On technical agency

Casey’s post yesterday about games being designed to “do” things resonated with the research that I’ve done on technologies in industries, first on Building Information Modeling in commercial design & construction and now on consumer biosensors. In both cases, advocates for these new tools tout them as “revolutionary” with the ability to enact sweeping organizational and social changes in the systems where they are implemented.

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 models to account for user agency and the social construction of tools. However, we may have “overcorrected”, ignoring serious questions about how tools are designed and the power that users have within technical systems.

Kevin Kelly, for instance, argues that technology “wants”, “drives”, does. The “technium”, in his formulation, does include culture but this monstrous assemblage takes on a life of its own once put into place.

For the users of the systems that I’ve been observing, they too, feel like they lack control and power within those systems. Just like Keynes said, “In the long run we’re all dead,” the openness of systems for modification by users isn’t always so apparent within the moment or within the system.

I’m not yet willing to cede full-blown agency to technological tools in this case, but I suggest that we should begin talking about “technical agency” — technical in two senses, as in the agency that is possible by systems of technology and as a limiting description of that agency, a not-quite, but technically, having power agency. Doing so, will allow us to confront both the industrial drives pushing technologies to act and the ways in which users can feel trapped within technical systems they can’t quite construct their way out of.