Category Archives: Week 9

The Haves and Have Nots: Comparing Materialism and Morality in Sociotechnical Contexts

“Man – no Woman in Heidegger – is possessed by technology, and it is a complete illusion to believe that we can master it.” – Bruno Latour


Reading this week’s texts about technology’s distributed agency while on the Metro was a bit odd for me. When considering Latour’s thoughts on technologies cementing the identities of its users, I began questioning the lifestyles of the passengers around me.

By now, we can agree that the use of media conveys a particular message about its social value and function – “The medium is the message.” Retracing our steps, we can recall the in-class discussions about signs, representations and interpretants. The affordance of objects cannot be entirely dissected from where it fits in culture and society, which are entirely subjective realms. So, Calvin Klein undergarments serve the same function as Fruit of the Loom, but the former garners more acclaim than the latter. An experiment on Brain Games shows this:

Cakes of Deception (as seen on Brain Games)

Bruno Latour’s theory of the materialist and the moralist really drives this concept home for me. The materialist believes that we are defined by our possessions and our technologies have a way of deblackboxing who we are. Assumptions are often made about the lack or abundance of tangible objects we possess, particularly from a socioeconomic perspective. For example, quiet observation can illustrate much about metro transit passengers. Imagine two passengers sitting adjacent to one another; for the sake of conversations, let’s say they are of the opposite sex. The woman totes an eReader device with Beats by Dre headphones plugged in, and sports a Pandora bracelet, Cartier frames and Christian Loubotin pumps. Conversely, the male is wearing Wrangler jeans with holes in them, a vintage starter jacket, no jewelry and isn’t reading a book. The technologies or objects of both subjects can provide a context for the user’s lifestyle. One could assume that the woman is wealthier than the man due to her possession of commoditized goods. One could even confirm these preconceptions based on where the two passengers get off on the Metro, thanks to gentrification methods and increased cost of living in inner cities.

On the other hand, the moralist concept centers on being unchanged by external factors – you either innately are or are not. I would have to side against this belief, in saying that technology’s strong hold on its user is observable even in the minutest of circumstances. Latour assers that our illusions about technology trickle into our discourses and image representations. Paired with consumerism and self-inflicted urges to obtain the mirror image (see Lacan), we as consumers fall into the trap of trying to fill voids with new or even antiquated technologies. Think about when you were a kid and you saw the commercial for the all-new Crayola 128-piece crayon set – you convinced yourself you needed it to do or become something. Let’s say in this case, the crayon set would jumpstart your aspirations to be an illustrator. Without the technology, your aspiration cannot fully come into fruition – at least you thought. But with it, you become different. You were suddenly happier and more equipped for drawing. You were manipulated by technology. Lacan’s theory of the mirror image, or the perfect self, feeds off of this social-technical interplay in the capitalist-consumerism spectrum. Not only does it change how one sees him or herself, but also one is perceived by others. Advertising is guilty of gratifying our dreams and desires by way of pushing products into our senses. The motto engrained into coerced buying is: Purchase ______ to become (a better) ____ .

Do you have $300, a license and a bank account? Then you can drive away with this new car! 

You have a paintbrush and paint? You’re an artist and you’re already halfway there. Participate in our artfest.

Do you have a better idea than this? Visit this site and invent your own product!

On a grander scale, when artists gain recognition through label signing and increased record sales, they acquire more monetary value for their “hit” records. Often times, the content of their art changes due to the constraints of the system they’re in – demand from record labels versus demand from fans (see Kanye West).

With all of these scenarios and concepts brought into the mix, it’s clear that our wants and ultimate gratification/consumption of goods and services places us in a master-slave dialectic in which we are shaped, thus controlled, by the very objects we use.

The Blurred Line Between Internal and External Minds

Contemplation sometimes can only be done with assistant of paper and pen. When finishing a simple task, such as set up a reminder or checking the weather on our smart phones to the process of completing the same task using only our internal “mind,” you will find it’s really hard to accomplish anything without “external” mind and that “external” assistant could make our “internal” minds more comprehensive. Therefore, considering these processes performed on external devices, as part of cognition, an external cognition, or an external mind is reasonable. (Clark and Chalmers). 

On the other hand, in order to symbolize/understand the our surrounding environment and people, human created coupled system (Clark and Chalmers), which all elements in it can direct impact on human organism and human behavior. Human plug varies symbolic systems/modules into brain to generate schemata. Accumulation of different types of schemata will spontaneously generate a language system, scaffolding. The scaffolding fulfilled the need of symbolization and communication. They coupled system of meaning exchanging with other people is an extension of human body, like any other technologies.

The concept of the “distributed cognition” discussed in this week’s readings seems does not focus on a single location as the center of cognition. Distributed cognition as Hutchins explains, allows for “principles that apply at multiple scales and across vastly different kinds of cognitive systems” (Hutchins 2013, 37).  Hutchins also says that his theory is not an attempt to “make any claim about the nature of the world. Rather, it is to choose a way of looking at the world…” This claim puts the entire field of cognitive science into conceptual, and blurred the fine line between physical external minds such as iPhones and “distributed cognition” in our social life. Since Hutchins’ question is a conceptual and perspective proposal, empirical evidence will likely never be able to be quantifiably proven. The question still caught my attention is that how can we consciously use distributed cognition in real life and how would it benefit our internal world besides the adoption of tools.

Home Button as the cloacking interface to the interface of Siri

Before I decided on analyzing an iPhone for this week’s writing, I spend a lot of time thinking what other digital devices I could focus on. While I blamed myself for my lack of creativity in coming up with a digital device, I later realized that there is a reason that I can’t think of any device other than an Iphone: I don’t own anything other than a Mac and an Iphone. Remembering the boxes I used to have, in the corner of my room – full of mp3s, amateur Canon cameras, Nintendo gameboys, Nokia phones, the cables and the chargers – it is amazing how all I need is inside of an Iphone now.

Going through readings and having an understanding of how agencies and forces are interfaced, I was further curious about the only non-digital component we use during navigation in an iPhone, the Home button – and the software embedded in it (or cloaked by it) – Siri.

The Home button is our interface that leads us to use the software of Siri – which itself as well constitutes an interface between the human language and the information in the world wide web. This double layer of interfaces, however, consequentially leads us to perceive the Home button as the only interface to information. Siri’s branding as the “Personal Assistant” also cloaks Siri’s own software. While Siri is embedded in the network of the Internet, facilitated by Internet connection, digital voice processing, natural language processing, requiring significant data transmission and a strong algorithm – the way Siri talks and its instantenous response property cloaks the technology and software dimension. Consequently, Siri functions as the ultimate cloacking device to the very artefactness of the iPhone: iPhone acquires human like properties through Siri.

While the Actor-Network theory discusses the material technology in particular whereas Siri is a coding program, Siri’s particular place in the iPhone and the way that the Home button cloaks Siri helps us to handle it from the actor-network theory perspective. Siri is embedded in the Home button of the iPhone, which is the only actively used button for navigation purposes. Siri is the inherent quality of the iPhone – while many apps are an integral part of the iPhone – like Messages, Phone, etc., Siri is unique in its replacement. The home button, on the other hand, is the only interface that we perceive to be the access to information. The home button is the visible interface, whereas Siri itself constitutes a smart interface.

Zhang’s approach[1] on the external representation of distributed agency is particularly applicable to Siri: Siri has the potential to structurally alter the way we reach information. Through its characterization as a person, Siri doesn’t let us realize the machine-to-machine interaction behind, the algorithms that it uses to gather information, neither the natural language processing that takes place. Zhang describes this lack of awareness as a property of external representation by stating that external representation “anchor and structure cognitive behavior without conscious awareness.” [2]

What is visible to the user, on the other hand, is the affordance of Siri. Analyzing my personal understanding of Siri, I came up with the following conclusion: Affordances can be channeled from an artefact (a device, an application, or an algorithm) to the individual’s cognition, and be reflected back on another artefact. With this perspective, I realized that my interactions with Siri were based on my interactions with Google. The “cognitive affordance” of Siri was channeled from my understanding of how Google works. In fact, while we are promoted to interact with Siri as if it were a person – through complete questions, Siri does function like Google, and dropping keywords like “photograph Paris” results in relevant search results. What facilitated my interaction with Siri was my previous experience with Google.

Siri, however, differentiates from Google from the agency involved in it: While Google applies significant natural language processing to create a cognitive bridge between the information out there and our minds, Siri takes action. It has agency to create reservations, pick the most relevant information, and respond. Siri’s software, therefore, is two dimensional. It translates human intent into action – through at first analyzing our language by natural language processing, and then coming up with a prediction of our intention, which requires agency, and consequently representing a particular information or taking action

Therefore, it is not only the materiality of a technology, but also the software of a technology that suggests combinatoriality in Siri. The social theories should address these cognitive affordances as well, any maybe address the following questions: How do we have an understanding of what we have instant access to, and what we do not have instant access to? How do we determine what we should restore in our long term memory and short term memory? How are these perceptions mediated by technology? Leveraging the tools that Actor-Network-Theory offers to the cognitive aspect can help us address these questions.

[1] Zhang, J., & Patel, V. L. (2006). Distributed cognition, representation, and affordance. Pragmatics & Cognition14(2), 333-341.


Your World, Reified in Your Pocket

It seems obvious, but I can think of no better example of an everyday digital device that cloaks a large quantify of forces and agencies than the smart phone. To use Hollan, Hutchins, and Kirsch’s three tenets of distributed cognition, the smart phone provides examples of socially distributed cognition, embodied cognition, and culturally embedded cognition.

Socially distributed cognition. Smart phones put both local and broad social networks of knowledge at our fingertips. We can text our husband to measure the basement’s square footage while when we’re at the paint store or our colleague to check the number of visits to a certain page of our website from a meeting. We can also tap and contribute to living encyclopedias of knowledge through websites and apps like wikipedia and

Embodied cognition. One obvious way in which our smart phones interact with our bodies is by making this interface to so many resources portable. For example, we can use our smart phone for a self-guided tour of a city, walking around and exploring without fear of getting lost. We can play music on our smart phone and spontaneously practice tango in a park. Smart phone use may also be affecting our posture.

Culture and cognition. As Hollan, Hutchins, and Kirsch put it “Culture is a process that accumulates partial solutions to frequently encountered problems.” (Hollan et al p. 178) Smart phones are conceived and designed out of culture and they participate in a feedback loop of shaping the culture that shaped them. The intuitiveness of so many components of smart phones that we take for granted is due to cultural reference points. Would we understand the iconic interface so well without experience with desktop computers? Calling, text messages, email, camera, even apps like Words with Friends or Facebook draw from our familiarity with these tools in other contexts.

Smart phones were constructed according to our culture, bodies, and social tendencies, and they in turn contribute to those spheres of our reality. We live in a world where we expect to be able to access a textual and possibly graphic history of our lives (email, text messages, social networks); get directions or identify our location; fact-check anything; and entertain ourselves and others on demand. All thanks to a “thing” that fits in our pocket.

Endlessly Tracing the Network

Although I tend to agree with Latour, I would like to use this post to question some of the possible implications of Actor-Network Theory.

How does one determine what belongs to the network? Or, rather, where does the network end? In my Rhetorical Ecologies class last semester, many of the theorists applied network theory to understanding the process of writing. Certainly, a written work is not the product of some autonomous agent; it does not shoot Athena-like from an individual author’s head. Instead, writing is a process involving a network of human actors  and non-human actants, wherein agency is distributed across the network, albeit unevenly so. For example, this blog post is the result of me, theorists I’ve read, previous and current professors, and other students, but also the blog medium, my keyboard, the Internet in general, etc. However, it is unclear to me when we should stop tracing the network. One of the theorists from last semester went so far as to acknowledge her cat as an agent in her writing process. Others (briefly) delved into the realm of food and other bodily concerns in tracing the network. It appears that one could continue tracing the network indefinitely. How might we be capable of setting up some kind of threshold agency—that is, a level of agency below which agents are deemed irrelevant—without “transcending” the network?

Additionally, Latour defends ANT against charges of immorality, apoliticism, and moral relativism by claiming that he is not “indifferent to the possibility of judgement”; instead, he merely refuses “to accept judgements that transcend the situation” (“Technology is Society” 130). According to Latour, “one must first describe the network” before making diagnoses or decisions. However, if the tracing of the network is seemingly and perhaps actually endless, how do we ever manage to achieve the potential for judgement or decision or diagnosis? There needs to be some point at which it is decided that the network is sufficiently described, but (as stated earlier) how might we manage to designate such a point while remaining within the network and not imposing some limit from an external perspective? In ANT, where exactly do ethical or political considerations come into play?

Bruno Latour, “Technology Is Society Made Durable.” In A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and Domination, edited by John Law, 103-31. London, UK; New York, NY: Routledge, 1991.

Playing with Thoughts and Theories (Technologies, Functions of Technologies, and Humans In Terms of Books and Reading)

While reading this week’s materials about distributed technology, I accidentally saw an article about “e-reading isn’t reading” on Slate Magazine. What’s ironic is that the article itself requires me to read it digitally. However, I am very curious about how ideas or arguments in this article connect to what we read for the class on distributed agency and distributed cognition.

What titillates me in that article is the title “e-reading isn’t reading”. Instead of denying a technology (“e-books aren’t books”), it denies a function. It touches the core question that we are solving in this class. We agree on the argument that technologies are evolving but general functions played out by technologies remains the same. Then why does this article argue that the function of reading is not implemented by e-reading? Interestingly, it approach this question from the perspective of human-technology interaction, which is also the subject we are trying to address for this week. Also I think the thoughts revealed in this article represents a typical way of thinking on issues about human technology interactions. Here is its primary arguments:

  • Reading with touching real books is real reading because touching fulfills functions of books. Functions of books are not only texts but also real material interaction.
  • real mechanical pressure (presses pr squeezes) as appose to touching screen. “Swiping has the effect of making everything on the page cognitively lighter, less resistant. After all, the rhythmic swiping of the hand has been one of the most common methods of facilitating “speed-reading.”
  • tons of other examples that author uses to prove that real interaction with physical books leads to deep reading.

So I want to make a comparison between the way of thinking in this article with Actor Network Theory. From ANT’s perspective, I could argue:

  • It is hard to say function of books (i.e. reading) is decreased or augmented. It’s both. Also, it is true that interacting with physical paper feels different with interacting with digital screens but we also cannot ignore the function of ubiquitous reading brought up by digitalization. However, the function of reading still exists in whatever forms we are implementing. Amazon’s new ways of publishing (self-publishing) creates more efficient ways of communicating. It makes publishing easy without high costs and get distributed globally.
  • The delegation process of human symbolic interaction (reading and writing) to e-books is more complicated than that to paperback books. “Actions emerge out of complicated constellations that are made of a hybrid mix of agencies like people, machines, and programs and that are embedded in coherent frames of action. The analysis of these hybrid constellations is better done with a gradual concept of distributed agency than with the dual concept of human action and machine’s operation (Werner Rammert, 2008.) So when analyzing interaction with either e-books or paperback books, we should see the complexity of invisible power behind visible technologies. Human’s wishes for portable books and ubiquitous reading has been there for hundreds of years. It is the current digital technology that physically carries out this long term human wish.
  • The industry of e-books motivates its development, especially Amazon Kindle. By keeping down the price of the physical reading tool— Kindle, Amazon benefits greatly every year from selling virtual book copies. The costs (production and distribution) of virtual copies are very low, comparing to hardcopy books. I used to work in book publishing industry in China. Physical paper is the primary cost of book production (I think in the U.S. the cost of patent related fee is much higher.) Significant benefits of Amazon grow the e-book market.
  • Policies: It’s counterintuitive when thinking about buying a 11 dollar ebook without really own it. Amazon ebooks are prohibited from sharing, which is done by technical means. You just cannot share it!
  • Culturally, no matter in business world or education, we’ve been digitalizing the action of reading (we use website as course syllabus and professor distribute readings in PDF versions). We always think about e-reading in the form of reading “books”. But we also devote so much time on twitter reading, Facebook reading, blog reading, etc. You name it. The habit/preference/tendency of e-reading is not only in book forms (book technologies) but also slowly built by other reading/writing devices.

It is very interesting to see how much we can break down just from a concept of e-reading. Each of the argument above actually is just a beginning. There are much more things to explore based on each of them because there are multiple invisible forces contribute to the current visible models. We (I think “we” = scholars) cannot just narrow ourself in comparing or analyzing visible forms, like the article I mentioned in the beginning does.