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14 December 2010

Postmodern IT

By Andrew Clifford

A postmodern interpretation can help us understand many problems in IT.

Postmodernism is a difficult, ill-defined and contentious subject. A lot of what is written about postmodernism relates to the arts, and is largely incomprehensible to anyone from a scientific or technical background.

It is therefore with some trepidation that I attempt to relate postmodernism to IT.

As the name suggests, postmodernism is what comes after modernism. Modernism can be characterised as an attempt to interpret the world as rational and to use that understanding of the world as the basis for improvement. Postmodernism is a step on from modernism that asserts that the world is not as rational as we imagine it to be, and that out interpretation of the world, and our understanding of what improvement looks like, is largely a product of our own minds and the meanings that we attach to things. This has a huge relevance to IT.

IT has historically been technically demanding. It has attracted people who have a strong drive to structure and consistency. We think of IT as a systematic, rational, technical activity.

This perception of IT is carried into our working methods and how we apply IT to business problems. We use structured methods, and intricate architectures. We approach project management in a detailed and structured way. We have formal methods to capture, structure and follow-through on requirements. The IT profession is a reflection of our systematic and rational world view.

Yet we do acknowledge shortcomings with our approach. We often have problems engaging with our business colleagues. We often ignore the more human aspects of IT, like usability. There is a gulf between the formal management structures that IT implements and the more instinctive and fluid approaches used elsewhere.

A postmodern interpretation helps understand this. Our systematic and rational approach to IT is a reflection of who we are, much more than a fundamental reflection of how IT must be. Difficulties with business engagement reflect differences of world view that stem from the types of people that are attracted to IT. Recognising this can give us new ways to engage.

Postmodernism also applies to technical products. The modernist IT mindset is that technology should improve. Every product should incorporate all the capabilities of what has been before, plus new innovations. Sometimes products break this rule, and very successfully. Recently I came across Q10, which is a plain text writer's editor. It has none of the sophistication of modern word processors. It takes the entire screen up thus removing the advantages of a windowed environment. By doing this it creates a fantastically uncluttered writing tool. I see it as postmodern because instead of trying to compete for technological advance, it has accepted that the value of a tool is subjective to its users, and focussed solely on just one group of users.

My attempt to apply postmodernism to IT may come across as contradictory, confusing and generally annoying, which seems to be common with postmodernism. However, as as body of thought it can help us understand the tendency to overemphasise structure, rationality and technological advancement, and to look more carefully at how we can apply IT more successfully to the different types of opportunities that exist.

Next: Quite ambiguous

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