surprisingly little fuss. An introductory chapter, which ties the subsequent papers together, highlights the contributors' analysis of rhetoric and practice.

In "The computer as a focus of inattention: Five scenarios concerning hospital porters," Nigel Rapport describes a group of Scottish hospital porters and the role that computers play in their lives. Because the porters do not actually use computers for their work, the subject is somewhat unexpected given the book's topic. However, the porters do use more traditional technologies like telephones and pagers for official communications. By contrast, computers and the internet play an important role in shaping their unofficial role in the organization.

In the organizational context of the hospital, porters perform fairly menial tasks and are easily substituted. For many, an outside profession and interest significantly defines who they are, and they try to downplay the importance of portering in their lives. Outside interests -- often involving technology -- connect with their workplace through casual conversations, black market activities, and even thieving. Evidence of computer skills can be source of authority, prestige, and loyalty among their colleagues. As a result, computers and the internet are an important source of individuation for porters that let them counteract institutional pressures and maintain a sense of self-importance that they cannot achieve directly through their jobs.

Sarah Green's "Digital ditches: Working in the virtual grassroots" explores utopian rhetoric of the "information revolution" and how it works to the detriment of those it was supposed to help. A policy focus on information technology, connectedness, and the potentials of the virtual world served to devalue offline life and de-prioritize problems related to geography and society. As a result, people intended to benefit from "information revolution" policies saw their most pressing problems neglected in favor of internet training etc. Green also analyzes a related paradox centered on policies for "life-long learning." Interestingly, similar criticism has since been directed at programs focused on bridging the "digital divide" in developing countries at the expense of programs for, say, water, nutrition, and public health.

Anna Hasselström's "Real-time, real-place market: Transnational connections and disconnections in financial markets" highlights the importance of personal, face-to-face communication, even in a market considered as efficient and impersonal as the international stock market. Hasselström counters Castells' notion of a virtual world, "where capital is allowed to escape from time" (cit. p. 74), and where place no longer matters. She demonstrates that important aspects of the market remain physical -- whether it is information passed face-to-face that allows brokers to project confidence to their clients, or knowledge of a person's idiosyncracies that allows a trader to contextualize information, or simply the bonds established by traders who drink together. Despite the strong influence of technology and the existence of a near-perfect, global market, financial markets remain cultural and political constructions, rooted in physical and material settings, subject to temporal cycles and social interaction.

Heinrich Schwarz's "Mobile workplacing: Office design, space and technology" again focuses on the clash between rhetoric and practice. Open, mobile offices are designed with a certain set of goals and values. However, everyday usage may support or subvert those initial intentions and can uncover conflicts between the stated goals. Schwarz traces the efforts of an architecture firm to introduce an open, "alternative" office, where most employees keep their files and other permanent aspects of their work online. This provides stability and continuity independent of the employee's geographic location -- inside or outside the office. The office design is supposed to enhance mobility and collaboration. However, over the course of his study, Schwarz finds that the emphasis on mobility is highly individuating and hinders the formation of deeper bonds that might facilitate collaboration. The technology in use also allows people to physically retreat from their colleagues and "hide" behind their virtual presence.

In "Claiming the future: Speed, business rhetoric and computer practice," Robert Willim dissects the influence of the rhetoric of "future" on the technology workplace. He follows a new-economy firm, Framfab, and argues that its technology, rhetoric and work practices converged around a focus on speed and the future. Willim draws on the concept of conceptual congruity. He uses examples as varied as investor presentations and the experience of starting a computer to show that images and expectations can "jump" from technology analysis to marketing presentations or from technology use to expectations of workers. While the examples make for an interesting read, they don't quite tie together.

Paula Uimonen, in her contribution "Networking as a form of life: The transnational movement of internet pioneers," traces networks and networking as a defining characteristic of internet culture. She relates her observations of networking events to make a compelling case for the richness and complexity of social relations within online, offline, and combined contexts. Online and offline communication reinforce each other to establish and maintain relationships. The intensity of communication and interconnectedness of participants appears to be one of the factors in advancing internet usage in developing countries. The development of extensive mixed online-offline networks is hindered by a lack of bandwidth and by the fact that internet pioneers are often elites whose social and professional networks are powerful but limited in size.

Co-editor Christina Garsten and David Lerdell contribute the eighth chapter, "Mainstream rebels: Informalization and regulation in a virtual world." They question the rhetoric of informality, anti-authoritarianism, freedom, and openness in technology movements. As Uimonen points out in the previous chapter, internet pioneers and even normal users are generally elites. Garsten and Lerdell take this argument a step further, arguing that these elites engage in exclusionary behavior as much as any other social group. Despite the demonstrative informality of technology pioneers, their community has certain rigid norms and boundaries: netiquette, jargon, codes (e.g. emoticons), and even a dress code (no suits). Rhetoric of freedom and inclusiveness hides a strong hierarchy based on merit and position in the network of "netizens."

"Steps on screen: Technoscapes, visualization and globalization in dance" describes fascinating links between dance -- an artform that is pure embodiment -- and virtuality. Co-editor Helena Wulff traces the influence of technology on dance. The ability to record, to interact across distance, or to let dancers see their own videotaped movements have changed teaching, choreography, and the understanding of what it means to dance. Dancers' experiments, in turn, have pushed the boundaries of technology-mediated social relationships.

"Screening the classroom: Students, teachers and computers in an urban American school," by William Washabaugh et al, presents a thoughtful look at the use of computers in the classroom. The analysis uncovers affordances which let students pursue their own interests and styles of learning but also present new challenges for teachers. After some initial skepticism, students embrace the experiment of self-study using the internet, but educators find it much harder to direct students' energy and attention toward a specific teaching goal.

Magnus Bergquist closes the volume with, "Open source software development as gift culture: Work and identity formation in an internet community." In his view, writing source code, suggesting new projects, critiquing contributions, and testing new code are all forms of gift giving. Status within the group depends on the quality and quantity of these gifts.

Like Uimonen and Garsten & Lerdell in preceding chapters, Bergquist finds the online groups he studies to be far from "open." Newcomers are placed firmly at the bottom of the hierarchy and contributors who don't belong in the central "in-group" are dissuaded from more than marginal participation. As the open-source phenomenon grows to include more people, it has become necessary to document previously unspoken rules of the group. Despite these exclusionary forces, however, Bergquist finds the combined system of gift-giving and peer review to be surprisingly effective in producing robust and useful code.

The chapters in this volume cover an impressive range of both subject matter and technology discourse. Reading about dancers, stockbrokers, and hospital porters side-by-side is not only fascinating, but also frames technology discourse in a broader context than the white-collar environment it is often implicitly limited to. Unfortunately, some of the contributions come across as isolated fragments: Several of the chapters are not situated in prior research and don't address comparable ethnographies conducted by other scholars. Without this background, it becomes difficult for a non-specialized reader to judge the relevance of the research presented here.

New Technologies at Work is also reminder of the rapid pace of change in technology and its rhetoric -- and of the struggle of scholars to keep up. Parts of the book already seem dated as the discussion has moved beyond the dichotomies of utopia/dystopia and virtuality/spatiality to tackle many of the questions raised by the authors. Nevertheless, the book still provides valuable examples and analysis going forward.

Overall, the book provides an intriguing window on a variety of workplaces, many of which are not traditionally associated with technology. The contributions provide interesting, detailed insight into people's actual experiences with technology and debunk some of the more extreme utopian and dystopian rhetoric around computers and the internet. The authors remind us that technology may help or hinder people in navigating their lives, but it won't uproot their social and physical nature.

Petra Sonderegger:
Petra Sonderegger is a PhD candidate in Communications at Columbia University. She researches innovation networks and long-distance collaboration in research and development.  <pcs2002@columbia.edu>

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