Swarn the Google Doc, or so says the ANT

Did someone say "swarm"?
Alright. I've completed the first half of Latour's book on Actor-Network Theory titled Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. In a couple of blog posts (really soon) I will be continuing my exploration of ANT through this dialogue I've developed with Latour. I also, at the recommendation of Maha (I think) read Cressman's brief overview of ANT (PDF here). So now, inspired by Maha's post, I turn my attention to utilizing ANT (whatever my rudimentary understandig of it is) toward an analysis of the #RhizoResearchGroup's use of collaborative technologies.  Specifically I am dealing with Google Docs (or at least some elements of Google Docs given that ANT can lead you down a rabbit hole).

Briefly I would describe ANT as being a philosophy, or frame of mind, that attempts to account for both human and non-human elements in various interactions. Non-human elements can be technology, such as the keyboard I am using to type this up, but also things denoted by collective nouns - such as corporations, groups, senates, parliaments, and SIGs.  Actors can be just actors, or they can also be networks.  It just depends on what frame you are looking at them from. This type of complexity is a bit mind-boggling because  there are many ways of interpreting some occurence. Latour even says to be prepared for failure, which doesn't bother me, but knowing that consensus is going to be hard to come by makes this activity a bit frustrating.

Anyway - I am not focusing on Google Docs, specifically the word processor part, and our use of them for the #rhizo14 collaborations. What I remember using this for were the following (might be interesting to compare our lists). The list is in some sort of order of recollection (not of significance):

  • collection of our various stories for the collaborative autoethnography
  • creation of the Untext
  • Writing of the CAE
  • Preparing for #ET4Online discovery session
What's interesting is that I don't remember the brainstorming document that Maha mentions.  It must be that different things are more vivid in the minds of some actors than others.

In any case - Presenting ANT meets Google Docs (meets RhizoResearchGroup!) I think that the place to start is to acknowledge that technology is neither valueless nor value-neutral. Technology should also not be seen as a black box. Design decisions made during the design and creation stage of any product have a way of impacting how that product shapes the interactions that users have with it, and with others who are using this product.  Here are some of my observations using the Word Processor (WP) function of GoogleDocs (GD).

WP were developed with the mindset that there is one user with one keyboard.  Think of a typewriter and a person typing.  The document that is being written on the typewriter is almost done. It's not a rough draft, it's not some ideas that you are throwing on the page.  This was done, presumably, on paper before you even touched the keyboard. The draft you are creating with the WP is mostly dealt with as a draft-for-comment, your final draft before someone else sees it.  This is due to the historical development of the WP as an electronic update to the typewriter.

The WP does add functionality, however.  The processor part does allow the author (or typist if the author can't type) to go back and edit.  To cut things out, to paste things in, to process the text by adding and removing formatting like typeface, size, style, and various formatting options. It even allows for editor functions, like adding comments, editing text and marking changes and who made what change when.  Of course, even this collaborative function isn't really  collaborative but cooperative.  The software still treats the document as having 1 owner who is ultimately in control of the document, and others who can come in, make some small changes, and add comments. These are seen as parenthetical and on the side, so they aren't meant to distract from the main part of the document, which is the focal point.

So, how does the historical development of the WP affect how we interact with it?  For one thing, the focal point of 1 document, 1 (or few) ideas, 1 author, and many in the peanut gallery make it hard for a swarm to come in and try to make sense of a document in a linear fashion - which is what the WP was created to do: put something into a linear document for consumption by others. Even when reading one person's contribution (e.g. their story in the collection of stories document), the reactions people had to parts of the story (agree, disagree, adding to, cheering on, etc.) had the effect of bringing you out of that narrative and into the sidebar. In essence the WP became a faux-hypertext document in that you could take branching paths to go to different places in the document as you read, but unlike a hypertext document where the author can control whether they click somewhere to go, those highlighted passages, and dotted lines - like the Sirens in the Odyssey - lured your attention from the main document to the marginalia. This isn't bad per-se, but does the technology, and how it presents itself to us, influence how we interact with the words on the page? I would say that WP is not setup for a swarm approach to document writing, even though we made it work.

This "issue" of marginalia, and other attention breaking devices, is device dependent.  If you read the document in a mobile browser, something like a smartphone or tablet, chances are that you didn't see the marginalia, so your attention was not taken from what individual authors wrote. If you did not have full permissions to the document you might see it, you might not see it, and if you did see it you might now have had the comments showing.  Or, you might have been able to make "suggestions" rather than edit right on the page. This has an implied power-dynamic, and it brings me back to the origins of the WP, as a one person-one document setup.  I think that this also, at a subconscious level, had an effect on how we interacted with the text originally. Instead of going in and stepping on someone's toes by directly editing their contribution we added marginalia, asked questions, tried to negotiate, instead of actually allowing the swarm to work it out - to go in and change parts, without permission, and see where the document ends up, as opposed to the negotiation aspect that we've been enculturated into.

From a Power dynamics perspective, comments and the "resolution" of them, again assumes a certain power structure - that the 1 author of the 1 paper has the power to accept or dismiss the comments made by other people.  Even if we are all authors, the fact that I have the power to "resolve" Keith's comments means that others may not even see what he wrote as a comment in the document, one node - one actor, has much power over that network in this sense..

Finally, ideas will not begin with the WP.  They are carried there by actors. These actors have interacted with other actors, both human collaborators and other non-human actors such as collaboration technologies.  As Maha wrote, what ends up on the Google Doc hides much of what happened outside. This reminds me of Latour's fifth uncertainty - when you start notating and jotting things down you lose the richness of what has transpired.  Even with this blog post, I've boiled down something really complex into one post.  Even with this post I have not discussed everything that could be discussed about Google Docs, WP, power, and design decisions around software and group processes, so much is lost. To some extend the fifth uncertainty seems rather nihilistic...



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