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Why Software Companies Should Hire Sociologists August 20, 2007

Posted by malthusio in Uncategorized.
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While it is true that this already happens, it doesn’t happen in the way I have in mind. Usualy sociological and anthropological work is only applied to the design of user interfaces for products that end users will (or poissibly not) use. For some reason though, there doesn’t seem to be much willingness to turn this lens on the process itself. Here the iceburg metaphor applies. 10% of the product/process is visible, but 90% remains beneath the surface. While it is true that interfaces are important, what’s behind them is important too.

McLuhan talked about the importance of mythic forms for understanding an electronicaly mediated society. Intuitively, the software development industry (or more acurately academic research on software development) has grasped this. We see this in the patterns movement, inspired by the architectural philosophy of Christopher Alexander, who was contemporary with McLuhan (although a bit later). I think it would be interesting to see if there are any cross correlations or commonalities in thier work.

In any case, it’s possible that the history of software might have been different if these people had read and understood McLuhan (actualy, it probably would have been different if more people had read Christopher Alexander – few actualy did. I know I didn’t… but maybe later). The goals of the patterns movement is to provide a higher level language to talk/think about the (software) world. This is very much in the same veign as McLuhan’s ideas of how mythic forms relate to “resonant” media.

Design patterns are somewhat less colorfull than what we usualy think of as “myth”, but McLuhan meant this in an abstract sense anyway. The interesting thing is, that pattern languages (calling them “languages” is not entirely acurate, as they are more like an extended vocabulary. you still need some other linguistic framework to embed them within.) are not flat. The things they describe are not flat, and even the atoms of the language are not flat (see Design Patterns).

Relatively recently, we have seen the application of the pattern idea to many different spheres of software development, management and education among others (can’t seem to find any condensed links right now…). But like William Gibson has said, “the future has already happened, it just isn’t that well distributed yet”. From reading I’ve been doing recently on scale free networks, it seems like it should be distributed alot faster than it is, so obviously there is something else going on here. Again, I think this ties in with information overload. The responsiveness of nodes might not decay simply as a linear function of the amount of information it process (or number of connections).

Anyways, I supose I’ve deviated from the point I was originaly making by a large margin. The closest I have seen to what I am trying to get at here is the feild of “Science Studies”, which is an encouraging sign, but the idea requires greater difusion. Even though corporations have as much to gain from these efforts as society at large, they will probably be the most resistant. All in the name of the protection of intellectual property.

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While it might seem like this is increasingly relevant in an information based society, it is increasingly irrelevant in light of the fact that information society is economicaly based on services (again, the idea of “software as a service” might have come a hell of alot sooner if engineers and managers were reading McLuhan… or maybe not. it’s been known within the industry for a long time that the most expensive phase of the software life cycle is the maintainance phase. development is relatively cheap. but even still, for some reason people didn’t put 2 and 2 together untill relatively recently. And even now, the idea isn’t that well distributed). The internet helped with this of course, and I think this points to an interesting relation to products and services.

McLuhan talked about the industrial revolution as the culmination of the print era. In essense, products are like books. Thier lack of maleability and concreteness makes them slow, in distribution, uptake, and use. Without the advent of the internet, the relevant focus of software products would have remained as a product. However with the internet, distribution and uptake are much more rapid processes. So rapid that distribution and uptake are incorporated into the use patterns of the product. Product and process become blurred, and we have the advent of Service Oriented Architecture. Open source software is also smart for alot of the same reasons. Open source software companies give you the product for free because they have realized that it is irrelevant. Instead they sell support and services, which are processes, not products.

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Back to my original point…. again. For sociologists, understanding the processes that shape technology will help to understand how technologies shape people. For industry, understanding the social processes, ideologies, power dynamics, inequalities, etc. that underly what they do will give them a better understanding of how thier businesses can, do, and should operate. I think some of this is probably happening already, but I’ll admit that I’m largely unaware of its extent. But then, this is part of my point… As someone who has been in the software industry, and computer science I haven’t seen it (and I was paying attention). Any sociological work that is being done on the IT industry itself is invisible.

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