Travis Wall

(Sometimes Graphic) Designer. Working on a PhD: Design Thinking +/= Heterogeneous Engineering. General flâneur. Chronic knowledge gatherer.

Location: Sydney, Australia

Michael Shanks The life of an artifact 1998

Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. In his work is it possible to see the supposed separation of technical and social factors? Edison has been studied by Thomas Hughes in the context of the electrification of the United States (1983, 1985).

Edison did not just ‘invent’ the lightbulb. The model of technology which supposes the application of reason to material and objective reality is not at all adequate. The light bulb was part of a sociotechnical system which required and enabled its invention and use. Edison was a system builder (Hughes 1987). He worked on inanimate physical materials, on and through people, texts, devices, councils, architectures, utility companies, economic considerations … . He travelled between these different domains weaving an emergent web which constituted and reconstituted the bits and pieces that it brought together. In the history of Hughes the distinctions between humans and technical devices is subordinated to exploring a sociotechnical system: cable laying, electrical transmissions and resistances, city power stations, politics of city government, gas utility companies, laboratory experimentation. It was the characteristics of this network that conditioned the design of the light bulb – down to the material of the filament which had to perform in a particular way to suit the rest of the network.

In the words of John Law, Edison was a heterogeneous engineer, linking diverse elements in his work, elements which do not respect the conventional and abstract boundaries between people and things, the social and the technical (Law 1987).

Many other works in the sociology and history of technology and science reveal this intermixture of people and things (Mackenzie and Wajcman (eds) 1985; Bijker, Hughes and Pinch (eds) 1987; Elliott (ed) 1988; Law (ed) 1991; Latour 1987, 1988). Their ‘thick description’ results in concepts such as heterogeneous engineering, seamless webs (Hughes 1988), actor networks (Callon 1987, 1991), wherein are no absolute distinctions and categorisations; they are all being historically defined and redefined.

Michael Shanks The Life of an Artifact 1998

People and the realm of the social become material, and the object world, nature, acquires a history (of different relations with people). So there is nothing purely social or technical, human or non-human. There has not been a ‘pure’ human social relation for perhaps over 2 million years, since artifacts came to regularly accompany hominids. If a pure social relationship is sought, reference should be made to primate society (Byrne and Whiten (eds) 1988; Strum and Latour 1987). So where are we now? We are inextricably mixed up with non-humans. Our histories are united. This is also to argue that society is not sui generis, but has to be materially constructed. …

This means that we are part machines (Haraway 1991, Law 1991). The easy integrity of the person and the self have been questioned in a historical and philosophical decentring of the subject. A monstrous elision of people and things is a continuation of the contemporary project of inscribing text on bodies and things, constituting agents in discourses (from Levi-Strauss through Foucault and beyond; the focus on agency and the social theory of those such as Giddens). If you do not like being part machine what are you going to do? Become a baboon? (See Deleuze and Guattari 1980.)

If there is no essential difference between the social and object worlds, and if objects come to be in their history, then objectivity (the quality of the objective world), which is often conceived as the basis of fact and truth, is not an essential and abstract category, removed from history. Objectivity and truth are not absolute but come into being; they are achieved. They are contingent, but nonetheless real. They are both material and social.

If there is no timeless quality such as objectivity, the technical world and that of science are social practices like any other (Latour and Woolgar 1979; Knorr-Cetina 1981; Knorr-Cetina and Mulkay (eds) 1983; Lynch 1985; Latour 1987; Pickering (ed) 1992) . In a world of no essential difference between people and things, the social and the technical, the arts and sciences are united or symmetrical in that they all deal with mixtures of people and things.

Michael Shanks The Life of an Artifact 1998

Artifacts are often treated as entities in themselves, self-contained, their interactions with people separable. We forget or ignore their living. Artifacts become black boxes – closed, technical, often a mystery.

Consider the video recorder. This is indeed for many people a mysterious black box, high- tech product. The troubles people have with video recorders are notorious. At the same time they are very popular as providers of home entertainment. Manufacturers battled over the format of cassettes, compete to provide different functions, compete to make operation easier (from programmable remote controls to light pen input, to numerical programming supplied by newspapers and magazines). The video recorder delegates and prescribes all sorts of actions and troubles to its users, while bringing together viewers, artifact designers, stylists, programme makers, film companies, repair men, newspaper editors, frustrations, wonder, families, discord etc etc

When the black box is opened there is no easy distinction between people and things, the social and the technical. What is social and what is technical about the video recorder? I suggest that we forget the question and ask – what does it hold together and how does it do it? What work does it do?