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On Technical Agency and Procedural Rhetoric
A quick response to Joshua McVeigh-Schulz
January 24, 2012

There's an interesting discussion over at Culture Digitally between Gina Neff, Tim Jordan, and Joshua McVeigh-Schulz on the subject of technical agency, or "how we should (re)theorize the politics of technological systems." Gina Neff's opening comments include a welcome statement about the limits of SCOT perspectives on technical systems:

Within the social studies of technology, technological determinism is dead. By that I mean that the same kind of logic that motivates technologists carries absolutely no theoretical purchase in contemporary scholarship. It is not that we academics and they technologists come from and speak and work within different cultures. It is almost as if we have no way of translating across this gap.

My problem is that we as academics of technology don't yet have the theoretical language and tools to talk about these systems. We have rightly corrected technologically deterministic theories to better account for user agency and the social construction of tools. However, I am beginning to think that we may have "overcorrected," with the pendulum swung too far in the direction of human power, ignoring the serious questions that remain about how tools are designed, how they function socially, and how users are aware of their positions and power.

I'd say that technological determinism never really lived, but was projected by the social determinists (dare I say that?). Even in Neff's comments, we see the tools "being designed" and "functioning socially," rather than having a rich existence of their own right.

Later in the discussion, Joshua McVeigh-Schultz talks at length about my idea of procedural rhetoric as an example of technical infrastructure informing political engagement. There's a lot to like in that discussion, but I have to point out a few misconceptions McVeigh-Schultz seems to have, since I seem to see the same ones with increasing frequency of late. He writes:

Bogost's framework suggests that translating a real world issue into procedural rhetoric somehow precludes the possibility that assumptions about systemic relationships might themselves be ideologically inflected

The above comment is followed by a quote from Persuasive Games that would seem to support the notion if taken out of context ("Procedural rhetorics articulate the way political structures organize their daily practice; they describe the way a system "thinks" before it thinks about anything in particular"). But that's 50 words in a 140,000 word book. McVeigh-Schultz concludes from this snippet that procedural rhetoric "erases human agency from the way a system thinks," which isn't at all my position. In fact, the way humans think is often a part of the very systems that someone would want to simulate; and furthermore, the people doing the simulation authoring always do so from a particular vantage point. In both Unit Operations and Persuasive Games I go to great lengths to describe this subjective aspect of simulations. In fact, on the page immediately following the one McVeigh-Schultz quotes, I mention the myraid perspectives taken by a number of different political election simulations.

McVeigh-Schultz goes on to wonder if the players of such games are able to unpack the procedural rhetoric in a particular artifact. This is a good question, one related to media literacy vis-a-vis games in particular and software in general. A full third of Persuasive Games deals with learning, and there's a considerable discussion of the ups and downs of being "procedurally literate," both in terms of being able to read systems and being able to "write" them in software (or other) form. McVeigh-Schultz seems to think that designers have greater access to this literacy, and I think that's probably both right and wrong. On the one hand, designers know they are authoring a system, at least. But on the other hand, they often don't realize the assumptions they are making (this is also discussed in Persuasive Games. In any case, I don't know if verbal rhetorics are more subject to material interrogation by virtue of their very form, a suggestion McVeigh-Schultz makes, or because we have more collective experience and literacy in evaluating them.

There's more I could say about all this, but I'll have to stop short. Let me leave this breadcrumb for the time being: things have thingness, they have a form and materiality to them, and that materiality is real. That doesn't mean that humans disappear. Why must it always be one or the other, even in discussions that frame the problem as one that has overemphasized human intervention?

Comments (1)
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I just posted a comment on culture digitally that I think speaks to your point as well.

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