Defining Sensibility

Problematizing the obvious, Reconceptualizing, and borrowing methods. 

My writing so far has largely focused around Abbot’s “Methods of Discovery” and the way one can thinking through questions via heuristics like Aristotle’s forms. But another framework is Burke’s five keys of dramatism, which include action (what is being done), agents (who is doing it), scene (where it is happening), agency, (what is possible), and purpose (motivation). Literature on nonuse and technology refusal takes a few forms but typically focuses around purpose and agents. “Older adults are less likely to use the internet because they are less technological literate” goes the old mantra of “digital divide” research. Research addressed towards policy initiatives then gives the media literacy people something to work on for action oriented research and participatory research designs.

What happens then if we move the focus from agents and purpose to agency and scene? This is what I am doing when I think beyond non-use as a motivated behavior by a select group. What is possible (agency) given the environments constructed around us (scene)? If I move past thinking about non-users as a demographic or just their instrumental decisions (action), I can infer larger consequences about not just power, but adaptability and sensibility in sociotechnical systems. Given that agency is not constructed with the actor in mind, but with the intentions of the designer, a limited number of actions are possible. Typically, non-use focuses on one action (turning the thing off), which is a very shallow way for thinkign about engagement with technology. It’s similar to when we think of how political participation works, and someone enters the conversation and says “if you don’t like this country, leave it!” Leaving a sociotechnical system that is ubiqutous, where essentially actions and agency are embedded, embodied and inscribed into the very environment (scene) itself, carries very high costs for actors. One of my research questions is to think about those costs and try and measure them. Are they just social, economical, or related in some way to social agency? I think it’s more than that. It has to do with the sensibility that is constructed into a scene, a way of making the landscape navigable and seemingly orderly to us. 

Let me use a personal anecdote. When I was young, I spent a good deal of time outside in the woods. I enjoyed exploring trails and the forest, which seemed huge to me at the time, and learning which trees were where, and how rocks protruded from some hills while others slowly rounded, and the places where moisture would collect, and the desire paths of animals vs the trails created by people, as well as the smell of dead leaves, the hidden warrens and groves, the sound of birds far off, and the rare glimpse of a deer, rabbit, woodchuck, and so on. This was a peaceful but fearful world. Sound and quiet was key, feel and respect were important. I would be terrified at dark as I ran back up our acre long driveway from taking out the trash.

Today I live in Chicago. I know that the woods I enjoyed were really only the undeveloped lots between suburban homes, the off-season Girl Scout camp and public park scattered between winding streets. Animals would find our roads just as odd to traverse as the stream that bisected trails in the park. But something about the trees have stuck with me, and I find myself intensely uncomfortable as I wait for the bus on an interstate overpass where my L train deposits me in a concrete and asphalt wasteland. I wonder where the rabbits live that poop in my apartment’s backyard, and as much as I enjoy the forrest preserves, the airplanes coming to and from O’Hare, the Metra trains, and the warm hiss of traffic typically drown out any peace I might have. Growing up near the Merritt Parkway and Sikorsky Helicopter plant, where I could hear the late night commuter train’s horn in the far off distance, are nothing like the constant traffic at all hours outside my window now.

Another point – when I look up at night, I barely see stars. I was surprised to see more than a few when I got new glasses, but they were still nothing like the stars I saw in suburban and rural Connecticut.  Chicago has some of the worst light pollution in the world. I often ask myself why people who don’t see the stars or nature should care about such things. “Out of sight, out of mind.”

These structured environments create different sorts of sensibilities which prefigure any sort of “power” or alternative “action” in a scene. If I want to get to campus, I have many choices – bus, train, ride-share, cab, driving my own car, even bicycling. But it is too far to walk, and I am unlikely to enjoy the trip on foot. However, European cities are made in such a way that most people walk, or they take something like a train or streetcar and then walk some more. They may bicycle, but they will not fear for their lives in the way I do here. There is a culture surrounding transportation choices which relate to our identities and how we think about what we can do. It effects our sense of what is even possible. I once read that the appeal of living in New York City was that you could get Ethiopian food at 2AM. It also means that you will be routinely yelled at by mentally ill people and accept the social etiquette of the subway, the smells of the city, and the garbage on the street (here in Chicago, at least, we keep it in the alleys).

One of the main reasons that people move from the country to the city is not just that they want to eat Ethiopian at all hours, but there are a great many other social opportunities. There are interests groups, organizations, material goods, and not to mention jobs, that you cannot find out where the trees and stars are central features of the landscape. The scene has affordances that prefigure what is possible. Walmart, for instance, makes itself the axis mundi of rural economies through its practices. Now, some places are seen as appealing like cities for the number of walmarts they have. The place I attended college for my undergraduate degree had four of them, and people from the surrounding area considered it “the big city.”

This is one the means in which we derive a “sense” of parochialism, vs cosmopolitanism. Before we can make an analysis of the sort of political states and social forces which utilize technology to curtail agency (in the best sense of the luddite or the dystopian), we have to understand the way that these viewpoints themselves are a product of the structured or cultured outlook we exist in. Sense-making is not an intensely deliberate act – just as a city is not built in one day, a scene emerges progressively and then is strongly related to issues of space and time. As with boiling frogs, these changes are difficult to identify and sound alarmist when pointed out. This is why we have to be clear that critique then is not intended to be pejorative or adhere to some normative ideal (“sociotechnical systems engender inauthentic living” or something like that). Instead it is to describe the “bounding off” of alternatives.

This is boundary making. The construction of a scene in drama is intended to focus the audience. The use of establishing shots let us know that this is where the characters are located. Shots in a montage force us to infer a sense of wholeness or order (in film, gestalt psychology describes this sort of ordering). If I place a video of a crying baby and then display an indifferent man, the audience assumes this man is not being attentive to the baby’s needs. It would not make sense for the man and baby to be in completely different cities when we have seen them both in the same moments. In theatre, scenes are engineered by clever set designers who may imply a wider environment (which cannot be shown due to physical constraints). However, we can only speculate on what is not expressly shown or at least implied by the director. Stories are “bounded” in what the scene can offer and what agency is possible  for the characters (completely dictated by the script). We do not expect Harry Potter to pull out a gun and kill Lord Voldermort. We merely have to recognize that Harry Potter exists within his own universe and ignore the fanciful imaginings of rabid fans to come up with in-universe explanations. This is why we treat general technological refusal so poorly in our society. It is outside the bounds of proper sensibility. A common source of drama and conflict is the clash between traditional beliefs and modern scientific (seen as the proper, educated, civilized way of being) outlooks. A television show where a cantankerous doctor mocks a person who believes their loved one is possessed by a demon is comedic, because the audience is expected to accept one position as correct and the other as absurd. This is why one does not go to a faith-healer unless their (marginalized) community dictates that as the proper course of action. Society makes use of boundaries to curtail alternative ways of being. Their mode of existence is a historically contextual phenomena dependent on the sensibility engendered by what the environment has to offer.

This is why an increasingly over-engineered environment gives rise to the specific sensibilities we are accustomed to in the developed, globalized, cosmopolitan sphere. It is also why alternative ways of being are increasingly insensible. These insensible alternatives may be rural as people increasingly move to cities. They may be traditional societies, as contemporary education and science literacy leads to a more “civilized” outlook. They are also foreign, with the continual dominance of Ameri-centric Western cultural hegemony.

These are my main points. Sense-making is a means of prefiguring power by ordering the proper way to construe meaning and perceive the world. It is similar to Heidegger’s enframing, in that it assembles and orders our being in the world as per the various social and material apparatuses around us. It is an acclimation to environment, which is also restructured as to our new, sensible purposes.

However, this is not always a totalizing process. Sense-making is a form of intelligibility and social rationality.  To have a sense of what is proper or what is appropriate does not mean that we always adhere to that mentality or those behaviors. Refusal is a form of unintelligibility and social irrationality because it entails ways of being that are not sensible. This typically involves transgressing the boundary terms of a scene, or exhibiting forms of agency that are not prescribed by engineers/designer of a system.

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