Category Archives: Week 5

Thinking about us: Agencies, mediums, communication in the use of technologies and artefacts

Grace Chimezie

“It is impossible to treat the communication level of authority separately from its means for communicating or to treat sociability separately from technicity (Debray 1996)”.


It is obvious to most engineers that systems are made not simply of technical bits and pieces but also include people. When we begin to think of the stories and the interaction behind uses of artefacts or technology, it spurs our creative and innovative senses. This enables us to create technology for the immortal relationship that is created using it. This lies in simple uses of artefacts like a typewriter, One one hand the love letters printed on them today holds a great value to a 68-year-old mother whose husband is away and has a similar effect to the 18-year-old who just received a love e-mail from her college boyfriend on her computer. The systems that are in place lay the groundwork for mediation.

Photo a Typewriter by me

Physical agencies e.g Postal office that guide the uses of this technology aids the relationship that people attach to it and the communication that flows. The guides to the uses of artefact are embedded in the need to communicate.

Is it possible to devise a set of concepts that could replace technology/society divide? This set of new concepts association and substitution might help rephrase some of the traditional questions of social order and especially that of the durability of domination of power. Technology should be seen in the possibility of it being whole and the interactions holding societies together as a durable whole.               

                           E.g.  furniture equipment

Little tiny innovations commonly found in artefacts we daily interact with like chairs, gives a user the idea of what setting and purpose it’s being designed for. Where people fail in their moral obligations to follow rules in design, little innovation can succeed in enforcing this. However, this comes at a price and by aligning with forces from the innovator to the material used has formed a hierarchical institution (Agencies).

Image. 3 A furniture setting

language and the technology vs. society dualism

Mechanism of transmission:

According to Irvine, the starting point in this version of socio-technical systems thinking is understanding that culture and media technologies are co-produced or co-constitutive and thus form a necessary system of co-mediation. The understanding of these systems as a whole helps prevent dichotomy. A socio-technical system is a system of interconnected agency and co-dependency.

It is impossible to treat the communication level of authority separately from its means for communicating or to treat sociability separately from technicity (Debray 1996). It goes without saying that the field is complex. One speaks more appropriately of interactions and bipolarity than of entrenched antinomy. Bruno Latour and others have shown there is no discrete technological object purely technological and totally inhuman or reducible to a purely instrumental neutrality. Technology is freighted with positive or negative values, fitted into institutions or social networks   (like the speed bump or the alarm clock)

How we need to think differently for participating in design decisions

The grammatical imperatives attached to products we use, gives us the choice between incorporation and excorporation. Let’s say a hotel key that a manager needs to be dropped at the front desk when a customer checks out and is written down on as a sign on the desk but has been ignored. By making the key attachment really big, some customers simply oblige to the instruction, not because they read the sign but because they don’t want to leave with the big keys in their pockets. This little innovation then changes the implications of the word, action, and object. This example illustrates that the fate of a statement is in the hands of others (Latour 1987).

Image 4. A hotel Key photo taken by me

To take these successive transformations into account, the very meaning of the word “Statement” must be clarified. By statement, it means anything that is thrown, sent, or delegated by an enunciator (latin for messenger). Sometimes it refers to a word, sometimes to a sentence, sometimes to an object, sometimes to an apparatus, and sometimes to an institution.  

Latour and other system thinkers want to overturn the narrow concept of passive, instrumentality, (things uses only as tools), a way of thinking that attempts to map “effects” between opposite or separable domains. These separate domains effects thinking needs to be replaced by more detailed descriptions of inter agency, which is revealed in our ability to bundle, recursively automate, many human intentions symbolic cognition and ordered hierarchical abstraction.


Any Vocabulary we might adopt that allow the engagement of non-humans into the social link should consider both the succession of hands that transport a statement and the succession of transformation undergone by that statement.



Debray, Régis. Introduction à la Médiologie. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2000. Media Manifestos: On the Technological Transmission of Cultural Forms. Translated by Eric Rauth. London; New York, NY: Verso, 1996.

“Qu’est-ce que la médiologie?.” Le Monde diplomatique, August 1999. Trans.: “What is Mediology.” Translated by Martin Irvine, August 1999. What_is_Mediology.html

Transmitting Culture. Translated by Eric Rauth. New York NY: Columbia Univ. Press,

Systems theory, Network theory

Latour, Bruno. “On Technical Mediation.” Common Knowledge 3, no. 2 (1994): 29–64. ———. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford

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.


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. <>

Science, Technology and Society Triangles. Pinimg. Digital Image, n.d Web  <–student-desks-triangles.jpg>

Barbara Kuger. I shop therefore I am. Digital Image, 1987 n.d Web <>


The Mediology of the Smart Home

For another course I’m currently taking at CCT, we are required to come up with a product that we will shepherd through the development process. I’ve decided to use the Smart Home as my idea, and as such, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the form and function of interconnected devices. How they “speak” to one another, how we speak to them (literally and figuratively), how we conceptualize “smart” technology, etc. After going through this week’s readings, I can now see the role mediology plays in acquiring a deeper understanding of our socio-technical landscape and the technical artefacts that populate it.

According to the Debray reading, “What is Mediology?”, mediology “…is a question, in the first approximation, of analyzing the ‘higher social functions’ (religion, ideology, art, politics) in their relationship with the means and mediums/environments [milieux] of transmission and transport.” This consideration is at the crux of the Human-Computer Interaction design concepts one must explore when looking at creating a Smart Home. Questions such as “How do we conceptualize the kitchen space?” and “What do we need and/or expect from the bedroom space?” are necessarily dealing with the relationship between “higher social functions”, such as social organization and community, and the environments of their instantiation. In Product Development, we are required to study Maslow’s hierarchy of needs because in order to develop a good and useful product, one needs to have a holistic understanding of both the individual user and the society they live in.

Due to its nature as the centre of so many activities, the space in which a multitude of needs are fulfilled, and as a construct containing a plethora of use-spaces, the home is one of the best examples of where this holistic thinking can, and needs to, be applied. Mediology’s focus on this nexus makes it a very useful companion to the traditional design disciplines and principles of the home. For example, the idea of the kitchen becomes mediological when we connect it to the “higher-level” concept of food politics. The idea of the bedroom becomes mediological when we connect it to the “higher-level” concept of intimacy and privacy. The bathroom becomes mediological when we connect it to the “higher-level” concept of waste disposal politics. The living room becomes mediological when we connect it to the “higher-level” concept of the socio-political ramifications of the burgeoning entertainment industrial complex. A smart home is looking to technologically mediate all of these spaces, and as such, must grapple with these “higher-level” concerns if it is to be designed efficaciously. Only once we approach this issue from a mediological lens can we see their true potential for both social and individual change.



  1. Regis Debray, “What is Mediology?” (Also as PDF.Le Monde Diplomatique, Aug., 1999. Trans. Martin Irvine.
  2. Martin Irvine, “Understanding Sociotechnical Systems with Mediology and Actor Network Theory (with a De-Blackboxing Method)
  3. 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.
  4. Werner Rammert, “Where the Action Is: Distributed Agency Between Humans, Machines, and Programs,” 2008. Social Science Open Access Repository (SSOAR).

Meditating on Medium, Mediation and Mediology

In front of me sits the great metamedium, the smart phone touch screen. A metamedium, as described by Professor Irvine, is a “medium for aggregating, distributing, transmitting, formatting, representing, and presenting other media.” (1)

The design of the touchscreen provides interfaces to various applications that can then be viewed, heard, and interacted with through the digital display, speakers, and touchscreen. The touchscreen, however, isn’t just a medium. It also plays an active role in the construction of a complex sociotechnical system.

Figure 2 iPhone 6 Screenshot (2)

In order to break down the complex ways the touchscreen acts as a mediator, we need to unpack the nested layers of meaning and function that the touchscreen affords.

Function: The touchscreen, through its digital display provides mental map of functions that can be performed on the phone. The layout relies on symbols that have been digitally represented and affords the user the ability to run different programs by pushing on the screen. The pressure on the screen is then mediated through the sensor technology and transferred to the phone’s operating system where those functions are transmitted to the various modular components of the phone, delegating the task of requesting and retrieving content. Once the information has been retrieved (through a complex series of operations involving a diverse number of players) the content is then displayed. The content retrieved though, is bound by certain requirements of touchscreen. Webpages need to be modified to fit the screen dimensions. Pictures may need to be resized. The touch screen presents the content and also informs the content of what it can and cannot be.

Figure 2 iPhone 6 Teardown (3)

Socialization: The functions of the touchscreen are embedded in socialization. The relationship is codependent, with the uses of the touchscreen emerging from social behaviours and also defining those behaviors. Latour refers to the first level of mediation as “goal translation.” (4) These goals, such as connecting with friends, paying bills and booking travel can be achieved through the touchscreen, but they are also changed by the presence of the touchscreen which affords multiple ways to achieve these goals. For example, one goal, which has its roots in social relations, might be a student checking in with their parents. The presence of the touchscreen now affords multiple ways of achieving this task. However the touchscreen also changes the nature of the task. For instance, the ability to communicate quickly and easily may mean that the student is expected to either call, text, or write home more frequently.

Figure 3 English: Man Talking on Phone (5)

Institutionalization: The functions and social practices enabled by the touchscreen are reinforced by institutions. Consider my old job which provided all their employees with a smartphone. The firm not only purchased the phones, but paid the monthly bills. Applications were rolled out that could be accessed by the touchscreen to make working from outside of the office simpler. However in return, it was expected that employees would respond to messages wherever they were, at whatever time of day, marking a significant shift to the way work was done. 

Figure 4: PwC Minneapolis (6)

Dependencies: The touch screen’s ability to successfully mediate is dependent on a number of interconnected systems.

  • Physical: The person’s use of smartphone is dependent on their ability to see, hear, and touch the phone. The impairment of any of these senses will define what can mediated.
  • Legal: The ability of the smart phone to be used (not while driving), and the materials it can access (public vs private information) are largely bound to legal concerns. Legal concerns also impact of many of the smart phone’s dependent technologies to mediate.
  • Economic: Business interests play a key role in the mediation of content.

Latour and Debray break down the false dichotomy between social and technical artefacts. The two exist in an ouroboros configuration, connected in an unending loop that only becomes more enmeshed with the advancement of technology. (7) Debray describes the mediologist as “interested in the effects of the cultural structuring of a technical innovation (writing, printing, digital technology, but also the telegraph, the bicycle, or photography), or, in the opposite direction, in the technical bases of a social or cultural development (science, religion, or movement of ideas).” (8) Cultural practices have influenced the construction of the touchscreen from its modular form, to the different media it can access, but in turn cultural practices have seen significant shifts since the rollout of the touch screen.  


(1) Martin Irvine, “Understanding Sociotechnical Systems with Mediology and Actor Network Theory (with a De-Blackboxing Method)” PDF. 9.

(2) Kathryn Hartzell. iPhone 6 Screenshot, October 3, 2017. Own work.

(3) “IPhone 6 Teardown.” IFixit, September 18, 2014.

(4) Bruno Latour. “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), 179.

(5) Mylesclark96. English: Man Talking on IPhone, March 15, 2016. Own work.

(6) Zhao, Bohao. PWC Minneapolis, August 13, 2013.

(7) Bruno Latour. “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), 201.

(8) Regis Debray. “What is Mediology?.” Le Monde Diplomatique 32 Trans. Martin Irvine (1999), 1.



Dimensions of Mediation – Based on Instagram


Throughout the development of human history, we have created words and symbols for abstract meanings. Technologies, our language system as well as artefacts helps us better present them. The artefact is the medium we deliver our message, and to some extent also consists message itself. I do find this week’s reading abstract and sophisticated, and am not sure whether I have understood it in the right way, but would try to discuss about some of the dimensions of mediation based on Instagram as a case study.



According to Latour, the first sense of mediation is “the program of action”, it is a series of goals and steps and intentions described by an agent. Latour claims there is a symmetrical relationship between the actor and the medium, that the responsibility for action is shared among the various actants.

Instagram now has two major ways of posting: the user can choose to post pictures on the homepage (the traditional way, the picture will exist until the user delete it), or to post it in the story, which lasts only for 24 hours and will be automatically deleted afterwards. Thus Instagram, combined with the user’s choice, has created two different ways delivering message and achieve different “goals”: one is to record a moment that can be reviewed and remembered later on, and the other is to share a moment with followers and probably be forgotten soon. The user and Instagram together classified which type of message is delivered.

The Folding of Time and Space

Here we again come across the concept of blackboxing, and Instagram, according to Latour’s definition “the joint production of actors and artifacts is entirely opaque”, is a blackbox. When we are using it, we can only see the refined UI where we post our own pictures and like others’ however we do not come across the techniques behind it at all. While using the application, we do not think about how it uploads and downloads data via internet, how the hardware in the phone and this software work together to provide all the interactions, or how the pictures are displayed on the screen. We take the procedure operation for granted, and jump directly to use the provided functions and deliver messages via this application.

Crossing the Boundary between Signs and Things

While Latour was giving an example of speed bump and its French expression “a sleeping policeman”, I would like to give a similar one on Instagram. On the personal page, the place for users to edit their information is called “edit profile” in English, while the Chinese expression could be translated as “edit homepage”. Though lead to the same action, the embedded meaning is slightly different between these two expressions. “Edit profile” could be more about how to describe yourself and who you feel you are, while the focus of “edit homepage” is more likely to be how do you want to present yourself, or what do you want others to see on the homepage. These two expressions somehow show the different focus on self-portrait in the two different cultures.

Moreover, according to Latour, techniques have meaning. When the picture is posted, its nature as a photograph (“thing”) preserves, but at the same time, it is also a message (“sign”), that the one who posts the picture has a goal to communicate and share the information in this picture with a certain group of people. Thus the action of posting itself adds meaning to the matter of expression, and the boundary between the thing (photo itself) and sign (message embedded) is crossed.




Bruno Latour, “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.


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. Excerpts from chapters 1 and 5.



  1. During reading I was not sure about the second mediation, composition, and could not see a significant difference between the second and the first mediation.
  2. In Regis Debray’s reading I came across concepts as “the interaction within a system [intrasystème]”, “the interaction between systems [intersystème]” and “the interactions across systems [transsystèmes]”. Again I’m not really sure what they actually represents.

TripAdvisor – My thoughts about mediation

The TripAdvisor website firstly came to my mind when thinking about an example on how I understand about mediation under the context of social-technical artifacts. When I used the website several years ago, from a user’s point of view, I found it really user-friendly because it not only provides online booking services, but it also enables users to browse travel experiences that other users posted through that interface. After reading about Latour’s ideas of mediation, I was inspired not to merely regard user-generated content as something derive from online users that are dichotomized from the design/function of media technologies. Instead, it can be a tool, or an agent, that plays a role in technical mediation and has a function to provide useful traveling information.

Latour introduces four meanings of mediation in his book. In the meaning of interference, he states that the translation is symmetrical. In his “gun-man” example, “you are different with a gun in your hand; the gun is different with you holding it”. On the TripAdvisor interface, suppose one’s original intention is to book a cheap hotel room during a 3-day trip to D.C. He could hardly figure out the available hotels unless he fills in the destination, the number of days and travellers into the search boxes. Similarly, the interface, as an actant, displays its searching function if effective information is provided. As a result, the personal may have a full list of hotels on the website that are available for his trip and he might find out a most desirable one. According to Latour, “Reponsibility for action must be shared among the various actants.” This idea overthrows the separation between subjects and objects. Neither the user nor the interface is able to come to the final goal without combination.

The composition of mediation suggests that “action is not a property of humans but of an association of actants”. Under such circumstances, programs could be dispersed into various subprograms. Still taking the previous scenario as an example when all searching results of hotels are displayed. The user could narrow down the results by choosing preferred amenities, location, hotel class and ratings, etc. from the columns on the left of the interface. Each of these choices is a subprogram with particular filtering function. Moreover, “Actants offer one another new possibilities, new goals, new functions”. There’s a huge difference of outcomes if one only chooses the location filter while the other chooses all filters for the same results. Compared with the former outcomes, the latter is a combination of the function displayed by all filtering choices, thus have fewer number of much more precise results.

When it comes to the folding of time and space, I’m not sure that I could explain the interface of TripAdvisor correctly with this meaning of mediation. In my point of view, the interface would be like a black box out there that the associations of humans and nonhumans are usually opaque. Digging into multiple parts inside, we could think of the prolonged process of coding and digital archive collection from the very start of the point from the time aspect. From the space aspect, it is composed of various user-generated content and the real-time updates of booking status from all over the world.

The last meaning indicates that mediation crosses the boundary between signs and things. Delegation is introduced under the condition that “an action has been translated into another kind of expression”. My inspiration of the user-generate content reminds me to shift the roles between user and maker. TripAdvisor has a unique “Travel Forum” that allows users to write posts about their travel experiences and leave comments about their opinions to others. At this time, these active users are no longer users, they are absent makers of those actants displayed on the interface. Other users could still browse or even interact with the posts and comments. As Latour decribes, “Humans are folded into nonhumans in the midst of technical delegates”. Once a user participates in the forum, a new absent maker emerges, delegating active functional acants associated with future intentional users on this interface.


Latour-Pandoras_Hope-Technical-Mediation-excerpt.pdf. (n.d.). Retrieved October 4, 2017, from

Understanding Technologies as Socio-technical Artifacts: Destroy the Wall

Jiaxin Liu

CCTP 820 Weekly Reading Reflection

Technical artifacts are different from natural objects because technical artifacts are created by human beings on purpose. And they could also be distinguished from social objects in some aspects, for example, technical artifacts fulfill their function through physical properties while social objects are by social acceptance (Vermaas, Kroes, Poel, Franssen, & Houkes, 2011). However, some technical artifacts as media actively mediating social and cultural agencies. This week I would also like to use Kindle as an example to demonstrate how technical artifacts can break the wall that separates technology and culture or society.

Can Kindle be seen as “anti-culture”?

Debray mentions in the traditional western cultures technology is considered as anti-culture, while culture is experienced as anti-technology (n.d.). Books and texts are part of the society and culture which record all human history and human knowledge. It can be said that they are the core mediators of our social and cultural life. And so the question is what Kindle changes comparing to the original books? First, Kindle represents the technological advance: the irk electronic touch-screen. The art of paper-making technique was invented in the Chinese Han Dynasty in AD 105. And since then, people started to use paper to record historical events and human knowledge. The meaning of paper books is beyond channels of transmission, it’s a symbol of culture and human knowledge. And now, instead of the old paper-making and printing technology, Kindle applies the electronic and digital technology, and uses touch-screen. Second, Kindle changes people’s feeling about reading. When people are reading a paper book, they can actually leaf through those pages and feel the tactility of books. And they can take notes everywhere in the book as they want. However, for Kindle, they can only touch the screen to do the page turning, and people cannot actually ‘feel’ the book. Because of Balckbox, the customers and readers can just use the digital device, but they don’t know why and how it works. All those interfaces of Kindle are “invisible” to readers, and thusly readers will only feel this product very totalized and opaque. For those two reasons, Kindle might be considered as “anti-culture”.

However, it’s not the truth. As Dr. Irvine mentioned in the video lecture, “E-books stimulate ideal features of traditional print books”. The power of a medium shouldn’t be found in its property. It’s not the paper-making technique and printing technology that fulfill books’ function. What’s really matter is the its core value. For books, they are the media that transmit human knowledge and history, and Kindle remains the function of book and make it more portable and flexible. Rather than saying Kindle, the E-books, destroys the paper culture and print technology, I would like to say Kindle remediates books and texts into the digital forms, but the core value and social functions remain.

Kindle as cooperating interfaces

In the socio-technical system thinking, culture and technologies are coproduced, and thus a co-mediation system formed. Some physical forms are empowered by its socio-cultural institutions and in return “mediate” their power. From the mediological point of view, the media is like a interface which connects to the other cooperating agencies, cultural institutions, social ideologies and even policies. In my own understanding, Kindle can be seen as a interface that mediate to other social-cultural aspects: Online shopping and space-managing thinking. The customers can only buy E-books online if they want to use Kindle, and Kindle also helps create a trend of online shopping. Out of the thoughts of saving space, Kindle was created. Comparing to the normal paper books, Kindle is more portable and flexible, it’s more like a mini library. And Kindle also provoke this trend of space-managing thinking, and now we have more digital devices that are more portable and space-saving.


Irvine, M. (n.d.). Working with Mediology and Actor Network Theory: How to De-Blackbox an iPhone.

Regis, D. (n.d.) , What is Mediology, Le Monde Diplomatique, Aug., 1999. Trans. Martin Irvine.

Vermaas, P., Kroes, P., Poel, I. van de, & Franssen, M. (2011). A Philosophy of Technology: From Technical Artefacts to Sociotechnical Systems. Morgan & Claypool.

What’s Behind KuGou Music

KuGou Music is a music software I used when I was in junior high school. First released in 2006 by China Music Corporation, KuGou was one of the most popular music players in China and delegates the first generation of Chinese music streaming and download service.

The “comment” function is a reason for users to download KuGou Music. My friends and I all enjoy reading or writing comments of a song while listening to it. Just as Debray mentioned in “What is Mediology” that technology and culture are not two separate things but are co-produced, this function is changing the music culture in China. In the comments, users write the composer’s story behind the song, their own story with the song and even number off across comments to see who is the 999th listener of the song. Sometimes, people can fall in love with a song not for its tune or lyrics but the story in the comments. Comments are becoming a new part of a song. In this case, technology changes the development of culture. The new culture of “song comments” in return encourages designer to make more technical improvement to the comment function to cater for users’ taste, like send notification to the user when his comment is liked by others.

Same as Debray, Latour also argued that “There exists no relation whatsoever between the ‘material’ and ‘the social world’, because it is this very division which is a complete artifact.” In the view of mediology, the reason why bees don’t have their own history but we human beings have is that human can transmit technical artifact and knowledge from generation to generation. To some degree, we can say that the current generation of bees are the copies of their ancestors. To move a step further, artifact transmission prompted human to invent new ways to preserve their cognition of the world, thus in this way, the human history are not only a history of human with human but a history of human with artifact.

Here, I’m trying to introduce the interface of KuGou Music (I have to admit that the readings this week seem a bit abstract to me) in the aspect of mediation including:

  • Development history
  • Digital technique
  • Copyright
  1. Development History

Similar with Apple, China Music Corporation releases a new version of KuGou Music. For better understandings, I chose KuGou 2009 and the latest version, KuGou 2017 as examples.

(KuGou 2009, from Google)

(KuGou 2017, from Google)

At the first glance, the user interface of KuGou Music 2017 is almost totally different with that of KuGou Music 2009: the progress bar goes to the bottom to have more space thus users can control the progress more precisely; the “recommendation” session helps users find songs they like; less words are shown in the interface and more spaces are left instead… By comparing the 9 versions of KuGou Music, I find that the designer keeps perfecting the algorithm of searching, enabling users find a song with a piece of lyrics or melody while in the original version of the software, users need to type out the exact name of the song.

  1. Digital technique

Digital techniques are employed by KuGou, like signal transformation, search engine technique (provided by Sougou Tech Corporation). Besides, more advanced techniques are used to support individualized settings. Take the “recommendation” function as an example. The designer need first lable the songs and collect data of a user’s listening history on the software. Then, with “Euclidean distance” and “Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient”, the designer can figure out the user’s preference and recommend songs to him.

  1. Copyright

For a music streaming and download service, music copyright can be vital. Without copyright of songs, the software just don’t have enough songs to build up a library to attract users. In July, 2017, the company announced a merge with Tencent Holdings Ltd, combing the business of KuGou Music, Kuwo Music and QQ Music under one company. After that, KuGou Music, together with Kuwo Music and QQ Music, have the largest music copyright share, 62%, in Chinese market.


Latour, Bruno. 1999. Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Irvine, Martin. n.d. “Working with Mediology and Actor Network Theory: How to De-Blackbox an iPhone.”

Regis Debray, What is Mediology?. Aug., 1999. Le Monde Diplomatique, Trans. Martin Irvine.

Napster and the Revolution of the Music Industry

Right at the end of the century, when so many other field were beginning to experience a ‘technological revolution’, Napster made its appearance to disrupt the music business and the way artists release and produce music.

Napster (source: Google)

Napster was P2P software, much like torrents, but it specialized in mp3 files. It wasn’t the only one either, later you could find others such as LimeWire and Ares, but it was definitely the pioneer not only in the sharing of digital music files but also as a basis for a massive change in the field, including legal battles, copyright infringement claims, record labels operations, music marketing, and even the way artists produced and released their music, ultimately leading to the continuos decline in physical album sales and album (as a compendium of songs, or as a concept) production.

Music digital files existed before Napster, the technology was there. And it is undeniable the cultural power of music for society, the need to make it more accessible was also there. The combination of these two factors resulted in this irrevocable change in the music industry.

If we take into consideration the concept of mediation we can analyze the phenomenon of Napster both as what caused it and what it caused, how the interaction between music and P2P software drastically changed how music is listened to, stored, produced, released, shared and bought.

Screenshot of Napster (source: Google)

In the Intro to Media and Technical Mediation video, Dr. Martin uses the example of the book as an artifact to demonstrate how the “technical affordances are important but don’t “cause” the “effects” we attribute to a medium”. This idea can be applied to both digital music files and Napster as a software. The social functions of music are not embedded to the medium in which it is ‘transported’. Which is why it can be digitalized and, in fact, becomes even more accessible because of this digitalization.

But this is not an autonomous and isolated process. Napster didn’t happen by accident or because the technology that made it possible was inevitable. It was because the social/cultural function of music was the factor that not only pushed but enabled this evolution.

With the presence of Napster there was a disruption in many fields that now had to approach this new scenario from a completely new point of view and we, as a society, rethought our interaction with music.

Debray mentions, in the article What Is Mediology? that “The mediologists are interested in the effects of the cultural structuring of a technical innovation (writing, printing, digital technology, but also the telegraph, the bicycle, or photography), or, in the opposite direction, in the technical bases of a social or cultural development (science, religion, or movement of ideas).”

Taking this into consideration, what were the effects of cultural structuring behind Napster? What was the cultural development caused by Napster?

To answer the latter, both record labels and artists engaged in grueling legal battles against Napster and likewise services over copyright infringement, which in turned disrupted the field of music law, patent and trademark. Labels stopped solely relying on album sells and started investing more in visual marketing, such as music videos, in order to fruitlessly fight against the drastic decline on sales. Artists stopped relying on album sales and started focusing more on tour revenue, which led to a trend of long, epic world tours, in big stadiums with the increasing use technology to create a more impactful concert experience, along with high ticket prices that continues to this day (i.e. U2 and Madonna among others). And it is impossible to deny that all of these events led to music streaming.

One of the changes that most intrigues and saddens me at the same time, is the slow disappearance of the concept of an ‘album’ from many artists’s catalogues. Producing and releasing ‘albums’ or ‘concept albums’ is not as profitable as before. Audiences are more interested in singles or collaborations, which leads to the majority of the artists constantly releasing songs trying to reach a hit but with rarely any concept of artistry behind it. This is not an absolute 100% phenomenon, there are still a lot of artists producing and releasing albums, but the majority doesn’t, which is a drastic change from 20 or 25 years ago when almost every artist released major bodies of work instead of isolated unrelated songs.

I recently bought a ticket for a concert to see one of my favorite bands, one that still releases albums and not just singles. This band fills stadiums and headlines festivals, and the tickets I bought were ridiculously overpriced. Along with my ticket, I received a physical CD via mail, which I thought was a pretty cool gesture considering the price of the ticket. When I received it, I realized that not only I no longer have a device to play it (except my laptop) but also, I don’t need to play it: I stream all my music now. As a result I didn’t even tear the plastic protecting the CD. It now sits in my desk as a quirky decoration or souvenir, and I often find myself wondering “will this be worth a lot of money 20 years from now as a relic?” When we no longer use CD’s and collectors might pay a lot of money for an album released in the dying age of CD’s, still in its wrap, much a like a collectors toy.


mediology in a browser

The conventional idea” technology is not culture” is challenged by mediology idea. The “technology” is not affect “culture”, they are not separate sphere, they are somehow related to each other.

So let me apply my understanding to the browser, a window. Here is the picture of Google search browser in my computer.

So we see the search bar first of all. We mainly use this page for search intention. The action unite contains users, who input search terms into the bar and get results; the browser of search engine, the programming in the black box behind the window to show us the outputs, the devices like computer that showing the browser on screen; the microwave of wifi in the air, the Router provides wifi….

So the window is just an interface for us to get access with the results, to what is processing in the devices, is hiding in the blackbox of the devices. Every part of it, the screen, speaker, audio chip, mainboard, keyboard, wifi receiver and so on consist of the devices and contribute to the processing in the devices, and that is the design thinking of modularity.

Also, for the page of the window, we can see the logo of google, and the search bar, and some reminder of previous history. That is the design of a browser, and everything that serves which part is manifested on the browser, that is also the design thinking of making tings visible to users.

A grouping of related tasks involving the transfer of information . Each layer addresses an essential networking tasks.

The thing support the process behind the screen is the internet, a network of networks. There are several layers of how the electric, digit is being packing and processing into things that become readable to us and finally apply to us. The information flow through the fiber and being linked together into data, then the database flow to internet protocol, and got transport by the wave, then comes to the applications, and finally is the content we receive.

So the internet is also now claimed a virtual world, and people are arguing fighting for the Internet freedom, all countries around the world are somehow have different governance toward the internet world, so that is also involving human rights, free speech, the right to be forgotten and so on.

So it feels like the window, can actually have relationship to all these different areas, it is like in the article “Régis Debray, What is Mediology?” said: “Our interest, then, does not concern an object nor an area of the real (e.g., the media), but the relationship between these objects or these areas. Between an ideality and a materiality, a thought and a machine, a plan and a device. “


  • Regis Debray,  What is Mediology?  Le Monde Diplomatique, Aug., 1999. Trans. Martin Irvine.
  • Martin Irvine, “Understanding Sociotechnical Systems with Mediology and Actor Network Theory
  • Werner Rammert, “Where the Action Is: Distributed Agency Between Humans, Machines, and Programs,” 2008. Social Science Open Access Repository (SSOAR)