Wed 27 Oct 2004
Today Genevieve Bell came to SIMS and gave a facsinating talk titled 'Does Jesus do SMS? Religion, Technology, and Ubiquitous Computing.' I would gladly have listened to a talk on any of a dozen topics she covered in today, but one in particular caught my attention.
I have been thinking about the ways that certain values are inscribed in technology, and the ways that those values tend to funnel and constrain uses. In particular I've been wondering if this value barrier – which I think of as a problem of 'culturally appropriate computing' – could be at play in the continuing inaccessability of many technologies to some marginalized and disadvantaged people.
Genevieve was the first I've heard describe this problem. She mentioned that certain uses of technology – namely entertainment and efficiency – are seen as 'good' or more appropriate uses. This valuing of the uses of technology necessarily finds its way to design, I think, and therefore becomes a self-sustaining cycle. In the specific context of today's talk, Genevieve mentioned that there are 128 million Americans who use ICTs for religious purposes, from receiving daily SMS affirmations from the Vatican to perusing the bible via PDA. She also made the point that relgious values, in particular Christian values, are entrenched in many aspects of American life.
So my question is, how did it come about that the 'good' uses of technology did not come to encompass religion or spirituality, which is such a widespread and pervasive aspect of American life? I suspect that Genevieve answered this question in a way by discussing the unique status that religion holds both in the United States and abroad. Talking about religion is nearly always sensitive, and religion wraps up important issues of the public/private divide.
I think coming to understand the ways that some values become inscribed in technology while others do not, despite their being seen as equally important, is essential to overturning the domainant (and sometimes oppressive) paradigm of those values. The starting point for this work, as I'm sure Genevieve, a fellow anthropologist, would agree, has got to be ethnography. In any case, there's more thinking to be done.