Friday, 13 May 2011

The two magic's, memes and technology affordances - a case for purposeful appropriation

Two Magics
Way back in 2007 Tim Berners-Lee spoke about the two magics - the phenomena associated with the fact that the web - an artificial construct established by a set of microscopic rules has macroscopic outcomes.
Tim Berner-Lees's Two Magics

Briefly the concept of the 'two magics' is associated Tim's concept of 'Philosophical Engineering'. The magics are a manifestation of the observation that the web is a socio-technical system in which we observe many different emergent phenomena where there is a cycle of inter-related developments.
The technology is engineered - a system is designed and implemented and we observe social and technical impacts.
Depending on your perspective the way in which the social and technological interact can be interpreted different ways (see Halford et al, 2010 'Towards a manifesto for web science', for some insights into this debate)
Tim states that the term 'magic'  is used as a short hand term to label 'stuff you don't understand' (yet)
The bit of this idea which I am thinking about now is that, we observe that some of the phenomena associated with the web work and unexpectedly go viral.

My Perspective - affordances and internet memes - a case for purposeful appropriation
Generally my approach to understanding and analysing change and the interactions between technology and society takes a 'technology affordances' perspective after Gaver (1991, 1996). But more and more I am developing the idea of promoting 'Purposeful Appropriation'. The idea is similar in some ways to the idea of modelling behaviour - but of course I am not talking about behaviour I am talking about ways that we successfully use the web. With purposeful appropriate you observe some successful phenomena on the web. You analyse the underlying drivers for that success, you purposefully take (appropriate) the same approach, but you apply it in a different field, perhaps with additional insights which are appropriate to the new field.
Consider the case of Facebook. They observed that google made money by selling advertising as a side activity associated with the purpose for which people were drawn to their site. They also understood that in the advertising world demographics is valuable. Their social network initially constrained the demographic of their population (university grads at successful institutions), subsequently they have but significant effort into gathering data on the demographics (and behaviours) of their users, which they can use to target/personalise the adverts which are presented to their users, and presumable thereby achieve a better hit rate and higher advertising revenues.
We observe that ideas and behaviours spread in a way that is associated with the internet. Sometimes those are in the area of jokes or fashions like RickRolling or LOL Cats. Susan Blackmore popularised the idea of memes in her book on the topic, and had extended the ideas talking about Internet memes and technology memes (Temes).
You can find a few links to memes and accounts of their role,, or
But we also observe that 'Google' has become a verb, and as such it is a a term which encapsulates a set of behaviours and assumptions which has behind it a model and expectation of the way our information world exists both in the physical and virtual. We observe in many different ways that the internet, mobile communications and technology infrastructures - and the need to solve particular problems give rise to varied and interesting solutions. What I want to do is to think about the fundamental technology affordances which are associated with these solutions and see how they can be applied in the area of social and educational innovation away from their original context.
For this reason I find it useful to follow a fairly mainstream podcast from the BBC where the correspondent Peter Day looks at change and business across the world. The ideas and phenomena which are being reported are not in the research lab, they are being used and apparently they work - which is what makes them interesting - to some extent they have already moved from the micro to the macro. Which means they might be worth appropriating in another context!
Links and examples:
Peter Day's podcast  is an easy way of stumbling across interesting snippets, he gets to a whole lot of places....
Peter Day's Podcasts - interesting series of programmes which often addresses new business models - eg micro payments in indian subcontinent, credit unions and affordable business loans in developing countries
An example of language translation
Not sure where I picked up this story originally, but there is some interesting use of mobiles and micropayments for translation services in africa
The same story was also featured in this blog, which is all about crowdsourcing :-)  the latter article also have various links to related writings.
GAVER, W. W. (1991) Technology affordances. Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems: Reaching through technology. New Orleans, ACM Press.

GAVER, W. W. (1996) Situating Action ii: Affordances for interaction: The social is material for design. Ecological Psychology, 8111-130.
BLACKMORE, S. (2010). Dangerous Memes; or, What the Pandorans Let Loose. Cosmos and Culture: Cultural Evolution in a Cosmic Context. S. Dick and M. Lupisella, NASA: 297-318.

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