Review: What Things Do (Part 5)

This is part five of a review of the book What Things Do: Philosophical Reflections on Technology, Agency, and Design. Read part 1 for the overview.

Chapter 5, “The Acts of Artifacts,” asks, What role do things play in human life and action? To answer this, the author Peter-Paul Verbeek looks closely at the philosophy of Bruno Latour, particularly his actor-network theory. Verbeek writes,

For Latour, reality cannot be adequately understood if humans and non-humans are treated “asymmetrically.” The two cannot be had separately, but are always bound up with each other in a network of relations. Only by virtue of this network are they what they are, and can they do what they do.

The actor-network theory basically states that agency, the ability to act, isn’t limited to humans alone. Objects can also act when in relationship–a network–with other actors (or “actants”). Things don’t have an “essence” until they are part of a network, although they do have “existence.” In a network, there is no real difference between things and humans. Both only are present and have meaning from their relationship with other nodes, human and non-human, on the network. “Actors can be as much human as non-human, and networks are not structures but relations in which translations take place of entities that assume relations with each other,” Verbeek writes.

The separation of things and humans (“subjects” and “objects” in Enlightenment thinking), is becoming “less and less believable.” We’re now surrounded by things that straddle the boundary between human and non-human: “embryos, expert systems, digital machines, sensor-equipped robots, hybrid corn, data banks, psychotropic drugs, whales outfitted with radar sounding devices, gene synthesizers, audience analyzers, and so on.” That is, many of the things that interaction designers have to create and work with every day.

In Latour’s view, humans and objects are deeply intertwined. Objects aren’t simply neutral objects, but mediators that actively contribute to the ways in which ends are realized. Latour calls this technical mediation and it has several facets:

  • Translation. Technology can translate a “program of action.” Verbeek uses a gun as an example: a gun can translate the action of “taking revenge” into a new action of “shooting someone.” “Both the gun and the person change in the mediated situation…they are transformed in their relation to one another.”
  • Composition. Mediation always involves several actants that jointly perform an action. Thus, action “is simply not a property of humans but an association of actants.” Latour calls this composition.
  • Reversible Black-Boxing. The blending of humans and objects in a network is usually invisible, a “black box”, but it can be untangled if, say, an object in the network breaks, revealing all the interconnected relationships.
  • Delegation and Scripts. This is the most important facet of mediation, especially for designers. Latour uses the example of a speed bump to illustrate this concept: “Engineers “inscribe” the program of action they desire (to make drivers slow down) in concrete (the speed bump).” Thus, not only is it a “transformation of a program of action, but also a change of the medium of expression.” The task of a policeman (getting people to slow down) is delegated to the speed bump. This creates “a curious combination of presence and absence: an absent agent [such as a designer] can have an effect on human behavior in the here and now,” notes Verbeek. Latour says we should “think of technology as congealed labor” that can, in Verbeek’s words, “supply their own user’s manuals. They co-shape the use that is made of them.” Latour calls these built-in actions or behaviors that an object invites scripts. The perception of which, I would add, are what we designers (after Gibson and Norman) call affordances.

In the next installment: what role does technology have in obtaining “the good life?”

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