In their Webcam, Daniel Miller and Jolynna Sinanan offer what they describe as a theory of attainment. While I’m not sure they’d accept my terminology, I read this as an attempt to theorise the causal powers of technology in relation to the causal powers of human beings. They start by recognising that “people have relationships with people and they have relationships with technology, and, mostly, we can’t really disentangle the two” (pg. 3) before turning to the question of how we should theorise this entanglement. Their approach resonates with me because their intention is non-conflationary – though they don’t use this term – in the sense that they see understanding the entanglement as necessitating that we understand the respective characteristics of the entities that are ‘tangled up’. In this sense, it preempts work I’d intended to do looking at tendencies towards conflation in theorising the relationship between human beings and technology: upwards conflation (social constructivism), downwards conflation (technological determinism) and central conflation (sociomateriality and co-evolution). Their account begins negatively, taking aim at what they see as a dominant tendency to juxtapose the novel meditations entailed by new technology with our putatively unmediated former state:

Any new media is first experienced as an additional and problematic mediation to our lives. We can’t help but contrast it with some imagined conversation between two people standing in a field as representing the original, unmediated and natural form of communication. A technology, by contrast, is always regarded as something artificial that imposes itself between the conversationalists and mediates that conversation. (pg. 5)

This licenses the nostalgia and despair for what’s lost that can be seen in the work of someone like Sherry Turkle, in which the (umediated) world of face-to-face relationships has been replaced by the (mediated) world of digital connections. From an anthropological standpoint however “there are no unmeditated, pure relationships” (pg. 3) to be dissolved by digital communications. There has always been material culture and, it follows from this, human relationships have never been exhausted by other human beings. Nonetheless, they seek to acknowledge that people do change in relation to technology but not in a way that can be described as becoming ‘more or less human’ (with the weirdly zero-sum relation between humanity and technology which that implies). Their concern is “to find a means of understanding the impact of new technologies that allows us to consider these as radical changes in consciousness and other basic modes of life, but without this being seen as either an increase or decrease in our essential humanity” (pg. 11).

Their theory of attainment seeks to do this by accounting for “how technology becomes an ordinary aspect of being routinely human” (pg. 13). They begin from the observation that “people who have access to a new media are at first usually concerned to use this technology to facilitate things they already had been trying to do, but had up to then been thwarted by the lack of means” (pg. 11): their focus is on ‘latency’, the situational frustrations, which can be found within any group. Technological innovation should be understood in terms of the “situation of incompleteness with respect to what we want to be or do” which invariably characterises the human condition (pg. 11). New technologies initially facilitate things people wanted to do but couldn’t – or perhaps couldn’t easily due to constraints entailed by prior analogues – with these inclinations predating the utilisation of the technology for things people didn’t know they wanted to do. Their interest is in when these technologies cease to be seen as innovations, facilitating frustrated desires before offering unimagined possibilities, instead becoming part of our background understanding of what it is to be human:

It is the next phase, when this facility becomes the merely taken-for-granted condition of what people simply assume as an integral aspect of who they are, which is the realisation of what we are calling attainment. The ability to write is a mark of attainment because we now tend to view those without that ability as though they lacked some fundamental property of being an ordinary human. Originally writing was an achievement, but by now it is considered a necessary condition. For many people, being able to type on a computer, or to drive a car, or speak on a telephone has become a similar mark of attainment. Webcam will serve as an example of this process because of the sheer speed with which it passes from an ideal we had aspired to, to a mundane technology we taken for granted. (pg. 12)

This account conceives of technology as facilitating latent capacities of human beings. As I understand it, they offer the notion of ‘an attainment’ as a way to conceptualise those capacities which rely upon a technological apparatus that we now take for granted: our technological innovations realise latent capacities and, in doing so, change what it is to be human but in a way that recognises this capacity for change as something intrinsic to humanity. This implies “a kind of latency in the human condition, but not merely a litany of pre-given imagined abilities planted in evolutionary time and then coming into being with new technology” (pg. 14):

There was no gene for writing that was frozen until the invention of the pen. Technology in and of itself transforms capacity and changes what human beings can do or can be envisaged as doing. The last of the four stages defined by Miller and Slater in examining technological change, which was called the expansive potential, concerns those aspirations that can only now be imagined thanks to these developments. Technology creates as well as realises latency. (pg. 15)

This theory of attainment offers a framework for analysing the trajectories through which technological innovations are adopted and how the adopters change in the process. It can be usefully applied to the study of individual cases or to much wider social units. This is a view of humanity “that incorporates its own potential for change” (pg. 12) and I think this is crucial: it avoids a view of infinite plasticity, where we are reshaped by technical tools, but also one of inert quiddity, where we remain stubbornly resistant to technologically induced change. It recognises the properties of technology, without leading us into the trap of either seeing the uses to which a technology is put as intrinsic to the technology or as irrelevant to the technology. 

My initial impressions of Bernard Stiegler were far from positive, largely ensuing from the sheer incomprehensibility of his writing. However this essay by Mark Featherstone (HT Emma Head) has reminded me why I bought Stiegler’s books in the first place after a few people explained the themes he addresses in his work. Featherstone is concerned with Stiegler’s work as a resource to help illuminate a way out of our being “lost in a hyper-functional technological world” in which “the masturbatory logic that supports, for example, the Apple universe” leads me to “become my own other”. His point here concerns the deliberate eroticisation of these products, coupled with the designed inevitability of their obsolesce. The iPhone, so sleek and seductive, encourages us to invest ourselves in it while the commercial system upon which we depend to attain it strenuously works to preclude the sustainability of that investment:

The effect of this reliance is that we escape our lack through the object. Of course, the additional problem of the technological object today is that, unlike the transitional object — such as the ageing teddy or the old blanket, which grow with us — the evolution of the modern technological object is organised around planned obsolescence. Where we are meant to outgrow the transitional object, the technological gadget outgrows us. It moves on — the iPhone 3 becomes the 3G, the 4, 4S, 5, 5S, 5C. As Steve Jobs famously said before the unveiling of Apple’s latest gadget, “one more thing.” Following the logic of Marxist commodity fetishism, there is always “one more thing . . .” that indicates to us that we always lack.

His argument makes me think back to an exhibition I saw at the Tate Modern earlier in the summer. It involved a dark room, into which people entered and were assailed by fleeting apparitions projected onto the walls. But the contents of the exhibition itself were largely irrelevant. What struck me was how utterly the efficacy of it depended upon the jarring impact of entering a pitch black space and how manifestly this failed because the majority of those entering the room immediately reached for a smart phone to pierce the darkness, in many cases subsequently clutching it protectively even after they had ceased to depend upon the reassurance of its light to acclimatise themselves to the installation. My initial reaction to this was irritation, followed by curiosity and then paroxysms of reflexive doubt when I realised that the immediate expression of my internal realisation (“isn’t it weird and interesting that people do this with their iPhones?”) was to reach for my own iPhone and open Twitter.

To a cynic this might sound like an awfully long winded way of saying that our consumer objects bring us comfort. I think there’s more to it though. Featherstone’s point in contrasting ‘my smartphone’ to a transitional object is that we come to outgrow the latter. It serves to facilitate a transition from the unmediated dependency of early natality through to our individuation within a network of relations in which we gradually come to negotiate this need without ever entirely overcoming it: it’s the consistency of this dependency throughout the life course, depending on others throughout even if dependency on a particular other is fleeting, which is repudiated within the culture of late capitalism. Others recognise us in a way that disowns our dependency, with ‘co-dependency’ widely seen as pathological, in turn encouraging us to disown it in others. Where dependency is acknowledged it is sequestered in specialised institutions, constituting a way in which modernity itself mitigates against our learning to live with dependency. If it is acknowledged, it is framed as something which is overcome through childhood and which cannot be overcome in old age. This confusion becomes particularly pronounced if we consider that one way of reading the findings of the emerging adulthood literature is that the extent of dependency in late adolescence is expanding rather than shrinking, at least in the industrial west.

Against this background the iPhone becomes a strangely overloaded object. As the people in the Tate modern installation showed, it is literally a torch we can use to pierce the darkness. It allows us to absent ourselves from social situations, escaping from others and their recalcitrant disinclination to cater to the dispositions we are often only dimly aware we posses. It leaves the knowledge system at our fingers, in the process allowing us to evade the limitations of our capacity to remember and our willingness to even try. It is our entire network, all those we know and all those we might wish to know, compressed into the palm of our hands. The latent capacity of the object is bewildering and overwhelming: in allowing us to say whatever we want to whomever we want to, it obscures the question of why we would want to do these things. Stripped of the horizons imposed by scarcity, we struggle to orientate ourselves to the endless possibilities it affords. The iPhone comes to represent everything we could do and could be but are not. It helps us repudiate our dependency (“I don’t need them, there’s no end to the things I could do”) without making us independent – in fact it undermines this because the simultaneous expansion of possibility and contraction of grounds upon which to choose can easily engender compulsivity (i.e. never exhausting the novelty in my hand and having no grounds upon which to choose between novelties leads to mindless repetition and inertia). This is how I understand the lack that Featherstone discusses and I’d be interested to know if my understanding is substantively different to what I assume to be the Lacanian notion he invokes or if I’m just rearticulating it in a different theoretical jargon. It’s the relationship between our being and becoming: the possibility of becoming some other being that precludes the self-subsistence of our present being. We can never just be because we are always in the process of becoming and we always have some evaluative orientation to the possible selves we (fallibly) see ahead of us. It matters to us what kind of person we might become. The ‘masturbatory logic’ suggested by Featherstone is, on my reading, the tendency of these devices and the ‘ecosystems’ within which they exist to leave us mired in what I see as an existential gap between what we are and what we could become rather than a ‘lack’ that characterises our being.

In this sense, we can see the iPhone as an object both reassuring and destabilising. It induces a sense of autonomy but at a cost of undercutting our capacity to sustain meaningful commitments in a life structured around its omnipresence. It helps us symbolically overcome our dependence but detracts from our capacity to meaningfully enter into new relations with all the capacity for dependency they herald: why commit to these people when I can so easily meet those people? What I’m trying to get at is the relationship between a technological artefact like the iPhone and our capacity to live with what Ian Craib calls ‘disappointment’:

Why disappointment? In common usage, and in the dictionary, we talk about disappointment as what happens, what we feel, when something we expect, intend, or hope for or desire does not materialise. One of the difficulties of living in our world is that it is perhaps increasingly less clear exactly what we might expect or hope for or desire. In fact, these words mean different things. The most basic is desire: it carries connotations of needing urgently, yearning, to the point almost of trying to will something into existence. Sometimes we desire something so completely that we revert to our infant selves and scream, metaphorically or in reality, in the hope that our desire may be realised – just as, if we were lucky, the milk used to appear in response to our screams from the cot.

Ian Craib, The Importance of Disappointment, Pg 3

In fact I’d go as far as to venture that the iPhone is the most potent artefact ever constructed for escaping disappointment. Our desire to get out of the mess of life finds expression in this shiny implement for which we pay so much and from which we expect so much. It serves this practical function (distraction, connection, escape) but it also comes to represent our capacity to float free of others, wriggling free of the bonds of dependency in which we are all irrevocably entwined. However it is a fleeting object, soon to be obsolete, offering a chimerical sense of autonomy generative more of compulsion than purposiveness. This is precisely what Featherstone’s essay has persuaded me that Stiegler actually does have a lot of insight into, in spite of the latter’s atrocious writing style. I was also interested to find that Stiegler’s prescriptions parallel my own:

Stiegler tells us that we must fight for the right to the future. Like Prometheus, the original rebel with a cause, we must struggle to save the possibility of hope. We must struggle to save our openness to change, which is, of course, based in our humanity, which is, in turn, rooted in our fundamental lack — our default.

Stiegler argues that we must find time and space in life for otium, or studious leisure, which is today absolutely subordinate to negotium, or calculation and necessity. [70] Fundamentally, he explains that this is not about supporting the importance of the pleasure principle, but rather a defence of art, craft, and the value of cultural discipline, because this is how we insert ourselves into a world and co-individuate ourselves through communication with others. In this sense, he is critical of Foucault, who he argues advances a one-dimensional view of the idea of discipline, a view that ignores the importance of discipline in suturing people into social symbolic systems that allows them to become human and elevate themselves beyond mere bestial necessity. This is why he thinks we need valuable objects that can enable us to create historical fictions — realisable fictions based in the past that can act as guides to the present and help us to think about moving forward into the future. These good fictions, or fictions of the good, are essentially utopias, narratives necessary to escape the horror of our contemporary un-world and which we can only create on the basis of the care, attention, and discipline we learn through immersion in culture. This is why Stiegler writes in Taking Care of Youth and Generations about the culture industries and what he calls the “battle for intelligence,” because it is here, in the psychopolitical struggle for available brain time, that the possibility of care, attention, and discipline is destroyed in the emergence of hyper-attention and drive-based culture characterised by a complete lack of focus. [71] Stiegler is scathing of consumer culture because there is no know-how or craft in the channel or web surfer who says I want this, that, and the other, and I want it now.

The capacity of this technology to consume is paralleled by a capacity to create. In fact the mobility of the technology allows us to build a life around creation, turning the interstices of late modernity into sites for a renewed craft – if only we can cultivate an attentiveness that is sufficiently durable to avoid being diluted by compulsivity.

This point made by Liz Stanley and Andrea Salter can’t be stressed enough:

Digital communication is however a supremely material medium involving large amounts of hardware, including computers, cell-phones and tablets, requiring software platforms that structure and help shape in very material ways the communications that can be engaged in, and being reliant on electricity or proxy-forms such as batteries. Also, an array of traces remains and can be made material. Websites stay in existence long after hosting sites may have vanished; email is ‘there’ and can be recovered; and text messages are similarly ‘there’ and available. And for all these, people can and do engage in their own forms of archiving, some of which involve printing out and making as material and ‘words on paper’ as the conventional letter.

In fact I’d supplement this argument with the observation that my neck is hurting because of the slightly odd position I’ve been sitting in while using my laptop for the past hour. Digital technology is ‘supremely material’ and our engagements with it are unavoidably embodied. This should be axiomatic for any attempt to understand socio-technical systems.

This is a line of thought I seem to encounter ever more frequently, perhaps reflecting how integrated into everyday life these mobile technologies are becoming:

I am deeply attached to my ipad and have it with me almost constantly. I check my email obsessively and tend to all the alerts and messages generated by the various apps and social media platforms. I keep papers for meetings and can access my calendar with all the notes on my rather complex work schedule. It is invaluable.

The problem is, in many meetings, that I am prey to the temptation to ‘look down, not up’. The technology is pulling me out of the context, the meeting I am in, into another space. This is not an original observation, many social commentators have remarked upon the substitution of what they deem an ersatz virtual experience for a real one.

This phenomenon is clearly not just about the workplace, but it is there I would like to focus. Give a scientific presentation for instance and a majority of the attendees will be staring at the device on their laps, a few using it to support the talk, following up on terms they do not understand, many more checking email or facebook. We clearly have to find our way out of the situation and we need practical strategies for addressing it, not rhetoric or finger wagging.

However I find it obviously problematic. People have always absented themselves from social situations in which they’re participating, often without any outward appearance of doing so (until they’re asked a question). I wouldn’t deny there’s something particularly insidious about iPads and laptops, given the genuinely practical role they can serve in contexts like meetings, which is worthy of discussion. But there’s an oddly abdicable tone which frequently creeps into these debates, as if the iPad creates an impulse to zone out that was previously absent, as opposed to providing a means through which an existing impulse can find expression. In doing so, the technology may act back up on the propensity, intensifying it by providing a recurrent grounds (“I wonder if I have any new e-mail”) for enacting it. But the propensity does not originate in the technology. It would be like blaming WordPress and Feedly for the fact I’ve only written 400 words in the last 3 hours.

In this podcast I talk to Martin Weller, author of the Digital Scholar, about the changes which digital technology is bringing about within academia and where they might ultimately lead. It’ll be up on Sociological Imagination at the end of this week or early next week.