Saturday, January 14, 2006

Agencies in technology design

When I gave my presentation at the CACS conference on the design of pervasive computing and the processes of transduction and protocol, I was asked hard questions about social and cultural agency or our capacity for action. This, of course, also relates to what it would mean to "democratise" design. In retrospect, I should have called on Lucy Suchman's paper below.

Agencies in Technology Design: Feminist Reconfigurations (pdf)
Lucy Suchman, Lancaster University

"For those writing within the Actor Network tradition and its aftermath, agency is reconceptualised as always a relational effect that can never be located in either humans or nonhumans alone. A rich body of empirical studies have further specified, elaborated, and deepened the senses in which human agency is only understandable once it is re-entangled in the sociomaterial relations that the ‘modern constitution’ since the 17th century has so exhaustingly attempted to take apart. These studies provide compelling empirical demonstration of how capacities for action can be reconceived on foundations quite different from those of an Enlightenment, humanist preoccupation with the individual actor living in a world of separate things...

Together these inquiries respecify agency from a capacity intrinsic to singular actors, to an effect of practices that are multiply distributed and contingently enacted across humans and things. Addressing similar questions, but from a position within feminist philosophy and science studies, physicist Karen Barad has proposed a form of materialist constructivism that she names 'agential realism,' through which realities are constructed out of specific apparatuses of sociomaterial 'intra-action'. While the construct of interaction presupposes two entities, given in advance, that come together and engage in some kind of exchange, intra-action underscores the sense in which subjects and objects emerge through their encounters with each other. In this, Barad’s writings join others working towards conceptualizations of the material that incorporate both obduracy and contingency, the discursive and the corporeal. More specifically, Barad locates technoscientific practices as critical sites for the emergence of new subjects and objects...

As Barad points out, boundaries are necessary for the creation of meaning, and, for that very reason, are never innocent. Because the cuts implied in boundary making are always agentially positioned rather than naturally occurring, and because boundaries have real consequences, 'accountability is mandatory'. The accountability involved is not, however, a matter of identifying authorship in any simple sense, but rather a problem of understanding the effects of particular assemblages, and assessing the distributions, for better and worse, that they engender...In considering this work it would be difficult to isolate singular achievements of the ‘new’. And yet together, over time and space, I would argue that it is labors like this that represents our best hope for genuinely new reconfigurings of the technological, based not in inventor heroes or extraordinary new devices, but in mundane, and innovative, practices of collective sociomaterial infrastructure building."

It'll also be interesting to see how Suchman has transformed her thinking since her Xerox PARC days when Plans and Situated Actions II: Human-Machine Reconfigurations is published later this year.

Update 16 Jan

For those who don't read French, a treat: Steven Shaviro does another smashing job assessing Simondon's work on transduction and individuation.


Anonymous Francois Lachance said...

Did you notice that page 1 of the Suchman paper is missing?

Anonymous Francois Lachance said...

Professor Suchman kindly got back to me and indicated that the paper was indeed complete.

Upon re-reading, the sentence extending over the initial page on to the next does indeed read like a complete sentence:

Both reconceptualisations of the human-machine interface, [page break]
moreover, and the practices of their realization are inflected by, and consequential for,
gendered relations within technoscience and beyond.

It was that "moreover" that had me hunting for more.

And indeed, as Professor Suchman pointed out, that first paragraph looked like an abstract. And furthermore, I thought I was missing a page given the pagination convention. That reminds me of the different customs for the numbering of floors in a building: first floor is not always the ground floor.

Maybe I have to start reading out loud or have a voice-synth read to me.


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