Friday, June 17, 2005

Inscription, enrolment and agency

"The state is going to be recording everything we do, why shouldn't we make our own recordings -- if only to challenge the accuracy of what others capture?"

In Inscription: Surveillance Turned Inside Out, Howard Rheingold talks to Microsoft sociologist Marc Smith about "ways to use tomorrow's panoptic snooping technologies".

I was instantly struck by Smith's use of the term "inscription" - instead of "authoring" and despite AURA's call to "annotate the planet" - a term which Rheingold describes as relating "to behavior that leaves traces detectable by others." But because words do things, because speech acts, inscription also means enrolment** in particular contexts, identities and practices.

The current obsession with tagging and projects like Urban Tapestries, Yellow Arrow, Grafedia, MapHub (and, oh, about a million others now) all work off the general idea that "regular" people can, and indeed should, declare and order their experiences and ideas, and share them with other people.

I don't know where or when "bottom-up" became an absolute social, cultural and (cough) ethical good, but classification, authorship and/or publication are not simply matters of production, or more specifically, about changing the means of production. First of all is that pesky matter of consumption and use: how are people actually consuming and using this information? Second, into which (unequal) arrangements or assemblages do all these practices enrol us?

For example, do we really want to say that when Microsoft or Nokia record everything that it is inherently better than when The State does it? What kind of agency do we actually have? When we use our blogs for 'impression management' or when we post pictures of ourselves to Flickr to have more control over what appears in searches, what kind of agency is that?

** In the work of Michel Callon and Bruno Latour, enrolment refers to the "process in network-building in which actors' support is gained for development of a sociotechnical entity, their role defined and their interests and identities orientated to suit." In other words, an actor/actant must be made relevant to others (interessement), be made indispensable to others (translation), and be granted consent by others (enrolment).

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