Monday, 31 December 2012

Evolving Objects: Artefacts as Embodied Knowledge.

- i don't the internal demon of the apparatus operates. what rules it obeys. this secret with no mystery frequently marks our dependence in relation to many instruments of modern technology - jacques derrida -

The last three months have probably been the busiest of my life, spending around 15 hours a week in the classroom or lecture hall alongside various other academic duties (including starting a new module in Digital and Cyberculture Studies which I'll post about soon). As such I haven't had the chance to post new research, though it has been going on, if a little slower than I'd like.

Late last term the Exeter philosophy society very kindly invited me to talk to them about some aspect of my work and I took the opportunity to speak on some issues which readers of this blog will know I've been interested in for a long time, but also on some of the newer concerns which have been guiding my current work. I'm increasingly fascinated by objects, object oriented ontology, phenomenology, and how these things might be brought together to better understand the ways in which we interact with our world. I'd like to thank the philosophy society for the chance to test these ideas out, for their wonderful hospitality, and for their challenging questions afterwards. They offered generous patience in encouraging my presenting work in progress, and their suggestions and queries have shaped the direction that this research will go in.

In this talk I tried to cover a lot of ground knowing that there would be discussion afterwards. I discuss how we might think of technologies, technological artefacts, as being the products of evolution, as embodying knowledge, and why it might be useful to do so. I go on to talk about how human knowledge of objects might be a constantly changing thing, and how repeatable practice can be a measure of both knowledge and essence. If you're interested in any of the issues raised here I'd love to hear from you in the comments or by email.

Evolving Objects: Artefacts as Embodied Knowledge.

  • My work, since my MA, has been on the effects of reading on screen, what happens when we start to use iPads and Kindles to read books, and this is how I pretend that I'm still an English researcher whilst I'm increasingly interested in the philosophy and neuroscience of interacting with objects.
  • We often hear people saying that using new technologies is “unnatural,” and in discussions of e-reading this is certainly the case - the printed book is seen as somehow a “natural” way of reading, whereas an electronic e-reader is an unnatural contrivance, something which gets in the way, something which separates us from the physical experience of the world in the same way that a mechanical digger separates us from the earth and the act of digging, unlike getting in the hole and getting dirty with a spade or with our hands.
  • The word for this seperation is “visceral insulation” and it basically describes what we might refer to as culture - the increasing distancing of ourselves from the messy realities of the world.
  • I wasn't convinced that this is what technologies do, however, that they do take us away from the world rather than, instead, simply revealing different aspects of it.
  • For that matter I wasn't really sure what a technology actually was - what makes the mobile phone in your pocket, a prehistoric axe, and the large hadron collider of the same order of objects - what makes us call all of these things technological?
  • I don't want to discuss that idea today, or maybe we can discuss it later, but during my writing I've come to describe technologies as things which expand not just our capacity to do, but also our capacity to conceive of doing - that we should rightfully consider as technological those things which change our perception of what we can achieve in the world. A hammer not only allows us to drive nails it allows us to conceive of doing so without special attention paid to the issue. Technologies pick up some of our cognitive effort as well as being energy and time saving; they change us.
  • So here is where I'd like to begin today: Is there some way of describing the mechanism by which we get used to technology as it gets used to us, a mechanism which doesn't paint it as visceral insulation, as technology getting in the way of a messy reality, but instead fully embeds technology in very human processes?
  • To this end I'd like to argue that technologies evolve. I'm not saying that our artefacts could occur without our influence, quite the opposite, but I do think that it makes sense to look at their development as an evolutionary event and that it is productive to do so, opening up new areas of thought to be put to work on these objects. To examine this idea I'll detail a brief, basic, and largely canonical theory of evolution which will provide us with most of the terminology that will allow us to then use the language of evolutionary epistemology to discuss technology as “embodied knowledge.”
  • I'd also like to look at reframing a phenomenological term, eidos, in order to describe our changing experience of technology, and I hope to use it to deepen the evolutionary approach that I'll begin with.
  • Evolution, fundamentally, is the meeting of an organism and an environment in such a way that three things occur: variation, selection, and reproduction. The organism can also be called a phenotype, the particular expression of a set of genes given to it by its parents - this set of genes is called the genotype, and we can think of the sum total of all of the genotypes for a particular species as constituting a gene pool. So a gene pool is every gene available to an entire species, the genotype is all of the genes that a particular animal carries in its body, and the phenotype is the expression of those genes as an individual and unique subject.
  • In evolutionary terms an animal is successful if it survives long enough to go on to reproduce, to pass on its genes by producing young after resisting the threats, and utilising the supports, of its environment. This sets the stage for the three evolutionary effects.
  • Variation comes from the passing on of genes not being perfect - sometimes a phenotype expresses genes which are outside the normal boundaries of a species.
  • This variation then joins an ongoing process of selection, the natural selection which is perhaps the most famous aspect of evolution: the environment exerts pressures on organisms, threatening their safety and ability to reproduce. If an organism with a new variation, a new genetic mutation, survives long enough to reproduce then it will pass on its new genotype to its offspring and the gene pool is changed, the species starts to shift.
  • So how might this be applicable to technology, and to human-made artefacts more generally?
  • Firstly we need to define the individual (for the sake of clarity I'll abandon the term organism), and let's choose a machete.
  • The modern machete is a ubiquitous tool in many tropical countries where it's used to cut away vegetation when travelling through dense jungle and to harvest tough crops such as sugar cane. It's essentially a long knife, around a third to half a metre long, often with a slightly curved blade that's typically set into a wooden or plastic two part haft bolted together through a full tang. The machete, for our discussion, is the individual, the non-biological corollary to an organism.
  • I've chosen the machete as its most obvious feature is its long blade, and in fact I want to reduce the machete to this one thing, a knife with a new mutation of an extended blade. We can think of it similarly to a hummingbird being reduced to its capacity for static flight, or, to use an example that I'll want to return to, a stick insect looking more or less like a stick.
  • With our individual defined we now need to consider its environment.
  • With non-artefact entities the environment is easily defined: everything in the milieu in which it exists which can directly or indirectly impact upon its development or its surviving long enough to reproduce. But for artefacts, and for machetes specifically, that milieu is more specifically defined, though the same principles apply: we are the defining selective forces for our artefacts; human users are the environment for our material equipment.
  • Just as an ice age “chooses” whether a dinosaur gets to reproduce, so we choose the fittest forms of artefacts to be repeated, the one's that fit their environment, the ones that fit to us. That we can make this as a conscious decision rather than dispassionately enacting selective forces is irrelevant; the end result is that the environment does or does not allow a new generation to emerge based on what has come before.
  • So if the individual is a machete, and we are the environment, then we have at least the arena for evolution to occur. Next the three phases of the evolutionary process need to be established:
  • Variation in knife manufacture and design is clear: from the first stone blades used by early hominids through to multi-component contemporary cutting tools, the sheer variety of blade lengths and shapes, handle styles, materials, components, etc. is staggering. Each new development comes from a mutation derived from environmental effects which alters the range of a feature to be expressed, i.e. humans continually try new things. In a culture where knife blades are typically between two and five inches, a 15 inch blade is a mutation which, if used successfully, permanently alters the potential set of blade lengths for future generations of knives.
  • This is down to selection - For evolution to occur, pressures from the environment must cause a match or mismatch of fit for the individual. The contemporary, relatively standardised machete comes from a process of environmental selection - we choose whether a machete, or any other knife, is successful enough to be recreated.
  • When it comes to reproduction, the machete doesn't have genes, and it can't facilitate the creation of the next generation of long bladed knives, but I think that the third evolutionary criteria still stands. A machete's traits get reproduced when an aspect of the environment causes them to be, i.e. when a long bladed knife is used successfully an individual user is more likely to recommend it to other potential users, and to produce or request this trait themselves when they next need a tool.
  • Is there a relationship between “parent” and “offspring” here? This would require us to think of the knives which follow those currently produced as being their offspring which doesn't seem quite right. Or perhaps not.
  • If we think of the collected group of all machetes as a gene-pool, then it doesn't seem too problematic to see any individual machete as the phenotypic expression of a set of traits that comes directly out of that pool, and the continuing success of that expression contributes to maintaining the overall pool of possibilities as it is. The more we want to use a particular thing the more those sorts of things will stay the same.
  • The significant difference here between an organism and a machete seems to be one of agency: the organism struggles against the environment and tries to reproduce, whereas the machete is innately passive. But what causes variation, selection, and reproduction is not the measure of whether a process is evolutionary.
  • In the 60s Marshall McLuhan pre-empted this idea: he argued that we are “the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms” (Understanding Media 56). Blade length, we can argue, is a heritable trait in knives.
  • This, I hope, explains my initial interest in seeing artefacts as evolved - there's a certain neatness which is appealing.
  • But an evolutionary model for artefacts also opens up a branch of philosophy which might help us in our wider discussion of technology: If artefacts abide by the basic structures of an evolutionary process then we may be able to consider them in terms of evolutionary epistemology.
  • Epistemology - the study of knowledge, acquiring knowledge, and knowing - is blended in evolutionary epistemology with evolutionary theory to describe two increasingly distinct fields: firstly, evolutionary principles applied to the progression of knowledge, particularly in the sciences and, secondly, the study of knowledge acquisition in living beings, where cognition and knowing are seen as evolutionary adaptations.
  • I won't discuss the first branch of evolving ideas, because I want to focus on the physical, and the second branch of evolutionary epistemology, where knowledge is seen as an adaptation, allows us to consider knowledge as a physical thing.
  • I'd like to adopt the vision of evolutionary epistemology that Henry Plotkin outlines in Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge, as the elegance of his theory pairs well with the bare-bones mechanism of evolution that we've encountered. I would like to argue that Plotkin's approach allows us to talk about evolutionary epistemology as it might apply to artefacts in their alternative environment of human use.
  • Plotkin's central idea is that as organisms adapt to their environments via evolutionary selective pressures; what successful individuals pass on to their offspring in each generation is not just genetic instructions for building new bodies, but knowledge about the world that came before them.
  • His most striking example is that of the stick insect: a stick insect looks like a stick not because it tries or learns to, but because generations of stick insect ancestors survived more frequently the more that they looked like sticks and avoided becoming prey long enough to reproduce and pass on genes which stipulated increasingly stick-like bodies for the next generation. Plotkin argues that the stick insect's body has a knowledge of an aspect of the world far greater than its own mind is capable of.
  • This immediately raises the question “why use the word 'knowledge' to describe an adaptation?”, and Plotkin asks the question himself: “why take the further step of equating adaptations with knowledge?...How can the wing markings of a moth[, for instance,] be knowledge?” (Darwin Machines 117).
  • Plotkin defends the word choice on the grounds of looking at what knowledge means in “everyday life,” saying that “knowledge, in its most common meaning, denotes a mental state that bears a specific relationship to some features of the world” (4).
  • When we say that we “know” something we're stating that there is parity between two things: “a brain state, which is a part of organismic organization, and the world itself...which is the feature of environmental order relative to which that brain state stands” (117).
  • Knowing someone's name, or where our house is, or what a machete looks like, requires that we incorporate that information into ourselves in some way; we materially modify ourselves to reflect an aspect of external reality however imperfectly. For Plotkin there must be a brain state which represents the thing in the world:
  • knowledge is always something that comes in two parts. There is the 'knower's end' of knowledge, comprising feelings, brain states and...the means of expressing the knowledge; and there is the 'world's end' of knowledge, which is that aspect of the world that is known. All knowledge is a relationship between the knower and the known” (10-11).
  • Now this is not to say that there's a miniature version of the world playing out within our brains, simply that for an act of knowing to occur there must be a state of cognition or of memory which has a physical instantiation and which maps to our experience of, recall of, or interaction with an object or state in the world, and in that sense we might be said to incorporate and represent it.
  • By envisioning knowledge in this fundamental stripped down fashion, as a manifestation in response to a thing in the world, Plotkin is able to use the word to describe adapted biological organisms' relation to their environment.
  • Evolutionary adaptations, like everyday human knowledge, always have a
relational quality. Every adaptation comprises organization of an organism relative to some feature of environmental order…The wing markings of a moth stand in relation to the nervous system of a predator, specifically the way in which that nervous system is wired such that the ‘eye’ [of the moth's markings] startles the predator and perhaps causes it to flee…All human knowledge has the same two-component relationship that adaptations have (116-117).
  • Adaptations conform the bodies of evolved organisms to the worlds that housed their lineage; a stick insect's body is the sum total of the knowledge gleaned from the environments of its ancestors. In this way stick insects incorporate an aspect of the environment into their being: simply, they are material instantiations of the knowledge that the environments which preceded them favoured insects which looked like sticks.
  • The question now becomes whether, if the development of artefacts can be seen as an evolutionary process, can the theories of this branch of evolutionary epistemology also be applied to them?
  • To my knowledge, no evolutionary theory of artefacts or technology has explicitly drawn this conclusion, but it is something that I believe Plotkin's vision of evolutionary epistemology and an artefact-compatible theory of evolution can argue.
  • Stick insects' bodies match a world state which remained relatively consistent over generations, thus their biological knowledge of that aspect of the world grew. Fitness to the environment for artefacts is the same as for organisms in as much as success depends on matching a world state in such a way that the environment doesn't obliterate the traits of a particular individual, a particular expression of the possibilities available.
  • In a tropical climate the machete shape is the best fit for its environment. This is not to say that the machete matches the jungle, or incorporates an aspect of the jungle, like the stick insect and the branches where it lives, it doesn't; the machete has no evolved knowledge of the jungle as the jungle isn't its environment. But the machete does have a knowledge of how part of its own environment intersects with the jungle, how human users experience that terrain.
  • A short stone knife is no use for swiftly clearing plant life, so when metal came along which allowed for thin, strong blades which could be carried easily it was adopted for that task. Metal also introduced the possibility for a new variable of blade length. A longer blade allowed for large slashing motions to be made - inefficient for precision work, but perfectly suited to human passage through tropical vegetation.
  • This is what the machete matches: the repeated moments where knife users met the jungle.
  • Stick insects, similarly, don't really know anything about sticks, they actually know about predators eyes in much the same way as machetes know about human hands' strengths and weaknesses in relation to jungle creepers.
  • Blades became longer and longer as users discarded shorter blades and created, or requested the creation of increasingly machete-like knives; similarly, blades that were too long or unwieldy quickly disappeared as failed experiments, as failed mutations, as a lack of knowledge.
  • In his discussion of evolutionary epistemology, Tommi Vehkavaara argues that
The ability to act successfully presupposes the knowledge how to act successfully. Discursive linguistically expressed justification is not always necessary - if the ability to act is (successfully) demonstrated, no argument can overcome this ultimate proof of knowledge. This kind of demonstrable knowledge connects us to other forms of life - every living creature needs at least some knowledge how to act successfully (in its environment). Of course, knowledge does not determine the action it enables, it is just the precondition for the action. Although an action can be seen as a presentation of knowledge, the actual action is not necessary for the existence of knowledge - knowledge is potential action, the power to do (paper HERE, emphasis in original).
  • A stick insect is put into action in the act of being a stick insect; a genotype is knowledge in potential, a living phenotype is knowledge in action. Every second that the stick insect is alive it demonstrates that it has a knowledge of the consistent aspects of the environments which led to its being: that there will likely be oxygen to breathe, food to eat, sticks to look like, light to see by, predators to evade, and other insects to mate with. The machete differs in that it doesn't act second by second, it only acts during use; but really the stick insect also only ever puts its biological knowledge into action when it is in concert with its environment, it just happens to never be outside of that environment. A stick insect born into a vacuum doesn't act, it has nothing to know and simply ceases.
  • A machete outside of use also doesn't act, it cannot demonstrate and therefore cannot prove its knowledge until that concert with its environment begins. But the moment that it is picked up it comes into action, and the ensuing success of its use is a measure of the accuracy of its knowledge.
  • As David Rothenberg notes “[n]o machine stands apart from its creator, no tool makes sense outside of its use” (xv). This fact allows us to use the notion of an evolutionary epistemology of artefacts to better define the term artefact: anything that potentially manifests a fit with an environment, but that cannot perform the extent of its evolved knowledge without the impetus of another agent. Artefacts exist as potential knowledge until they are in use; they have, in Vehkavaara's terms, “the power to do.”
  • Knowledge is the term that I want to use for the total information that a thing has about the environment that it acts in.
  • We now need a term for individuals which possess information about particular objects. I propose the term “understanding” to describe this special case of knowledge; it too is an objective claim predicated on the potential for successful action. For instance, we, as individuals, have an understanding of a particular machete when we are able to interact with it successfully.
  • But this is too simple, as is the assumption of evolved knowledge during successful action in the world. When we know, or when we understand something, when we breathe because our ancestors breathed, or when we pick up a machete and use it effectively, what is it that we access? We can never know everything about our environments, but only code limited information about it in our memory or, over time, in our bodies. In the same way we can never understand everything about an individual object, we only ever have a limited access to things. This is not a simple claim.
  • When I said that the stick insect knows her environment she of course doesn't; there are always elements of even those specific things she's meant to know that escape her. Her body does not access every aspect of what it means to look like a stick in her world, in fact it only relates to a tiny facet of the environment whilst the rest recedes from that knowledge; even her bodily knowledge of sticks and predators is vanishingly discrete.
  • It's maybe clearer to look at this idea in terms of understanding: When I interact with a machete as an object in my environment I feel that I can start to have an understanding of it, of what makes it what it is, but is this the case? For Kant I cannot ever know the thing itself, or rather cannot know if I know, cannot know if my representation matches the reality, but for Edmund Husserl, the father of modern phenomenology, I can start to move toward the thing, if only via accessing its representations; for Husserl I can access what the thing performs in concert with my perceiving it, and this draws me closer to things themselves.
  • The idea that things might retreat away from our intentions is important to understanding how we interact with artefacts and the discussion has been revivified by the new philosophical field of Object Oriented Ontology, in particular Graham Harman's approach in arguably Object Oriented Ontology's founding work, Tool-Being.
  • The argument of Tool-Being is that no object is ever encounterable as what it is, and, against Husserl, that the phenomena we do encounter are never simply derived from things as they really are. Harman is interested in the non-relational aspects of things, the essences which recede from and precede all relations with anything in the world.
  • Harman gives the example of viewing a bridge:
If I stare at a bridge, this bridge-appearance is a parasite off of my Dasein [roughly: my being], and could hardly be less independent. If not for me, this appearance could not exist. What is truly independent of me is not the occurent bridge, but the executant bridge, the bridge that is hard at work in enacting its own reality and all that this entails (emphasis in original, 125).
  • For Harman, the occurrent bridge, the bridge as it is seen, is not born of the essential bridge alone, and therefore provides no access to it; the essential executant bridge acts independent of and inaccessible to me.
  • What Harman's notion of tool-being, of a subterranean life for all objects, fundamentally asserts is that "[w]hen I encounter an object, I reduce its being to a small set of features out of all its grand, dark abundance...[M]y encounter with the object is relational, and does not touch what is independently substantial in the things" (125-126).
  • At all times, however, we have complete access to things as they are to us, or, more correctly, as they are with us. This totality of subjective information I would like to term “eidos,” a term drawn from Husserl meaning something's essence, but a term which Harman's Object Oriented Ontology, with its abolition of discoverable essences, causes me to want to rewrite, as Husserl appropriated the term from Plato who had used it to describe the transcendental forms.
  • Husserl used eidos to describe the fewest number of aspects of something which identify it as what it is, in short, the essence of a thing. For Husserl phenomenology is an “eidetic science,” a seeking of what makes things what they are.
  • Eidos as essence is an important part of Husserl's ontology, and I don't pretend to do it justice here, merely to argue that Husserl's usage is tied to what makes a thing what it is.
  • I, instead, want to use the term eidos to describe what makes something what it is for us. I suggest the emendation as I don't share Husserl's faith in our ability to reach objects as they are.
  • From here on, when I talk about knowledge or understanding I will be referring to the partial access we have achieved to things as they are, to their essence, where something in our cognition, memory, or bodies matches something in the world, a match that is demonstrable only by the repeatable successful action described by Vehkavaara.
  • For every successful action that we perform we demonstrate that our eidos of the intended thing has come at least partially in line with some aspect of the thing's essence. I'll return to this point again.
  • So what is eidos, as I'm conceiving of it, comprised of? At its simplest it would be those aspects of an an encountered object that we would describe to someone if we were aiming to convey its nature, for instance that a glass is relatively heavy, fragile, transparent, and frequently used to hold liquids. This has appealing links back to Husserl and the eidetic reduction of an item, through the stripping out of anything that isn't essential, to its fundamental components in order to better understand it.
  • I would like eidos to refer here to any aspect of a thing which gives it a boundary in our mind, which seems to mark it out from its environment as being what it is. This would include, but isn't limited to:
  • Observations (visceral sensory experience, visual, tactile, etc.)
  • Aesthetics (how it sits, intellectually, in visible, audible, olfactory, tactile, or gustatory relation to other things)
  • Historical information (what caused it to be produced including, but not restricted to evolutionary processes)
  • Scientific understanding (knowledge of its physical reality, chemistry, biology etc.)
  • Classification (how we would describe it to others, how we would compare it to other things)
  • Collective information (information regarding the item (or how it is positioned) culturally as passed on by other individuals)
  • Action potential (what we expect to be able to achieve with, or to be denied by the thing)
  • As I've described it, eidos is not, unlike knowledge or understanding, an objective claim. When an action is repeatably successful then we know that it must be based on accurate knowledge or understanding of at least some relevant aspect of the world. But eidos is only what we feel is understood, or known, and we can thus seem to know or understand things which are false or incomplete.
  • We can talk then of a “weak” or “strong” eidos: This is not an either or, but a continuum from a first basic encounter to a complete apprehension of the thing itself, its essence.
  • The weakest eidos is to simply see an object, and maybe to contemplate it in some fashion. In many ways the idea of strengthening eidos is more intuitive then many of the issues that we've already addressed: look harder at something and you'll begin to understand it better, though this intuitiveness, at least in part, must come from the terminology temporarily matching more common use.
  • We can grow our eidos of a thing by approaching an object and beginning to fill it up, to develop a growing and changing understanding of the thing.
  • But Eidos can simply be complicated as well as strengthened. To complicate eidos is simply to expand the gestalt that makes the thing what it is to us, to include more aspects in our consideration. Scientific investigation is the ultimate complexifier, moving our perception beyond the levels at which we ordinarily operate.
  • But complexity doesn't automatically draw us closer to the things themselves. In fact we can get toward things even with relatively little complexity. How many cat owners, for instance, understand the biology of their particular pet? And yet their understanding of the creature seems so strong. This is based on the success of their interactions with them; their eidos of the cat is strong because what the cat is for them matches some aspects of what the cat is in itself, it's essence, enough to provide a successful interaction far more frequently than the animal biologist, a stranger to the particular cat, who encounters it with a complex, multi-faceted eidos already in place.
  • The owner understands the aspects of the cat that relate to their interactions with it well enough; their eidos of the cat may be stronger than that of the more complex understanding of the scientist. That cats can still surprise their owners, and frequently do (!), shows, however, that the understanding is far from complete.
  • In a BBC interview from 1962 Vladamir Nabakov spoke about apprehending objects in a way which resonates with the notion of eidos that I'm attempting to construct here:
Reality is a very subjective affair. I can only define it as a kind of gradual accumulation of information: and as specialization. If we take a lily, for instance, or any other kind of natural object, a lily is more real to a naturalist than it is to an ordinary person. But it is still more real to a botanist. And yet another stage of reality is reached with that botanist who is a specialist in lilies. You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality: but you never get near enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenachable, unattainable. You can know more and more about one thing but you can never know everything about one thing; it's hopeless. So we live surrounded by more or less ghostly objects (qtd in Tim Dee, “Nature Writing,” Archipelago 5 (2011), 27-28).
  • This accumulation of information, of specialising, is absolutely what I would like to see as the attempt to fulfil eidos, and Nabakov captures perfectly the impossibility of the task. We are left, always, with more or less empty ghosts, and as such everything that we have an understanding of, no matter how close we think that we may have gotten to it “as it is” will always have the capacity to surprise us when our actions, based on our understanding not of the thing itself, but of an eidos we have constructed, are unsuccessful due to the effects of some unperceived or incomplete aspect.
  • As such, when I say that repeatable successful action implies some access to an aspect of a thing it really is in the weakest sense possible: that the object allows this kind of interaction, and even this only holds up to the point that it doesn't and we're surprised.
  • A strong eidos, therefore, as I intend it here, is a conception where what makes something what-it-is-to-us matches, at action facilitating points, aspects of the thing intended. If something changes too quickly, or if we never act with it on multiple occasions, we can never tell whether we have accessed any aspect of the thing in itself. But success is telling.
  • How do we measure the success of action? I have suggested that successful action is repeatable action, not a particular goal achieved with a particular tool, but any activity which can be achieved over and over again with few surprises. We might not know the chemical composition of graphite and wood, might not know the geometrical angles of hexagonal cylindrical forms, might not have training in draftsmanship, i.e. our eidetic experience of a pencil might not be complex, but believing that every time we put that pencil to paper we can make marks within our skill level as artists, a reality which manifests itself far more often than it does not, shows that we have a good understanding of some aspect of the essence of a pencil, and that our eidos of the pencil, if not complex, is (relatively) strong.
  • For me, this notion of eidos goes some way to explaining why the bound book form feels more natural or more “right”: because it acts predictably in line with the majority of objects in the world, always “on,” not reliant on battery life, robust, and simple enough for nearly all users to intuit the appropriate interaction with it as an artefact to be brought to life. We might even define modern technologies as those which deny intuitive understanding of what makes them go; we are often surprised by our new tools because we don't understand why they function.
  • As Jacques Derrida notes:
With pens and typewriters, you think you know how it works, how it “responds.” Whereas with computers, even if people know how to use them up to a point, they rarely know, intuitively and without thinking - at any rate, I don't know - how the internal demon of the apparatus operates. What rules it obeys. This secret with no mystery frequently marks our dependence in relation to many instruments of modern technology (Paper Machine 23).
  • That beautiful phrase, the secret with no mystery, describes Harman's subterranean realm of tool-being, of unknowable essence, as well as it describes the aspects of a technology which are most often unavailable to us. When we consider physical books as being more “natural” it's not that they're not technological, but that their encountered equipmental reality makes an intuitive sense; the act of reading on a digital reading device, however, is built around a set of unintelligible processes: The average user will perceive the Kindle as a simple device, and their eidos of it might never need to be much more complex than that of the printed book. But the Kindle has the greater capacity to surprise the average user: we have no default, or drive, to know what makes it tick.
  • “Reading on screen doesn't feel right” a reluctant reader says. “That doesn't matter,” a happy screen reader replies, “you'll get used to it.” What does this mean, to get used to something which started off feeling wrong?
  • As more aspects appear to the reader, as eidos is deepened, then this is an increase in a special kind of knowledge: the reader better understands the equipment. Greater understanding, as with all knowledge, increases the potential for successful action, in this case reading will cease to “not feel right” and instead will stop feeling like anything at all. Readers, even bibliophiles, rarely get interrupted in the activity of reading by just how right it feels; interruption is the preserve of malfunctioning, of surprise.
  • But it is also not enough to simply say that the reader will get used to an artefact as they reveal it further, because reading is a meeting of two evolved bodies, the reader and the equipment. Whilst the reader might increase their understanding, this means nothing if the equipment has no understanding of them. Each reader is part of the environment in which each item of reading equipment sits, they are an aspect of the environment to be known, a little bit of selective pressure on the gene pool, like a successful predator being a part of the environment that affects all stick insects, but also, in that moment, a specific individual.
  • And, just as with the individual stick insect meeting the individual predator, any individual (such as an e-reader) meeting an aspect of its environment (such as a resistant reader) can pass on the information it gains from that meeting to the next generation of its species.
  • For every successful event, that stick insect knows it lives in a world where it's particular bodily knowledge allows it to succeed, its continued successful action demonstrates this knowledge. In the same way, every time a resistant reader puts down a Kindle and says “no, this just isn't for me,” and never buys one, and never recommends one, and maybe even actively tries to discourage other potential readers from getting one, a similar knowledge gain occurs: that Kindle didn't exist in a world where it could act successfully with that reader, with that aspect of its environment.
  • This affects its whole species, even if in a minute way, and minute effects played out over and over again is what evolution rests upon. Thanks to the peculiarities of their environment, artefacts tend to experience a much more focussed set of selective pressures on each generation. Artefact evolution can therefore be swift, at least until its knowledge of the environment is such that most of its encounters are successful; the printed book, for instance, has reached a relative equilibrium, but the artefacts of electronic reading are under pressure and fluctuate.
  • Some people don't like the feel of reading books on portable screens.
  • I hope that I have shown that when artefacts gain a knowledge of us, and we gain an understanding of them - fleshing out an eidos - then we affect one another. The environment which must be known alters itself, the individual which must know is changed, and the adoption of equipment must represent, in some ways, a conforming to one another.
  • The exact nature of every conformation is impossible to comprehend, each is tied to the vastness of environmental influences and to the millions of individual users meeting millions of individual artefacts and reporting back, in various ways, to the pool which results in the next generation. But that such gains occur is written in the body of every object and in the mind of every user; in every repetition of a successful interaction there is the demonstration that knowledge of one kind or another has been gained.
  • Physical books allow us to play with paper and bring it to life, half turning pages so that they pass by quicker, drumming fingers, running a nail under an important line, dog-earing corners, doodling and note-taking, mourning and then relishing the bangs and bumps and creases as they accumulate; users will always develop their own routines of interaction.
  • I think that some resistant readers doubt that people will find a way to place importance onto their digital things in the same way that they have with print, but that's what being human is all about, making things not just things is what we do. Every stickered laptop, every passed-on memory stick, every annotated electronic text, every emoticon-ed instant message, every abbreviated SMS, every nail-varnished mobile, every cheap home movie, every bedroom recording, every tagged photo, every lovingly tended Myspace, Deviant Art, and Live Journal profile is testament to the fact that we spend our days making things our's, as in mine, and ours', as in for all of us.
  • These are gains of understanding, of moving away from just a method for getting something done to being changed by things. How long could it be until e-books are regularly more than words on a bundle of screens? How long can it be until people, once again, use these things until they are beautiful?
  • We are slowly building the history for digital reading that on a long enough timescale will imbue screens with the same richness as paper pages. They traverse the same path as the machete: we find or make the objects, or cause them to be made; we use them; we select what makes them work, or what does not; and they get made again and again; and we make them sing.
  • It is unsurprising that the printed book which has evolved over hundreds of years should have naturally worked its way toward fitting our bodies exactly; the book has been tailored, adapted by the repeated use of generations. And the haptics of the printed form do make sense: it fits the hand; the pages are thin for the most amount of storage in a compact and cheap space; it is more portable than a carving, and more adaptable than a scroll; less complicated than an iPad; less fragile than a Kindle.
  • E-readers possess a different, and currently lesser evolved understanding of their users than a printed book does. But no environment for knowledge is static, evolution always occurs, and when it comes to our artefacts we would do best not to attempt to halt, but instead to guide it. E-readers, or something like them, can become mundane before becoming essential, and this is the path that every artefact we value or even love has gone through.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Where to Now?

- an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, ipods and minds like empty rooms, i still plod along with books - harper lee - letter to oprah winfrey -

With websites putting server drones in the sky, computers poised to be in everything, Netflix and Spotify and Tumblr, mobile computing, and the internet being what it is, the future seems, in some small ways, to be here. No flying cars or world peace, and Mars seems further away than ever, but we're starting to get this whole distributing media thing sorted. Kinda.

Living through dramatic changes is disorienting; times of extreme flux throw up a diversity of paths and no one knows what will stick. During a revolution you can bet it doesn't seem as cleanly teleological as a history book account, you can bet start and end dates and turning points are rarely clear. Technology and media often work in a similar enough fashion to act as a corollary, as a microcosm of more sweeping social upheaval - we can see how excitement and banality get mixed up and crossover and are unevenly distributed and realise how much more this must be true when you want to kill the king, reclaim a voice, or break up a country.

A banal example: An old friend, chatting about what I've been researching, asked "so what's next for e-reading?" I haven't really thought about it, I said, e-reading's just kind of here. After nearly two decades of media fervour, support and vehement detraction, it suddenly feels like all the promises are on the table: the e-ink Kindles might get a little better, but their screens are the standard when it comes to comparisons with the printed page; the iPad might get a little sharper, or change size, but its forms so far have told us what a tablet can be and what minimum it has to do in terms of touch-response and UI; we're seeing the beginnings of social reading and multimedia books and they're pretty much what we thought they'd be - no one knows if they'll find a mass audience. So what's next for portable digital reading? Perhaps it's just subtle refinement and bedding into the medial landscape, and that may be its most significant sign of strength: e-reading is here, this is what it is, it works, how can we tweak it to be its best? (This is largely how the story of print is told: Gutenberg -> tweaking -> 600 years of history. After the first few generations, how often did people say "so what's next for books?"). Depending on the technology, some books will probably start to have more pictures, video, and audio, but how many and how much? Enough to notice the world has changed again?

The hardware is going to iterate fairly blandly from now too, I think, until current desktop speeds (and beyond) can be achieved on tablets which are able to switch between low consumption e-ink (or similar) and retina-level displays. At that stage, when it comes to reproducing hypertextual, searchable, and internet-linked text, image, video, and audio, what more do we need? The computer in your pocket or backpack can just get faster and thinner (or pass some rubicon into a wearable/foldable/implantable form that's as different to the book as cinema is to painting; at it's most exciting the Google Glass project feels like this), and with the devices set for a few more generations the written word seems in no danger of going anywhere (that fear actually seems pretty quaint by now). But no doubt the publishing industry is changing; the democratisation of content creation, distribution, and price-setting certainly hasn't played out fully, and
 I wouldn't be too surprised by a Netflix/Netflixes-of-everything setup in around 20 years (with boutique offline distribution still going strong in certain print and music circles). For most people's user experience this apparently dramatic change to the ecosystem wouldn't even make much difference, just a twist of process here or there, a wider access, a better thing, but still a very familiar thing.

Am I sad that the big changes in an arena I've cared about seem done? Should I be?

I wrote this post on my mobile phone, and that seemed another little memento mori: I feel like I'm living in one future and waiting for another to be invented, or at least made possible or desirable - my everyday technology is the death of all the unpredictable paths that might have been; the nice clean dates are starting to be written down.

Some things, however, gain in strength in direct proportion to their mundanity. Perhaps what's next for e-reading is its just becoming plain old reading, and that's important too, in fact that's the only place where it does whatever it will do; books, mobile phones, and internet access all changed the world in their ways when their forms became boring. Now reading's next again.

--- UPDATE ---
This post has been reposted at Teleread (many thanks to Dan the new editor). A commenter there (fairly) has issues with the thesis above:

Howard says:
I never cease to me amazed at people who repeatedly over time, think that it’s all been done now. We’ve seen it all. It’s all about design and refinement now …. One wonders at the limitations of their minds.
I can so easily imagine these same people 6 months before the arrival of the iPhone, the iPad, the cell phone ! and of course the internet.

For the sake of completeness here's my response which clarifies my position a little further:

@Howard – I can certainly respect the opinion that something I can’t predict will emerge, I hope it does (always exciting for anyone that enjoys new tech to be completely blown away). But it still feels to me like something’s changed recently. When the iPhone came out at a price point that a large number of people could afford then that seemed ground-breaking (ditto cheap small mobile phones in the 90s). But the Kindle and the iPad everyone could see coming (though maybe not the companies who’d lead these sorts of devices), it was just a matter of time (blogs such as Teleread, for instance, had been speculating for ages. During my MA I cited their rumours of “a future Apple slate device” and had a crack of my own at predicting what such a device might look like/do). They’ve been around a number of years now with little change, and what’s stranger is that no-one's rumour-milling about anything significantly new in the field anymore (strange only in the context of the last few years where e-reading has been really hot on tech blogs).
It’s a similar situation, to my mind, to videogame consoles. The Wii did so well because it seemed like something new in what has, for a long time, been an arms race of graphics, speed, memory, and (recently) multimedia application. Consoles are another great example of something becoming powerful BECAUSE it’s boring, because there’s little more that is truly new that can be brought to the field without its changing entirely (e.g. Virtual Reality). Again, just my $0.02, but as I say in the post, I think it’s a positive for e-reading that maybe it has settled into being what it is.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Writing Technologies

I've been away from blogger for a little while over Summer, mostly working on new modules for next year, writing a book proposal, and generally catching my breath after my first year of full time teaching.

As the book comes together I'll be posting here more frequently, but I'm pleased to say that a new issue of Writing Technologies is up at the open access journal website (, and there's a piece I wrote in there which expands on a section of chapter three of my thesis (

The journal has taken a little while to come out, as journals do, and so there's some details I'd maybe change now, but the central question still really interests me: "where do we draw the boundary lines of what is or isn't the 'text?'" Moreover, "does technology change those boundaries, and if so how, by how much, and does it do it in any predictable way?"

I'll post the introduction below, I hope it might interest you enough to check out the full article, and as ever the journal itself has a number of great essays in the issue.

"In this essay I would like to offer a new term for Media-Specific textual studies to consider: kinaesthetic extension.’ I will outline the term’s function (to describe a text's novel site/s for meaning making) and the reasoning behind its name (its parts appropriated from Cognitive Science) before demonstrating already existing examples in the work of E.E. Cummings, Jonathan Safran Foer, and various critics and theorists, in particular Roland Barthes, Katherine Hayles, and Jerome McGann. My aim in drawing a term out of the discourse of Cognitive Science is to try to contribute to the emergence of the ‘Cognitive Humanities,’ showing how methods and models from one field can be usefully applied as ‘objects-to-think-with’ in another. As an interdisciplinary subject, Cognitive Science is already open to work from numerous fields, yet the vital input of voices from the Humanities, with their unique interpretive skills and knowledge of the history of ideas, will  only come through continued exposure to scientific hypotheses and their application. In this instance I hope that such exposure also functions as a provocation toward greater attention to the shifting boundaries of the meaning making text, an increasingly important question as  the substrate and means of production of contemporary written work move from the specificities of printed-upon paper to those of the plastic (in both senses) screen."

Tuesday, 12 June 2012


- we construct our technologies, and our technologies construct us and our times. our times make us, we make our machines, our machines make our times. we become the objects we look upon but they become what we make of them - sherry turkle - life on the screen

Tactus Technology have announced a new touchscreen design: a smooth touchscreen (like the iPhone) which can rapidly switch to a raised-buttoned interface for those moments where haptic feedback might be of use (like texting or writing an email). Here's the demo video:


As someone who wields a Blackberry for the deluge of work email (and often texts and emails by touch while walking around campus), but covets the large screen of the iPhone for web surfing, this seems like a huge step forward (and it should be in devices by the second half of 2013 - there's a nice write up over at The Digital Reader). And it might have some important advantages.

On the bus into town yesterday two young children (under 12) were playing with their phones. One had a basic Nokia, the other had an iPhone, and they ended up taking it in turns to play a racing game on that device. They were meeting someone at the other end of their journey, and the mother of the boy with the iPhone asked him to text to say that they were nearly there. He shut his game down with a press of the "home" button (the only physical button the iPhone has on its face) and then tried to send his text. And he really struggled; the dexterity required to tap out a message on the flat screen really wasn't there. His friend ended up sending the text on his Nokia after the boy had made a final significant error (I think he'd accidentally inserted a long auto-correct word and then spotted a few other mistakes in a very short message). The poor guy was really frustrated, and maybe I'm finally getting old, but I did start to wonder what the effects on fine motor control might be if children grow up with their main sources of entertainment and distance communication being various flat, super-smooth pieces of glass.

I think I'm naturally pretty clumsy, 6' 3" and not very aware of how much space I take up, but skateboarding, playing guitar, working out, playing too much Xbox, and building things (miniatures, garden landscaping, DIY) has given me a better sense of my body schema, from fingertip lightness, to reach, strength, and flexibility, to body balance - I've trained myself to be a bit less of a klutz (an interesting word in the context, linked to clot/clod via a German root (as well as the Yiddish klots), being stuck together, lumped, a lump, rather than something free and flexibly linked). Not everyone plays an instrument or builds things for pleasure, but I'd guess most children, at least those in post-industrial economies or otherwise affluent families, play some kind of videogame or use a computer on a fairly regular basis; this means that there's at least some tactile interface during play over increasingly less active formative years. So it got kind of worrying when even those guarantors of dexterous development suddenly became non-existent (in the case of the Wii, the Xbox Kinect, and Playstation Move) or smoothed over, tiny points of meaning on a flat plane easily missed or occluded by an uncertain hand or finger unable even to rely on the hunt-and-peck responsiveness of a QWERTY keyboard. 

So I'd love to see at least some variation of Tactus Technology's design in digital devices aimed at children, including e-readers (which have also begun to shed their buttons with the Nook and the Kindles Fire and Touch), and I know that if the iPhone 6 had something like this built-in then I couldn't resist it for tapping out an email on the move after browsing on a decent flat screen.

And there are probably a lot more possibilities for this technology in the kinds of interface it opens, and reopens to users. I imagine playing games with a hybrid of buttons and touch could be fun, and if the granularity of the technology improves then who knows what kind of surfaces it might be able to imitate? An iPad game for young children where you could feel the scales of the dinosaur, the frog's squidgy eyes, the octopus' tentacle sucker-cups, the keyhole to unlock the treasure, would be pretty cool. And interfaces for the visually impaired (indicator buttons rising and falling as the device's GPRS senses which way you're facing for instance) might offer new ways-in for users currently denied even basic access to smartphones and tablets.

To my mind, technology which remembers we have bodies, and that we learn and have learnt with our bodies over time, they're the ones that are built to last.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Building STEAM

- borders distinguish inside from outside. if they are simple, they make it clear where we are; if they are complex, encompassing distinct pockets of space, they afford choices or the chance to change. since the ancient egyptians built their temples, one of humankind's most potent devices for achieving mystery, distance, and the setting apart of a special place has been to build layers of walls - buildings within buildings, wall around wall like the successive skins of an onion. in architecture, as in thought, simple tight boundaries are most often too confining - donlyn lyndon & charles w. moore - from chambers for a memory palace -

Adam Savage, one of the presenters of Mythbusters gave a nice talk at this year's Maker Faire about the importance of making. The vital thing, he said, was making what you had to, not what you thought you ought to, especially not what you were told to (the wider argument was intended to validate peoples' building of pop-culture artefacts, particularly movie replicas, including his building of two sets of Iron Man armour. Savage is a movie props geek, an avid and expert one, and his talk on building a perfect replica Maltese Falcon is a surprisingly canny and modest discussion of art born of obsession.

At Maker Faire, he argued that building things, and artistically building things, building with a desire as well as an interest, is an inherently good thing, bringing you closer to the world, helping you to understand how things work. Another message in the background of his talk was that building with your hands was good; he never explicitly said it, maybe didn't intend it, but it seemed like he was moving towards saying that building helped you understand your hands better, understand yourself and how you worked in relation to the materials you've chosen and the project as a whole. This discussion of how building helps you, how it forces you to learn unexpected things obviously resonates with Rushkoff's "code or be coded" mantra and the trend in the Digital Humanities toward "less yack more hack." They sit on a continuum: for both, building is good, building helps, building teaches, building takes you outside of yourself, gives something to others, and turns that knowledge inward when you need it for the next project.

Savage is an ambassador for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics teaching in the US, the STEM subjects which are often talked up at the expense of the Humanities in UK higher education budgetary concerns. Savage may be an ambassador for STEM, but he feels that something's missing. In the talk I've been discussing he says that STEM is a terrible and empty word, but STEAM, STEAM is a great word, and that "A" is where art goes. And I really liked this idea, particularly as it applies to understanding and practicing creativity, I think it has some weight.

For a start I've always liked that STEM separated science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Not confusing and conflating these areas is a rare nuance in policy at any level. STEAM keeps this and suggests a reasonably balanced view, I would argue, of human creative endeavour. No artist, scientist, engineer, mathematician, or inventor manages to avoid the other letters of the acronym (consciously or not); STEAM is the life of the 4e (embodied, embedded, extended, enacted) creating mind. Painting is born of chemistry, production, art, ratios, perspectives; engineering understands the beauty of clean lines and the beauty of elegant solutions to problems, the way loads and strengths function; etc.

My background is in English Studies, and I work in an English department, but I want to be more of a STEAM academic: I don't think that only a 1/5 interest in Art is a bad thing in understanding the creation and impact of cultural products. I want to know more about mathematics, and why no one told me that it might be worth learning about because it could be beautiful. I want to build more things, physical and digital, and encourage others to build too. And I want to teach my students about technology, about how books are technologies, and why understanding how scientists talk about the world can be a part of their studies just as interesting and worthwhile as how a play discusses the same.

A lot of my students don't need to be told this it seems; I've spent the last month marking exams and dissertations which deal with all sorts of scientific debates, and they've known their stuff. I wonder if there's something about this time of interconnectedness, of wiki access and youtube reports, of discussion forums and ebay spare parts, that calls out to a new generation of STEAM-aware students? Maybe an English department should make space to teach steAm, whilst a chemistry department teaches Steam, and the engineers discuss stEam (or stEAm, or stEAM, or...)? I don't think disciplinarity is a bad thing, but I think that not fostering a little curiosity about the overlap in the different ways we think about creation and creating might start to increasingly count against us.

But how do we teach STEAM, or our version of STEAM without sacrificing depth? Would a first year of undergrad which discussed a number of disciplinary ways of looking at things go some way toward training more savvy graduates? Could we stand the reshuffle as students, more aware of disciplinary perspectives, realised that maybe they were future scientists, or architects, or mathematicians all along?

In a time of economic uncertainty, fast-moving technological and scientific research, and increasing interdisciplinarity, all at least in part born of the ways available to us to communicate and interact, these seem the kinds of questions that need to be addressed if we place value in educating for both uncertain employment and personal development.

EDIT: A caveat - There are subjects which don't fit, or problematically fit STEAM: where do we include sports, spirituality, philosophy, law, and medicine for instance? Arguably taught sports and medicine appeal to science, technology, mathematics, even art (and maybe human "engineering"?), but spirituality and philosophy are meant to be troubling. I don't think this ruins an embrace of STEAM as a model of categories of thought which deal with our predominant modes of creativity however; as a guiding principal it's intended only as a nice reminder, not the last word.