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. Continue reading

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.  Continue reading

(Rough) Notes on Refusing Technology

I now turn to Aristotle’s four causes for “why.” This is “why things are” but I want to use it the way Abbot does in “Methods of Discovery” to make an argument for a “potential why.” These are material (something happens because of social material that went into making or unmaking it, such as “the republicans lost the election because they lost the women’s vote”), structural (the shape of the structure gives it peculiar properties ( IE “all social groups with three members are inherently unbalanced, because two of the three always ally against the third”), effective (cause of something is what it brings about or forces to happen, IE a strike caused employer retaliation/newspaper caused a war), and final cause ( ultimate aims of events. IE “universities exist for education. pollution laws exist because of a need for clean air.”) Begining with an assumption that technology is part of what makes us “human” as we can understand it (and the only way we can understand it), the question should then be “why is it impossible to refuse technology?” We can also ask “why would people want to refuse technology?”

More fundamentally we can ask “what IS technology.” Above I noted that technologies “are both material (as in, having physical instantiations), social (as in engendered by social processes which make it possible) , and produce new forms of sociality, in both cultures that emerge around them and associative cultural effects.” This makes up the material, formal/sturcutral, and final cause, but I will write more in depth below. Continue reading

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


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