Anyone who has ever seen Fritz Lang's movie Metropolis - even the version rocking the Pat Benatar/Adam Ant/Queen soundtrack - knows that as technology becomes evermore present, society will continue to fear the "inevitable" destruction of humanity at the cold, logical hands of our cyborg overlords (see: Terminator, Battlestar Galactica, Blade Runner). Even in our cinematic visions of a futuristic utopia, technology is still the oppressor of human goodness, like in THX-1138 or the even more horrifying Logan's Run (with my 30th birthday approaching, my fear of "the Carousel" is growing exponentially). It is within the cinematic view of technology - specifically, Metropolis - that authors Bonnie A. Nardi and Vicki L. O'Day introduce their book Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart. The authors lay out the plot of Metropolis to introduce a central concept linking humans with technology: a mediator. Here's a quick rundown of the plot:
Beautiful futuristic city is run on the blood, sweat, and tears of the worker class whose bodies are broken underground as cogs in the machine that allow the upper class to live lives of leisure and comfort. Then, a scientist builds a robot that looks like a lady and the Master of the city tells the scientist to make the robot look like Maria, a leader of the revolutionists underground. The goal of the Master is to incite violence so the workers can be killed off and replaced with robots. Robot Maria does the job and chaos ensues and things get totally out of hand as the workers destroy the machinery that runs the city above. As both worlds are now literally collapsing, the movie's protagonist - who is the son of the Master and who is also empathetic to the workers' plight and in love with the real Maria to boot - becomes the mediator between the two worlds. The Master's son stands between his father (the world of technology) and the foreman of the workers (the world of the people), and he holds his hands out to both men, bridging the worlds.
Nardi and O'Day set this scene to express their belief that we must also have a mediator between ourselves and technology, and this mediator is the heart. Information Ecologies has a clear twofold purpose. First, the book is a call to action regarding the ways in which we interact with technology. And second, the book argues that we have to rearticulate the way we define ourselves and our relationships with the devices we use. Before the authors go into any significant detail about their call to action - their claim about the human heart as mediator - they create a framework within which to view our interactions with technology, and this is where the idea of information ecologies comes into play. Nardi and O'Day break down the metaphors that we often use to explain how we process the idea of technology, such as "technology is a tool" or "technology is a text" or even "technology is a system." In their analysis, the authors deconstruct these commonly held metaphors as a preamble to the introduction of their own ecology metaphor. However, the authors don't just dismiss or disprove the commonplace metaphors we associate with technology; they simply point out both their flaws and merits. This allows the authors to demonstrate the need for a new, more complete representation of technology in our lives, it allows them to build on the ideas about technology we've become comfortable with, and it allows them to really stress the need for a metaphor when describing the complex connections we have with technology and information in our everyday lives.
From Chapter 3 on, Nardi and O'Day entrench their work in the belief that we are active participants in a complex and diverse ecosystem of information. The authors identify the five necessary components for their information ecology: system, diversity, coevolution, keystone species, and locality. This metaphor is both unique and apt, but it is not until the second half of the book, the case studies, that it is clear just what information ecologies are and how we fit into them. For me, the most salient case study was the authors' examination of librarians as a keystone species in the library ecosystem. Nardi and O'Day note that as libraries become more equipped with computers and digital technologies the librarian actually becomes a more important person to the system, despite the notion that technology will force the librarian into obsolescence. The librarian provides "information therapy...to help clients understand their own needs." The librarian provides "strategic expertise...technical skill and knowledge of where information lives and how it is organized." And, the librarian is an agent of "building relationships" and encouraging "repeat clients." According to the authors, librarians hold the library ecosystem together by facilitating both its human and technological elements. The library as an ecosystem is somewhat easy to imagine. It's a system because it is made up of different parts - books and other print, technology, and people who contribute "practices and values" - and all of these parts are interconnected. It has diversity in its people and tools. Its people and tools evolve with each other, if not by choice then by necessity. It has a keystone species in the librarian. And, it is defined by the people who participate in its existence; by the people who physically interact with the ecosystem. Understanding Nardi and O'Day's theory in an applied example helps to see all the information ecologies we participate in, from school to work to our interactions on the Internet - which the authors address in another case study.
After the introduction of the information ecology metaphor and before the case studies, the authors directly address the call to action they started the book off with; namely, that people and technology must be bridged with the heart. Chapter 6, "How to Evolve Information Ecologies," is nothing less than a call to arms for critical literacy, which is the heart and mediator for Nardi and O'Day. The authors ask their readers to "work from core values," to "pay attention," and to "ask strategic questions" - questions about power structures and cultural hegemonies. For Nardi and O'Day, critical literacy is essential in avoiding many either/or paradigms that they find inherent in our relationships with technology. The main example they give is the "technophilia/dystopia" dyad, and it is probably in this part of the book, Chapter 2, where the authors' argument is weakest. Nardi and O'Day explore two extreme relationships with technology; technophilia is examined through the work of Clifford Stoll, and the dystopic view is examined through Nicholas Negroponte's work. After analyzing these two extremes, the authors advocate the middle ground. I can recognize that the authors set up this framework to help explain their idea that critical literacy is essential to understanding technology beyond its extremes; however, their argument suffers in this section because they briefly ignore the complex psychologies behind the ways people interact with technology.
Ultimately, I liked Information Ecologies and I would recommend it as a book that is enjoyable for leisure reading and a book that also addresses scholarly concerns. However, my strongest recommendation for this book is to anyone who feels frustrated with technology or is experiencing a tech overload. This book offers a nice, calming perspective that assuages a lot of the confusions that come with interacting with technology as it continues to rapidly evolve and influence our lives.