For our activity, we actually did an exercise based on “activity theory.” Ironic, I thought. Our goal was to determine the components of an activity system. Briefly, our group chose to talk about TCP-IP as our tool. It was a fiasco, even though we had a good time creating our mess. Looking back, however, it seems to me that while we tend to give theories a lot of credence (rightly or wrongly), we may misunderstand their role from time to time. A lot of times, it seems that we give theories this power to explain everything. In fact, a theory, in my mind, should be more of a platform on which we can organize thought. In our group, we tried to use the activity theory to explain how TCP-IP is used to share information. Perhaps we would have been much better served to begin with our objective – what were we hoping to accomplish. I think the main failure in our system was that we were defining TCP-IP as a tool but were actually treating it as the objective.
From the activity, I learned that developing maps of an activity system can be useful but only when an objective is well defined. Although our map seemed to portray equal value for all the components (subject, tool, objective, rules, community, division of labor), the whole thing seems pretty pointless if there is no goal for the activity being described. During the class discussion, we also talked about another “activity system” (although I don’t think that’s what it’s called): H -> L A M -> T (human -> language, artifact, methodology -> training). This system seems to correspond, at least in part, to the top portion of the Scandinavian activity theory model (subject, tool, objective). I wonder if, had we used both theories, we might have been more successful in mapping our system.
Based on our activity, I also wondered how often the use of these maps has turned into huge management exercises that produced no useful or usable information. We were mapping what we knew. No new knowledge, in our case at least, was created. Instead, we found that we were struggling with knowledge that we already had, trying to make it conform to the model. Perhaps, this could be useful as a way to reimagine what we know – making more out of what we already have. I’m not sure. I think it’d actually require a lot more information and introspection to determine just what the role of activity theory and the mapping of activity systems means for us as librarians and, more generally, managers.