Interfaces, Efficiency, and Inequality: The Case of Digital (Auto-) Ethnography of Commercial Technology

Interfaces, Efficiency, and Inequality: The Case of Digital (Auto-) Ethnography of Commercial Technology

Nikolay Rudenko (European University at Saint Petersburg, Sociological Institute of Russian Academy of Science, Saint Petersburg, Russia)
DOI: 10.4018/IJANTTI.2016100101
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Abstract

In the article the author claims that the digital technologies today continue to be good topic for Actor-Network theory (ANT) research because they exemplify many famous Latourian ideas about the role of technological artifacts in moral and political life of society. By drawing upon some key insights from ANT and science and technology (STS) in general, the author tells three stories about how commercial digital application work. The stories are based upon participant observation experience of the author during his 16 months of work at the technical support unit in the UK mobile application. Firstly, the author tells about different digital interfaces in the work of the technical support that vary in how they mediate the communication with users. Second, the author shows that an inequality in the commercial app has a complex and unpredictable nature. Finally, he shows how the efficiency of the app is determined by the multiplicity of actors' ontological models that differently frame and enact their activity. After the (auto-)ethnographic experience of the author it remains open how to conjoin ANT and human-centered position of an ethnographer.
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Introduction

If the idea that all the original and startling become someday mundane is right, then it is the case of actor-network theory (ANT). And I mean here not only the fact that ANT has been extending its horizons of its applicability (to the fields of medicine, politics, culture, economic, etc.) and are successfully used in different countries all over the World. I appeal to the situation that many ideas that Bruno Latour was expressing during several decades from the 1970s to the end of 1990s regarding the role of non-humans (e.g., technologies) in social life, with the advent of digital technologies not only found a new life (with the mass disseminating of digital methods (Rogers, 2013; Ruppert, Law, Savage, 2013)), but become intuitively comprehensible for many people who are not familiar with ANT.

In his 1994 article “On Technical mediation” Latour notes: “Who is the actor <…> If we try to understand techniques while assuming that the psychological capacity of humans is forever fixed, we will not succeed in understanding how techniques are created nor even how they are used. You’re a different person with the gun in your hand.” (Latour, 1994, p. 32-33) It is easy to get affected by the mundane example that Latour offers, that might elicit the objection like “I am able to drop the gun or not use it because I am who determines the situation”. But I believe that everyday capacity to manipulate and to deny the manipulation of some artifacts cannot be the argument if we talk about the technologies as complex systems. It is what is shown by the contemporary technologies: they are complex and they change the way we think about what to be a human. For instance, the following quote demonstrates what does it mean to be a driver:

The hull coverage with telematics are based on the principle “pay as you drive”. The telematics may work either with the separate device that is set up on the automobile or with the mobile application”. The special technology fixes the riding style (over speed, hard braking, nighttime riding, miles on), and allow tidy drivers to get a discount on the hull coverage (The smartest…, 2016).

This example shows not only what Latour calls “translation”, that is, “the creation of a link that did not exist before and that to some degree modifies two elements or agents” (Latour, 1994, p. 32). Other Latourian favorite topic is also at work, one of moral and political effects of technologies. Definitely, the phone with the installed hull coverage application – it is some kind of a spy, or silent tutor, which locates beside the driver and make him be tidy on the road, not to overspeed, not to scorch, and also not to ride at night time! Be it a part of a conscious or not for the application users, but the main effect of this application is more focused and less risky driving style, and, consequently, the particular way of managing human behavior. Here also might be included the very important privacy topic: “The question is, are you ready to exchange your privacy for the hull coverage discount?” – one of the professional forum user argues, - From the other hand, this product is useful in the defining of the location of your car” (The smartest…, 2016). One may add that the “smart hull coverage” also push drivers to think about the future: the tidier will be the style, the less payment will be to the insurance company, and thus, the present tense is closely tied to the future.

All these topics which we mentioned: the influence of technologies in changing the goals of action, moral, political effects and the assemblage of different times and spaces, etc., today is going to be mundane fact and could be easy shown on one banal case of digital technologies. However, at the preceding times they seemed to be complex problems, provoking a lot of discussions within social sciences where many scholars denied any chance to add technological non-humans to their speculations.

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