I am making my way through a weekend of reading, mostly on participatory design processes and how I might relate those to my research on mobile environments for Humanities practice in higher education. However, I do have this tendency to download a few articles here and there that don’t specifically relate to my research (not directly, at least), but are too enticing to pass up. My definition of enticing might skew a bit towards the academic/dork-side, so apologies for that. I read a very interesting article that discusses the technological unconscious and how media is now being constituted in such a way that it structures our interactions.
Technological Unconscious: Constitute rather than mediate
The article in question is the following and my apologies ahead of time for this leading to a paywall. I won’t comment too much about my feelings towards paywalls and open access, except to say that I now try to publish in open access publications if at all possible. That is not to say that paid subscription models are completely anachronistic, but rather my encouragement of a general shift towards open access. Regardless, here is the citation to the article in question:
- Beer, David (2009). Power through the algorithm? Participatory web cultures and the technological unconscious. New Media Society, 2009(11): 985. Retrieved from http://nms.sagepub.com/content/11/6/985.
Beer references Scott Lash (2007), who advances the idea of a new media ontology. According to Lash, this is a “shift towards forms of living in which information becomes active in shaping lifestyles and environments”. Beer further references the notion that this new media ontology encapsulates the “technological challenges to human agency offered by the decision-making powers of established and emergent software algorithms.” In short, media and the technology associated with that media has moved from merely influencing our decision-making abilities (our agency) to actively crafting it. Beer expands:
The point here could easily be lost in the complexity of the discourse, but it is a point of great enough importance to dwell upon. In attempting to translate Lash’s work, Roger Burrows has suggested that the difference here is that information technologies now ‘comprise’ or ‘constitute’ rather ‘mediate’ our lives. As he puts it:
“… the ‘stuff’ that makes up the social and urban fabric has changed – it is no longer just about emergent properties that derive from a complex of social associations and interactions. These associations and interactions are now not only mediated by software and code they are becoming constituted by it. (2009)”
The shift in this new media ontology is that we are not merely mediating this media or being mediated by it; this media is actually part of digital and material constitution. It is part of us, rather than an outside agent that we employ as needed. And it is constituting us with our general permission; we invited it in as it provides utility. We can use it and while mediating it (using it as a tool), it transformed us. We now need it. It actively creates the world in which we interact.
In Lash’s words, ‘[w]hat was a medium … has become a thing, a product’ (2007c: 18). The shift that Lash is intimating, and which is being picked up on across a variety of contemporary new media work (as is toward information becoming a part of how we live, a part of our being, a part of how we do things, the way we are treated, the things we encounter, our way of life. The result is that information is not only about how we understand the world, it is also active in constructing it.
I see this more as a natural progression through complexity and abstraction. Vygotskian artefacts that have buried in them years of complexity, meaning, and culture. This new media constitutes us much in the same way that previous abstractions created from complexity codified our behavior. We can think of language emerging from sounds, alphabets emerging to codify the language (letters are highly abstract/efficient mechanisms for representing the complexity underneath), written texts to codify the letters and language, (programming) code to provide an accessible mechanism for abstracting the complexity of design language. This new media is now taking its place as the abstraction of current record and the complexity beneath its logical, accessible surface is astounding. The next time you view a logo or an icon, imagine the tempest of meaning and construction underneath its surface.
As Beer goes on to illustrate, this shift from mediation to constitution has its sinister side. All codifications of this sort (attempts to make the chaotic, predictable) are mechanisms of control. They all attempt to govern our behavior. Very few entities (people or material things) we interact with do not overtly attempt to control our behavior, activity, or impulses. It is not the natural state of being, this attempt to influence interaction towards meaningful ends. What this article illustrates is the loss of agency involved in this new constitution of media, how non-human actors (databases, machines, infrastructure) can actively dictate environments to us, the human agents, that limit our behavior or suggest a particular mode of interaction. Beer references Hayles (rightly so) and the notion of cognisphere is applicable here:
Hayles’ description then is of a vast set of automated communications that are a part of how we live but are often not a part of our day-to-day conscious existence. We are faced, for Hayles, with ‘active and interactive technologies with cognitive potential’ (Hayles in Gane et al., 2007: 351), operating without the need for human agency. Indeed, the notion of a ‘cognisphere’ suggests that human agency is a part of much broader assemblage of interconnected agencies. She continues:
“Most of the communication will be automated between intelligent devices. Humans will intervene only in a tiny fraction of that flow of communication. Most of it will go on unsensed and really unknown by humans. (Hayles in Gane et al., 2007: 350)”
This is most certainly true, that the majority of communication (information) flow will go by completely unnoticed by humans. Much will be between technologies without human agency. Most of it already does and that is the way it has been designed to be. Does this represent a loss of agency? Absolutely, towards these communication flows in question. Should we re-assert our dominance over all things communicative, all this information being routed in endless packets across the ‘cognisphere’? No, unless a need compels us. We have discarded, essentially offloaded, this communication to non-human actors precisely because we wanted to devote our cognitive energies to creative pursuits (making not managing). We intentionally pushed this communication towards our technological unconscious. If further along in our development, we recognize some utility in engaging with this information, then we will do so.
In the interim, as Beer points out, we have, by discarding our agency in this communication flow, inexorably altered the environment itself. This media is a part of us now, it lives beneath the surface and governs much activity. It is not sinister in and of itself (it is an environmental mechanism), but can be employed to sinister ends. I don’t want to go too far down that dystopian trail, but the most significant aspect of all of this is the loss of agency. What can we not do now that we could before? What can we do now that we couldn’t before? Those questions should never be too far from conscious thought.