The Digital Condition: The Practical Order as Pivotal

The Practical Order as Pivotal might seem like an odd choice to initiate a reading group on the digital condition, as it makes no reference to digital technology. However it’s been central to my own thinking as someone who has done a lot of theoretical work on social media and its implications for social life. My suggestion is that it raises a number of issues which are easy to overlook amidst ‘the shock of the new’ and cautions us against the readiness with which social media can be read in narrowly discursive terms. Archer argues in it for the primacy of practice: the relation to the world which is prior to language and follows from the constitution of our embodiment and the character of the world. As she puts it on pg 155:

There must be practices like the raw emotionality of the involuntary ‘ooch’ when the toe is stubbed on something hard, the ‘argh’ of fear when predators attack, and the ‘oo’s’ of surprise or pleasure at a cool drink or a warm fire. Physiologically, the way we are made and the way the world is, together regulate these practices without verbal intermediaries. When cold, we extend our hands towards the fire, but excessive heat leads us to withdraw them, and it is upon these prior physiological signifiers that our language of feelings is built and our emotional expressiveness is born.

These come first in the development of our species but also in our development as people. To foreground these relations dislodges language from its pride of place in our conception of the human, recognising how the aboutness of language tracks the aboutness of experience. There is an objective relation inherent in experience itself, in the sense that it is experience of something, even if we come to experience this through concepts which are linguistic at root. My experience of this desk as a ‘desk’ is involuntary but so too are its enablements and constraints in relation to writing. If it collapsed at the first sign of pressure then it would be a ‘broken desk’ or a ‘useless piece of shit I shouldn’t have bought’ but most of all it would no longer have the physical powers which explained my experience of its deskness. In parallel to this we should understand language as a doing in the world, albeit of a particularly valorised and dominant sort which defines our everyday life. In some cases our linguistic doings are intended to bring about effects in the world, in others they do so involuntary such as my subvocalisation while writing this irritating the person I share an office with. But they are doings which need to be understood in relation to states of affairs in the world.

It follows from this that what Archer calls the practical order extends beyond our use of language. This argument stresses how non-linguistic knowledge (“tacit information, skills, know-how”) emerges from practical interactions between ourselves and the natural world or material artefacts. This comes in “chunks or stocks” rather than “linear sequences such as sentences”, it is “embodied in the seat of our pants rather than in the declarative memory” and it is multi-sensory in a way which codified knowledge tends not to be. Her focus on the latter point is on the reliance on alphabet or sentences for written/spoken transmission of codified knowledge. But I think the media is just as important, with such knowledge embedded in spoken lectures or codex books in a way which conditions our interaction with it. In fact recognising this blurs the distinction slightly because a book is obviously a material artefact but this in turn points towards practical engagement mediating the transmission of knowledge through books. If we approach a text in order to ‘mine’ it for knowledge, we inevitably read it in a shallow way. To engage thoughtfully involves a slower interaction with the materiality of it, turning pages and drawing in the margins, as opposed to going line-by-line to extract information in the most efficient way possible. This highlights what is lost when practical knowledge is codified, as a rich embodied relationship tends to get reduced into an abstract one which can be encoded through media but loses force and vitality in the process.

However I’ve used natural world and material artefacts interchangeably in the paragraph above and this obscures the subtly of her argument. They both produce know how rather than know that but practical knowledge of material artefacts has additional features. It is procedural rather than declarative, implicitly encoded in the body as skills, tacit because understood through activity, extensive of our bodily powers. If propositional knowledge is acquired through scholarship and embodied knowledge through self discovery then practical knowledge is acquired through apprenticeship. This is undertaken through relations with artefacts that have been designed and engineered in specific ways. From pg 167:

These powers which are most obvious with machinery, are universal to the practical order, as simple objects like the drinking gourd or spoon illustrate. However, these are built into their shape and form, their juxtapositioning and interlinkages, their cogs and wheels, strings and windholes; into the powers of a recipe, a flint, a medicine, a tune – and as such they are non-discursive.

These decisions encode meanings in the artefact itself. Assumptions, ideas and theories are expressed in the artefact being one way rather than other, even though their primary influence on us is practical constraint. As she puts it on pg 168: “In a very serious causal sense, material culture ‘escapes’ its makers”. They retain the capacity to shape our actions but they do not control what we do with them nor what we make of them. From pg 169:

The very physicality of material culture ‘informs’ by resisting certain practical actions: a normal corkscrew can only be made to work in a clockwise direction. Moreover artifacts discriminate among their legitimate users: blisters ensue when a right-handed person tries using lefthanded scissors, and safety tops on pill containers deter children. Furthermore, like nature, artifacts give us cues and clues as to how we are doing.

To develop competence with an artefact entails a feel for it. I’m touch typing this without thinking about it but if I look at the keyboard and think about the letters then my typing speed slows dramatically. We can account for what we are doing, as well as how we learned to do it. But this accounting is secondary to the fact of our doing it. It is however crucial for helping others learn to do it, providing a guide for their approach to these artefacts in pursuit of their comparable ends. To develop this is an instance of embodied incorporation in which we take on board the use of an artefact,  extending our capacities and changing our orientation towards the world. We can learn about the new uses we can make of the artefact either through our own experimentation or by reading propositional accounts of their use. However each element of novelty we encounter challenges our embodied incorporation, confronting us with a burden of adaptation.

I hope this hasn’t been too opaque because I realise it might be difficult to follow for those unfamiliar with critical realism. The reason I’ve chosen this text is because I think a number of very interesting concerns emerge from it which help us to understand the digital condition:

  1. Smart devices can track what users do with them and make of them in real time, feeding this back into design decisions. When we are talking about software, a dynamic front-end for a material artefact, these can modulate the interface in near real-time e.g. by presenting us with content which has been algorithmically filtered to maximise the likelihood of our engagement with it. This illustrates how smart devices are not merely contingently different from other material artefacts. The ontology of our relationship with them is substantially different because their constraints and enablements are dynamic.
  2. The dynamism ensuing from this poses a profound challenge to embodied incorporation. The fact that modulation is ubiquitous means the embodied habits we build around our devices are unstable. When my iPhone updated to iOS 13 overnight I spent the following morning being irritated that many things didn’t work in the way I used to. It was a particularly dramatic example of this challenge but more time and energy is being consumed by adapting to the dynamism which is inherent in smart devices and their associated platforms. The lifespan of our embodied incorporation rests on the stability of an artefact’s constraints and enablements. These are being eroded in accelerating ways as an expression of the dynamism which is inherent to the devices.
  3. The centrality of communication to our use of these devices does not mean they are narrowly linguistic. The writing we exchange take places through the mediation of the aforementioned devices, defined by the dynamism and unstable characteristics, in the process being shaped by them in ways which platform studies has sought to grasp. But there are also practical relations with the artefact which exceed these social relations. What are we doing when we check Instagram with no clear sense of why we are doing it? To focus on the embodied relationship with the device grounds questions like this in the intimate place which digital devices have in our lives. It’s not a new question but it does involve a subtle change of emphasis, highlighting how we keep our phones close, stroke them with our fingers and hope they won’t disappoint us.
  4. It helps us see how platforms and devices condition their users without controlling them. The constrained openness which characterises our engagement with artefacts, working with their features while escaping the intentions of their designers, means there is a degree of freedom which users have in their approach to platforms and devices. But designers seek to catch up with these uses in a potentially open-ended and accelerative cycle. This is the platform analogy to structure and agency.

5 thoughts on “The Digital Condition: The Practical Order as Pivotal

  1. Thanks (bookmarked)! I have just about started tiptoeing around my prospective PhD area of understanding Indian queerhood via Internet visual culture, and intend to use the very ‘ahistorical’ https://warburg.library.cornell.edu/about for methodology. So any direction which doesn’t treat the digital condition as a ‘strange / exotic / exclusive / subcultural subjectivity’ is very empowering for my work. That’s why I so keenly follow you. Much love!

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