[iDC] Some things about things

arsalaan1-3677 at yahoo.com arsalaan1-3677 at yahoo.com
Thu Sep 21 10:14:06 EDT 2006

Mark, you make some important points, which I would like to explore a bit

further. You write:

> "The question of agency here is crucial. But I think it's useful to

> distinguish between humans and things in actor networks. This might

> help abate some of the hysteria surrounding the current discussion.

> That we can see networked things as systems doesn't necessarily mean

> that these systems can think, act, or exercise power in any

> subjective way."

I agree that we shouldn't reify things to the point of attributing to them a

subjective will. Nevertheless, we need new models to account for the complex

quasi-subjectivity of things. To attempt to 'abate the hysteria' by saying that

things don't have the subjectivity to "think, act, and exercise power" ignores

the fact that things can act *on behalf* of human interests. Thus, I think we

have to abandon the zero-sum, master-slave discourse in which either we have all

the agency and things have none, or things have all the agency and we have none. 

In other words, I don't thing that being able to "distinguish between humans and

things in actor networks" is the issue. Just because only humans are capable of

subjectivity, we should not accord them all agency and conclude that things can

not participate meaningfully. If we take it as a given that things form part of

assemblages with humans, then the point is that those assemblages, those

human-machine aggregates, *can* in fact act, think, and exercise power. 

But while assemblages should be considered as wholes, the point of saying that

agency is (unevenly) distributed is to try to determine how the agency of each

of the actors --be they humans or things-- operates. I think one way to begin

such an analysis is to ask whether a particular actor _delegates_ or

_surrenders_ its agency in a particular assemblage.

To elaborate: agency can be either the capacity to exert power directly or the

condition of being the channel (or agent) through which power is exerted

indirectly. In other words, it can denote both operation and instrumentality. I

am an agent when I enact my subjective will, but also when I enact somebody

else’s will (there's the whole discussion of whether a subjective will is not in

fact socially constructed, but let's not get into that). Human beings have the

capacity to exert power, but they can also create technologies through which

their power can be channeled, investing them with agency. Thus, both humans and

things in assemblages can be said to have agency, although the type of agency

they exhibit can be very different: while technology has the power to act, it

does so as an instrument of human agency (so you are right to point out that

things can't have a subjective agency). At the same time, humans can play both

roles: they can exert power or act as a channel of another's power. 

This is what I mean about the difference between delegation and surrender.

Operational agency implies a _delegation_ of agency to other human beings or to

things (let's just focus on the things for the moment). Delegating our agency to

things means that we allow them to perform certain actions on our behalf. But

delegation implies responsibility: we remain accountable for the immediate and

apparent repercussions of that delegation, as well as the not-so-immediate and

not-so-apparent repercussions. In short, we remain critical. 

However, the relationship is reversed when we _surrender_ our agency to things.

Surrendering our agency means that we continue to act, but as an instrument of

somebody else's will operationalized through a thing which we 'use' (although it

would be perhaps more appropriate to say that in such a case the thing uses us).

This arrangement allows us to conveniently disinvest ourselves from any

responsibility. We suspend our critical stance, and let the thing take over; we

become mere conduits of the thing's agency -- we allow the instrumental agency

of the thing to obstruct our own operational agency.

Anyway, I don't mean to just ramble on, but I will just end by suggesting that a

surrender of agency is characteristic of a capitalist technocracy, and that

perhaps our fetishizing of 'internet things' (things in the 'real' world but

organized through the internet) is its symptom: the 'thing' determining the

terms of our participation in assemblages according to Corporate-State

interests, demanding the surrender of our operational agency while making it

seem like surrender (encoded in the thing) is damn hot.

The following quote from Norman Solomon is not exactly a propos, but it did

surprise me to see such a critique in the 'mainstream' media:

> "For more than 200 years, the arriving technologies have been hailed

> as wondrous new shortcuts to democracy. In the late 18th century, the

> first rudimentary telegraphs were supposed to usher in an egalitarian

> era of communications. During the last hundred years, outsized

> expectations for democratization and social change were projected

> onto radio -- then broadcast television, cable TV, email and the Web

> -- and now podcasts, online video and various other permutations of

> digital deliverance.


> But the realities of economic class and the leverage of concentrated

> capital cannot be swept aside -- or even seriously disrupted -- by

> any technology. Every gee-whiz digital breakthrough happens in a

> social and political context. And the tremendous gaps of power among

> Americans, in large measure corresponding to financial resources,

> will not be closed by digital means.


> Though usually expressed in indirect ways, idolatry of affluence has

> been a common theme in mass media, paralleled by the adulation heaped

> on pricey consumer goods -- most flagrant in advertisements but also

> noticeable in quite a lot of news coverage. The great enthusiasm

> that's expressed toward digital products often fits right into the

> common media reverence for what only money can buy."

(The Hollow Media Promise of Digital Technology

http://www.alternet.org/columnists/story/41913/ )




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