by Nathanael Bassett & Jason Archer
published in Communication & the Public, Vol 2, Issue 3, pp. 239 – 252
Ubiquitous technology depends upon imposing standards. Choices in function and form reflect the homogenization of artifacts, necessitated by the intentions of experts to satisfy a plurality of users. In material publics, users with expert knowledge can develop customized artifacts satisfying desired affordances or aesthetics. This project involves a media archaeology of computer keyboard design to explore the relationship between experts, publics, and the creation of these artifacts. Participation in these communities and study of enthusiast records result in a public-expert knowledge. The importance granted to minutia of design, from the choice of plastics to spring tensioning, parallels new form factors that reflect highly personalized choices. These reassert user control over the materiality of an otherwise ubiquitous and mundane mediating artifact. Publics then create a new political materiality by recomposing artifacts beyond what commercial expertise prescribes.
Please see the full article at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/2057047317722571
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
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
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
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