Everyday connected things have become key sites for the production of behavioral data about people’s lives, enabling corporate actors to predict and control behavior in service of enormous profit under the economic model of surveillance capitalism. This production of data and nudging have come to be primary functions of digital networked technologies. However, when it comes to the design of these things and the ways in which they are presented to end users, it is the utility and experience that are in focus. These other functions of things typically do not come to presence at the level of the interface during use. There has come to be a rift between the way things come to presence and what they actually are, between appearance and function, when it comes to everyday things that are fluid assemblages.
This week is the 4S/EASST 2020 conference in the field of science and technology studies, where I will be (virtually) presenting in a session on ‘moralizing the data economy’. In my presentation, I consider possible conditions needed for a moral economy of data at the level of the interface and interaction, through looking at how basic principles of informed consent play out (or not) in a series of small examples (including Journal, invisible Google products, and a Sony headphones EULA). This opens up the larger question of what is acceptable, which also gets to the core issue of the kinds of relations that are mediated by these kinds of things. We need to consider true alternatives and ways of intervening to tune industrial systems and surveillance capitalism toward possible postindustrial futures in which data technologies are used for good of the many rather than profit for the few.
As a graduate student I became fascinated with philosophy of technology because of the way it dove straight to the heart of why and how technologies matter—the ways they are implicated in forms of life, mediate interaction and engagement, shape the character of everyday activities and social practices, and can enact and sustain certain power relations. I read Langdon Winner, Andrew Feenberg, Don Ihde, Peter-Paul Verbeek, Albert Borgmann, and others, and attempted to read Martin Heidegger (10 years or so later, I like to think that my attempts are now slightly more successful). But something I noticed due to my focus on digital, networked, computational things (coming from the field of human-computer interaction), was that there seemed to be something important about these things that was different from classic examples such as hammers, bridges, hydroelectric plants, solar and nuclear power, telescopes, eyeglasses, and so on. Moreover, it seemed that these important differences and their consequences were not brought into focus well by existing critical perspectives.
In a first attempt to articulate some of these differences in a presentation for SPT 2011 (the conference of the Society for Philosophy and Technology), I described these digital networked technologies as “wicked technologies,” playing on the conception of wicked problems in design. While ‘older’ technologies can often be characterized as single-function, isolated, stable, and material, and used in relatively limited contexts by relatively homogeneous users, these ‘newer’ technologies (such as smart phones) are multi-function, networked, fluid, and digital, and used in a variety of contexts by diverse users. And these kinds of technologies have come to be key mediators of everyday interactions and engagement with the world. They are also, like wicked problems, impossible to define conclusively, are interconnected, involve multiple levels of infrastructure, are fluid, and so on. What is needed is not a way to define these things conclusively, but rather a way to frame a particular aspect for analysis. As I said in that presentation, “A philosophy for wicked technologies must embrace complexity, and recognize the fluidity and interconnectedness of wicked technologies and the systems in which they are embedded.”
I continued this general trajectory in my work on architectures of interaction and my dissertation and later article on digital material mediation. And I also wrestled for quite a while with trying to turn my ‘wicked technologies’ stuff into a paper, along with my PhD advisor Erik Stolterman. When I moved to Umeå Institute of Design as a postdoc after graduating in 2013, I managed to rope Johan Redström into the effort as well. He helped to shift the focus to wicked interactions (rather than technologies), and the resulting article was published in Techné. It was in this article that we first introduced the concept of fluid assemblages to characterize digital networked technologies and the interactions that unfold across them.
From here, Johan and I continued our investigation through looking closely at concrete case studies, using the theme of music players and their evolution over time into increasingly computational forms. This work became our paper “Press Play: Acts of Defining (in) Fluid Assemblages,” published at Nordes 2015. Writing this paper gave us the sense that there was quite a lot more to explore and say here—an entire book’s worth, in fact.
We signed a book contract with Bloomsbury in summer 2016, and there followed a year and a half or so of pouring (mostly metaphorical) blood, sweat, and tears into this project. Another project along the way was the chapter I wrote for the book Postphenomenology and Media called “Mediating (infra)structures: Technology, media, environment.” This chapter, published in 2017, was a sort of pre-study in which I explored the implications of using different lenses when considering technological things, and possibilities for combining them in innovative and productive ways.
Although the exact structure and angle that we took went through a number of iterations (and some painful cuts to thousands of quite nice words in order to get down to the word limit), the main intention and contribution remains the same. The book investigates and articulates what happens when dynamic networks, contextual customization, and computational processes become as important as form, function, and material were for designing, using, and understanding objects in the industrial age. It is a book of sense-making, weaving together a number of different perspectives in order to develop an account that is more capable of doing justice to what these things are—and what is at stake.
One thing that is at stake is the practice of industrial, and especially interaction, design. Things that are fluid assemblages are now often developed through progressive optimization, A/B testing of different alternatives against particular metrics more than crafting of meaningful wholes. Design practices that would work with these in the tradition of human-centered design must now, rather paradoxically, temporarily background human experience in order to address other users and types of use. Because these things are now key sites for the production of data, that now most valuable resource and driver of cybernetic platform capitalism. At stake here are the roles that the things we use play in our lives and for other actors who can use them to mediate access to us, as well as their roles in larger socioeconomic processes. Fluid assemblages are composed of a variety of components, and they also assemble their users as component parts in other types of formations.
Indeed, the fact that the things permeating everyday life are now serving these different roles—both a thing for use, and a thing for producing data—is opening up entirely new kinds of problems that call out for better design solutions than are now prevalent. Interfaces have a long tradition of concealing complexity; extensive and opaque terms of service hardly provide meaningful transparency and choice regarding the various actors and relations in play; and the now frequently-noted “dark patterns” in interface design steer users toward the least privacy-preserving configurations. This is hardly surprising. The prime directive of fluid assemblages, at least in their now most prevalent instantiation as products of marketing logic and cybernetic platform capitalism, is to collect data and target advertising or otherwise steer behavior. This collected data can provide useful and even enchanting personalization and contextual customization, but it is also extremely valuable for other actors that relate to the same assemblages in different ways and for different purposes. Data is the basic resource that fluid assemblages metabolize, and without it they would not be able to serve their multiple functions and users.
One of the concepts we propose at the end of the book is tuning formations. This refers to the fact that fluid assemblages require design practices that are not about crafting individual objects, but rather about assembling things through establishing relations among multiple components and their mechanisms of customization across contexts and evolution over time. It also refers to the roles that things that are fluid assemblages (and their users) play in the larger networks of which they are part, and the ways in which these relations are configured. Another concept we develop, and associated design challenge, is aesthetics of immanence. What would an aesthetic appropriate for things that are immanent in a particular moment, but not existing in a more durable fashion as typical for physical objects, be like?
These are some of the issues that Johan and I will be continuing to explore in our project Design Philosophy for Things That Change, running for the next three years with funding from the Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg Foundation in Sweden. While we continue to develop this work, the overall focus and goal remains the same: changing things.