De-blackboxing in research

It is a typical tale that media technologies are received by societies with two reactions, either to celebrate it and imagine a utopia in which the technology finally solves one major issue as if by magic and thus represents a technology that can be liberating for individuals and societies, or to condemn and fear it by emphasizing features that can have “negative effects”. We have seen these narratives in many forms in regards to all sorts of media from books, to the telephone, to television, and the Internet. A systems view of media, technologies, and sociotechnical artefacts however present us not only with an argument against the technological determinism aspect of these type of responses, but also invites us to consider that our relationship with media technologies, and technologies in general, is not as simple as a “social construction of technology” either.

“To conceive of humanity and technology as polar opposites is, in effect, to wish away humanity: we are sociotechnical animals, and each human interaction is sociotechnical. We are never limited to social ties. We are never faced only with objects.” (Latour, 1999, p.214)

My questions for this week revolve around using the systems view not only to think about design, but also to think about how to use this approach for research of media technologies. How to work out this de-blackboxing then would be one of the first challenges. The next one may be to determine the level to which the de-blackboxing can serve a specific research question. A systems view would mean to use the principles of modularity, recursiveness, and combinability to make sense of how different components are combined together, how they interact, and the combined effects and dynamics they create, each on its own level, with the broader social system of which they are part. This means that instead of taking media technologies as closed units of analysis, we need to look further, decompose them, and make sense of which level(s) may be more relevant for analysis. When Latour (1999) is going through the eleven layers of his “Myth of Progress,” he explains that each of the sociotechnical layers he discusses is different from the one below/above it, as each has gone through an iteration that has changed it, either from the human/“subjective” side or the non-human/“objective” side. Considering this to approach a media technology means that an analysis would not only have to consider the role of the technology in a group, but also its evolution, and specifically its evolution in regards to specific groups. The analysis also has to be specifically tailored to those components that are relevant.

As an example, a hashtag on Twitter, as a media technology, could be decomposed in various ways. As a feature of social network sites, it could be decomposed into its technical components (the hashtag serves as a link, it also organizes a page on which all tweets that included it are displayed in reverse chronological order according to popularity, posting time, media use, and other options, it is part of a social media outreach repertoire popularly used, etc.). As a term used by a social movement, it has a particular social, cultural, historical context, one that makes it part of a larger system of actors/actants and processes. As a hashtag or key term on the web, it also becomes part of a larger system, one that includes information about this topic and that can be linked across the web. (Or, it may be part of a larger collection of information online but, because it is part of a proprietary platform, it may not actually be linked to all information to which it could be linked.) Decompositions may go a number of different ways, which is why this approach is helpful in making sense of the different dynamics that take place when we speak of sociotechnical systems. Moreover, another issue to analyze is that of the different iterations of the sociotechnical mutually shaping each other. An analysis of a hashtag would have to also consider how the hashtag use has evolved over time, if there are specific moments that can be considered to define each iteration, what was left behind in each iteration, etc. But to a certain extent, not all components could be realistically de-blackboxed and analyzed, so defining this types of limits in research design could be a helpful discussion.