Sunday, 6 July 2014

What Was It I Was Writing About Again...?


While we're on the subject of book writing, I've been trying to put together some (ugh...) "mission statements," paragraphs for me to try and conceptualise what it is that I'm attempting to do with the work, central theses, and paragraphs that might, in some form, make their way into the introduction or conclusion. It's a kind of eidetic reduction: when I strip everything down what is this book trying to accomplish, what is its essence?

It's something that I try and do with conference papers and articles too, but it's been essential for longer work where I can't keep every facet of the argument in mind all at once. When I'm drowning in notes and ideas and diversions I can come back to these two or three paragraphs and think "does what I'm getting sidetracked by right now actually help with what I'm trying to do?"

I have no idea if it's of use to anyone (maybe you don't need such crutches, maybe you can remember your damn argument!), but I thought I'd offer up a couple that have been on my mind this morning. I'm trying to explain to myself why I'm focussing on individual technologies and individual users rather than exploring the webs of "technical systems."

1. Those objects which represent catastrophic global risk (e.g. (and arguably) nuclear reactors, nano- and biotechnology), that are unpredictable, that no human can feel a sense of mastery with and through, are a new type of thing that have nothing to do with the history of technology and its impact on human experience. They need to be theorised and understood, of course, urgently. But when we put mobile phones and e-readers in the same bracket, when it's all just “complex modern technologies,” we make a profound error. We neglect the continued lineage of expertise with mundane and impactful devices simply because what’s inside the box is more complicated than it has been before – the outside of the technology that we actually encounter and use is not more challenging than a bicycle or a spear or a butcher’s knife or a violin. It's a strange hubris to suggest that when you microwave a meal you are engaged in something more complex than a concert performance 25 years or more of training in the making; that when you struggle to set the clock on your DVD player you rightly wish for the simplicity of older or more “primitive” societies where you simply had to craft and deploy the tools of the hunt and the butchery of its outcome.

2. We need a name for the objects encountered in the uniquely intimate and powerful fashion we need to ascribe to our expert use, and a name which describes those objects outside of the complex systems which bring them into being and in which they sit. I.e. when we say "technological system" we shouldn't then lose the term "technology" to describe the thing we encounter. Phenomenologically, I encounter an object as a special thing outside of its systems even as, philosophically, I realise the importance of those myriad networks. The history and philosophy of technology has us covered in terms of technical systems – my project is to talk about the individual things themselves, how they affect us, how we affect them, how the ways in which we intermingle with one another need to be analysed at the individual event of use as well as the society-wide deployment. By better understanding individual use I believe that we set a better stage for understanding an object’s political implications and the considerations we may need to make when looking at the boundaries of technical systems. In some ways I’m discomfited by this seemingly rampant individualism, but I hope that it can make me, and hopefully the reader, more sensitive to the origins of vital collective and intersubjective political concerns. That it’s not my project to analyse them here should not be read as my refutation of the significance and importance of networks.

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