Unpacking the Binary of Engagement and Uses

In order to approach the concepts discussed in my previous post (Thoughts on a negative turn), it is important to tease out some of the nuances in the term “use” which we tend to take for granted.

First off, when we talk about new technology and engagement (particularly in discussions over the digital divide), there is a tendency to view our status as participants in “all or nothing” terms. One either is a user, or one is a non-user. One is either connected to the internet and engaged with digital technology and networks, or one isn’t. Of course this is absurd. Over two million people still use AOL. Discussions over national broadband coverage, municipal fiber-optic networks, and varying strategies for improved infrastructure to overcome lag and latency make up the present conversation over broadband internet’s status as a potential core utility. The reliance of minority communities on mobile devices for internet access point to varying degrees of engagement on a scale like lumens. Certainly, the absence of light qualifies an environment for darkness. However, there is a great deal of difference between low candlepower  and high intensity halogen lights. Likewise, absolutely no connectivity would qualify an environment for non-users. However, just because one is able to connect doesn’t mean they won’t be frustrated with connection timeouts and slow service.

So we do not just have non-users and users. Sally Wyatt distinguishes the varieties of non-use (refusers, rejectors, excluded and expelled)(1) and points to ways we can understand users as well:

The Internet “user” should be conceptualized along a continuum, with degrees and forms of participation that can change. Different modalities of use should be understood in terms of different types of users, but also in relation to different temporal and social trajectories. The latter include changes in lifestyle determined by processes such as aging, changing jobs, educational history, and geographical mobility. (2)

This is where we enter a second binary about participation: use practices. The term “use” binds up our motivations and our methods for engaging in technology. These are not always as the author intends. Practices reflects how motivations and methods translates into actual behavior. Use practices are similar to what de Certau (3) describes as tactics individuals can employ against the strategies of systems. If we think about how technology is intended to be used, we can recognize a set of prescripted uses. Latour (4) describes prescription as

whatever a scene presupposes from its transcribed actors and authors (this is very much like ‘‘role expectation’’ in sociology, except that it may be inscribed or encoded in the machine)… ‘‘User input’’ in programming language, is another very telling example of this inscription in the automatism of a living character whose behavior is both free and predetermined.

This provides a way to create circumscription, or “the organization in the setting of its own limits and of its own demarcation.” Things are typically meant to be used in a certain way. They are designed or engineered with a prescriptive use. Often, more complicated technology comes with instructions or even a Terms of Service that describes how a thing is supposed to be used. From an engineer’s point of view, users are ideally well-behaved and at worst, call for assistance if they can’t get something to work right. But again, this is not the case. A long history of misuse and abuse (or what I would call proscribed use). This is where we have a critical engagement with technology and users can assert greater agency.

Proscribed use is not simply about breaking things. Even Luddites (the most archetypical non-users) were not merely smashing machines because they hated technology. Using hammers (another technology) they created an interruption in the technics and social relations created by the textile machinery as a means of strategic engagement. They did not retreat to the woods or look to build technology-free utopia. Instead, they marched against what they saw as threats to their status as the skilled technologists of their own day. They were (in one writer’s words) “labor strategists” rather than the technophobes as they’ve been characterized.

Proscribed use then is about a series of tactics and negotiations with technology. These maneuvers point to a diversity of use practices, much as there is a diversity in how connected we are or our level of participation. The other reason for exploring these nuances is not only to gain a better understanding of how humans relate to technology and what changes in technological society mean for us, but to identify and critique a growing and intended homogeneity. First, the push towards connection seeks to make us all users. Second, there is a push towards standardization, or prescripted use. Terms of service and standards of practice work alongside efforts to “bridge the digital divide” which aids an instrumental rationality working in tandem with the ideology of hegemony. I think some describe this as “Empire”(5), others “Leviathan”(6), and others a “technological society” (7).

I think I should also say my goals are not to provide others with more deterministic work in the vein of a doomsday crier or an amateur eschatologist… there are plenty of clichés already and I have no wish to join the ranks of dystopians, despite my natural pessimism. Instead I’d like to explore the “middle way” described by people like Langdon Winner(8) and Bruno Latour, and the relationship of people and things at the periphery of what I’ve described as prescripted use.

  1. Wyatt, S. (2005). The digital divide, health information and everyday life. New Media & Society, 7(2), 199–218. http://doi.org/10.1177/1461444805050747
  2. Wyatt, S. (2005). Non-Users Also Matter: The Construction of Users and Non-Users of the Internet. In N. Oudshoorn & T. Pinch (Eds.), How Users Matter The Co-Construction of Users and Technology Cambridge: MIT Press
  3. de Certeau, M. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press.
  4. Latour, B. (n.d.). What are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts. In W. E. Bijker & J. Law (Eds.), Shaping Technology Building Society (pp. 225–257). Cambridge, MA.
  5. Negri, A., & Hardt, M. (2000). Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  6. Perlman, F. (1983). Against his-story, against Leviathan!. Black & Red.
  7. Ellul, J. (1964). The Technological Society (pp. 1–503). New York: Vintage Books.
  8. Smits, M. (2001). Langdon Winner: Technology as a shadow constitution. In Achterhuis, H. (Ed.). American Philosophy of Technology-‐The Empirical Turn.Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
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