Next session doesn’t begin for a while, but I’m thinking here at breakfast about how this meeting accelerates my sensation of being a misfit toy in academia. I mean, in the context of my everyday practice, I think quite a few of my immediate colleagues see me as the technologically literate, digitally oriented person, to an extreme degree. I get to a meeting like this and the extent to which I’m actually quite hidebound and inexperienced in my use of tools becomes evident. I don’t think I’m atypical in that respect: a lot of research in information technology use has shown that people tend to learn and adopt technologies in a haphazard rather than systematic manner. It isn’t just use but cultures of use. I can’t imagine being at a meeting of historians or anthropologists where everyone would start their mornings sitting in the conference room with laptops open, reading email, liveblogging, checking their RSS feeds, and having conversation in the meantime, unless that meeting was explicitly for “blogging historians” or some such. I like working like this (it’s a huge improvement over gathering in a panel and listening to four people read papers for twenty minutes each, and taking a few written notes that I’ll proceed to lose or forget), but it makes me wonder whether if I spent more time in these kinds of gatherings, I wouldn’t start to feel a progressive sense of alienation due to the relative simplicity of my technological habits.
It’s not as if this constellation of people and their cultures of technology use come without their own problems. I’ve already mentioned the interesting problem of backchannel conversations, which professors in all fields had better come to some conclusions about as classrooms get wireless access. There’s also a very evident low-level tension at certain moments between theoretical or analytic approaches to social computing and people who are invested in applications and design. Sometimes you’re at a point where both groups are in a zone of mutual confusion or interest, other moments where they’re ships passing in the night, and occasionally points where each constituency is actively aggravating the other. There is no professional world without its unproductive cleavages and missed opportunities.