Sensibility and a Typology of Tech

Aside from the most emphatic social determinists, we can imagine that technology and design is ideology made material. Our material culture is composed of physicalized socio-cultural values. This is also a way to inscribe sensibility on the physical environment. The use of window shades creates a sense of privacy for the homeowner. Bars and walls promise a sense of security to the insecure. My chair grants a sense of comfort, my clothes a sense of decency, crosswalks and traffic lights instill a sense of order, and so on. These are feelings which imply perception rather than emotion. It means we are aware or cognizant of the artifact’s meaningfulness and role in society. 

These sensibilities are not just engendered by artifacts – they are produced by socio-technical systems which help produce the sensible, intelligible world we inhabit. They populate the environment or the mise-en-scène where we perform our lives. Our sense of agency is contingent on this engendered sensibility – certain choices elicit the frustration, anger, and disappointment of “proper” society. This is how sense-making can prefigure power dynamics. To talk about agency and technology does not require  us to become lost in critical dystopian and luddite responses. Instead it can involve an exploration of refusal as “nonsense.” The non-use or refusal to engage with socio-techncial systems as per the prescriptions of their designers, engineers, or other authorities can render us as unintelligible or nonsensical. The power dynamic here is not between non-users and another class of actors, technocrats and such, but between agents and the environment, the space in which intelligibility is articulated by the scene, made up of the social and material culture.

Before offering a typology of refusal, it’s important to ask if we can (or should) conflate technology and culture? Is “techno-culture” too broad and ambiguous to address? Technological determinism seems to make a seductive overreach by wrapping up artifacts, practices and institutions. But there are some justifications for thinking of technology in broad terms. First, there is historical precedent for the language of technological determinism in the utopian rhetoric of American industrialists of the 19th and 20th century. Technology was often ascribed with powers of social progress (the railroad and the telegraph being key examples). The obliteration of space and time by Western powers was seen as a distinct advantage over the global south and the far east, and justified the colonialist attitudes behind imperialist expansion. The domination of the natural world through industrial and technological processes also reflect the way in which the scientific revolution seized on mechanical metaphors and a new metaphysics of control and power to serve rationality. Contemporary human technology is impossible (or at least nonsensical) without this philosophy of mastery and control over the world, social and natural.

Second, divorcing technology from culture and treating it in purely instrumentalist terms absolves any chains of production behind it from complicity. Cell phones are not born from nothing. They involve complex associative materials, practices and institutions which enable them to function and provide the “sense of convenience” we now depend on, as cities are built wholly to suit their use. The phone is much more shallow as a solitary artifact. It does not take into account slave mining for rare earth elements, factory conditions in China, or advertising public to convince us of its social utility.

Third, all artifacts are designed, and they are designed through the combination of what is possible by the manufacturer and what ideas will sell. Successful design fuses “disparate ideas’ in the words of Adrian Forty. It is a synthesis of all the inclinations society holds, so that a thing will embody the “sense of taste” or “sense of humor” in something like coffee foam art. Design and artifacts exist as a response to the dreams of people, and they provide an instance of that dream made material, through tactical weapons for consumers, clothing with varying impressions of modesty, and social media platforms with different features. All of these affordances (and non-affordances) are offered up by the designer not to create a neutered artifact, but to place a material instance of ideology and sensibility in the environment which helps to prefigure our sense of agency, to supposedly expand it or curtail it as the need arises.

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This typology of technology and refusal involve two spectrums, preclusive to participatory, and formal vs expressive. Preclusive technologies are sociotechnical systems needed function in society, whereas participatory are systems we have the option to engage with as one pleases. Formal technologies must be used as prescribed on their own terms, while expressive systems allow the user to experiment and play with the artifacts. Things towards the top left are essential to being sensible/intelligible/readable by society, while items towards the bottom right is where “nonsense” is increasingly tolerated, in terms of refusing cultural expectations of whether and how we “use” things, what ideas are proper, sensible, or intelligible.

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