Dancing with technology

DancingI am now working on a paper about the histories of the “digital divide” for the upcoming ICA pre-conference. While re-reading some of the articles and organizing my own thoughts, I got stuck with the following image in my head. I tend to view our interaction with technology as a dance, sort of a passionate tango where the partners are competing for lead. As users we can take a step forward in this dance (embracing more technology) or a step back (dropping technological practices and devices). But we are not limited just to that back and forth motion. We can also step aside, turn around, spin our partner, let them spin us, and basically be both creative and innovative in what we do.

At the same time, it is a pair dance, so our decisions of what we do, or even an appreciation of what we can do, is a function of cooperation between us (users) and our partner (technology). We plan our next steps based on the feedback from our partner. The partner can limit our options of being creative and innovative, or even to move in a certain direction, and yet they can improve our dance, making us realizing unprecedented abilities. We are very attentive to our partner and respond to each little movement of their body, to every clue about how comfortable and/or excited they are about the next move. There is constant tension and continuous pressure between you two, because it is only through this interaction that your dance is born and this what makes it so exciting.

Although we, as a pair and each one of us as an individual, have a lot of agency in shaping the dance, it is also guided by the surroundings. If we are to participate in an official ballroom dancing competition there is a plethora of formal rules and convention we’d have to fit our innovation into (using technology at work). However, even we are just dancing for fun, the settings in which it happens encourage certain behaviors and discourage others (talking on phone in public). We may be more willing to innovate when we are among friends who share our passion to dancing, and be more reluctant to perform extravagant moves among strangers. In some cultural settings we might not be able to dance at all.

We also learn. The experience matters, and the more we dance and spend time analyzing this dance, the better we get to know our partner and work out little dancing routines within the limitations of our joint abilities. At the same time, being on the dance floor and observing other people dancing, we pick up steps and we allow ourselves trying new moves. As times goes by, as a pair we also learn to interact with the social settings, understanding the limits of extravaganza we can follow on different occasions and with different audiences. The more experience and knowledgeable we are getting (both about each other and about the different settings) the more confident we fill to stretch the boundaries and challenge the conventions. It works exactly the same with technology.

So, whether it is a tango or a dance with media and communication technology, this interaction is complex, dynamic, multidimensional, and constantly evolving. This is probably it is so fascinating to watch. Don’t you think?


8 Responses to “Dancing with technology”

  1. >>> James Says:

    Nice article
    Good read as allways

    Found it most interesting

  2. lisa Says:

    nice piece :)
    and the same could be said about all those things we have a symbiotic relationship with

  3. Dima Says:

    Things like what?

  4. Claudia Says:

    Hmmm…I don’t know. Traditional dancing is between two self organized, self aware, communicating beings. It is difficult (although not necessarily impossible) to think of our relationship with technology (including everything from cellphone to pencil or hammer) in the same way…

    At least it is, for me. This is why I think Communication is a field quite distinct from “Human-Computer Interaction”. But then, it may also be because of the picture you posted…who is the technological piece? :( ;)

  5. Dima Says:

    I agree with your about the difficulty to imagine technology as a “self organized, self aware, communicating being”, but i do suggest that technology has agency.

    Do you like the picture?

  6. Claudia Says:

    So…since I am having difficulty with it…can you explain? Under what definition of technology does technology have agency?

    I remind you that I am considering “technology” broadly, this is, beginning with human’s first use of tools. Did technology have agency then? When did it begin having it? Can I have an example of this agency where there was no human hand behind it? (I will be very Occam’s Razorish here, and assume that if there was a human hand behind it, the agency goes to the human)

    Yes, I like the pic. ;)

  7. Dima Says:

    For example the under the Actor-Network theory

    As to the simplest tools, what about the good old “when all you have is a hammer, everything will look like a nail”? Isn’t it about the agency of technology? Or the fact that the hammer is used by humans automatically strips it off any agency? Then what about a soldier in the army who has to follow orders of their commander? Would a soldier have no agency?

    I can see what you are saying and this is why it is problematic to view technology as a concrete device only. As you and i discussed it the other evening, it is probably better to think about it in terms of institutions of technology.

  8. Claudia Says:

    Ah! The ANT… and its “controversial” claim of non-human agency, )as per wikipedia) :)

    First, the example of the soldiers. In that case both soldier and commander would have agency, as would be the case with the forgotten dancers. The soldier is not a tool of the army (despite the fact that they are often treated that way, but I digress…)

    The thing is whether one could expect anything similiar from a technological device! The axe refuses to chop the head, the bomb refuses to explode over Hiroshima, the cellphone refuses to send that drunk text message at 4am…ANT or no ANT, I have seen no evidence of that. I guess I am asking for evidence of agentic power…where agency is not just acting in exactly the way that cause-effect determinations would predict the thing to act.

    In the end, I think I am more open to the idea that humans are not agentic, than to the one that phones are…but that is another topic.

    Finally…if it is institutions of technology, I agree.

    And then again, I find it very useful to think if technology as only the concrete device, because it makes it easier for me to see the relationships between users and producers of modern devices, a relationship that can be quite creepy.

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