Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Networked things and the old/new objectivism

I'm finding there's a lot to be said for working slowly but persistently in the background as conversations on 'The Internet of Things' proceed apace.

Julian and Nicolas at Reboot

"The Internet of Things is the underpinnings for a new kind of digital, networked ecology in which objects become collaborators in helping us shape our individual social practices towards the goal of creating a more livable, habitable and sustainable world. 'Blogjects' or objects that blog captures the potential of networked Things to inform us, create visualizations, represent to us aspects of our world that were previously illegible or only accessible by specialist. In the era of Blogjects, knowing how even our routine social practices reflect upon our tenancy can have radical potential for impactful, worldly change. Nowadays, the duality between social beings and instrumental inert objects is suspicious. In this epoch, a renaissance in which imbroglios of networks, sensors and social beings are knit together, everyone and everything must cooperate to mitigate against world-wide catastrophic system failure."

It's nice to see someone else use the word imbroglio, and much of what they talk about is what I've been writing about for the past four or five years. But it also gets me thinking: the importance of the object has always been central to the practice of science, engineering and design. Of course it's fair to say that the belief in objectivity has been undermined in recent decades, but I don't see a concurrent decline in the desire for it, or the will to it - and mastering an object still offers substantial rewards. (Incidentally, it's easy enough to make the case that feminist critiques of science and technology have done the most to challenge the subject-object dichotomy, but feminist voices are almost entirely absent in the male-dominated conversations around networked things.)

In any case, what strikes me in this "renaissance of things" is the creeping tendency to fetishise (to reify?) the object. This happens too in social software, and user-centred design. Both 'the social' and 'the user' become paramount, yet remain unexamined. More people are citing Latour's influence, often summarised along the lines that objects have agency too, which is technically correct. But Latour isn't interested in objects, he's interested in relations - in actant-networks, collectives of humans and non-humans, and processes of translation.

If we actually follow Latour, or any of the critiques of ANT, then it's not the things themselves that are interesting, but rather the imbroglios they comprise. Julian and Nicolas suggest this when they claim "a new kind of digital, networked ecology in which objects become collaborators," but objects have always been collaborators. The word 'object' comes from Latin 'to throw in the way,' which may explain why people fall back on the idea that we now need to integrate all of these objects into our understanding of the digital. But, at the risk of stating the obvious, the digital is always already material and real. So why a "renaissance" at all?

Well, I think that Julian would recognise that 'The Internet of Things' is a theory-object, but I'm not sure anyone is trying to figure out how 'The Internet of Things' is an actant-network (although I try to draw out the imbroglios I see). Oddly enough, I think Bruce Sterling may get it more than most because he understands what it means to manipulate words, to shape things - which is related to what Callon and Latour call translation, or the ability of actants to forge alliances and make things happen.

(I was recently told, most ungraciously, that I tend to be aggressive when I should be diplomatic which, if true, would make it a struggle to convince others that I am 'right' or what I say is 'true.' But that's quite fine with me. I'm way more interested in when, following Callon, "translation becomes treason." After all, I really don't believe that consensus-building is the best way to adapt to constantly-changing worlds.)

But here's Bruce recently teaching at the European Graduate School.

He tosses out multiple fragments, all in disarray, and asks the students to re-assemble them for three audiences: 1) clear-thinking intelligentsia who want to deconstruct the chaff and rid themselves of hype and corny hucksterism; 2) experimental alpha-geeks who want to pull it right out of the carton and fire it up; and 3) the Davos Forum: top CEOs, ministers of state, crucial decision-makers, and policy wonks.

This roughly follows Callon's process of translation: problematisation, interressement, enrollment and mobilisation. The maps Bruce asks the students to draw are attempts to stabilise networks that constitute 'The Internet of Things' in ways that allow particular interests to be acted upon (and others to be discarded). Now I can't tell which photos represent which maps, but this one really caught my interest:

The Ubiverse

This isn't a Venn diagram or even a network map - it's a universe, a singularity, a dynamic but closed system. They've mobilised a world where "there's no escape from ubiquity."

The translation was successful, but not even a little treasonous.


Blogger Glen Fuller said...

good points.

it would be nice if the 'internet of things' theories were accidently focusing on 'objects' rather than the networks (or, at the minimum, capacities of various sorts for networking [such as translation]) because of a simple enlightenment problem regarding situated knowledges and so on. :)

not wanting to be too ultra-super-extra-special cynical but could 'object' be popular because it is just 'commodity' without a dollar figure?

the dollar figure thing is what the marketing people get to do so they feel like part of a network, (otherwise the academics take their jobs): "Oh, you are soo right! That is just sooo pervasive computing right now; it is worth, like, this much!"

Anonymous anne said...

glen - i often think about these 'objects' as commodities, and really appreciate the work on rfid because it most often makes that explicit ;)

but mostly i think objects are popular now because there is a backlash happening against ideas of disembodied cyberspace (which is often also an anti-academic position) and there are certain people longing for a 'return' to 'real' community and change.

Anonymous nicolas said...

It's good to have your input Anne, and I am well aware that you worked on similar matter; the presentation you did at design engaged 2005 seems paricularly relevant for that matter and I am still thinking about how to integrate that into this discussion.

As for the fact that yes relations are more interesting than objects (at least in the ANT), this might be reflected in the tension between the use of "networked objects" and "blogjects"; or also the fact that we used the word "blog" as a way of sharing/connecting rather than in its classical web definition.

Now, for the "renaissance" bits, I fully acknowledge the fact that yes objects have been around for ages (and indeed I remember my latin/french class) but the idea of renaissance (re-birth) was rather to claim that, in the computing context, objects matter more and more. Moreover, I don't like this name "internet of things", don't know why maybe because IMO objects and their relations are more than just nodes and connections.

Besides, you're not aggressive, don't worry :)

Anonymous adam said...

but feminist voices are almost entirely absent in the male-dominated conversations around networked things.

We could argue all day about what might constitute a feminist line of inquiry in this context, but I think it's both untrue and unhelpful to describe the conversation around networked things as male-dominated.

At the very least, it's a slap in the face to folks like Ulla-Maaria Mutanen, Regine Debatty, Beatriz da Costa, Natalie jeremijenko and Brooke Singer, all of whose work I know you're aware of. Whether or not their work (severally or collectively) constitutes a feminist response to networked things is of course a legitimate question to ask, but in every case they have been present, speaking, asking questions and being heard.

Anonymous anne said...

thanks nicolas - we'll chat more about this and i'll check out the links you gave me earlier today :)

Anonymous anne said...

adam - I am well aware of women in the field and have even posted a list of more than 50 of us for people's reference.

But 50 is not 500 and I can't believe that anyone would actually attempt to argue that female participation in these discussions equals that of men.

As for my comments being a "slap in the face" - well, some feminists would argue that your apparent need or desire to speak *for these women* is patronising.

And nowhere do I equate women and feminism, like you appear to. There is nothing to prohibit male researchers and designers from taking a feminist position, but I don't see that happening either.

I find it intriguing that you are essentially accusing me of being sexist, and I believe that you actually only skim the surface of your most interesting critique: so what do YOU think constitutes a feminist reading of pervasive computing?

Anonymous adam said...

I think if you go back to what I wrote, you'll see that I explicitly did *not* correlate the simple presence of women in the field with a feminist critique.

I don't understand how my namechecking a few folks is more patronising than your namechecking a few folks, either.

As for what I think a feminist critique of pervasive computing would look like, I would imagine that it would focus on examining just which spaces are to be pervaded by information technology, just how this mysterious person "the user" is constructed, and especially how (ahem) imbroglios of subjects-spaces-activities might historically have been constructed as "male" or "female."

I would also imagine such a critique as a matter of course looking at the lacunae of any such totalizing technological narrative, asking in effect which spaces, which subjects and which activities are precisely not being considered as platforms for pervasive augmentation, and why not?

Finally, I would imagine that such a critique would interrogate the power relations that are inscribed in pervasive technologies at the infrastructural, architectural and network-service levels.

But fortunately, I don't have to imagine this, because this is already the critique of ubiquity that is being uttered. If it was missing from the discourse before, it is certainly not now, not in any of the venues in which I see discussions of ubiquity happening. In fact, most of the ways in which I have seen ubiquity problematized owe everything to the feminist perspective. I just don't see how you can negate this so readily.

Anonymous anne said...

adam - Thank you for your second comment because it describes current critiques quite nicely - I'm also really pleased to see these questions come up. But nothing about them is particularly feminist.

And to clarify, my post talked about feminist critiques of the subject-object dichotomy, so I'd be happy to discuss that further.

Blogger Phil said...

I read an earlier 'blogject' paper & found it unpersuasive, incoherent and horrible. One of those is an emotional reaction - clearly, whatever its other weaknesses, the concept was coherent and persuasive enough to freak me out. I've been puzzling over why I had this reaction, and I think your point about fetishisation goes a good part of the way. It's as if the only way to question the status of object is to take an object and attribute subjecthood to it - an operation which (apart from being profoundly self-deceiving in most cases) leaves the subject part of the subject/object model untouched, if not reinforced. Getting away from that focus into a more relational/intersubjective model is the real challenge.

As for the move from cyberspace to physical space, plus c,a change - whether we're interacting with avatars or 'blogjects', there's still a desire to see each one of us as a vast cool intellect floating around bumping into other v.c.i.s.

Blogger e-tat said...

Yikes. I came by to say that the first four paragraphs clarify several concepts for me in a way that I haven't seen elsewhere (for which, kudos!) and find that I'm tagging my remark onto a discussion about something else entirely.

Oh well. Here goes anyway!

Anonymous anne said...

phil - Getting away from that focus into a more relational / intersubjective model is the real challenge.

Hear hear!

e-tat - Thanks for bearing with the detoured conversation, and I'm pleased that the post offered some clarification. I'd actually love to hear some of your thoughts on the points that phil brought up too... :) m

Blogger e-tat said...

Moi? I'm not sure I follow Phil's line of thought. Maybe after I find some time to think about it again.

I know I had a question about this phrase: 'what it means to manipulate words, to shape things'. It's ambiguous.

I also meant to say that the remark about being aggressive sounds like the kind of thing someone would say to you in an underhand attempt to be manipulative. Or out of confusion. I would take a remark like that with a large crystal of salt.

Meanwhile, let me mix things up a bit by referring you to this and this with the hope that they will entertain and possibly inspire some other thinking about objects.

(I have tried to post these comments at least a dozen times over the last three days, and each time Blogger fails, so when this finally gets posted, say a prayer of thanks to whatever gremlin has finally deigned to let it pass)

Blogger Phil said...

I also meant to say that the remark about being aggressive sounds like the kind of thing someone would say to you in an underhand attempt to be manipulative.

Two data points: 1. I've had some pretty heated arguments (more online than off-, it's the nature of the beast...) but nobody has ever told me I was too aggressive.

2. I'm male.

Which isn't to say that I'd recommend walking up to people and yelling "Sterling's a MORON! Latour ROCKS!" More to say that I doubt you were doing anything remotely like that.

Anonymous anne said...

nice links, thanks e-tat!

and blogger has been flaky as hell...again...

phil - thanks too.

and you know, i'd rather just ignore the person who talked shit to me.

but you're both right: people try to be manipulative in weird ways, and girls get treated differently from boys.

Anonymous Steve said...

Very informative post and thanks for the links e-tat.



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