Heterogeneous hybrids : Information Technology in Texts and Practices

Document type: Licentiates
Full text:
Author(s): Pirjo Elovaara
Title: Heterogeneous hybrids : Information Technology in Texts and Practices
Series: Blekinge Institute of Technology Licentiate Series
Year: 2001
Issue: 1
Pagination: 136
ISBN: ISBN 91-7295-000-5
ISSN: ISSN 1650-2140
Publisher: Blekinge Institute of Technology
City: Karlskrona/Ronneby
Organization: Blekinge Institute of Technology
Department: Department of Human Work Science and Media Technology (Institutionen för arbetsvetenskap och medieteknik)
Dept. of Human Work Science and Media Techn., S-372 25 Ronneby
+46 455 780 00
http://www.iar.bth.se/
Authors e-mail: pirjo.elovaara@bth.se
Language: English
Abstract: How could one understand and interpret the phenomenon of information technology, is the overall research question of this licentiate dissertation.

The point of departure is the way some official texts in Sweden define the concept of information technology. It is possible to identify two dominating discourses; the technical and the social. In the first paper, empirical material from the Women Writing on the Net-project is mirrored against these dominating discourses. In the second paper, the focus is on how the dominating discourses are translated into librarians´ work practices and how librarians shape and transform information technology.

How could one understand librarians´ ways of talking about information technology where the two separate discourses of information technology identified in the official texts do not seem to be identified as pure and separable phenomena? Feminist theories, feminist technoscientific studies and ´actor-network theory´ offer epistemological and analytical frames and screens necessary to understand information technology as a hybrid involving numerous heterogeneous elements.

Introduction to the Papers

Paper One, Discourses and Cracks - A Case Study of Information Technology and Writing Women in a Regional Context, is the first paper where empirical material from a local IT project is used and discussed and where it is mirrored against the dominating discourses of information technology. The first part of this paper discusses information technology as a political and practical discourse which is in part shaped by the repetition of an exalted rhetoric. This repetitive discursive model can be distinguished in global, regional and local contexts and reflects an optimistic belief in technology as an independent power that automatically furthers democratic development. Is it really this simple? The analysis includes a discussion of the concept of ´universal citizenship´ in a context of women's experiences in Sweden. The second part of the paper presents empirical material and experiences from the Women Writing on the Net-project (this is included in the framework of the DIALOGUE project, which was partly funded by ISPO/EU). The aim was to create a virtual space for women on the Internet and to explore the writing process in terms of aim, tool and method. The method of approach incorporated reflections and discussions about empowerment, democracy and representation of women. This created a more complex understanding of the values of the predominant IT discourses, and revealed the "cracks" in, and possibilities of feminist redefinitions of these values.

In Paper Two, Translating and Negotiating Information Technology: Discourses and Practices, I continue exploration of my overall research question "What is information technology?" I study the dominating discourses of information technology; these I call "the technical suit" and the "social suit." In my empirical field studies among librarians in southeast Sweden I explore how the two faces of information technology - the technical and the social - are translated into librarians´ work practices. I study a project which was defined by the librarians themselves as an information technology project. I investigate how this project complies with the social/societal definitions of information technology, and how it complies with the technical definitions of information technology. In my second empirical study, I use two case studies with librarians involved in constructing web sites on the Internet. The Internet and the web are often seen in part as an open and undefined landscape in which new actors can move freely and build new partnerships, and partly as a shadow landscape of existing structures and relationships which can close up new openings. In the concluding discussion, I state that information technology seems to be both an amoeba and a chameleon. One minute it is a very pure and complicated technical story told by technicians. The next minute, it changes and turns into a financial story told by business people. It subsequently turns out to be an educational story told by teachers. It is also, however, a household story told by computer people. I suggest that information technology is impure. It is a hybrid. Inspired by Donna Haraways´s technoscientific metaphor of cyborg I claim that information technology is a cyborg in itself.

In the third paper, From Networks to Fluids and Fires - A Prelude to Actor-Network Theory, I discuss a method of analysis I have tried to apply to my empirical material. I explore the notions of Actor-Network Theory (ANT), and Actor-Network Theory and After (ANTA). My point of departure is the way some official texts in Sweden define the concept of information technology by stressing the technical aspects of IT; at the same time they present information technology as a motor and a driving force for many sectors of society. In my research, I have discussed with librarians how they shape and transform information technology in their own work practices. The problems of analysing this empirical material started when the librarians started to talk about people, machines and money all in one breath. How could one understand their way of talking about information technology where the two separate lines of information technology identified in the official texts did not seem to be identified as pure and separable phenomena? How was it possible to understand the concept of information technology as it was used by the librarians, who seemed to involve all kinds of different heterogeneous elements which at first sight were very far away from information technology? It was when asking these questions that I discovered ANT and ANTA. In this paper, I present some basic ideas about these two research approaches by reading and analysing articles published between 1980 and the year 2000. In addition to the ANT and ANTA perspectives, I also introduce my own research questions: story telling and epistemological problematisations closely connected with feminist theories are, for example, closely intertwined in this paper.
Summary in Swedish: Informationsteknik är en aktiv och energisk deltagare i våra liv. Bokstavskombinationen IT förekommer överallt. Men vad är egentligen denna informationsteknik? I denna licentiatuppsats söker författaren svar på frågan med hjälp av svenska offentliga texter. Dessa texter beskriver informationsteknik främst som ett komplicerat tekniskt fenomen vilken ställer krav på infrastruktur och teknisk expertis. Samtidigt beskriver samma dokument informationsteknik som en pådrivare i samhällsutvecklingen. Man kan således konstatera att informationsteknik verkar ha två sidor; en teknisk och en samhällelig. Ett annat sätt att leta efter svar är att studera hur informationsteknik formas i vardagens praktiker. I denna licentiatuppsats undersöker författaren projektet ´Kvinnor skriver på nätet´ som bland annat hade som ambition att förverkliga de demokratiska tankegångar som de formuleras i svenska IT-politiska dokument. Som en ytterligare ingång till vardagens informationsteknik studerar författaren hur bibliotekarier formar informationsteknik genom att delta i IT-projekt och skapa webbplatser till sina organisationer. Författaren kommer fram till att det inte finns en enda och entydig definition av fenomenet informationsteknik. IT är både teknik och samhällsutveckling. IT är både storslagen politisk retorik och vardagens kreativitet med dess tröttsamma rutiner. Författaren kommer också fram till att informationsteknik inte endast är en angelägenhet för makthavare och tekniska experter. Informationsteknik är en levande process, vilket förutsätter att den ständigt måste utvecklas och formas i vardagen. Om vi utgår från en bred definition av informationsteknik får detta intressanta konsekvenser. Författaren vill visa att informationsteknik är ett fält där det finns plats för många olika kompetenser och erfarenheter. Informationsteknik är en möjlighet men den måste anpassas i de existerande organisationer där människor i samarbete med andra människor, datorer, nätverk och programvara förverkligar och formar informationsteknik. Detta perspektiv påminner också om att ansvaret av informationsteknikens utveckling och tillämpningar inte bara hör hemma i stora IT-företag utan att informationsteknik förverkligas och skapas i arbetslivet på olika nivåer.
Subject: Human Work Science\Human Computer Interaction
Technoscience Studies\Feminist Technoscience
Keywords: Information Technology, Feminist Technoscientific Studies, Actor-Network Theory, Librarians
URN: urn:nbn:se:bth-00170
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