Post your reading reflections for 10/5 in here.
October 2nd, 2011 at 1:58 pm edit
Starting with Akrich (1992), I found the descriptions tracing the networks within which technical objects are embedded helpful for illustrating how to complicate object boundaries. Her theory overall, however, while posthumanist at first glance, maintains representationalist ontoepistemological stance with humans at the center. For me, the first hint of this came with her statement that, “the methodological problem is that if we want to describe the elementary mechanisms of adjustment, we have to find circumstances in which the inside and the outside of objects are not well matched” (207). This takes for granted that particular human priorities are the best gauge of compatibility, and assumes a human-centric organization of relations, including function. Further, limiting our ability to understand technological networks to instances of (visible to “us”) conflict seems an important shortcoming – one that Sengers et al (2005) address well.
It also becomes unclear how her account is not deterministic. For instance, she asserts that “the competence of the youth group, its relations with other elements of village life, the very definition of these elements – all of these are determined at the same time as, and by the same process, that defines the components that make up the generator” (213). This strikes me as technological determinism, not just because she uses the word “determined,” but also because the picture drawn here entirely discounts what must be myriad other factors, unrelated to the generator, that are influential to various parts of this network. She wraps this section up with the statement that, “our relationships with the ‘real’ world are mediated by technical objects” (214). Akrich goes a long way to complicate the boundaries of technical objects and to rework the relations of cause and effect, but ultimately there seems to be a definite boundary between us and them, and one that necessitates crossing the mediation void. Finally, while technical objects are described here as having determining powers, the role described for the designer within the network suggests a humanist commitment to *real* agency belonging to humans (e.g. page 216). What about the designer’s materials, education, social network, geographical location, personal experiences, available tools, etc.? Surely the script put forth by the designer has important potential and often actual influence in the world, but why would that designer be the point of departure for a story about networks of agency?
Two questions on Akrich: “Elementary mechanisms of adjustment” is a somewhat unclear term for me. Where does this come from and now precisely does she mean it? (It first appears on 206.)
This is a kind of random query: On 221 I was struck by the appearance of “artificial.” This isn’t so much about Akrich or what she’s doing with that term as much a just my own experience of some of my lexicon getting scrambled by posthumanism. So my question is, what can “artificial” mean in a context that counts nonhumans as actors?
Instead of drawing this out to go as fully into the Sengers et al and Schneider et al, I’ll just ask a couple of questions:
It seems vital to grapple with how to incorporate critical practices of understanding the life of the object into its creation and use if we are to avoid the kinds of wastage and marginalization characterizing some of Akrich’s examples. I wondered, though, how to reconcile Senger et al’s ideas, framed with terms like “help” and “provide license,” with Schneider et al’s insights into the problems with helping.
Above I applaud Sengers et all for addressing the shortcomings of limiting reflection to instances of conflict, but then I wondered if they really do so completely. Toward the end of their discussion of the museum tech, they state that, “there was no technological impasse to overcome” (6), but perhaps there was – as defined by the designers’ values; the patrons’ lack of “license” was understood as a problem to overcome. Doesn’t the point they make here depend on a circumscribed notion of the purpose of the device – circumscribed even further than that the authors describe earlier in the essay?
Lastly, just to comment, I seriously appreciated how Schneider et al bring dreams and aspiration into the discussion of ethics. Expanding justice beyond the common least-denominator of need and survival to include desire seems crucial to any strategy for fundamental change.
October 3rd, 2011 at 5:42 pm edit
The relationship that resonated with me throughout the three articles is of that between designers and users of technologies. Akrich explored the heterogeneous networks brought together in the interaction between humans and technology, and the difficulties in describing and therefore also understanding these networks. I found this part of her article to echo some of the ideas from posthumanist works we considered during the spring quarter. The most interesting part of Akrich’s article, for me, was the investigation into examples of ‘moral delegation’ by technologies. She unveiled layers of moral judgments and even control in technologies that I would not have seen at first glance.
I have been involved in a project just once that explicitly broke down into groups of designers and users: the North American Regional Climate Change Assessment Program (NARCCAP). The basic idea was that 4 regional climate modeling groups ran agreed-upon experiments and made available the data in specific formats thought to be accessible and useful to other researchers who would want to use such information for their own work (such as people studying ecological impacts, for example). From my experience attending a workshop actually called a “User’s Meeting,” I could see gaps in communication and expectations between the two groups. Had there been more give and take between the designers and the users prior to the designers determining their plan of action, perhaps the product could have been even more useful than it was. Unfortunately, most projects and technologies are up against constraints of time and money that prevent the bridges between users and designers from being as interactive as might be hoped. The greater the number of users, the harder I believe this becomes, which is part of why I felt the Virtual Intimate Object example from Senger’s article (with its sample size of 5 couples) to be an unusual and somewhat idealized case (though it can be interesting to consider for these very reasons). The realities of these shortcomings are something I would like to see addressed as well.
I appreciated Schneider’s article about Engineering to Help. I can empathize with engineers’ potential defensiveness on projects where they have only good intentions, but both this article and Akrich’s tell of examples where despite this, projects can go awry – especially (potentially) problematic in cases where designers view users as “disadvantaged” or less “developed”. Communication, interaction and understanding both ways on the parts of designers/engineers and users could lead to much improvement in technology and relations between humans and technology.
October 3rd, 2011 at 6:24 pm edit
How might we define and thus, critically de-script or de-sign, an object of study? For Akrich, the technical and the social (perhaps expandable into biocultural) must be considered together: both are “brought into being in a process of reciprocal definition in which objects are defined by subjects and subjects by objects (222).” For Sengers et. al., “technologies reflect and perpetuate unconscious cultural assumptions (1).” Things are certainly entangled, embedded within, constitutive of, and enacted through messy webs of sedimented relations. But how/where do we begin to disentangle in order to think-make-become differently? Where is affect and agency in these conversations?
A big question that these readings raise in my mind is, what is the distinction between a technical object and a technology. Akrich describes a generator in rural Senegal, photoelectric kits in French Polynesia, gas meters in Abidjan. These read to me as technical objects, which — once blackboxed and stabilized — come to be regarded as “instruments of knowledge” (221). At the same time, these objects/instruments rely on larger technologies (perhaps Foucault’s disciplinary apparatuses), which render them meaningful, valuable, legible, powerful. These are technologies of modern citizenship and private property (i.e., a gas meter only makes “sense” if people “believe” in markets and ownership, that gas usage is exchangeable for money). Or, perhaps technologies of charity (Schneider’s ETH) or progress, which structurally transform subject positions and how we come to understand and naturalize relationships between positions.
What do we gain or lose by making a distinction between technical objects and technologies? I like to think that this enables a distinction between criticality and new-ness (…But does it?) Sengers et. al. describe a critical design approach which “pushes beyond an agenda of simply reinforcing values of consumer culture and to instead embody cultural critique in designed artifacts.” This sounds good, but seems to still maintain an uncomfortable line between producers designing-to-enlighten and consumers that-need-enlightenment. What modes of criticality might produce different subject positions, affects, agencies?
October 3rd, 2011 at 6:29 pm edit
What is the framework of action for the randomizing lottery numbers generating machine on your local television station during the six o’clock news? The lotto works by removing (conventional forms of) agency from the frame of the “game,” producing a space of pure or almost pure chance. This game generates “luck” by attaching to it very high stakes; that is, ”luck” theoretically always exists, but here it emerges in a potent form. More than just luck, the free space of non-agency also cultivates alternative, and sometimes deviant, forms of action or causation, including “praying” (and other modes of cosmological willing or requesting) and numerology.
These possibilities are built into the randomizing lottery numbers generating machine. How does it create this open space that gamblers desire? First and foremost, it requires some level of transparency in number production⎯rather than numbered balls rolling out of an opaque box, they must emerge from a compartment in the machine that is visible to the viewer. Second, it requires a degree of chaos⎯actively mixing numbered balls ensure the randomness of the results. Third, it requires generally two “modest witnesses”⎯the speaker with a serious demeanor, who observes from a distance and calls out the numbers that home viewers see, and the machine operator, who is easy on the eyes and handles the machine very minimally. I’ll bet you ten bucks that the science of agency erasure can be seen in many other games (board games, card games, etc.).
October 3rd, 2011 at 8:33 pm edit
This week’s readings were a great first encounter with academic Engineering to Help commentaries. Perhaps this would be an obvious place to apply the readings to the greenhouse project, and maybe I’ll regret not doing so in the end. But while reading these papers, I’ve simultaneously been working on a more personal “engineering to help” endeavor at home with my wife, which seems equally apropos and sits more towards the forefront of my thoughts at the moment.
Currently, my wife teaches several sociology classes and has her students turn in assignments electronically. Her grading method involves her making up documents on her computer, but the current state of software is lacking a strong forum for cross-platform document manipulation; some students use open source programs, some use Word, some use more esoteric programs, all in different formats. After hitting several road-blocks last semester requiring all papers to be turned in as a .pdf document, she gave in and now allows them to turn in papers as they wish and has been converting them to .pdf on her own. I saw how long this was taking her, with a few hundred papers coming across her inbox each week, and decided I’d help her out by finding an automated method. For those interested, I set out to write a shell script that monitors a directory in Dropbox that we share which converts any documents it finds into .pdf format and renames them with the class name and student’s name as the new filename. So begins this ETH endeavor with my wife.
With just the two of us involved in the design and implementation of the program, one would expect to have a quick turn-around with few problems along the way. When compared to the efforts discussed in Akrich (1992), with so many actors involved–government bureaucracies, developing economies, elder tribesmen, etc.–the ability of my wife and me to work with instant feedback and updates as we sit next to each other at home should have been seamless. So far it has been three months since we started and we’re still ironing out snags every week.
The problems stem from the amazing creativity of students to mess up filenames and formatting. Clearly I’m speaking tongue-in-cheek and quickly falling into the trap of ignoring other actors within the development and implementation of this program, but the parallels that were drawn in my mind when reading of the photoelectric lighting kit quickly formed. My wife and I failed to recognize and incorporate the students’ needs in the design. We were basing all assumptions on the way we would turn in a paper online and allowed for few variations. Just as engineers used non-standard plugs and locked down otherwise easy fixes for local electricians, I failed to foresee several naming schemes and file formats used by students. Even beyond the students, we quickly encountered issues with unaccounted-for software and document formats which entangled our efforts with large corporations by their impeding of our work.
As it stands, the program works and does save her a lot of time, but still, each assignment brings a new issue in the code that we didn’t anticipate. To be fair, I am not a professional programmer and had to learn from scratch how to get this to work at all. But, in the end, this has been quite a microcosm of ETH efforts and I’m excited to step up what I’ve leaned (from both the readings and this simple computer project) for my work within S&J and hopefully into the future.
P.S. – Apologies for this long-winded reply. I found it difficult to balance what I wanted to say about working with my wife while remaining critical of the readings, perhaps failing at both.
October 4th, 2011 at 12:39 am edit
Bruno Latour, in his essay “A Cautious Prometheus: A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design,” asserts that challenge of our contemporary moment is nothing short of the redesign of earth’s system of life support. For Latour, like Akrich, the design of objects (technical or otherwise) links and gathers heterogeneous social elements. Latour’s challenge to the designer is to “draw together matters of concern so as to offer to political disputes an overview, or at least a view, of the difficulties that will entangle us every time we must modify the practical details of our material existence.” Designers – according to Latour – must make innovations in visualization and representational strategies to overcome the autonomy of designed objects so as to communicate the ways they inhere in and transform social relations. Designers not only must stage the matters of concern that surround and compose the object in all its details (which necessarily emerges from some kind of social theory – perhaps through the methods of anthropology or reflective design). For me, Latour’s most important intervention is the insistence that we must see the designed object less as a thing, but as a project that necessarily intersects both constructively and destructively with other projects. An anthropology of projects (rather than objects) – at least as I would conceive it – it must take into consideration the critiques of development and that engineering as a historically constituted set of practices is useful – indeed unavoidable – to responding the environmental crises in all their detail. Minimally, engineers must be recruited to rework the disasters of past engineering projects.
October 4th, 2011 at 1:24 am edit
If technological objects can shape human relations, as described by Akrich, they clearly also have the power to affect the rest of the natural world, both directly and indirectly. For example, traditional bow hunting by the indigenous people of Peru’s Manu National Park appears to be sustainable, while the introduction of guns is likely to lead to rapid depletion of some species (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2664.2009.01661.x/abstract). As someone concerned with ecological issues, the impact of technology on both social and ecological systems is of great interest to me. I also think that ecologists, like the engineers described by Schneider et al., may not always think as carefully as they should about how they should go about “helping” ecosystems and the people they encompass. The motivations of ecologists, the history and context of their field sites, the people who are affected by work and so on deserve just as much interrogation as those of engineers. Though I agree with the decision to implement a political agenda by regulating the hunting technology allowed in Manu, I wonder if the assumptions and implications of the policy got as much attention as they deserved.
Schenider et al’s characterization of ETH programs as “based on the inherently problematic need/help conceptual model” reminded me of the quote attributed to Lilla Watson that says “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
How should we move away from the current benevolent-scientists-generously-gift-technology-to-the-grateful-downtrodden-poor model of while still acknowledging asymmetries in wealth, power, and privilege? How can we implement (or even recognize) a fair exchange of ideas between technology creators (or ecologists) and those who will be affected by the technology (or ecological project)?
Though my area of study is ecology, I work with models, so the continually evolving technology of modeling has many implications for my field. As computing power increases and models become more complex and specialized, communication and understanding of such intricate models becomes increasingly difficult between scientists in the same field, let alone between scientists across fields or people outside of science. It seems that the increasing use of specialized modeling and analysis tools, while extremely useful, also runs a danger of isolating scientists and perhaps making it more difficult for people who have less technological background to enter the field.
I also wonder how computing technology affects the questions scientists (especially modelers and statisticians) ask. A statistician in my lab group was recently discussing the difficulties of working with a 20-year-old data set, partly because the scientists had collected data tailored to the analytical, computational, and data-storage limitations of the time. Now that these limitations have changed, new avenues of investigations have opened. So, there seems to be continual feedback between the technology we develop to help answer questions, and the questions themselves.
October 4th, 2011 at 1:05 pm edit
Like Alexis, I was struck by the humanistic assumptions in the arguments of both Arkrich and Schneider et al. I find trouble in the constrained categories of “users” and “designers.” In all three accounts, there is a limiting focus on the designers and who they design for, which necessarily makes invisible those humans and non-humans who may encounter the technology but are not considered users in addition to affects for non-users (whether for reasons of accessibility, ideology, etc.). While Schneider productively engages feminist, development studies, and cultural studies critiques for thinking about considerations that designers can use to mitigate the potentially deleterious consequences of a need/help approach, there is only a brief mention of the critiques of development that an environmental justice or political ecology perspective could offer namely that development “consists of a set of practices…which require…the general transformation and destruction of the natural environment and social relations” (Gilbert Rist as quoted by Schneider pp 45). Many destructive possibilities of particularly technologies and development projects are only now gaining scholarly attention. For example, while Akrich discusses electrification and the ways that wiring can delineate space and enable social control through taxation and meter-reading, the implications of electrification and lighting design for non-human others are largely untouched. Increasingly research is showing the ways that light pollution can be disastrous for sea turtles, dung beetles, endangered beach mice, migrating birds, and bats. A scripting paradigm based on human-centric “users” that does not include those that must live with the technologies while not considered “users” cannot hope to satisfactorily address Schneider et al’s important question of “Who Benefits and Who Suffers from the Project?” (46). How might lights be differently designed if they were responsive to the life patterns of co-habiting non-human others?
October 4th, 2011 at 2:46 pm edit
The following first paragraph characterize my initial reactions to the readings. As I thought more about the readings and how they relate to my research, I have change my mind. it is my intent to demonstrate the progression of such shift in perspective. If technology is created for our comfort and if market success is the objective I am unsure how this topic is any different from what businesses do anyway. Before a new technology hits the market, research and development are a large component of creation of a product. Beyond the focus group, we as consumers are given the opportunity to give feedback, most products have a 1-800 number for comments. I doe agree with one of the participants in the museum study who was given the chance for feedback but he believed that whatever he had to say was irrelevant; I feel that way sometimes and I reason our that if I thought of it, someone else must have and probably already brought it up. However, it think it matters how one asks for feedback.
When researchers send out surveys, perhaps as a method of reflexive inquiry, they make assumptions of how the subjects will answer and that can be erroneous. Sometimes researches ask for specific feedback that perhaps does not fit the situation of the person filling out the survey. In this sense, I think that even that the process of reflexive inquiry on a technology needs reflexive inquiry as a method of gaining greater understanding on a project. For example in the survey method, in a addition to leaving a blank area in which the surveyed can create their own response, one could designate an area in which one askks how does the person feel about being asked such question, the perceived value of such inquiry, the method of inquiry, and preferences on how they would like to give feedback, as well as a place for any other comments. I would like to incorporate this type of feedback into my research.
In my research of developing ecological and alternatives to fumigants in strawberry productions, the article on engineering for help is relevant to my work. Our research is principled in reducing environmental stress while growing foods, and legislation is increasing pressure on farmers to use other methods to create environments that will allow for strawberries and other crops to grow without the use of methyl bromide. My objective is to help farmers in this task and find a method to transfer any knowledge gained from this research. Based on public interest in our research team’s established and goring relationships with farmers, I am confident that our research is relevant. However, we do not want to tell farmers what to do only make recommendations based on the work of other farmers. Farmers form a large component of our research , they give us feedback, they execute the research, and we modify future questions based on their input. I will try to be more conscious of such instances of which Sneider cautions against.
Thinking more on the readings and having discussed them with my advisor just now, my curiosity has been sparked to trace the political economy of fumigants as they relate to methyl bromide alternatives. In addition to my mural project for the course, i will be doing a chapter for my dissertation on pesticide technologies, how and why some forms are more populate than others, how funding plays a role in what gets developed, what assumptions are made and prioritized in the design of economic pest control for crops. As for my mural project, I can see how my research question, though a bit ambiguous at this stage, takes on the form of reflexive inquiry.
October 4th, 2011 at 2:49 pm edit
my apologies for the typos.