uselessness & relevance
in
emergent technology


The casual comments provided here were initially intended to help stimulate discussion in a university seminar on «Computers & Society» after one of my sites was described as «useless» (see below).

I can certainly appreciate this sentiment; in the scope of human concerns, the page in question per se is trivial indeed. But it worried me that this student of the role of computers in society, had missed the point:  this trivial page was a tool I had created to realize goals that were not obvious to him.

So here are the student's comments, followed by a brief primer on trivial-site-as-social-tool:


student comments

"Famous Left-Handers -- This article gave information on famous lefthanded people. It separated the people into groups from presidents to actors and compiled a list of such people. It belongs in the category of useless info in my opinion because such information is trivial. I think it is a waste of time to compile such information. (David Lam)"
for Kevin Arthur's class
Computers & Society
Department of Computer Science, University of North Carolina


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on uselessness & relevance
in emergent technology

Relevance theory (Dan Sperber & Deirdre Wilson, 1986) starts with the premise:  we do not communicate anything to each other unless it is relevant (even if the relevance is not initially obvious). With this in mind, consider 5 reasons I waste my time putting "trivia" on the web:

(1) The list provides inspiration to left-handed kids who may feel disenfranchised by their parents, their teachers, and their society. (My bet is that David is right-handed, or this would have occurred to him!) There are billions of left-handers world-wide; many people are interested in such information. (As evidenced by Yahoo's Pick of the Week and OSA Direkts Internet Topp 10 in Holland.)

(2) It provides a factual resource for anyone doing a report/research on historical or famous people who are left-handed (school reports, film documentarians, writers, teachers, et al.)

(3) The comments didn't mention that this page is designed to function as a worldwide cooperative effort at website-building; there is a form for readers to nominate any "famous left-hander" missing from my list. People from Argentina, Singapore, Mexico, Australia, Norway, and many other countries are working together on-line to build a culturally-inclusive web page! Is learning to compile information via global cooperation trivial to our future?

(4) The student also did not mention that the list is available in 4 languages: English, French, Spanish, and Pig Latin. Benefits of this: (a) basic communication needed to build a more global site, (b) beginning language users can practice on some simple text, and (c) making sites fun brings new users onto the web.

(5) And the real answer to the student's trivia concern:  I post this site for entertainment purposes in order to lure folks to find my more scholarly information, my more practical pages, and to participate in primary scientific research on-line.

Most new technology use begins with a period of people learning what the technology is capable of and trying to figure out it's best use; historically, we embrace the entertaining, the trivial, as a way of helping us learn a new technology's potential, and as a way of getting everyone (not just technologists) involved in it's growth.

The student's comments are a case of a student encountering something, reacting personally, and making a judgement. This is how most of us function most of the time. But if you want to understand what you encounter, you can begin by asking: Why does this exist? What function does it serve? Had David asked himself that, he could have thought of all the answers I have listed.

Often one must look beyond the obvious to find relevance.


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«Just as the strength of the Internet is chaos, so the strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech the First Amendment protects.»
-- Federal Judge Stewart Dalzell



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