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Vanessa Dirksen

Social imaginaries of technology and work : a connective ethnography

Contemporary social, cultural and economic life is permeated with ‘great expectations’ of technology. That these expectations often do not live up to what they promise is an understatement. That we as members of modern society cannot escape their influence in how we imagine our social existence is unavoidable. However, that individual actors are active co-authors in creating these narratives of modernity is not commonly acknowledged. This thesis is therefore about the ways in which societal expectations of technology not only shape but also become shaped by local practice. In order to understand this ‘micro-logic’ of modern narratives, an understanding is needed of how people in certain local contexts live those ideas as a consequence of which new social imaginaries unfold. In order to expose the lived practice of modern ideas of technology, this thesis draws on ethnographic work. Distinctively, ethnographers are interested in depicting the lives of people as experienced by the actors themselves. The ethnography is set in a large computer company in the beginning of the 21st century, a time marked by the so-called dot-com collapse and the beginning of an economic setback. Besides the fact that it is a technology-saturated environment, the  selection of what is nowadays referred to as a ‘knowledge-intensive’ fi rm is based on my interest in the actuality of ‘knowledge work’. Knowledge work allegedly typifies the changing nature of work in contemporary society and is a central concept in the modern narrative of the ‘information society’. Another reason for the choice of setting is that ethnographic studies of such ‘white collar’ professions as managers, consultants, sales personnel and engineers are still relatively rare. For a period of more than a year I participated in the organization with the aim of studying its use of an internal information and communication system. My participation concerned both the organizations’ online and offl ine practices and hence urges for a new form of ethnography referred to as connective ethnography. The empirical object of the study, the use of the internal information and communication system, is regarded as an instance of modern narratives of technology and work, all the more since the technology is introduced into the organization in an attempt to create so-called virtual communities and community is another central concept in the narrative of the information society.

The study is not meant as a critique of the practice of this particular organization but should be taken as exemplary for the kinds of processes taking place when new technological images are introduced and cause a dynamic interplay of desired and actual behavior; promise and practice. Nonetheless, the organization not only provides the context of interaction in which this translation process unfolds. Rather, it is an actor in the negotiation process of modern images of technology in its own right. As such, the thesis can be read as an ethnographic account of the work practices of IT professionals during a time of drastic contraction in the computing industry; the organization and the outside world in which these professionals operate in order to perform their jobs and in putting the increasing uncertainty of their everyday work practices under control. Situated in narratives of modernity, anthropologically-inspired studies of organizations and social studies of technology, Social Imaginaries of Technology and Work is on the one hand about the dynamics of technology-mediated visions of organization and the role they play in shaping organizational practice. On the other hand, it provides insights into the ways in which these narratives of modernity are adjusted according to the ‘little narratives’ of practice.