Extending the Speed Bump Metaphor

One question which technologists, designers, and philosophers of technology repeatedly return to asks, “is the way a technology achieves an end significant for those interacting with it?” Both Latour and Vermaas et al. reference the moral imposition of the speed bump (which demands compliance to the law because of the ways it interacts with the suspension system of a car) as opposed to the traffic officer holding a sign reading “slow down for students” (which politely asks compliance on moral or humanistic grounds).

I’m interested in the question of the role of different processes for achieving the same effect in terms of what it implies about technologies as agents of change and how extending the speed bump metaphor helps for understanding why we no longer need the social/technical divide. It seems to me that a technology might contribute to change in the world in one of two ways — through physical rearrangement or through changes in performative or procedural roles. Latour says so much in Reassembling the Social, although he calls the first ostensive change. What Latour, Vermaas, Debray, and others intend to achieve through an understanding of technologies as actors is not deterministic in scope, but instead has to do with the imagined divide between technology and society. Technology and society cannot be divided because they always already inform one another. The never-fully-ostensive performative class of students engender the technical (ostensive) reality of the speed bump which, in turn, results in the ostensive slowing down, even though the speed bump is only reinforcing the pre-existing performative value of “speed limit.” The point in destroying the divide between the social and the technical is not to say that there is no difference at all between performative roles and values (which we often think of as social) and ostensive artifacts (which we often think of as technical), but instead to recognize that both construct our political ecology — to use Latour’s phrase — in a way where they constantly overlap and cause change in one another.

Given the reason for eliminating the social and the technical divide, I wonder if Latour’s dichotomy of human and non-human actors effectively communicates the new definition of social which he promotes. In other words, while he certainly takes a great stride forward by establishing the role of non-human actors as crucial to understanding sociotechnical systems, this vocabulary fails to demonstrate clearly how the new social includes both abstractions which can only be performed, as well as manifestations which can be clearly seen, touched, or heard. The point is not only that non-humans act, in addition to humans, which was already assumed, but that the social world is not limited to that of abstract performances and also includes technological instances of “society made durable.” Perhaps in design thinking, it would be helpful to consider the “ostensive relations” as well as the “performative actions” an artifact might produce.

Works Cited:

Debray, R. (1999)  “What is Mediology?”, from Le Monde Diplomatique, Trans. Martin Irvine.

Latour, B. (1999) Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Vermaas P., 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