Thursday, November 28, 2002

On Designing Social Agency - Story Version

In the essay "A Collective of Humans and Non-Humans," Latour tells a brilliant story about guns and people. I'll try to condense 2 1/2 pages of his text.

"Who or what is responsible for the act of killing? Is the gun no more than a piece of mediating technology? The answer to these questions depends on what mediation means." A first sense of mediation is what [he] calls the program of action: "the series of goals and steps and intentions that an agent can describe in a story like the one about the gun and the gunman."

Latour asks: In a shooting (murder) who is the actor - the citizen or the gun? He says the actor is someone else - the citizen-gun or the gun-citizen. That we are different people with guns in our hands and that guns are different when we hold them: essence is existence and existence is action. "You are another subject because you hold the gun; the gun is another object because it has entered into a relationship with you. A good citizen becomes a criminal, a bad guy becomes a worse guy; a silent gun becomes a fired gun, a new gun becomes a used gun, a sporting gun becomes a weapon. The twin mistake of the materialists and the sociologists is to start with essences, those of subjects or those of objects.. If we study the gun and the citizen as propositions, however, we realize that neither subject nor object (nor their goals) is fixed. When the propositions are articulated, they join into a new proposition."

"I could replace the gunman with a 'class of unemployed loiterers,' translating the individual agent into a collective; or I could talk of 'unconscious motives,' translating it into a sub-individual agent. I could redescribe the gun as 'what the gun lobby puts in the hands of unsuspecting children,' translating it from an object into an institution or a commercial network; or I could call it 'the action of a trigger on a cartridge through the intermediary of a spring and firing-pin, translating it into a mechanical series of causes and consequences. It is neither people nor guns that kill. Responsibility for action must be shared among the various actants."


This conjures neither the design of information nor of experience. And I don't think it involves the same sense of (motivational) agency as applied in most Action or Game Theory I've read (although that hasn't been very much, so please correct me).

The point of Latour's story, in part, is to demonstrate that whatever intentions can be attributed to either people or guns dissolve as soon as they engage each other - and emerge again as a hybrid with new collective intentions. My first thought is that we can't design for that, or at least, that we can't really design *for* the intentions/functions of machines or users.

The social context of design is more than the relationship between consultant and client, the social complexity of any given organisation or set of information/content, or even watching users. The social context of design involves the notion that we are dealing with (and are part of) a collective hybrid in which humans and non-humans are made relevant and indispensable to each other through a process of granting consent to each other. And this process is not value-free. (As an aside - I'd like to see discussions of the ethics of ubiquitous technologies move beyond issues of privacy and control.)

This may affect how designers understand who and what they're crafting. As it stands, all variations on user-centred design take for granted that products should be made relevant to their users. And in cooperation with good marketing, it is possible to make a product indispensable. The part I see missing is the process of granting consent to each other - whereby people and objects (products/machines/interfaces) reciprocally create each other as a hybrid. In other words, allowing people and objects to engage each other in ways that allow people and machines to really perform and change together (to have agency in space and time). Of course this includes not only the design of technologies but of their (social) applications.

What types of social interaction are we designing? Should applications of technology be socially virtuous by any standard? And this makes me think of an earlier post where I thought about Adam Greenfield's notion of "safe harbours of slow time" in which we are granted respite from risk and speed to engage more fully with subjects, objects, activities and ideas. This is surely a space of performance and enrolment. We can temporarily slow the flow, engage it and negotiate it, and emerge again. A designer can build a space for this to happen.

And I should think some more about what might constitute a Temporary Autonomous Zone alongside a Temporary Occupied Zone. This could be helpful in describing the interface between people and smart fabrics, and maybe design could be described as a weaving together of these spaces...


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