Tuesday, December 15, 2009

More technosocial assemblages

A friend recently commented on how sci-fi it is that we've brought our cat to NZ. I think he meant that it's weird to think about a pet travelling 15,000 km, but it got me thinking about the essay in Two Regimes of Madness where Deleuze explains that:

"Control is not discipline. You do not confine people with a highway. But by making highways, you multiply the means of control. I am not saying this is the only aim of highways, but people can travel infinitely and 'freely' without being confined while being perfectly controlled. That is our future."

I've never understood relations between mobility and control more clearly than through this quote - even if here I'm more interested in institutionalised rather than immanent control. Because just as it's true that people can travel freely insofar as they follow established protocols, these kinds of infrastructure and control also apply to the movement of companion animals (including livestock), albeit in a compounded way.

Several years ago, at the Situated Technologies Symposium, I brought up the technosocial assemblage that constitutes me + my cat + rfid. Although my example was dismissed by the audience as too frivolous (a position related, I believe, to more wide-spread ignorance of, and/or disdain for, the affective aspects of everyday life) I think that there are some interesting things going on here that we don't yet fully understand or appreciate.

First, when Enid Coleslaw travels she effectively becomes a set of two numbers: one that is associated with her rfid microchip and another that is associated with an import/export permit in my name. In this scenario she is simultaneously less and more than "animal." In fact, we - me, her and the microchip - are a hybrid that move together. And our new dividuality doesn't just leave a data shadow or trace, it precedes us and pre-extends our range of motion. This makes me wonder how research on actor-networks and companion species can help us understand the Internet of Things - especially when "networked things" tend to escape traditional definitions (i.e. mutually exclusive categories) of human and animal, subject and object.

Put into the context of my current research, this makes me ask what "sheep" are when rfid-tagged animals generate and report data on animal welfare and environmental sustainability. I also ask what "wool" becomes when it carries information from its source and accumulates more data on labour practices, manufacturing and distribution processes. Further afield, but still related, what does it mean to be a sheep farmer or animal caretaker? What are the differences and similarities between sheep shearers, wool pressers, seamstresses and someone who wears merino underpants?

And while we're at it, what's up with Icebreaker's advertising?

(Click for larger image)


Blogger Trevor said...

So I have some questions about this post. How do you connect the traces that you are imagining to their source? Most of the traces that are generated in your discussion are generated by human interaction. (I'd be happy for you to start answering these questions by correcting this assumption (It seems a bit off to me, but I'm not sure how)) Companion species generate (I'm not very happy with this word either) their own trace too, but how is Enid Coleslaw's contribution to the hybrid that you are imaging accounted for. She is, presumably, uninterested in her RFID tag; but we know that she is very interested in her location. Sheep are very interested in wool; especially if we follow the kind of tack on coevolution that Michael Pollan popularizes. Still, sheeply interests in security and flocking and not necessarily preserved by the data that new farming practices allow for. Or are they? Or have I had too much caffeine this afternoon?

Blogger Anne said...

Hey Trevor - so much to consider here!

First, on a practical level I guess I'm most interested in seeing if wool can be traced back to individual sheep by some combination of gps and rfid.

Second, on a more philosophical level, I'm not sure what you mean about these traces being "generated by human interaction." My interest is in how we can trace *combined* human, animal and technological interactions.

When you ask me how Enid can be accounted for, are you asking me what kind of agency she has? Is this also what you have in mind when you bring up sheeply interests?

If so, perhaps we are approaching the matter of relationality and hybridity a bit differently?

I don't see my cat, or the sheep, or me for that matter, having any sort of agency or interest that can be separated from the mangle of our interactions...

Can you please clarify a bit?


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