Technosociety and conviviality

I am currently reading Bruce Sterling’s ‘Shaping Things‘. Amongst fantasies about future technologies, it comes to mind that there may be some value in considering technosocial context when evaluating how convivial a tool is. In the same way as a spime is of little value in a hunter-gatherer society, so the artifact is of limited value to a wrangler.

Sterling encourages us to also consider the metahistory to consider what may be an appropriate and acceptable design solution in any given social context. He notes that we may be able to free ourselves of that metahistorical constraint to take an alternative path, taking an interventionist approach (so long as that approach does not become totalitarian). He notes the importance of free access to information (open access) to ensure that the negative aspects of intervention can be balanced by an informed populace.

I like the following quote:

‘A society that can’t sustain itself may have
strong ideas about its metahistory,
but objectively speaking it has no future’

I also love to listen to Bruce Sterling speak…

And remember that it was Bruce’s Veridian Design Movement that has led to the ‘bright green’ environmental approach that is embodied by the ‘Worldchanging‘. The associated book of the same name was incipiently the first thing that got me thinking that it might really be possible to do something about creating a more sustainable world – taking a much more positive and optimistic approach than was being dished out by the likes of Al Gore and Tim Flannery at the time.

The solution is: centralise and constrain(?)

We all know that universities are businesses, right? We all know that education is a product, OK? And in order to produce a nice consistent shrink wrapped ‘education’ product, many universities rely heavily on IT. So it stands to reason that the IT department is centralised and provides a set of consistent services to the whole organisation. Now obviously this contradicts the goals of the convivial approach I am researching.

In the book ‘Deschooling Society‘, Ivan Illich sets out to do quite a scathing review of the effects of productised education on  individual creativity and freedom. In fact Illich’s writings are a much broader critique of modernisation and one has to ask whether or not his flavour of utopia is even possible. A central theme of these writings is that consistent education placates us into compliance – to become either the educated and valuable graduates or the uneducated and unskilled dropouts that the modern world requires to feed its various machinery – or more recently the desk jobs of its knowledge economy.

The above premise is questioned by Seth Godin in his book ‘Linchpin‘. He argues that the modern world in fact promotes education and certification but rewards those people who think outside the box. He outlines the fact that the security provided by the modern organisation is fading and that the real benefits are going to people who take risks and make themselves indispensable. He even argues that these are in fact the people that organisations will attempt to retain and promote.

The particular educational organisation I work for runs a central IT department (which I work in – so don’t rock the boat, right) and provides a consistent and locked down desktop PC environment to all staff. I have avoided using this for the best part of the past decade (yes, I have been there for over 11 years), but found myself forced to resort to the desktop PC yesterday to complete a (very overdue) report. Needless to say I failed in the attempt and I lost an enormous amount of work when the machine, which erases itself to a clean configuration on each reboot, decided to disconnect from the network drive I was writing to. This is a situation I had been pretty much immune to since I have started to bring in my own laptop self configured  and maintained (with a convivial operating system, Ubuntu, and open-source software).

It is interesting to note that on another front convivial tools are sneaking into the organisation. We have recently moved our email system to the cloud, implementing Google Mail. Along with this came a range of other Google services. One such service that is finding much popular use is Google Sites. It was Google Sites that formed part of a recent meeting discussion. A discussion that started with the question of how to best use this new service quickly turned to concerns about security, data management, accessibility and consistency of look and feel. How do we manage Google Sites?

Well, the answer is quite simple. You don’t and you shouldn’t. It’s a runaway train. Some sites will appear for a brief moment before they disappear due to lack of interest and content. Some sites will be well maintained and become reference sites for all. In some cases this might be problematic when staff leave the organisation and orphan their site. But mostly this will be a very creative space where, like the rest of the internet, the good stuff will become popular and linked to and the bad stuff will be filtered out by lack of use. This is conviviality at its best – everyone has an equal chance to show their creativity and impress. No – it is not suitable for everything.

A lot of our technical reference material is now being moved into these sites. It is interesting to note the approach being used by the team. The content currently resides in a wiki. Several years ago we moved from one type of wiki to another. Instead of engaging in an extensive migration project to move our content, we simply made one site read-only and transferred the content that was needed over time into the new wiki. Eventually the new wiki – and now the new Google Sites – contained all the material that was still relevant and the old site could be switched off. This way only the valid and accurate content was transferred.

There is light at the end of the tunnel on the PC front too. We are currently rolling out a new Windows 7 PC environment and are aiming to provide anywhere anytime computing facilities including BYOD (bring your own device). With a little luck the above concerns will be a thing of the past in the next 6 months. This will also be a win for convivial tools and will support Seth Godin’s hypothesis that large profit driven organisations (like universities ;)) can benefit from encouraging their staff to be diverse and creative. Now just don’t tell the students or they’ll realise they can learn all this stuff just as well for free online.

Getting all convivial.

When you start to look into innovation and technology, sooner or later you end up reading Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality. This great challenging book seeks to turn the world on its head and create a completely transformed society. Along the way it provides some interesting insight into how individual creativity can be amplified and maximised using convivial tools.

Currently I am doing an investigation into how I might discover more convivial tools. That search has led me to the following article on the characteristics of convivial tools, by Michael Slattery. To help visualise these characteristics, I reinterpreted  Michael’s text description into the following diagram.



For the purpose of developing a measure of how convivial a tool is, it appears that the following characteristics are most important:

1. Usability

2. Repairability

3. Durability

4. Environmental friendliness

5. Promotion of Autonomy

6. Social friendliness

I think there is also something interesting about the bottom characteristics as basic building blocks:

1. Robustness

2. Simplicity

3. Modularity

4. Open Access

These items appear to underpin all the others. More investigation needs to occur.












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