Sociotechnical artefacts and the mediation behind it

Sociotechnical system

The way in which people interact with one-another and relate to nature is determined by the technological resources they have at their disposal.  Technical artifacts have come to dominate the world we live in today, from the most common objects to the most complex systems. In order for a technical artefacts to “survive” the time is to both have a function and a use plan, as mentioned in the article A philosophy of Technology. But how did we get to talk about Sociotechnical artefacts and understanding the mediation behind it?

Latour argues that there is no relation between “the material” and “the social world”.  When you think of it, this idea is absurd. Even the term itself “Sociotechnical” makes you think of a codependent relationship between society and technology. As Irvine states it, a Sociotechnical system is a system of interconnected agency and co-dependency.  This idea can be seen in the human-machine interface, where different actions are designed to go back and forth among human agents and artefact machines. Indeed, it is the human agents who design technological tools/objects that are than combined with symbolic cognition.

 

The idea of Blackboxing

This is a complex system because a lot of the work happens “behind the scenes”. Let’s take an example of an Iphone interface. So, we have the artefact object in our hands and it does so many things, from playing the music and the movie we want, to sending a text to our friend, to scheduling an appointment and putting it in the calendar, to playing games etc…The main idea is that the Iphone itself does not do any of these actions, but it is designed by a human actor to do all these actions. It is difficult to measure the mediation role of techniques, and as Latour puts it, because the action we are trying to measure is subject to blackboxing. This refers to the idea that scientific and technical work is made invisible, as long as the action works. Making something invisible, visible, requires time and can be tricky, but it is the best option we have to understand the hidden dependencies in a complex system.

So now, we mostly never worry about how something works, but we just want to make sure that it works. We only focus on inputs and outputs, and not on the internal complexity.

We live in a consumer culture

And to me, that has to do with the idea of living in a world where we are consumers, living in a consumer culture. Since most of us don’t participate in the actual making of an artefact or a new object, we tend to take their existence for granted, as these new objects magically appeared and became part of our everyday life. Building something from scratch on your own is a feeling that you don’t get when you just buy a product. Think for a moment when you were a child and you made your first science project, or helped your grandmother grow vegetables in the garden, or changed the oil of a car with your father. Some people still do these things, because it gives them a sense of purpose, and other just go and have someone change the oil for them, or go to the supermarket and buy all the vegetables and products that they need.

Barbara Kuger’s “I shop Therefore I am” (1987)

Of course there are many factors to take into consideration, and in one way or another you will be a consumer, but my point is to not take things for granted, and just know that somebody went through the whole process of creating/making something, and it just didn’t magically appeared.

The medium is the message

Marshall McLuhan prompt “the medium is the message”, makes me think of all these different media such as speech, writing, images, videos and how we incorporated them, using different tools and methods, into the sociotechnical system. By creating and designing different objects from tv, radio, to tablets and laptops and cell phones we can say that we use the different media as interfaces, to create more complex systems. I think that all these different channels of  communication technology, much like conservation of energy, can never be lost and destroyed, only transformed from one medium to another.

Any time we look at an artefact or a complex system we need to keep in mind these questions: What is it for? What does it consist of? How was it designed, created?  How must it be used? and by trying to answer these questions, we start the reverse engineering process of deblackboxing and this will help us understand the object and the system itself.

References:

Irvine, Martin “Understanding Sociotechnical Systems with Mediology and Actor Network Theory (with a De-Blackboxing Method)”

Pieter Vermaas, Peter Kroes, Ibo van de Poel, Maarten Franssen, and Wybo Houkes. A Philosophy of Technology: From Technical Artefacts to Sociotechnical Systems. San Rafael, CA: Morgan & Claypool Publishers, 2011.

Debray, Regis “What is Mediology?” (Also as PDF.) Le Monde Diplomatique, Aug., 1999. Trans. Martin Irvine.

Latour, Bruno  “On Technical Mediation,” as re-edited with title, “A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans — Following Daedalus’s Labyrinth,” in Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999, pp. 174-217. (Original version: “On Technical Mediation.” Common Knowledge 3, no. 2 (1994): 29-64.

Iz Quotes. The Medium is the message . Digital image. Izquotes, n.d. Web. <http://izquotes.com/quotes-pictures/quote-the-medium-is-the-message-this-is-merely-to-say-that-the-personal-and-social-consequences-of-any-marshall-mcluhan-124663.jpg>

Science, Technology and Society Triangles. Pinimg. Digital Image, n.d Web  <https://i.pinimg.com/736x/f6/96/2c/f6962c9a4f1d82c398514e129ce659e5–student-desks-triangles.jpg>

Barbara Kuger. I shop therefore I am. Digital Image, 1987 n.d Web <https://rutgersconsumersociety.wordpress.com/about/>