Sunday, 10 November 2013

week 9 blogging question

[Note: after applying a complex multivariate statistical analysis, I've concluded that this is week 9, not week 10, and have emended the title of this post accordingly.]

Given that we're shifting our focus this week to texts and artifacts as objects of study, I'd like to pose a question to get us thinking about some examples. In your other courses you may already have run across some key readings that consider information questions by closely reading a particular artifact, device, designed object, or text. Two canonical examples that you'll almost certainly encounter in other iSchool courses are Bruno Latour's sociology of a door-closer (written under the pseudonym "Jim Johnson") and Langdon Winner's analysis of the Long Island Expressway in "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" -- the latter being a useful reminder that the term artifact can encompass the very small and the very large, even civil infrastructure. In both cases, Latour and Winner did not conduct interviews or surveys, nor did they collect data in the traditional social-science understanding of a research process; rather, they read their objects of study just like we would critically read a text, though their approaches are no less methodical, as we'll see on Wednesday. Latour and Winner nonetheless arrive at conclusions about social questions that would be right at home in Luker's picture of salsa-dancing social science, which reminds us that research methods can be different roads by which we converge upon the same places.

In that spirit, this week's question revisits our very first blogging question, based on Luker, but with a twist. If you could undertake a research project and be assured that you'd have all the resources you'd need to answer your research questions, but you had to focus your study on a particular artifact or text rather than, say, a social group or more abstract information problem, what would you choose to study? It could be a unique artifact, such as the Long Island Expressway, or a type of object such as a door-closer. (In fact, a post from last week by a member of our class identifies a great candidate of the latter kind: the QWERTY keyboard.) Tell us about the artifact you'd study, including why it interests you and what we can learn about information from studying it. Does the nature of the artifact raise any interesting complications for a researcher? (For example, there's a great deal to be learned from studying the website, but how deeply can we get "under the hood" of an artifact like a government website?) What are the potential threads of inquiry that lead outward from your chosen artifact to bigger questions?

Remember, too, that for this week we're considering texts and artifacts interchangeably -- they are both products of human artifice, and can reveal details about their creation and uses -- so you could choose something like the latest federal throne speech or a cultural text like the recent Wikileaks film. Your example might be as specific as these, or you might need to think about how specific to be in your choice -- for example, perhaps Latour can safely generalize about door-closers, but if you took, say,  "the cell phone" as your artifact, would that be too general to be useful? (Hint: probably, given that a cell phone from 1999 isn't the same object as one from 2013, at least in many important respects.)

To put it another way, what can the study of your particular text or artifact reveal that wouldn't otherwise be obvious? As Winner argues, "If our moral and political language for evaluating technology includes only categories having to do with tools or uses, if it does not include attention to the meaning of the designs and arrangements of our artifacts, then we will be blinded to much that is intellectually and practically crucial" (Winner, 1997, p. 125). It's not just a matter, then, of knowing what artifacts to study; it's equally a matter of framing the right questions to ask about them. What might we see in your chosen artifact if we ask it the right questions?

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