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Multistability and the Agency of Mundane Artifacts: from Speed Bumps to Subway Benches

Abstract

A central question in philosophical and sociological accounts of technology is how the agency of technologies should be conceived, that is, how to understand their constitutive roles in the actions performed by assemblages of humans and artifacts. To address this question, I build on the suggestion that a helpful perspective can be gained by amalgamating “actor-network theory” and “postphenomenological” accounts. The idea is that only a combined account can confront both the nuances of human experiential relationships with technology on which postphenomenology specializes, and also the chains of interactions between numerous technologies and humans that actor-network theory can address. To perform this amalgamation, however, several technical adjustments to these theories are required. The central change I develop here is to the postphenomenological notion of “multistability,” i.e., the claim that a technology can be used for multiple purposes through different contexts. I expand the postphenomenological framework through the development of a method called “variational cross-examination,” which involves critically contrasting the various stabilities of a multistable technology for the purpose of exploring how a particular stability has come to dominate. As a guiding example, I explore the case of the everyday public bench. The agency of this “mundane artifact,” as actor-network theorist Bruno Latour would call it, cannot be accounted for by either postphenomenology or actor-network theory alone.

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Notes

  1. For example, a foundational disagreement between the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) perspective and actor-network theory (ANT) is over whether technologies should be considered “actors” at all (e.g., the “chicken debate” between Bruno Latour, Harry Collins, Steven Yearley, and others in Pickering 1994). Harry M. Collins’ 1994 review of Bruno Latour’s (1994). We Have Never Been Modern is emblematic of accounts which dismiss a conception of actors that includes anything more than humans. Collins writes (1994: 674), “The battle is between society and the individual, not humans and things. To invite inanimate objects into the debate adds nothing but confusion because inanimate objects cannot be social except when the term is used in such a recondite way as to avoid the crucial issues”. A sampling of works across the spectrum that wrestle with the issues of technological agency include (Akrich 1992; Latour 1992; Callon and Law 1995; Pickering 1995; Haraway 1997; Verbeek and Kockelkoren 1998; Latour 1999; Oudshoorn and Pinch 2003; Barad 2003; Verbeek 2005; Ihde 2009; Pinch 2010).

  2. For more on the physical changes that technologies can undergo as they are enrolled into networks, see Madeleine Akrich’s (1992) notion of “inscription” specifically, and her script theory account of technology more generally.

  3. See also the 2008, 31(1) issue of Human Studies; the 2011, 16(2–3) issue of Foundations of Science; and the book series “Postphenomenology and the Philosophy of Technology” with Rowman Littlefield Press/Lexington Books.

  4. According to Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1962: 130), our previous experiences leave within us, “a ‘world of thoughts,’ or a sediment left by our mental processes, which enables us to rely on our concepts and acquired judgments as we might on the things there in front of us, presented globally, without there being any need for us to resynthesize them”. Elsewhere I have used the notions of transparency and sedimentation to describe user relationships with cellular phones, and to explore the ways phone usage causes driver distraction (e.g., Rosenberger 2012).

  5. Ihde’s conception of embodiment relations is deeply indebted to Martin Heidegger’s (1927/1953) account of tool use in his work Being and Time. Ihde’s account of multistability in some ways builds from, and in some ways is a critique of, Heidegger’s account of the breakdown of tools. And Ihde’s example of the hammer is an ironic play on Heidegger’s iconic descriptions of the use of a hammer as it breaks. The reason that I do not rely on Heidegger centrally in this paper is that I do not wish my account to become implicated in the larger ontological framework that he develops.

  6. Despite sharing the same meaning, these two terms—stability and variation—each appear to more strongly rhetorically emphasize one of the two ideas which the notion of multistaiblity simultaneously emphasizes. The term “variation” more strongly calls to attention the idea that a variety of relations are always possible between a user and a technology. In contrast, the term “stability” more strongly calls to attention the idea that only some relations between a human and a technology will be stable. That is, it calls attention to the fact that a technology cannot be used to do simply anything.

  7. It is important to note that, though it is sometimes claimed that the postphenomenological notion of “multistability” is equivalent to the social construction of technology (SCOT) notion of “interpretive flexability,” the two are quite distinct concepts. Verbeek has implied this equivalency, for example, in the following quote, “the existence of multistability—a product’s ‘interpretative flexibility’ as Bijker (1995: 20) calls it—need not hamper designers in explicitly trying to anticipate the mediating role of products in their use context” (2005: 217).

    But the two terms point to different things. Where multistability refers to the way that a current technology can be interpreted in multiple ways, the notion of interpretative flexibility instead refers to the state of a community’s relationship to a technology in an early stage of the history of its social acceptance. Trevor Pinch and Wiebe Bijker write, “By this [interpretative flexibility] we mean, not only that there is flexibility in how people think of, or interpret, artefacts, but also that there is flexibility in how artefacts are designed” (1984: 421). That is, the notion of interpretative flexibility points to the early stage of the social acceptance of a technology in which the conception of the device remains general enough to be subject to multiple designs. This highlights an important difference in emphasis between SCOT and postphenomenology (one that parallels a difference that can also be seen between SCOT and ANT): where SCOT focuses on the history of the social conflict leading to the establishment of a technological design, postphenomenology instead focuses on the continuing potential for any technology to be fit into multiple contexts.

  8. Interestingly, despite Latour’s consistent use of Heidegger’s later work as a key example of exactly what he is arguing against, a literature is developing which analyzes the similarities between the ideas of these two thinkers (Khong 2003; Riis 2008; Harman 2009; Kochan 2010; Paddock 2010).

    Ihde too is a consistent critic of Heidegger’s later work (see, especially, 2010). For counterarguments against the criticism of Ihde and others against Heidegger, see Scharff (2010).

  9. Verbeek (2005: 164f.) puts it this way, “Actor-network theory is primarily interested in unraveling the networks of relations by virtue of which entities emerge into presence, while a postphenomenological approach, by contrast, seeks to understand the relations that humans have with those entities”.

    It should be noted that Latour has a history of making dismissive comments about phenomenology which I do not refute here (e.g., Latour 1993: 58; Latour 1999: 9). See Smith (2003) and Verbeek (2005) for counterarguments.

  10. See the debates cited in footnote 1. Trevor Pinch (2010) raises these issues in critique of Latour and Verbeek’s use of the notion of delegation. Pinch claims that the idea that nonhumans influence human action, exemplified by the speed bump’s influence on drivers, is trivial; nonhumans are constantly influencing humans everywhere. He writes, “Latour and Verbeek, and others who advocate an ontological turn, need a means of sifting through all the myriad non-humans and their countless interactions with humans so that we can see the significant choices made by humans” (2010: 87). According to Pinch, the contemporary influence of particular technologies can only be understood by returning to the history of political disagreements between people (not people plus technologies), a history, in his view, made visible better by the tools of SCOT than by ANT or postphenomenology.

    I disagree. While Pinch is certainly correct that understanding the history of human disagreements over a technology is crucial to understanding that technology’s contemporary influence on humans, such a history alone is not always enough. The agential role of technology itself—that difficult ontological topic of philosophy—is also relevant, since the effects of that technology on humans may not reduce to the intentions of any of the human participants in the historical disagreement.

  11. As Lee and Brown (1994: 782) summarize this conception, “The scorched-earth policy that Callon, Law, and Latour adopt, the leveling of the taken-for-granted natural, social, and technological worlds into a heterogeneous field of force, is a calculated risk taken to subvert the established world picture of nested systems”.

  12. I claim that my modified conception of symmetry offered here is ultimately consistent with the provocative set of reflections on the nature of technological agency put forward by the actor-network theorists Callon and Law (1995). They argue persuasively against a traditional conception of agency that would limit its application to only actors capable of possessing intentions, i.e., humans. Postphenomenologists agree with this extension of agency across human-technology relations, and themselves also struggle to determine how best to conceive of technological agency (see especially Verbeek 2005). My contention is that Callon and Law’s arguments in favor of extending agency to nonhumans, and against a conception that limits its application to only intention-possessing humans, do not require that the roles played by humans and nonhumans within their overall networked agency be identical. Nor do they require that all properties of humans and nonhumans reduce to those which happen to be interchangeable. Indeed, by recognizing that humans have a special intention-possessing ability (in their argument that intention possession is not required for agency), Law and Callon remain open the possibility of taking up the modified kind of symmetry I propose.

  13. A distinction can be made between my own adjustment to Latour’s conception of symmetry here, and Ihde’s criticism of Latour. For Ihde, full blown symmetry like the kind Latour defends (and I affirm here) is too strong a position to hold, and thus an asymmetry is preferable. He writes, “I would find it hard to say—at least without claiming a highly metaphorical attribution—that the speed bump (sleeping policeman) is filled with designers, administrators, and policemen! I can’t quite bring myself to the level of ‘socializing’ artifacts. They may be interactants, but they are not quite actants” (2003: 139). In contrast, I am willing to grant full symmetry to the analysis of the agency of humans and nonhumans, so long as, contra Latour, humans and nonhumans are able retain certain distinctive attributes that render them, at least at times, non-interchangeable.

  14. I take the methodology developed in this paper to be in tune with the spirit of Latour’s series of papers lamenting the current trend of “critique” in academic discourse. In Latour’s view, contemporary critique tends only to tear down, rather than build constructively upon, previous work (see esp. Latour 2004).

  15. A distinction can be made between Edmund Husserl’s method of eidetic reduction and the method of variational cross-examination that I outline here. For Husserl, it is possible to reach the “essence” of a target of investigation by considering it from various perspectives. By taking up those various perspectives it becomes clear which aspects of one’s observations are accidental to a particular perspective, and which instead are the essential features of that object (Husserl 1950). In contrast, in variational cross-examination the target of investigation is the stabilities themselves. Nothing is revealed about the target’s essence independent of perspective, independent of the context of the examination. This difference between the essence-targeted method of eidetic reduction, and the relations-targeted method of variational cross-examination, is an example of the non-foundational, anti-essentializing, pragmatic commitments of postphenomenology.

  16. I first developed the notion of “relational strategies”—the specific understanding and bodily approach one brings to a technology to relate to it in terms of a particular stability—through the example of desktop computing. There I contrasted different ways to approach computing in the event that one’s internet connection suddenly and unexpectedly slows (Rosenberger 2009, 2013b). This notion has also proven useful in a recent debate over the ethical and pedagogical implications of computer-simulated frog dissection in the classroom (Friesen 2011; Rosenberger 2011b).

    The notion of relational strategies is also related to the notion of “hermeneutic strategies,” which refers to the interpretive approach that one brings to the perception of a multistable readable technology, such as a laboratory image (e.g., Rosenberger, 2011a, 2013a).

  17. From here, a fruitful direction to develop these ideas further would be to integrate ANT notions of the strength and density of the nodes and connections that make up a network (e.g., Latour 1999). With these metaphors, ANT practitioners attempt to articulate just how powerfully an actor is fixed within a network. This is another aspect of stabilities subject to critical contrast through variational cross-examination.

  18. It is on this point where philosopher of technology Andrew Feenberg picks up. He articulates the importance of understanding the larger political/economic systems within which programs of actions fit (e.g., Feenberg 1999).

  19. Of course the notion of concrete tailoring has much overlap with the script analysis notion of “inscription” (Akrich 1992). However, I want to establish a distinct concept so that the kind of material manipulation of concern here does not get swallowed up by the linguistic and social connotations carried by the script terminology. For a critique of script theory in tune with my reservations, see Verbeek and Kockelkoren (1998).

  20. This introduces epistemological questions into postphenomenological thought—a step forward, I think, for this account. How to productively combine and cross-analyze situated perspectives to draw out biases in the analysis of multistable technology is a question that I cannot address here. But it is clear upon whose work such a project should be built (e.g., Code 1991; Star 1991; Haraway 1991; Harding 1991; Alcoff 1997; Hartsock 1998). It seems possible to utilize the insights of feminist standpoint epistemology and feminist phenomenology to develop ways to “operationalize” this kind of analysis, as Harding would put it, for considering the situated biases of various actors.

    For a thoughtful analysis of the notion of multistability that also approaches the sorts of methodological concerns raised in this section of the paper, see Whyte (forthcoming).

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Rosenberger, R. Multistability and the Agency of Mundane Artifacts: from Speed Bumps to Subway Benches. Hum Stud 37, 369–392 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10746-014-9317-1

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Keywords

  • Postphenomenology
  • Actor-network theory
  • Multistability
  • Technological agency
  • Technological mediation