Adam Greenfield: Culture, and the adaptation of technology

I’m at a corporate event this week, giving a talk and participating in two days of discussions. These sorts of events are an increasing part of my life – they’re good fun, in that they let me get the perspectives and feedback from people I don’t usually work with. The downside is that these events are usually under Chatham House rules, which means that I can’t blog them well, as I can’t attribute statements to individuals or organizations… except with explicit permission from the speaker.

Adam Greenfield, who was speaking at the same event last night, was good enough to give me permission to blog his talk, a terrific overview of the cultural context of technology, titled “The Street Will Find a Way”. The title is a quote from William Gibson – “The street finds its own uses for things” – and helps reflect the wide range of influences on Greenfield’s work. (He’s been a US Army psyops officer, an information architect for Razorfish, a record critic for Spin, and now teaches at ITP at New York University.)

Greenfield’s focus is on the “diffusion of technology into human culture”. He leads off with a study of the adoption of the electric guitar. The instrument arrives on the scene in the middle of the 20th century, with Les Paul building early instruments in the 1940s. The first commercial electric guitar is the Fender Telecaster, introduced in 1951. These instruments are basically acoustic guitars with electric pickups, and they get used much like traditional guitars do. He plays an exerpt from Bob Dylan’s “revolutionary” use of an electric guitar at Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Dylan plays the guitar very much like an acoustic guitar – it’s actually quite hard to tell whether he’s playing an amplified acoustic or an electric guitar.

Greenfield plays a clip from the Velvet Underground recorded a mere year later – it’s a wash of feedback and guitar news and sounds shockingly modern. It’s the sound of electric guitars being made to do things they weren’t supposed to do, and it’s a set of sounds that simply wouldn’t be possible before the invention of the instrument.

The adaptation of the electric guitar, Greenfield argues, follows a predictable pattern. Users adopt a new technololgy, they probe what that technology can do, and they adapt the technology towards these new purposes. Critical, Greenfield argues, is a social context that permits and encourages this adaptation. Until a community authorizes the adaptation, we’re monkeys probing the things we find – the novel thing about human adaptation is that we can reshape culture around these new behaviors.

As soon as new technology is available, Greenfield tells us, we creative humans find alternative uses for it. It probably took little more than a day before people realized that viagra could enhance sexual experience as well as relieving dysfunction. And he points to the very creative use of Botox injections to help professional poker players avoid facial tells.

The cultural context – the complex web of practices, symbols and behaviors that weave themselves around simple objects like cars – are what gives emotional weight to those objects. It’s why Jan and Dean’s “Dead Man’s Curve” or JG Ballard’s “Crash” makes sense. But assuming that the cultural context surrounding a technology will apply in another cultural setting is a mistake. The idea that mobile phones are democracy devices, Greenfield offers, fails to consider the cultural context in which phones helped overthrow the Estrada government in the Philippines. In other cultural settings, activists + phones does not equal social change. Iranians, he argues, don’t use the phone for political purposes, perhaps due to fear that the technology is closely monitored.

He offers the example of CyWorld, a popular Korean blogging service, as an example of culturally embedded technologies. Over 8 million Koreans have built “mini-hompys” on CyWorld, decorating their virtual rooms with digital objects. This makes more sense when you realize that many Koreans live in “modular, self-similar, repeating” spaces designed and implemented by Samsung. The ability to create ones own space virtually is more important and powerful when you lack that physical space.

Sometimes technologies fail to transfer because the incentive structure is mistuned. He points to the example of NTT’s iMode, which failed in the US as mMode, in part because the tarrif structures on data in Japan strongly pushed users to use data services, while tarrif structures in the US favored voice usage.

Technologies create affordances – a chair affords the possibility of sitting. One of Greenfield’s major interests – explored in his book Everyware – is what happens when computing is so thoroughly embedded in everyday objects that we see “information processing disolving behavior”. The phrase is the adaptation of one offered by Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa – “design disolving behavior”, which reflects an attempt to create designs that don’t force the user to behave differently, but solve problems through design. Greenfield offers the design of an umbrella specifically designed to be stuck to a counter at a ramen bar – the umbrella, without the suction cup, would invariably slip off the bar. The transparent design behavior takes the same gesture attaching an umbrella to a bar counter, but makes a small modification to make the behavior work better.

Users frequently solve problems in this fashion, finding ways that objects can function better than their designers intended. An RFID subway card, placed in the bottom of a purse, can open a subway turnstile just by being brushed against the reader. Greenfield describes the “extraordinary, balletic gesture” of women in Japanese subways arcing their purses past the sensor and moving through the transit system more quickly than had they tapped the cards agains the reader.

But the same technology that makes this behavior possible – RFID tags – are deeply disturbing to Greenfield. As objects begin to have identities and the capacity to communicate with a network, there’s the possibility that our objects begin to spy on us. If our floor can identify us via our gait, if an internet-connected toilet can analyze our waste and communicate results to our doctor – or our insurer – we begin to find ourselves in a panopticon, watched constantly, or at least under the perception that we could be watched constantly. RFIDs are insidious because they are so inoccuous… but if every athlete and ticketholder at the 2008 Olympics is tracked via RFID, the system begins to look like an Orwellian surveillance state.

For Greenfield, technologies like RFID leave huge open questions – they’re open-ended and reaching vast new user bases. Will they become surveillance systems, or will they remain innocuous? The answer is probably not the product of technological determinism – it’s an intersection of the potentials of the technology and the reality of how a culture chooses to adopt and transform it.

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3 Responses to Adam Greenfield: Culture, and the adaptation of technology

  1. betsy says:

    I had a similar reaction to a recent bit on “mythbusters” where they were discussing the use of RFID tags imbedded in people, containing their medical history. This could be incredibly useful — if someone is passed out and taken to the emergency room, the RFID could tell the doctor that they were allergic to penicillin, for example — but it could also be frightenening in all sorts of ways, “1984”-like and otherwise. Interesting.

  2. Pingback: mtl3p » Blog Archive » so yeah

  3. AG says:

    Did I *really* say that about Iranians? Boy was I ever wrong.

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