Alibaba (Taobao) is China’s biggest online commerce company. Founded in 2003, it accounts for 80% of China’s online shopping market, which is estimated to be 713 billion in 2017. There’re three typical ways to shop on Taobao: via PC’s web-browser, or using the Taobao app on smartphone or tablet. The main differences of these three ways lie in three aspects: layout, commodity detail, means of payment. Though one can basically buy the same things using each interface, the differences mentioned above cater to different users and leads to a major dichotomy. Here I mainly use the tablet interface as the subject of case study and try to figure out its different dimensions of mediation.
PC InterfaceTablet InterfaceSmartphone Interface
In Latour’s framework of Technical Mediation
- The First Meaning: Interference
To rephrase the core concept of Latour’s first principle, I am no longer the same when I use this app, nor is this interface, “A third agent emerges from a fusion of the other two”. What’s more important, this new agent’s goal is different from the one I used to have. Personally, I can testify this change because many a time I was looking for a simple item but ended up with a whole basket of goods. It can rarely happen without the interface since if one is shopping in physical stores or unintegrated online store, there will be much less interference during the process of the transaction and much more to overcome for a whimsical desire. By simultaneously providing me pictures and links and sales, the interface changes my mental status from “I need something” to “do I need these other things”. The interface changes along. The original goal of the app is for browsing commodities, but when crossing over a user with paying ability, a new agent emerges whose goal is to make relatively optional and affordable purchases.
- The Second Meaning: Composition
To illustrate the composition level of Taobao, I need to regard the interface as a subsystem and its subsystems as different agents. For example, my task is to seek opinions about a certain nib that no buyer’s comment is available at hand. First I can browse calligraphy supply stores using its subsystem of store-level searching; then locate a certain one using the subsystem of store scoring; then find some nibs in that store with the top-seller recommendation function; next step is to trace possible users that chose similar goods with me by looking through the transaction history; after finally locating a certain user whose opinion I value, I can contact him/her using Taobao’s module Aliwangwang, an IM app between buyers and sellers. In this chain of actions and subprograms, the actant for each one is a composition of the ones mobilized in its precursor.
- The Third Meaning: The Folding of Time and Space
This aspect of mediation is rather easy to recognize for Taobao as an interface. It serves as a platform for a cornucopia of commodities, each one enmeshed in an internet of things and has various histories. Even the interface itself, as in last part, is an aggregation of functional modules. In the code layer, the algorithms and data structure it employs also can trace back to the dawn of modern programming. Like a telescope in search of millions of stars, in our Taobao case, both “telescope” and “stars” have different dimensions of time and space wrapped in.
- The Fourth Meaning: Crossing the Boundary between Signs and Things
In his A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans — Following Daedalus’ Labyrinth, Latour used the concept of delegation to explain how human are folded into nonhuman and vice versa. Using the interface of Taobao, the user, as enounciatee, also interact with different kinds of delegation designed and deployed by enouciators who are now absent in the process. For example, other buyers also play the part of the sleeping policeman. Still using the nib example, each piece of buyer comment under the commodity detail page is an active actant in my purchasing action. But the buyer is obviously absent here, I interact with him/her via the interface. By doing this, the human is folded into nonhuman. And by buying this nib, I myself also is folded into nonhuman, my preference, my comments, my transaction records will remain there to interact with coming users until eternity (or at least as long as the server continues). By this means, even by just purchasing a single nib, I interact with craftsman, calligrapher, designer, manufacturers, programmers, salesman, web designers, sales reps, deliveryman, and so on. Their work and labor, even happened long ago, are transferred, abstracted, and encoded in the form of either material or information, and swirled together into this sociatechnological maelstrom.
- From another point of view, and my concerns
Not totally agreeing with Latour’s approach to establish a symmetry and embrace a flatten concept of agency, Rammert adopted another model of agency in his work Where the Action Is: Distributed Agency Between Humans, Machines, and Programs. Actions are categorized as causality, contingency, and intentionality. Rammer’s model relies on nature of the action, whether is mechanical and predetermined, or interactive and self-regulatory, or reflexive and intentional. Using the means above we can also analyze which parts of the Taobao interface are which level. But my concerns here is a noticeable trend that human part in this interaction is continuously demoting from intentionality to contingency to causality. Taobao’s Chinese name, 淘宝, can be roughly translated into “seek treasure”, which clearly emphasized on human’s part of the seeker, who intentionally seeks what’s valuable to him. But as technology advances and interface intellegentizes, the routine process involves (even tolerates) less and less intentional actions. The ever expanding numbers of entries (800 million at the moment) objectively require users to choose without thorough thought, usually by some sorting algorithm which is rather opaque. And subjectively, the recommendations, either based on purchasing history, or peer choices, or local trend, or seasonal trend or whatever, deprived users discretion even further. A great part of online purchasing now is responsive rather than intentional. And in a near future, with sociotechnologies like Instant-Ink by HP or Dash Button by Amazon, some human actions will demote to simply irritation. In the meanwhile, the nonhuman part is taking more and more control in this hierarchical model of actions. One may say, isn’t it nice to free us from meaningless labor? But like in trivial actions, human concede predetermined, interactive, and intentional actions successively, isn’t is possible that we concede discretion in trivial matters, less trivial matters, and key matters successively. The fourth meaning of Latour indeed connected individual with more and more human and nonhuman agencies, but the more one is connected, the less urgent is his discretion. Time after time we see an apocalyptical world in science fictions where human is finally enslaved, it’s truly far beyond reach, but from small traces we can see that human is losing control, and not in a good way.
If you log in to www.taobao.com, you can see a meticulously weaved net which ensnares treasures within my scope of interests. My question is, right now we may be the Arachne collecting goodies on the mesh, who’s to say there won’t be a day that we become the victims in this Daedalus’ maze and inevitably follow Ariadne’s thread to somewhere she meant us to?
A Philosophy of Technology: From Technical Artefacts to Sociotechnical Systems. San Rafael, CA: Morgan & Claypool Publishers, 2011
What is Mediology? Regis Debray, Le Monde Diplomatique, Aug., 1999.
A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans — Following Daedalus’s Labyrinth. Bruno Latour. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999
Where the Action Is: Distributed Agency Between Humans, Machines, and Programs.Werner Rammert, 2008
Working with Mediology and Actor Network Theory: How to De-Blackbox an iPhone.Martin Irvine