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Author: Susan K. Soy
Title: Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch's How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technologies
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
May 2005

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Source: Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch's How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technologies
Susan K. Soy

vol. 8, no. 1, May 2005
Article Type: Book Review

How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technologies

Susan K. Soy

Manager, Austin History Center

Oudshoorn, Nelly. and Pinch, Trevor, eds. How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technologies. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2003. 340pp., index, $40.00. ISBN 0-262-15107-3.

Trevor Pinch, Professor of Science & Technology Studies and Sociology at Cornell University, teams up with Nelly Oudshoorn, Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the University of Twente in the Netherlands to gather together a book of essays. These essays challenge the reader to consider how all things together touch, engage, and co-construct the technologies we use. The topic might be medicine, music, salesmen, gender, or inveterate non-users; it makes no difference. The variety of essays contained in this volume illustrates the myriad of ways users and technologies co-construct.

Readers will find essays that center on media studies, feminist scholarship, and cultural studies in a single volume tied together with examples and case studies illustrating how people influence, shape, and co-construct the technology and how technology shapes us and our uses of it. Like the thesis in the work of Lucy Suchman, Oudshoon and Pinch urge us to seriously consider how the less visible and the non-relevant groups influence technology. The book contains a useful section of references but fails to fully and usefully index the thought provoking essays included.

In his essay, “Giving Birth to New Users: How the Minimoog Was Sold to Rock and Roll,” Pinch draws upon his research for the book, Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer (with Frank Trocco in 2002) to illustrate how manufacturers and passionate believers can actually invent uses for the products they sell and quite literally create a shift in boundaries so that new users are created from whole cloth. Such was the case with the sounds of the synthesizer, which when it was first invented, had no credibility and no exposure in the world of music. Pinch with his knowledge of sociology is able to cleverly illustrate from the example of the Minimoog how a market of new users is created.

In his essay “Resisting Consumer Technology in Rural America: The Telephone and Electrification,” Ronald Kline tells the story first conveyed to us by Jellison (1993) of the adoption of technology, making the point that it can be adopted quite selectively. Farmers, he points out, bought television sets long before installing bathrooms, and used automatic washing machines to free up time for farm women to help plow the fields. He also points to the building of cooperatives in rural America to build their own telephone companies when AT&T and other telephone companies found them to be too unprofitable to interest them. On the other hand, resistance to “Big Government” control and intervention in rural America provoked resistance to rural electrification in some portions of the country and caused farmers to cling to older technologies. Kline makes the point that resistance creates both technological and social change.

In her autobiographical sketch, Sally Wyatt tells us non-users matter very much in the construction of technologies. In her “Non-Users Also Matter: The Construction of Users and Non-Users of the Internet,” Wyatt lists the pros and cons of not driving an automobile and in doing so illustrates that the non-use of a technology is not related to deprivation, inequality, or deviance but rather, is a choice that needs to be honored. It is also a choice that influences the shape of the environment in which the user operates. She pushes the analogy of the non-automobile operator. She challenges the assumptions that lead to the statements that the non-Internet user is somehow in an inferior spot or that the person who choose to not have a cell phone is deprived. She asks us to carefully consider what Internet dropouts can tell us and examine more deeply what non-users can explain to us about economics, avoidance behavior, and active resistance. Non-users are essential to technology studies and although they may be difficult to locate and communicate with, their voice needs, she tells us, to be included in our studies.

This leads us directly to complex representation and power struggles discussed in the revealing essay by Steven Epstein, “Inclusion, Diversity, and Biomedical Knowledge Making: The Multiple Politics of Representation.” Epstein points to changes in biomedical research policy and practice that attack prior assumptions that the white male body represents the norm for all social groups and gender types. He illustrates how policies and practices changed as a result of the influence of collective organizations involving women in the scientific and medical community as well as the women at the grassroots treatment level. Closely aligned are issues of research based on age and the specific needs of children. Differences between races are also discussed and illustrate how racial diversification issues are colored with charges that government-sponsored research founded on the belief that there are significant biological differences among the races verges on racism. Adding even more complexity to the story are the definitions assigned to racial and ethnic categories used in scientific research. Even more complicated histories are explored. Some people view the use of experimental drugs as a social good that should be equally distributed rather than something that vulnerable populations need to be protected from in experimental research. Patients make compelling demands for access to experimental treatment in what may be their only hope for prolonging life. These complex issues make us think about how “users” or “objects of study” change policy and practice in medical science.

The twelve essays in this volume give us pause for thought about non-users and users and active and passive participants, and how they all shape the technologies we see today and are likely to see in the future.