“We may then be able, finally, to understand these nonhumans, which are, I have been claiming since the beginning, full-fledged actors in our collective; we may understand at last why we do not live in a society gazing out at a natural world or in a natural world that includes society as one of its components.” (Latour, 174)
One of the features of good design is that it becomes invisible and the user can instead focus on the task at hand rather than the instrument she uses. Yet it is the good design itself that results in black-boxing (though there are socio-cultural forces that are contributing, see Irvine, 1). De black-boxing then, at least in one way, entails understanding the mediating role of technologies.
Latour specifies four meanings of mediation and I would like to display these four meanings with the example of an iPhone. Let’s lay down the way Latour’s analysis applies to an iPhone and then we can look at the meanings of his terms. The iPhone entered the market of smartphones with the unique capacity to successfully integrate touchscreens with mobile computing.
With regard to mobile computing, Apple allied itself with the touchscreen technology (composition) and conveyed all that is needed for the realization of a convenient-to-use smartphone (delegation). After this, the iPhone handled things all by itself (black-boxing). The way it did this was by changing the program of action of smartphone users using styluses and buttons on their devices into using a finger to manipulate the items on the screen. Translation, composition, reversible black-boxing, and delegation each form an aspect of technical mediation that could not exist without the others. (Here I replace Peter-Paul Verbeek’s explanation of Bruno Latour’s example of a speed bump to deblackbox an iPhone, see Verbeek, 131).
Latour gives us a new tool to analyse this situation. Its called Actor Network Theory. Here we understand the user and his phone as two separate agents. The agents can also influence each other (See, Latour’s Gun example in pp176-180). When the iPhone comes into the mix, we encounter translation as the first meaning of mediation. The interference of a new device in our midst creates a new link that to some degree modifies the two agents (Latour, 179).
The second meaning of mediation is composition. The original goal was, let’s say to use the smartphone to make a list of clients she wants to call. But the two agents combined can generate a third goal (such as looking up the internet to find a ready-made list).
The third meaning of mediation is reversible black-boxing. Part of the reason the iPhone is good is because we do not need to worry about the technical aspects of it. We do not need to understand the constraints and affordances in detail to operate it. Once we learn how to use it the device becomes both opaque and invisible at the same time (a paradoxical reflex in designing complex structures as Irvine puts it; Irvine, 6). But when it breaks down we realize how many people were involved in assembling it. How far away do pieces come from?
The fourth meaning of mediation is delegation. The past decisions of Steve Jobs exert influence on the touchscreen of my present iPhone SE. He wanted to achieve the final goal of getting users to use fingers for the tasks on smartphones. He achieved it by delegating the task to the creation of a device that requires its users to use nothing but their fingers. Latour says “I rely on many delegated actions that themselves make me do things on behalf of others who are no longer here” (Latour, 189).
Technologies are constantly in mediation with society and culture and the distinction is quite a remnant of the subject-object distinction. Within a network analysis, the system is composed of actors, actants, and goals, with a fluid transition between culture and technologies, allowing an iPhone and it user to be part of a network of many goals, interactions and programs of actions.
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.
Martin Irvine, “Understanding Media, Mediation, and Sociotechnical Systems: Developing a De-Blackboxing Method” [Conceptual and theoretical overview.]
Verbeek, Peter-Paul. “Artifacts and attachment: A post-script philosophy of mediation.” Inside the politics of technology, 2005, pp.125-146.