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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Craft Guilds

“Circulation of Skilled Labor in Late Medieval and Early Modern Central Europe” Reinhold Reith

Reading Reith’s framing of the history of tramping (period of traveling journeymen of a craft undergo), guild structure, a sort of mapping of region and craft, and the circulation of tacit knowledge and technology left me feeling surprised that really, up until now, I was thinking of craftsmanship as locally fixed. We’ve read a little bit about the tensions between man and machine locally – that is within a craft or a craftsman with a craftsman body, and I suppose I wasn’t thinking beyond this local node, or between local nodes globally. It seems silly to recognize that certainly knowledge, even tacit knowledge, has influence from beyond the local in terms of technique, technology, and materials. Reith’s summarizes his historical gloss as follows:

  • guilds were omnipresent
  • it was difficult to prevent skilled labor from moving around (beyond local)
  • the impossibility of stopping skilled workers from moving had consequences for the diffusion of technology – skills and knowledge (interested in his definition of technology)

I’m particularly interested in the diffusion of technology. Reith explains

“highly mobile journeymen were a significant force of technological diffusion…[Whereas] forced migration [of masters] helped transfer technology across linguistic and national, although probably not religious boundaries, journeymen’s travels were mostly restricted to areas that were institutionally and culturally more homogeneous, and were thus instrumental in shaping technological pools. By contrast… ‘unfree’ highly regulated markets, and in particular the labor markets of the crafts, blocked the spread of innovations through journeyman tramping: no master was willing to disclose workshop secrets and innovations were unwelcome” (131)

Reith works to make this look at circulation more nuanced though, seeming to focus on illuminating that “forced” was actually more voluntary; journeymen traveled with the objective of gaining technical experience with the intention of returning (131). He explains, with examples in different crafts, that “The recruitment and enticement of desirable specialists occurred across territorial and linguistic barriers in every sector” (133); journeymen traveled to cooperate with large numbers of masters (men and women), other journeymen and apprentices; learned about regional differences in work organisation; and came to recognise different practices, raw materials, and products in their journey. Reith notes that there was potential for failure in this traveling, or migration due to technical, economic, social, cultural, and religious reasons (even to the extent that some journeymen could not return). Reith describes the diffusion of technology in these journeymen’s travels as taking the form of radiation, acquisition through imitation (“imperceptible”) and by migration (“spectacular”) sometimes coercion (132). Reith describes that patterns of mobility varied from trade to trade, but late medieval and early modern skilled workers were highly mobile (141) with the emphasis on acquiring technology to improve craft. But, some crafts were closed to diffusion; not permitting migration of journeymen in or out of a guild resulted from attempting to protect the primacy in a craft; however, in working to conceal what is being made from outside craftsmen, the making cannot be influenced by outside craftsmen  – no new techniques.

I’m interested in the diffusion of technology in terms of technique in the circulation of journeymen and its relationship to tools and its relationship with technological advancement and machinery. I also found myself wanting visualizations of “primary” or “origin” crafts and their form/technique/materials over time/space as influenced by diffusion – a leather glove had a certain type of stitching in France until a journeymen observed and developed the technique of stitching used in Switzerland for X reason – what does the glove look like then? A blend? Something different in the combination of elements? I’d be curious to see this diffusion (and traces to place/people/technique would be really neat).

After reading, I was browsing the web for guilds and came across an exhibit on display at The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History: “Mud Masons of Mali”. The exhibit is described on its page as “featuring photographs, original films, objects and tools, tell[ing] the stories of one of Africa’s most celebrated ancient architectural traditions, and it highlights the different challenges masons face today to hold on to their craft in the 21st century”. I thought that this might function as an example of diffusion. There are two short videos about the mason work from the perspectives of the masons, particularly their craftsmanship and their work on the Djenne Mosque – The Great Mosque. Each year, the community gathers for the application of a new layer of mud over the mosque. This is following the traditional technique and tools (much work depicted is done by the hand – hand as tool) of the Boso, described on the Smithsonian site as “a centuries-old craft guild that fosters and oversees the art of mud construction. Techniques and traditions are handed down between generations of masons as young laborers strive to become apprentices and, eventually, after years of perfecting their art, master masons.” The videos show the training and skills needed to build and maintain mud architecture, but illuminate the “contemporary political and environmental challenges mud masons encounter as they struggle to preserve their historic city in the face of modernization”. The Master Mason explains that the masons are striving to maintain traditional building styles while meeting the demand for bigger buildings with more conveniences – indoor plumbing, and painted and tiled portions to reduce upkeep of the mud (the process requires the entire community in part). I wonder where diffusion plays a role here in the desire for “contemporary” (to put it loosely) buildings. But a more striking example is told from the Master Mason in response to the restoration work done by UNESCO workers on the Mosque. In 1988 The Mosque was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site – as a representation of one of the most impressive mudbrick buildings in the world (constructed in 1907). Internally, as described by the Master Mason, there were many hidden cracks that needed to be mended. But the work of the UNESCO workers, he describes as “European” – what does diffusion mean here? Although the materials (not certain of the tools) were the same as the Boso have used, the technique is different. As shown in the video, The Mosque goes from having more rounded shape as a result of applied and shaping mud by the palm, to having more rigid edges (a different technique and aesthetic – the building has changed). I wonder about the exchange of knowledge and technology between the UNESCO journeymen and the Guild of the Boso.

Rhetorics of Craft: Final Project Proposal Scraps

For my final project in the course, I would like to explore the relationship between human and machine through Latour’s concept of hybrids (which I have yet to do much reading on, so this is rather cursory understanding: the seamless being between nature and culture) to consider the connection between techne and technology. This seems a rather large undertaking, though, but I have yet to decide on a material or process artifact. But I think I want it to be a digital.

EDITION: I started thinking about tools in terms of programs, like Photoshop as the focus for this project. But I then realized what I wanted to look at is information architecture  (craftsmanship) on the web. I initially thought about GUIs, but I a now thinking in terms of tools, or add-ons, to the web browser as a way of crafting information we encounter on the web. Maybe through the metaphor of carpentry, thinking back to Ian Bogost’s carpentry in Alien Phenomenology.

The Craftsman

Tomorrow we are discussing the first chapter “The Troubled Craftsman” in Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman (which I will facilitate discussion on – a thumb in the crease of this post to return with a more holistic focus).

In this moment though, I am struck by the book’s prologue. For one, just having finished Aristotle yesterday, I am seeing his influence come through in the making of things for the good as a cultural matter in conducting a particular way of life (8) – connections! And while we have yet to read Bruno Latour, knowing that we will be reading pieces of Pandora’s Hope (which I have not read), and having a personal interest in Latour, I am captivated by drawing connections between Sennett’s use of Pandora, “Pandora’s Casket”, and Latour’s Pandora’s Hope in what I have read on it in his piece “An Attempt at Writing a Composition Manifesto”. Sennett writes

“If in this way culture’s time is short, in another way it is long. Because cloth, pots, tools, and machines are solid objects, we can return to them again and again in time; we can linger as we cannot in the flow of discussion. Nor does material culture follow the rhythms of biological life. Objects do not inevitably decay from within like a human body. The histories of things follow a different course, in which metamorphosis and adaptation play a stronger role across human generations…Material culture provides in sum a picture of what human beings are capable of making…Nature might be a better guide, if we understand our own labors as part of its being.” (15)

With Aristotle’s definition of nature still fresh in mind, I’m wondering what Sennett is eliciting with nature and if it is functioning as something to push against man|technological makings?

This makes me think of Latour’s compositionism as a way of envisioning progress not as forward looking, progressing in creating new materials (ideas and things), but at what is made – composed and decomposed. He explains

“compositionism takes up the task of searching for universality but without believing that this universality is already there, waiting to be unveiled and discovered. It is thus as far from relativism (in the papal sense of the word) as it is from universalism (in the modernist meaning of the world — more of this later). From universalism it takes up the task of building a common world; from relativism, the certainty that this common world has to be built from utterly heterogeneous parts that will never make a whole, but at best a fragile, revisable and diverse composite material.”

and a more explicit Pandora connection

“The thirst for the Common World is what there is of communism in compositionism, with this small but crucial difference that it has to be slowly composed instead of being taken for granted and imposed on all. Everything happens as if the human race was on the move again, expelled from one utopia, that of economics, and in search of another, that of ecology. Two different interpretations of one precious little root, eikos, the first being a dystopia and the second a promise that as yet no one knows how to fulfill. How can a livable and breathable “home” be built for those errant masses? That is the only question worth raising in this Compositionist Manifesto. If there is no durable room for us on Pandora, how will we find a sustainable home on Gaia?”

In what ways are Sennett and Latour invoking Pandora, materials, making|composing, and nature for what we craft? Is Aristotle’s “good” as a function of our making still pertinent? Or is there something more sinister, a loss of connectivity between head and hand, at (mass) play?