Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Information Technology and the Experience of Disorder

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Information Technology and the Experience of Disorder

Article excerpt


Information and communication technologies (ICT) and management are critical components of contemporary social and cultural life, especially in the so-called 'information society'. Management often works through and deploys ICT, and the two are nearly always seen as ordering or controlling processes that (eventually) produce order whether efficient, liberatory or oppressive. As we shall see, governments, businesses and other organisations generally argue that a new, improved computer system will solve their problems of efficiency, order and survival. 'Order' is, in itself, usually taken as non-problematic or ultimately as beneficial-even anarchists claim they are in favour of naturally arising orders.1

However, what if ordering systems tend to be self-undermining, producing what those imposing them classify as disorder and inducing common responses of ignoring disorder, or strengthening or reimposing the ordering system, so that the cycle starts again? I am not here, suggesting that 'order' or 'disorder' are absolutes: they are socially defined and different people may not agree on what is ordered correctly, or how to order correctly, so that conflict over what constitutes order and ordering is an ongoing part of politics. I am, however, suggesting that 'order' and 'disorder' are not separable; they arise together as an order/disorder complex.

I am here following Berg and Timmermans who, in discussing medical practice, point out that ICT is tied up with modes of ordering and standardisation.

Attempts to formalize, standardize, and rationalize are ubiquitous in Western worlds ... The disorder of current practices, according to such discourses, should be replaced by scientifically established, rational, and universal modes of working and understanding.2

The question arises whether this triumph of order is possible. Berg and Timmermans suggest that order and disorder are mutually implicated: 'these orders do not emerge out of (and thereby replace) a preexisting disorder. Rather, with the production of an order, a corresponding disorder comes into being.'3 Modes of ordering can produce 'the very disorders they attempt to eradicate. They identify the enemy that they seek to conquer-yet this identification process is not a selection of a pregiven problem, but a process wherein the specific problem is produced'; 'not only does the one come into being only with the other-it also cannot survive without it.'4 Order in one place can create disorder elsewhere.

Through examining a series of interviews, this article explores the social relationship between ordering and disordering by looking at management as a mode of ordering and describing the experience of disorder that is common in software installations, upgrades and improvements. The result shows that disorder, the failure of communication and the failure of models of 'reality' are at the heart of the information society and its ordering, despite claims by Manuel Castells that information society and ICT:

allow for co-ordination and management of complexity, in an interactive system which features feedback effects, and communication patterns from anywhere to everywhere within the networks. It follows an unprecedented combination of flexibility and task implementation, of co- ordinated decision making, and decentralized execution, which provide a superior social morphology for all human action.5

ICT is a good subject for opening the order/disorder complex, as it orders people by:

a. structuring communication and interaction; allocating tasks, roles and responsibilities in a division of labour

b. hierarchising those tasks, deciding power and privilege

c. attempting to determine how a person performs tasks

d. expressing, or enforcing, a model of the world

e. providing a major component of the work environment/ecology.

All these factors would usually be considered by social theorists to be important in ordering the workings of a society. …

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