Some (rough) notes on defining technology

Studying technology invites comparisons to the study of the mind. We cannot be direct observers of the mind, since all of our observations are facilitated by it. Is it then possible to know something from the inside of it? We can map the contours of what the mind makes possible, demarking limits and make comparative analyses, but it is difficult to be reflective in a situation where we are entirely dependant on the object of study.

There is no human without a mind, though some people seem to call this into question. I mean this humerously and seriously, especially with regards to the disabled. We tend to treat consciousness/sapience/sentience as an either/or. But there are gradations – categories like consciousness escape the enforcement of boundaries the more we work to understand how non-humans experience the world. In the case of the intellectually disabled, we know that there is an experience of the world that is markedly different than that of an able-bodied person, yet both have an experience. We cannot say that the disabled do not have minds or are not consciousness (except maybe in the extreme case of brain death). Likewise, there is no human who is not technical – examples of technology can be readily found all around us. Technology is part of what makes us “human” in the way we understand it. A truly non-technical human resists imagination. It is important to then try and demark different qualities of technology and the forms it takes in shaping our world. I hope that I am able to provide a definition for technology that is useful and productive. Continue reading

Advertisements

Reopening

My absence from blogging here has been because as a grad student, you have to be incredibly prolific all the time in ways that benefit your own agenda and trajectory. I didn’t blog here because I didn’t see a way that it could benefit me – I was busy with CFPs, term papers and research agendas. However, for the next several months I will be preparing to take my comprehensive exams. At UIC we are required to have a committee of 5 faculty. (At least) one must be from outside our department. As a fellow I have to have a committee member who is a member of the ESP-IGERT faculty, and I was lucky enough to get a law professor with a strong background in philosophy who could give me readings in philosophy of technology (and let me slip Simondon’s upcoming English translation of “On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects” onto my list (to be published by Univocal this year). I also have committee members to give me exams/readings in STS, philosophy of design, history of technology, and media archaeology.

My process has always been to obsessively research and plan things out in advance so that I am a few steps ahead of what needs to happen. My advisor is good enough to know how this isn’t always the best course of action, so he has refused to give me a reading list until I work through some of the ideas that I have been working on.

This is the creative element of academic work and also the most frustrating. It feels a bit like starting from scratch to be asking oneself “what am I interested in? What’s my research question? Where should my field site be?” Things that seem like they should already be answered, or that they are right in front of you if only you could see them. But it is not so much as square one, as it is finding work that is not to familiar and yet not too bizarre so that it will be original and fruitful to work in.

So I will be posting some of this, as well as reflections on readings, as a way of keeping myself publicly accountable, sort of like an open journal (besides my closed one) and helping me to work through my research in areas that I describe as “political materiality” and “post-luddism.”

 

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?

Continue reading

Misusing the Master’s Tools: Exploring the Capacity to Break from Prescriptive Use

Bassett, N. 2016. Misusing the Master’s Tools: Exploring the Capacity to Break from Prescriptive Use. The Torist 1(1), 48-50. http://toristinkirir4xj.onion/the-torist-issue-1-goes-live/

The wall is one of the earliest technologies developed to counter surveillance. As a form of defense, materials piled in everything from a heap to intricate stonework would protect from the wind, the wild, and the watching eyes of one’s neighbors and enemies. Privacy has always been a part of what makes us feel secure. Jay Appleton’s concept of “prospect and refuge” places our comfort zone in a place where we can see others and remain unobserved, like caves in cliff-faces. When geography fails us, we build walls to suit our needs for privacy. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Thoughts on a negative turn

Disconnect1-e1299441149589For a while now, we’ve heard people talk about connectivity and networks and participation in all sorts of terms: hope, paranoia, idealism and cynicism, from the promise they offer to the dangers we anticipate.

One thing that usually haunts these thoughts is the implicit assumption, and the foreboding progression of eventual total mediation. A bifurcation between the past, where we were not online, and a future where we all will be. Isn’t this what we mean when we talk about the digital divide? When we imagine bridging it, we see new media as a form of essential literacy – something that will become absolutely necessary to survive in the future. We must become connected to the internet, so that we can access news and information, so that we can efficiently and conveniently manage our lives (from our finances to our romantic endeavors), and so that we can stay abreast of conveniences which will make our routines more efficient (apps to help with shopping, transit, and work). To say nothing of our correspondence – how many telephone numbers do you remember right now? Do you rely on a computer to store them for you? If you lose that computer, are they saved remotely so that they can be easily restored? If not, do you have a social network where you can ask friends and family for the missing numbers? Continue reading

The New New Journalism

Nate Silver is probably one of the best popularizers of big data and how effective it can be at understanding and creating meaning. Today, there is a manifesto on FiveThirtyEight which does several things very well – it outlines the need for more data literacy, justifies how journalism needs to embrace big data and understand it in order to effectively disseminate knowledge, and gives a basic “how and why this works” guide on rigorous data collection and analysis for journalism.

It’s a really good article, with lots of great points. But there is something there between the lines which I think reflects a contemporary paradigm shift. First, there is the “condition of virtuality.” N. Katherine Hayles described virtuality as “the cultural perception that material objects are interpenetrated by information patterns.” There is a dualistic conception of information/matter and a relationship where control over the information leads to control over matter. Coding is an act which invokes new realities, as in the case with computer programing and gene sequencing, but it can be performed wherever there is access behind the user interface.  Continue reading