Fred Scharmen was one of the outstanding students I met when I gave a presentation at Yale School of Architecture a couple of months ago, and he’s recently posted an interesting paper he wrote for his “Situations, Not Plans” class – “You must be logged in to do that!” : Myspace and Control.
Reading this reminded me of some differences between ethnomethodology and critical or cultural theories. For example, danah boyd’s research on identity and MySpace (and much ethnographic research in HCI & CSCW) is firmly grounded in the symbolic interactionist theories advocated by Garfinkel or Goffman. If a goal of ethnomethodology is to get at how people make sense of things, how they structure relationships, how they order things, then it immediately has something in common with computing and communications. Both have only one variable: the individual. On the other hand, cultural and critical theories take collectives or assemblages, and the power relations between, as their subject matter.
As Scharmen writes, “Boyd’s central thesis is that teenagers are moving to Myspace and other online communities to produce identity and interact with each other publicly and privately in a venue that is outside of the control that adults exercise in the real space of a teenager’s everyday life. I would argue that it is exactly control in the Deleuzian sense that these teenagers and other users of Myspace are submitting to.”
He focusses his analysis on types of socio-spatial control at play in MySpace: the conversion of individual members into Deleuzian ‘dividuals’ or commodities, the role of advertising within the community and the ownership of actual information and media content. While spatial theorists like Lefebvre remind us that space is always reappropriated by people (the same logic used in the argument that technologies are always reappropriated by users), Scharmen claims that Deleuze goes one step further and argues that “this process of user production itself is recuperated and monetized by the society of control.”
For me, that’s the important bit. I don’t understand why user appropriation of technology is considered some sort of final step in technological production. And I don’t understand why citizen appropriation of public space should be assumed to be some sort of final stage of urbanism either. Iain Borden’s work on skateboarding has often been called on by locative media or pervasive computing researchers, in part I think, because of his focus (following Lefebvre) on using the city for one’s own purposes. But he doesn’t seriously consider “re-re-appropriation” either in the commodification of skater culture, or the institutionalisation of skating space in municipal skate parks. Putting this back in locative tech terms, that’s the same kind of approach taken by most pro-am arguments: the story ends with public users, as if they can finally stand firm and free on a platform like Flickr or Ning , or even a city, and we can forget about them. Sometimes, the biggest problem with user-centred design is that use and user are be-all-and-end-all. When appropriation is understood to be an individual act, then we train our sights on individual actions, and often exclude collective flows or assembling forces.