My term project, Things Talk, will examine the notion of things having agency and politics. The installation will consist of an arrangement of everyday objects displayed on a table, with chairs around to sit on. Every object will be augmented with a speaker. Visitors can take place on the chairs and wear a speaker as a necklace. Once someone is seated, a conversation will start, assigning a voice to every speaker. Both objects and people are carrying out the voices of the conversation. What role will each take on, and what will happen to how we perceive objects and other people based on what they are saying?
The project aims to make tangible and experiential ideas emerging from actor network theory (ANT). In Latour’s ANT, both humans and non-humans are established as ensembles of social and technical constructs. These ensembles, in different situations, act. When objects, as people, are too constructs, objects have an active role in society. Establishing this active role of non-humans resonates in different fields. I would like to unpack the ideas of 1) the politics of non-humans, as most famously investigated by Langdon Winner, 2) feminist approaches to technology and opportunities in blurry boundaries, and 3) the morality of things, as introduced by Dutch philosopher Peter-Paul Verbeek.
Langdon Winner’s essay illustrates the notion of artefacts having politics through the example of bridges over park ways on Long Island. The architect Robert Moses build the bridges according to specifications that would discourage the presence of buses. As a consequence, racial minorities and low-income groups who relied on the buses for transportation were limited access to the public parks and beaches. Winner describes this case as a demonstration of technological design that enforced a particular political agenda.
Objects are often presented and perceived as black boxes, readymade to consume. Their social construction is as invisible as their technical one. Objects are shaped by their social context, as illustrated by for example Bijker’s study on how relevant social groups and their desired use impacted how bicycles have evolved to what we now know them to be. This makes it difficult to isolate non-humans’ role, see the invisible infrastructure, and account responsibility. These blurry boundaries are considered an opportunity by Haraway and Hayles. The posthuman and the cyborg will allow for this disassembling and reassembling, ridding of binaries and creating new relations.
Within post-phenomenology, the study of human-technology relations, humans and technology are seen as mutually shaping. Dutch philosopher Peter-Paul Verbeek states: “humans and technologies should not be seen as two poles, between which there is an interaction: rather, they are the result of this interaction.” This is closely related to ANT, but differs in the symmetry between non-humans and humans. Verbeek pushes the idea of artefacts having politics even further. He argues that as things shape our being in the world, designers and engineers are “doing ethics by other means: they materialize morality”.
The project Things Talk explores these concepts by blurring boundaries and investigating relations between humans and objects. The project anthropomorphises things as talking in human language, while at the same time it objectifies people as agents who have no agency in what they are saying. Can we understand each other as equals?
- Bijker, Wiebe E. Of bicycles, bakelites, and bulbs: Toward a theory of sociotechnical change. MIT press, 1997.
- Bogost, Ian. Alien phenomenology, or, what it’s like to be a thing. U of Minnesota Press, 2012.
- Haraway, Donna, and A. Cyborg Manifesto. “Science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century.” The cybercultures reader 291 (2000).
- Hayles, N. Katherine. How we became posthuman: Virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics. University of Chicago Press, 2008.
- Hayles, N. Katherine. “Cybernetics.” Critical terms for media studies (2010): 145-156.
- Latour, Bruno. “10 ‘‘Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a FewMundane Artifacts’’.” (1992).
- Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford university press, 2005.
- Pinch, Trevor J., and Wiebe E. Bijker. “The social construction of facts and artefacts: Or how the sociology of science and the sociology of technology might benefit each other.” Social studies of science 14.3 (1984): 399-441.
- Verbeek, Peter-Paul. “Materializing morality: Design ethics and technological mediation.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 31.3 (2006): 361-380.
- Verbeek, Peter-Paul. What things do: Philosophical reflections on technology, agency, and design. Penn State Press, 2010.
- Winner, Langdon. “Do artifacts have politics?.” Daedalus (1980): 121-136.