Steve Walker

Some less or more well-organised thoughts

Archive for January 2012

EGOV4U and a history of the world in 100 sociotechnical networks

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Discussions of technologies frequently consider the impacts and present certain technologies as leading directly to particular outcomes. Hence, we get stories about how social networks lead to riots (or the post-riot clean-ups) or the Arab spring. These stories are recent examples of the wider story about the internet being an inherently democratic technology (and, before that, TV, radio, telegraphy and printing). Visions of technologies as fixing things are very attractive to policymakers who can present themselves as technocratic fixers (and, of course, their opponents either as Luddites or in some way ‘not getting it’).

Recently, Shailey Minocha and I gave a presentation at the Regional Studies Association Winter Conference in London entitled ‘A sociotechnical network perspective on e-government technologies’, elaborating some of our thinking as part of the EGOV4U project impact evaluation work. (The other members of the OU team also presented – Mike Grimsley and Anthony Meehan ‘Impact evaluation of multi-channel eGovernment services tackling disadvantage and social exclusion’, and Leslie Budd and Ivan Horrocks ‘Multi-channel governance and electronic democracy’.

Our paper discussed some of the project partners’ initiatives viewed as sociotechnical networks. This is one way discussing technology such that the artefacts are not seen in isolation from the social contexts in which they are both designed and used. We also drew on ideas of various ‘capitals’ (of which financial, human, and social capitals are the best known) articulated in the EGOV4U Impact Evaluation Framework.

While we were preparing the presentation, I was listening to the BBC’s podcasts of ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ based on objects in the British Museum’s collection. I missed most of the programmes when they were originally broadcast, but they are excellent listening on the motorway to Milton Keynes. They are great examples of how to think sociotechnically. The material objects are described physically, but this is just a starting point for some fascinating accounts of the networks of relationships, ideas and resources that went in to creating them, how these are reflected in the artefacts, and the functions that they served in the societies which produced them.

I couldn’t resist including an example from the series in our presentation and chose the head of Caesar Augustus. To me, it is an irresistible story of projecting reputation of a ruler, in ways quite familiar to us. The bust was created by skilled sculptors in a society which had the human and financial resources to support them. It reflected a particular image of Augustus as a youthful and virile ruler, and the British Museum’s particular bust was sent to what is now southernEgypt, on the borders of the Roman Empire. The clincher for me, though, is that the BM’s bust is pitted with sand from being decapitated, buried and walked on by Kushite rebels against Roman rule. Ultimately, this bust and its message proved eminently resistable.


Written by Steve

January 11, 2012 at 7:10 pm

Posted in EGOV4U, technology use