What is Social

Stephen J. Kline “What is Technology” (it doesn’t have a question mark; a move to define what is)

Technology is used without much nuance; it is conflated to “represent things, actions, processes, methods, and systems”, as well as a symbol for procedures of importance and the forward march of progress (210). Kline works to take apart the various usages of technology and name/define each concept (he describes four) with the goal of understanding the way(s) we humans make our living on the planet.

  • usage one: hardware (or manufactured artifacts)
  • usage two: sociotechnical system of manufacture
  • usage three: information, skills, and procedures for accomplishing tasks
  • usage four: a sociotechnical system of use

These usages of technology account for the people and equipment that manufacture; the complete working system of elements needed to manufacture—people, machinery, processes, legal/economic/political/physical environment; the knowledge, technique, know-how, or methodology to accomplish a task (one that humans could not do alone); and the combination of people and hardware in systems of manufacture and use (which depend on one another and serve as base for human societies). Kline points out that animals use sociotechnical systems but that humans are the only species that purposefully makes innovations to improve their functioning (or hopefully) and that this pattern extends far back beyond this “high-tech age” (212).

The name Kline sparked a connection to Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants (because I first thought it was written by Kevin Kline, who is actually an actor), because I found myself thinking about the sociotechnical system as akin to Kelly’s “technium” — the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us. Technology is possibility. I found myself trying to picture Kline’s sociotechnical system, defined in four usages, and first concocted a nested diagram of increasing complexity. While his definitions are put simply, they account for great complexity; quickly my mind began inserting arrows and paths of flow which assembled a radiating outward/inward network that learns from the patterns emergent in the input/output of humans and nonhumans. I wonder how Kline’s definitions (perhaps limited due to its length) account for how the elements of these systems (are allowed to) communicate (especially when progress is the goal), whereas Kelly’s technium seems to account for ambience, the intangible, and the yet conscious—possibility (or perhaps he just uses words like punctum). In Kline’s sociotechnical system, of which humans and nonhumans are necessary and intrarelated parts, are we (humans) at the center? Based on what/who do innovations take place? How can use and progress (which connote the social in this conception of technology) be discussed with more nuance?

This is less a closing than an opening up, but I found myself wanting to problematize the use of social with the same care that Kline affords technology. I thought of the opening toReassembling the Social ,”Introduction: How to Resume the Task of Tracing Associations”, in which Bruno Latour discusses the definition of social.

“The argument of this book can be stated very simply: when social scientists add the adjective ‘social’ to some phenomenon, they designate a stabilized state of affairs, a bundle of ties that, later, may be mobilized to account for some other phenomenon. There is nothing wrong with this use of the word as long as it designates what is already assembled together, without making any superfluous assumption about the nature of what is assembled. Problems arise, however, when ‘social’ begins to mean a type of material, as if the adjective was roughly comparable to other terms like ‘wooden’, ‘steely’, ‘biological’, ‘economical’, ‘mental’, ‘organizational’, or ‘linguistic’. At that point, the meaning of the word breaks down since it now designates two entirely different things: first, a movement during a process of assembling; and second, a specific type of ingredient that is supposed to differ from other materials.”

So, what is social?


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