Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Representing the political agency of technological devices

Light Trail at Speed Bump by lilduckling

"In my view, the bottleneck is in the difficulty of describing what happens to agency when there are no anthropomorphic characters. And there is no vocabulary—no accepted vocabulary—to talk about that. So every time you do that, immediately people say—I know because I have done it many times—people say, ‘Oh, you anthropomorphize the nonhuman.’ Because they have such a narrow definition of what is human, that whenever a nonhuman does something, it looks human, as if it’s sort of a Disney type of animation. So if my ‘sleeping policeman,’ actually a speed-trap, begins to really do something, people say ‘yes, but you are projecting human intention onto it,’ even though it has been made precisely so that there is no policeman there and there is no human intention there and you break your car if you speed...I think that the bottleneck is that we don’t know how to define the nonhuman at all."

-- Where Constant Experiments Have Been Provided: A Conversation with Bruno Latour

In Guaman Poma's chronicle of the Inka there is an illustration of December's [June's] Inti Raymi festival, named after Inti, the Inka Sun God. In it, Inti and his consort Mama Killa (Mother Moon) wear human expressions.

A great Peruvian archaeologist once told me that Western scholars always misunderstand the sun in Inka culture. Inti, he explained, has a face not because the Inka anthropomorphised him but because the Europeans had no words to describe humans and non-humans as if they were the same.

I've always assumed he was referring to animism, but now I'm more intrigued by this question of lacking words to describe non-humans, and what this means if we try to account for relations between humans and non-humans.

If Crang and Graham are right, the biggest threat in a world of pervasive computing is the delegation of political agency to inanimate objects (i.e. computers) and invisible forces. In such a scenario, I find it useful to think of humans and non-humans as the same. Well, not actually the same, but certainly not different. I'm reminded that every RFID tag has a person--many people--attached to it. People who make decisions, people who are implicated and interpellated. And I wonder how can we best reveal--best represent--the people, the actions, the politics that are normally hidden in these devices. How can we communicate what these devices do? Or how they act?

Timo Arnall's Touch Project has investigated how RFID transactions can be visualised, including these RFID icons by Alex Jarvis and Mark Williams at Schulze and Webb, and Adam Greenfield and Nurri Kim came up with these Everyware icons (pdf). In all these examples the driving metaphor is the transaction, or the exchange between human (user) and non-human (computer)--which is, of course, very useful from a usability and user-centred design perspective. It also makes sense if we assume that most of these devices will be used in commercial contexts.

But I'm interested in the political agency of these devices. I'm interested in ways we can represent the political relations they embody--something which must begin, I believe, with the explicit recognition that these exchanges or transactions involve unequal power relations.

How can we represent the reality that a given device or environment is collecting and correlating data in ways that are more powerful than our ability to resist? How can we demonstrate tactical potential in the face of strategic control? Perhaps more simply, how can we represent a given device or environment as an assemblage of people, places, practices, objects and ideas? How can we draw (out) its relations to others?

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Blogger Trevor said...

By thinking about the body right?
The body is less bound to any particular account of biological particulars or generalities, of mental potential or limits, and more the site of converging and diverging perceptions, emotions and action, habitually managed and falliable. On this account, I am more what I see, feel and do than a specific or general essence or existence, however complex. The sedimentation of the perceptual, pathetic and praxical into and from the dispositional body gives an account of the habitual body on which we can begin to understand further examples of the body. On this account, what is then most important about our bodies is not any particular way in which the mind-soul-body question is considered but how the habits of the body are disposed towards the world. My body is finite, falliable and vulnerable but it is also characterized by movements that transcend these depictions.
The habitual body is neither simply dualistic nor is it simply materialistic. A body characterized by perception, pathos, action and habit is not any particular type of body. These characteristics each cut across the mind-body-spirit question. Furthermore, this account of the body accounts for a whole variety of bodies, including bodies that do not function particularly well. The able body is not, on this account, somehow more of a body than the dis-abled one. The habitual body is also not constrained to human bodies or concrete bodies. The chicken, donkey, and barn swallow also have their own perception, pathos, actions and habits.

Blogger Trevor said...

Or at least thinking about Virtual Bodies ...
What is a virtual body? It could be a body that is not quite a body, but if we begin by defining the body in a way that no one body is normative, then the not-quite-a-body will not be characterized by lack. For instance, were I to loose my arm and have it replaced with a prostheses, my body would not become more virtual than it had been before losing my arm. The Trevor with one biological arm is not less a body than the Trevor with two biological arms. The virtual body that I want to suggest in this section is then something that is not a body but is almost a body, or which we can usefully relate to according to the logic of the body.
A virtual body is in many ways a projection of our individual or corporate body onto the world. As such, a virtual body will likely demonstrate the same habits disposed in consistent ways as a non-virtual concrete body would. The inauthentic disposition of the body becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the more that a given virtual body is projected. This will become more clear in the example of the weblog. Furthermore, we can expect both that any virtual body will impact both the concrete body that created it and other concrete or probable bodies.
If the text can contain a body or at least the corporeal traces of a body then, while we would continue to assert that there is no agency inherent in the text, the text can be explained as something that has the potential to effect change. A possible analogy here is to the text as a catalyst. The catalyst is not an agent unless it comes into contact with another chemical structure that is open to being changed by it. Texts are the kind of bodies that do not exercise agency or engage other bodies but when engaged by other bodies, bodies open to being patients of the text's action on them, do effect change. The analogy to a catalyst is limited because texts are not stable predictably rendering the same kind of change even when encountered by patients similarly open to their effects. The attention to the body we have paid thus far has been in service of an approach to interpretation that is not dualistic but is also open to the radical difference that exists between different bodies.
It is counter-intuitive to think of texts as bodies. We are much more comfortable with a split between word and flesh or with imaginations which see the body as inscribed. These imaginations are especially dominant inside the various discourses of postmodernity and the attendant focus on language.

Blogger Trevor said...

Guess If I just started my blog back up I could simply post all that crap, hit trackback, and do alot less vandalism on your blog eh!

Anonymous anne said...

hi trevor! yes, start up your blog again! not because i don't want you here but because you should be writing there :-)

and it's funny, but i wasn't actually thinking of bodies at all... so thanks for giving me something else to think about!

Blogger egoodman said...

"Perhaps more simply"...? Oh, this last question/request is much more complex than the others, I think. Or maybe it's simpler in theory but harder in practice. I dunno. But I don't actually have any answers right now for the questions, so I can't really comment. Instead, I guess I have to ask: what do you mean by represent? Are you talking about conceptual representation, or an intervention (demonstration) in the spaces which are being monitored?

Anonymous anne said...

hi liz!

it's open-ended. represent in the broadest sense. both or either of your examples.

my point was that i don't think we know *how* to represent. so we're going to have to try a bunch of things. and see which stick...

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