Landing : Athabascau University

The neediness of soft technologies

This site, The Landing, is a bit like a building. The more people that enter that building, the more valuable it becomes. The real value and substance of the site is not the building itself but what goes on and what can go on inside it.

If it doesn't provide useful rooms and other spaces that fit the needs of the people within, or if the people inside cannot find the rooms they are looking for, then it needs to be improved - better signposts, easier halls, stairways and elevators, bigger doors, different room layouts. This matters and it's certainly a big part of what influences behaviour: we shape our dwellings and afterwards our dwellings shape our lives, as Churchill put it. However, like nearly all social technologies, the Landing is a soft technology, where many of the structures are not created by architects and designers but by the inhabitants of the space. Far more than in almost any physical building, it is the people, the stuff they share and the ways they share it that make it what it is. They are the ones that decide conventions, rules, methods, procedures, interlinked tools and so on that overlay on the basic edifice to turn it into whatever they need it or want it to be. 

Soft technologies are functionally incomplete. They are needy, by definition lacking every necessary part of the technological assembly that makes them useful. They can become many different technologies by aggregation or integration with other technologies, including not only physical/software tools but also and more significantly methods, norms, processes and patterns that are entirely embodied in human minds.

Hard technologies are those that are more complete, less needy. The more they do what they do without the need to aggregate them with different technologies, the harder they become. All technologies, soft or hard, will play some part in bigger systems and almost all if not all will rely on those systems for not only meaning but also their existence and continued functionality - for example, power, maintenance or, in the case of non-corporeal technologies like laws, pedagogies and management processes, embodiment. However, harder technologies play far more limited, fixed roles in those systems than softer ones. A factory tooled to produce milk bottles probably does that really well, consistently, and fast but, without significant retooling and reorganisation, is not going to produce glass ornaments or thermometers. A metal tube and  furnace need the methods and processes employed by the glass blower to turn raw materials into anything at all but, because there are few limits to those methods and processes and those can be adjusted and adapted almost continuously, can be used in many different ways to create many different things. The needier a technology, the more ways there are to fulfil those needs and consequently the more creative and rich the potential outcomes may be.

A microchip is a very needy technology. Assembled with others, it can become still needier: a computer, for example, is the very personification of neediness, doing nothing and being nothing until we add software to make it be almost anything we want it to be - the universal machine. Conversely, in a watch or a cash register or an automated call answering system it becomes part of something more complete, that does what it does and nothing more - it needs nothing and does what it does: the personification of hardness.

Although automation is a typical feature of harder technologies, it depends entirely on what is being automated and how it is done. Henry Ford's classic production line turned out a lot of similar things, all of them black: it was archetypally hard, a system needing little else intrinsic to the system to make it complete. Automation largely replaced the need for technologies needing skill and decision making to make them complete.  Email, on the other hand, an archetypal soft technology, actually gained softness from automation of (for instance) MIME handling of rich-media enclosures. What was the preserve of technically savvy nerds with a firm grasp of uuencoding tools became open to all with standard for rich media handling that automated a formally manual (and very soft) process. This was possible because automation was aggregated with the existing technology rather than replacing it. The original technology lost absolutely none of its initial softness in the process but instead gained new potential for different ways of being used - photo journals, audio broadcasts, rich scheduling tools and so on. Neediness and automation are not mutually exclusive when that automation augments but does not replace softer processes. Such automation adds new affordances without taking any existing affordances away.

Twitter is a nice example of an incredibly soft social technology that has become yet softer through automation. Twitter is soft because it is can be many different things: it is very malleable, very assemblable with other technologies, very evolvable  and very connectable (both in and out). A big part of what makes it brilliant is that it does one small trick, like a stick or a screwdriver or a wheel and, like those technologies, it needs other technologies, soft or hard, to make it complete. Twitter's evolution demonstrates well how soft technologies are functionally needy.  For instance, hashtags to classify subject matter into sets, and the user of @ symbols to refer to people in nets were not part of its original design. They started as soft technologies - conventions used by tweeters to turn it into a more useful technology for their particular needs, adding new functionality by inventing processes and methods that were aggregated by them with the tool itself. To begin with they were very prone to error and using them was a manual and not altogether trivial process. What happened next is really interesting - the makers of Twitter hardened these technologies and made them function within the Twitter system, and to function well, with efficiency and freedom from error - classic hallmarks of a hard technology. But, far from making Twitter more brittle or harder, this automation of soft technologies actually softened it further. It became softer because Twitter was adding to the assembly, not replacing any part of it, and these additions opened up their own new and interesting adjacent possibilities (mining social nets, recommending and exploring tags, for example). Crucially, the parts that were hardened took absolutely nothing away from what it could do previously: users of Twitter could completely ignore the new functionality if they wished, without suffering at all. 

So, back to the Landing. The Landing is simple toolset with a set of affordances, a needy technology that by itself does almost nothing apart from letting people share, network and communicate. By itself, it is hopeless for almost anything more complex than that, but those capacities make it capable of being a part of a literally infinite possible variety of harder and softer technologies. Only in assembly with social, managerial, pedagogical and other processes does it become closer to or, if that's what people want, further from completeness. And we, its architects, can help soften the system further by adding new tools that augment but do not replace the things it already does, thereby making it needier still, increasing its functional incompleteness by adding new incomplete functions.

It's a funny goal: to intentionally build systems that, as they grow in size and complexity, lack more and more. Systems that actually become less complete the more complete we try to make them. It reminds me a little of fractal figures which, as we zoom in to look at them in greater detail, turn out to be infinitely empty as well as infinitely full. 



  • I like this "...if that's what people want, further from completeness".  I also love fractals Laughing

    For me, messiness is the key indicator of a place that is "lived in" instead of one that has been abandoned or "perfected" to an ultimate state.

    Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine & Isabelle Stengers differentiation between Being (initial state) and Becoming (movement forward involving chance, probability etc. - every movement forward creates a new, different movement - there is no certainty) seems relevant, but you are probably aware of their writing (Order Out of Chaos: Man's New Dialogue with Nature, 1984) and Prigogine: From Being to becoming: Time and Complexity in the Physical Sciences, 1980.

    Doll has written some interesting applications of their ideas to curriculum/teaching/learning:

    Foundations for a post-modern curriculum

    (2008) Complexity and the Culture of Curriculum

    In this conversation with an editor in 2004, Prigogine talks about the need for both permanence (Being) and instability (Becoming), in what seems to be a similar perspective as your soft/hard needing to exist together:

    Beyond Being and Becoming (2004)

    Here's some quotes:

    Today, we see that becoming, which is the expression of instability in the universe, is the primordial element. Yet, in order to express this, we also need elements that are permanent. We cannot have becoming without being, just as we cannot have light without darkness or music without silence.

    Sculpture is time put into matter. In some of the most beautiful manifestations of sculpture, be it in the dancing Shiva or in the miniature temples of Guerrero, there appears very clearly the search for a junction
    between stillness and motion, time arrested and time passing.

    In a sense, culture is always trying to temporalize matter. Today the symbol of the work being done in both the physical and social sciences is a work of art because art embodies some elements that conform to given rules and other elements that arise unexpectedly through the process of creation.

    I believe that what we do today depends on our image of the future, rather than the future depending on what we do today.

    Carmen Southgate April 26, 2011 - 12:45pm

  • Very nice - I have indeed spent longer than strictly necessary reading about complexity theory and related things, but I hadn't made that explicit connection. Makes sense.

    I think that there may be some useful parallels between soft/hard and chaos/order and being/becoming though it's maybe a little more complex Laughing.  Soft technologies afford change while hard ones actively prevent it (they kind of ossify history) so some softness is a prerequisite for emergence. On the other hand, there is probably no such things as a purely soft or a purely hard technology so change is always possible, especially as technological evolution is ubiquitous no matter how hard or soft a technology may be. At the very least, you can add additional technologies to hard ones to make them softer and vice versa. However, if you want churn to occur, small, volatile spaces are far more effective than big stable ones because of the nature of complex systems. And learning is all about churn. The perfect learning environment is therefore (arguably) one that is just on the ordered side of the edge of chaos: from a technical perspective, that's where complex behaviour happens, including evolution, development and learning. 

    Jon Dron April 26, 2011 - 1:32pm

  • Yes, definitely.  That's great -  "Learning is churn".  I'm getting a T-shirt Smile

    I like Doll's statement that curriculum has a culture although I'm guessing his view that it's Protestant is debatable.

    However, culture implies temporality and history, and your Landing project is definitely part of a historical development in the culture of online learning.

    You have one view (a great one BTW) of what AU's teaching/learning is/can be...other people have very different views, since they come from different knowledge/teaching & learning cultures.

    Given that everyone comes from their own place (I'm interested in Downes' state-based learning and Dwayne Donald's place-based pedagogy) I'm not sure that there is a "perfect" learning environment, since everyone's skills and feelings towards technology and what's "minimally necessary" to understand/include in teaching and learning are so different.

    For example, I am really enjoying my in-person classes at the U of A but I also enjoyed my MDE course through AU.  Different cultures (traditional vs. distance education), yet both allowed for my personal evolution.  However, I think we don't support enough of this unplanned/emergent openness/softness & complex behavior at the undergrad level. 

    Unfortunately, it's taking a while to get over our Eurowestern colonialism approaches (sigh).

    I'm looking forward to hearing your talk at MoodleMootLaughing

    Carmen Southgate April 26, 2011 - 1:58pm

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