Tag Archives: Technology

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.

“If You Don’t Get It, You Don’t Get It”: Distinguishing Information from Communication (And Why Meaning is Inseparable from Signs)

This week’s examination and distinction of information and communication resulted in an unexpected, subtle yet abrupt realization, when reflecting on my daily use of both terms. Considerably oblivious to the intricacies of man-machine interaction and information technology/science, I never dissected the ordinary microcosm that is communication – which is simply, the exchanging or units of information, or signs.

In Ronald Day’s essay, he explains that Claude Shannon’s conduit model remains a cornerstone in understanding the basis of information science. More astoundingly is technology’s evolution in the realm of information retrieval “towards … matching the source’s data and the receiver’s desires.” This objective ideally exemplifies a relatively new iOS feature on iPhones – the QuickType bar. The technology within the mobile device generates a list of suggested words – or signs – based on the user’s initial input. The source – being the user – generates a message, or a thought, subsequently articulating this thought by way of manual typing. The receiver, which in this case is the iPhone, produces a list of words, matching the first alphabetic sign and continues to predict subsequent words as long as the communication between user and phone – better yet, man and machine – continues. Autocorrect settings and functions on word processing applications conduct in the same fashion. This organizational method works similarly to the human mind, in how it attempts to categorize and place context on signs into groups like “places,” “names,” “food,” “events” and so on. However, what this model of information delivery and retrieval lacks is visceral context, particular the role of prior experiences to mold the meaning of messages.



Weaver and Wiener further explain that there is no grand difference between human and machine transmission of information if the original message’s intentions are identical. Therefore, a Freudian slip or an instance of tongue-tying is just as a minor finger slip on a keyboard or a touch-screen device not properly registering the user’s touch in selecting a symbol.

As we clearly understand, we are encased within a network of finite signs that carry innumerable possibilities of meanings and values. So how is it that we distinguish an email message on a computer from a text message on a cellular phone? With the advent of tablets and merging message technologies, the lines of homogenous and unique methods of communication via respective devices are becoming blurred; the Messages application on Apple computers allows its users to send signals to others by using their email addresses or phone numbers. Similarly, smart phone users can access their email accounts from their devices to send/receive information. At one point, I even recall being able to send photos and audio from my phone to my email account and my actual phone number would be displayed in the “From” field.

The origin and context in which emails are commonly used are in the workplace or in academic scenarios between faculty and students. Therefore, there is an indirect value or meaning placed upon email as a medium for communication that is related to formal, impersonal messaging. This is an instance in which the technical cannot escape the social. Hand-held devices – which have swiftly evolved since the Millennial generation’s existence – has seemingly become affiliated with younger audiences and more informality, particularly because of application appeal for youth and the generation’s familiarity with advances in mobile and digital technology. (Brief aside: The same familiarity with one sign system can be juxtaposed with that of the example given in Ray and Charles Eames’ video: If one can determine the frequency of a pregnant woman’s contractions, her cervix dilation can be approximated, or one can determine the time of day based on the sun’s location.) Because of its affiliation with lax, off-the-clock communication, less scrutiny and pressure is placed on adhering to Standard English grammar and spelling when hand-held devices are the nodes for communication. Moreover, consider that few professors share their mobile phone numbers or “home” email addresses with students, unless allowing the open-door policy for emergency contacts. The distinction between these identical communication modes with differing meanings and contexts explains the needs for codeswitching, or as I like to call it, “Let me put on my best workplace voice.”


Finally, I’d like to highlight my fascination with the concepts of presupposition and noise. In previous posts, I have mentioned the complexities of digesting new information and the common assumption of shared code between sources. A dialogue about coding between a professor and a student may not render much decoding of information, yet if another student dissects the encoded information and re-communicates that to the same student, understanding of the signs or information can be achieved. As Eames’ video explained, “In any communication system, the receiver must be able to decode something of what the transmitter coded, or no information gets to the destination at all.” This is a fundamental skill and assessed scenario in the field of education. A similar occurrence of miscommunication happens in computer science, when used applications such as Python and Processing. While both programs use Java as their language system, each has its own rules or contexts that call for specificity in order to manifest successful result; just like with HTML and CSS.

In terms of noise, I was interested to learn the variety in ways it can interfere with information retrieval and how people are more invested in the meaning as opposed to the sign. Could a cultural predisposition qualify as noise? Could a cognitive or sensory malady, like colorblindness or dyslexia could fall under the category of noise? What about non-visual cues, like stressing about paying bills during a Philosophy exam?

As we have discussed preciously in regards to the social importance of meaning over signs, it’s never just a phone or a shoe. Culturally, we have attributed meaning to a branded commodity, which signifies things like our fashion taste, socioeconomic status or moral composition. The inclusion or exclusion of an object or sign carries great meaning, such as the exclusion of a signal in a movie title or the inclusion of more signs than another. However, as Professor Irvine explained in this key concepts video, meaning is not stagnant but instead temporal and ever evolving. The meanings are fluid and cannot be pinpointed. Information is translated to fit into a meaning, unique to its recipient based on their previous experiences and use of the signs or information. Because of this flexibility of sign systems, the possibilities of meanings in the far or immediate future cannot be predicted.