Friday, June 8, 2012

Sociomaterial girl

A girl steps onto a train. Earbuds in place, it looks like she is 'tuning out' the world. A humanist sees the girl first and the device second. A technologist sees the device and what its features 'afford' the user. A social scientist wonders about the family, friends or other networks she is communicating with.  A science fiction buff sees a prototypical 'cyborg,' a human that is part machine, or vice versa.  

This week I attended Michael Barrett's Roundtable discussion at the Judge Business School with one of most influential persons in our field, Wanda OrlikowskiBeginning with her seminal work on adaptive structuration theory, Wanda has contributed key strands of thought leadership in the field of information systems for two decades, and continues to do so.  Her work (with Martha Feldman) on 'Theorizing practice and practicing theory' forces us to think about how we think about technology in practice, i.e., the girl on the train.

Orlikowski's most recent work, with Susan Scott, is also having an impact on our field. It is the notion of 'sociomateriality,' where the social (girl in her social network) and material (iPod or smartphone; train, wifi) are an 'enacted' reality, essentially one thing, not a bunch of separate things. For example, a smartphone app may be telling her what music her friends are listening to, thereby influencing (even offering to buy) her choice of music, which shapes the 'reality' of the train ride.  

My only concern with the emerging attraction (though not without dissent) to the sociomaterial viewpoint is that human agency (choice, free will) not get lost as a consequence.  Meaning always has a social element to it, but action--sociomaterial as it is--usually, if not always, involves an element of individual choice. 

As the train moves on, the girl pulls out the earbuds, closes the screen and looks out the window.  The end. (?)

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