What is it you know about?

I was chatting with a colleague before the holidays, and I glibly said I was ‘interdisciplinary’. She raised an eyebrow and gently suggested that I ought to be precise about my expertise, because, she said, “I don’t know what it is you know about”.

So I thought, given the reflective, new year energy, that I’d try to tell you what it is I know about. I know mostly about how people think about and build communication technologies and systems, and the implications that this has for bigger and more interesting concepts like ‘democracy’ or ‘governance’. This means that I spend a lot of time thinking about what technologies are, how we come to know about them, how we know about things in general, and what all of this might mean for these larger abstract entities. But there are in fact a few things I actually know about, including philosophies of technology and language, and pesky ideas about modernity that actually do have some importance in the everyday struggles we undertake. Here are 4 things.

1. Technologies are not just stuff.

This seems obvious to me, but I am told it’s not. Technologies are not just stuff. They are not ONLY objects that you can employ to solve a problem. They are also practices and ways of thinking about how to be in the world. I like to think about all kinds of ‘technology practices’, including things as ordinary as the toaster I just took apart and left strewn over my office.

However, I’m most interested in communication technologies, but that’s a pretty broad area too. It includes the design of systems, electronics and physical objects, as well as the interactions between these human-built systems and other ones (like policy-making, art-making, community-making).

I’ve been influenced by Heidegger and some of the other phenomenological philosophers of technology, because I think they have some interesting insights into how it feels to come to know things, especially things that are both greater and more abstract than one’s everyday experience. I particularly like Albert Borgmann’s notion of practicing technology as a way of becoming mindful about the relationships between our everday lives and the tools and systems that we employ to engage with them.

2. We don’t live under conditions of modernity

But I have some problems with Heidegger and Borgmann, most of which have to do with how very modern they are, in the philosophical sense. For these dudes the world is systematizable and predicatable. A ‘good life’ is possible because goodness is not a relational value. It can be defined, and hence it can be experienced.  It’s worth noting that Borgmann, in particular, is very keen on personal and private responsibility in the practice of technology: he sees this as absolutely essential. I think this focus means he misses something about how and why we build things together – one of the other things I like to think about is how we do things in community and not always, and only, as individuals.  As you can see, Borgmann and Heidegger have been important in inspiring what I’ve come to know – even though I think they are missing a vital insight about how we live at the moment.

We are not, at the moment, living in modernity. Although our everyday experiences might appear to be predictable, we are in fact subject to enormous and swarming complexity at every turn. Climate change promises that even the weather will be unpredictable. Massive use of social media provides data that suggests that everyone has complex and shifting networks of friends. No one trusts governments, and whistleblowers become unlikely heroes, and simultaneously villains. Every story has at least two sides, and now we know about them both. This is not to say that the modern world, of objectivity and predictability, has disappeared. It is simply to say that this culture is something other than modern.

Which makes me think that, to understand the experience of being along with technology, we might need some philosophical assistance that isn’t limited to thinking about being modern. Latour is helpful in a limited sense, as his actor-network theory positions experience as explicitly relational between humans, machines and other entities. However, as I’m often interested in my work with the little politics of getting along in everyday life with community members, not to mention the big politics of deciding how technologies should be regulated or governed, I can’t quite take on Latour’s heavily deconstructed sense of power. Yes, power is imaginary. We made it. But no, that doesn’t mean it can be left out of the relational systems that we imagine and build. So I leave Latour at a certain point. Haraway is much more useful: she takes as a given the idea that we can’t be objective and that we are not unitary, modern beings with only one way of being. She resists also the idea that we are totally separable from technology or can control it – as early as the 1980s she worked with the provocative metaphor of the cyborg: something not-only-natural, and not-only-technological. In a non-modern world in which technology has indeed fundamentally altered the experience that we have of the natural world, this approach is one that I think it essential for making sense out of our relationship with technology.

3. We make change by making arguments. Some people make arguments by designing technologies.

Technology is not just stuff; it’s practice and being and knowing. We build it in certain ways, make claims about that, and debate the claims much as we do with all other kinds of cultural products.  One of the other things I like to think about is how and why people argue about things with each other. This is what connects my work on the experience of being in the world to my policy-related work. Policy too is a human construct, and it is an observable process of communication that creates policy. I am very interested in the kinds of arguments that people choose to advance rationales for different policies (again, ones related to communication technologies or to the process of communication and the rights attached to it).

So I investigate arguments. Mostly I do this by paying very close attention to how people advance their claims about particular things that they think communication technologies should do, or should represent. These include the metaphors that they choose, the order in which they introduce their ideas, the appeals they make to particular kinds of authority. I’m fortunate in this practice to have spent many years studying literature before I studied design and communication – in literary criticism everything is artifice, but everything is meaning too. That positioning is a strong part of my practice.

Most arguments I study are made of words – but actually building technologies is also a way to create arguments about how things should be. Take the internet for example. If you read interviews with its creators, you can see how the idea of a network where information is broken into packets and then routed as efficiently as possible to be reassembled at its destination is a metaphor for a particular way of thinking of communication: the message is the important thing, not the mechanism of transmission, and indeed the transmission improves as the network expands. It’s extremely elegant.I like to pay attention to the arguments advanced by designing things in particular ways. If I can, I try to understand the technical underpinnings, or else I interview people who build things about how they build them, hoping that they can also tell me why.

4. Ideas Matter.

Finally, and briefly: I know that ideas matter. Philosophy is important because it is how we learn to think about the things that we actually do. I have ideas about how I think the world should be. I believe in justice, fairness, and equality. I believe that society is collectively responsible for itself and its members, which includes the natural world that societies all depend upon. I can’t and won’t apologize for believing these things. These are the ideas that matter to me, and because they matter to me I investigate them in my research, seek them through my philosophy, and write about them in my work. These values and norms are my guiding force, and so as committed as I am to empirical scholarship as a way of respectfully investigating the world inhabited by others, I am inclined towards projects that allow me to investigate values and norms, and especially to ones that help me to develop what I think is important.

These are the things that I know. I know other things too, but these are the ones that come together, link themselves, and place themselves in my mind. Philosophy, design, being in the world, and struggling to have a good life. Happy New Year.