Combative Affordances and Actant Insecurity

Just a quick update to say I’ve joined the current group of NSF IGERT fellows at UIC starting a couple of weeks ago. The focus of our program is security and privacy, and I’m excited to be collaborating with scholars and graduate students from the computer science department here at UIC in thinking about these issues.

My own research agenda has made me consider the combative affordances of artifacts – how things can be used in unintended or forbidden ways, and the conflict between the goals of so called “end-users” and designers. What is the capacity for agency or autonomy when prescriptive use becomes normative?

Let me explain that a bit. We live in a world of entanglements, as Ian Hodder describes. Various forms of use become prevalent and ubiquitous. One example would be the automobile. In many parts of the developed world, paved roads are common. Whether or not we drive a car, we must recognize the existence of cars and the way they have changed how we go about our lives (or else we might not get where we are going, or we could get run over). The internet and various related technologies have also become commonplace. Some scholars have asked the question “how can people resist or refuse technology?” I think it is worth asking if this is possible.

Designers create artifacts with a set of embedded prescriptions (standards of practice) which describe the correct way to use a thing. This sets the affordances of the artifact. However, people can adapt things and alter them to suit their own purposes. I have a browser plugin called “Social Fixer.” It changes the way I use Facebook so that I can tolerate its presence in my life.

Security and privacy are important themes when it comes to combative affordances. If I cannot get off the grid, I have to learn to live within it in a way that satisfies me. I must employ some form of security to protect me from the uses of others (targeted advertising, surveillance, and malicious actors). Someone who is concerned about the usage of a drone by a neighbor can rely on CyborgUnplug to protect them. At the same time, institutional insecurity causes governments and corporations to try and conform users practices and the standards of their artifacts. Mirroring the clash between combative affordances (prescriptive vs proscribed uses, designers vs end-users) is the battle for confidence between individual and institutional actors. Each are at odds when it comes to the ideals over security and privacy.

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