Session 1 reflections: What is research amongst technologies?

Jake Strickland

What counts as ‘technologies’? This might sound like an unbelievably broad or overly foundational question to ask. Yet it is where Jake Strickland and I (Scott Rodgers) felt that we ought to begin if we were going to ask the almost-equally broad question of this workshop series’ first session: What is research amongst technologies? Our participants’ response to the question of what counts as technologies was interesting. Sure, we had some very interesting technological criteria debated, around such things as clothes washers and rice cookers. But the wild and crazy were also forwarded as potential technologies: clothes, alcohol, even sex. For both the more typical and the more wild, however, some common themes emerged. Few were interested in committing to a definition of technologies as necessarily electronic, machinic, or even material in a narrow sense. It seemed that, in these group discussions, the common criteria was less these things than technologies as referring, simultaneously, to things which have some sort of agency upon humans, yet which nearly always become recognisable, as one technology or another, through human agency (i.e. use).

Now, Jake and I had partly contrived things to head in this direction, as we wanted to move from this central question of what technology is, on to the specificity of the digital, and finally on to how we might interweave these general matters into thinking about research practice. So, we were interested to discuss – and did discuss – such things as technogenesis, the idea that the evolution of Homo sapiens is not simply a result of a transmuting human body or mental capacity, but stems from our co-evolution alongside ‘technics’ (i.e. tools, artefacts, etc). The point of such a concept is that technologies can be thought of, on the one hand, as agents, both in small ways (such as the playful door closer example of Bruno Latour) but also in grandly historical ways, such as Marshall McLuhan’s controversial claims about the transformative power of new mediums (e.g. print, television). On the other hand, it also reminds us of critiques of technological determinism (such as Raymond Williams of McLuhan), which question abstract assertions that there is a cause-and-effect relation between or technology and society. As such critiques would argue, not only do we need to think about the design and distribution of technologies, but also their uses and users.

We tried to introduce the idea of specifically digital technology with these points in mind: yes, the rise of digital technologies has fundamental social and cultural implications; but the potentials and limits of such technologies ultimately comes down how we use them, and the conditions in which we do so. So, we first acknowledged a very basic feature about the ‘digital’: information, texts, still/moving images, sounds, etc can all be rendered into the same basic binary data format – ultimately 1’s and 0’s. Digitalisation is a fundamental shift because all information can now be subjected to various procedures of addition, subtraction, division and multiplication – a point well described by cultural theorists like Lev Manovich, and others in software studies. When one considers the exponential increase in computing capacity (e.g. see Moore’s law), the implications for research are potentially huge (see for example, the recent visualisation projects by Manovich, not to mention Dell Zhang’s forthcoming workshop within this series).

However, there is another implication of digitalisation. While previously one might have used many different technological mediums in pursuing different tasks, different mediums are today increasingly converging. “Sound and image, voice and text are reduced to surface effects, known to consumers as interface” (as Friedrich Kittler remarked in opening his book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter). In other words, we increasingly conduct many tasks in front of some sort of digital screen. This was an apt opening point for Jake to outline perhaps the most important overall message of the workshop: more important than the technological capacities of the computers is digital ergonomics. In other words, the real revolution is not in computing capacity but in new developments in how we interface with digital technologies.

What does this have to do with issues of research design, collection, storage, sharing and dissemination? It suggests that researchers don’t start with technologies as such, but instead think first and foremost about what their research interests/objectives really are, how these will be pursued or performed, and then plan and design carefully. For example, to think about the nitty-gritty logistical opportunities and constraints ‘in the field’. This means not only asking what sort of technological solutions might help in that highly situated context, and what are the drawbacks of introducing the same technologies into that milieu. It also meanings asking questions about one’s audiences: not just who the audience is, but quite literally what will be the ergonomics of their accessing your research in whatever form it is presented.

The above only provides a glimpse of the wide ranging discussions. For instance, participants also became quite engaged around how one might use technologies to attend to elusive or implicit (unspoken) phenomena (a problem suggested by one participant’s research in particular, and highly reminiscent of John Law’s After Method). It was, we think, a rather good start to the workshop series.

By Scott Rodgers

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2 responses to “Session 1 reflections: What is research amongst technologies?

  1. Pingback: What is research amongst technologies?

  2. Pingback: Session 8: Using qualitative data software | doing research amongst technologies

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