Thursday, October 13, 2011

People Not Things

Over to Crooked Timber, Clay Shirky concludes:
What puzzles me is why we should want to avoid those [agency denying] phrases in the first place. What is it about communications tools that seems to arouse more anxiety about our usual, agency-encapsulating shorthand than other kinds of technologies? 
 He sneers at the childishness of worrying about including agents when writing about technology:
Consider, as an example plucked from the communal corpus just now, the Henckels 8-Inch Bread knife, as reviewed on Amazon
Very nice knife, cuts the bread without any effort and looks good doing it.
…or this, also googled up an instant ago, from the story of ships operated by the Furness Bermuda Cruise Line
During the 1920s, Forts Hamilton, Victoria and St George carried the
Now you might expect the people worried about tools and agency to be all over stuff like this: “The knife cuts the bread?! Humans cut the bread, thank you very much. And ships carrying passengers? What’s this, Thomas The Yacht Engine?”

Really? The ships do carry the passengers but they are the product of human ingenuity and etc. Everyone knows that, the verb carry doesn't offer any hint of agency. Neither does the verb cut. As  matter of fact, nobody anywhere thinks that ships build and steer themselves of that knives cut with out some animating force, usually a person. Oddly enough, he more or less admits all this

However, as he makes clear, when it comes to the recent events in North Africa and the Middle East, people, like Clay Shirky want to give some credit for causing those events to the tools used. When, on a more serious note, he argues:
Some of this may be about the newness of the Arab Spring, but agency anxiety seems to attach to communications tools more generally—in The Social Life of Media Peter Burke and Asa Briggs attack Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, specifically on the grounds that her reference to agency is inappropriate.

And yet, despite their commitment to keeping agency firmly lodged in the human, even Messrs. Burke and Briggs end up concluding (a little glumly, to my eye) that:
…in thinking about the way in which printed matter encouraged political consciousness, while a more acute political consciousness led in turn to a rise in the consumption of printed matter, it is difficult to avoid a phrase like ‘the logic of print’ (pg. 88)
The thing is that, as Burke and Briggs make clear in the first half of the paragraph Shirky cites, it's not printed matter in the abstract that encouraged the development of a more acute political consciousness; it was the content. The content wasn't created by the printing press. Right now, for example, you can read an endless number of stories about the forbiden love of women and werewolves or vampires and zombies. Romance novels, improbable and often physically impossible tales of daring do, skullduggary, moralizing true crime, mendacious memoirs and etc in their millions pour from the presses and happy are the consumers thereof. It is difficult, but not -- of course --  impossible, to imagine that the latest Soukie Stackhouse potboiler is raising the political consciousness of its many readers.

There is no logic of print that led to the printing and dissemination of Luther's Theses, Sieyes's "What is the Third Estate," or the French Underground's "Combat" anymore than it was Twitter that toppled the leadership in Algeria.  It was rather the people who printed and disseminated them who offered the opportunity for those who wanted to read. In Algeria it was he who immolated himself and those tweeted and sat. There is no logic of print that led to the literate public reading and sharing with illiterates this content. There is no logic of print that requires making the kind of careful, logical argument that aids an individual in developing skills in logic and argument making. There is no mighty power of the twitter that caused the tweets.

That whole process was the result of  people acting in what they perceived as their own best interests. Twitter and etc didn't grant, create, or condition human agency, their creators provided a tool to be used in what people perceived to be their own best interests. It is, to quote Briggs and Burke, "absurd to deny the creative role of individuals  . . . in the politics and in the communication systems . . . or to overlook the place" of other older forms of communication in bringing about revolutions, reformations, and related whatnottery.

There is no logic of the internal combustion engine that required moving factory  jobs from Detroit and Buffalo to the wilds of northern Mexico where because the man with the stick bothers labor leaders but not drug dealers and polluters costs are low and lives are cheap. The internal combustion engine, the Interstate Highway system, free trade agreements, law enforcement priorities and the like are all the result of humanity or some set of somebodies acting in its or their perceived self interest or, for that matter, because of simple curiosity, the joy of creation, or the desire to get laid, or simple nihilism to name but a few motivations. It was the greed and power of some set of sombodies to do all that "rightsizing" and "off-shoring" because that's what they wanted. Like it or not we, they, or some combination thereof are responsible for the mess the world is in.

Why avoid those phrases which grant to the latest shiny technology a role in creating, as opposed to humanity using it or them to create, the world as it is? Because those agency obscuring and reality distorting phrases make it easier to think about a world in which things happen dependent on technological advances as opposed to a world in which powerful groups and individuals or groups and individuals excluded from power manipulate or seek to manipulate political, social, and economic processes to what they perceived to be their own best interests.

Why else?

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