17-06-2011 mag 4 / popular /


Editorial #04 Digital Artifacts


This magazine edition exists of articles written for the mastercourse 'Spaces of New Media'. The articles displayed here were written by a team of students that together created the best journal of the entire course under the name "Digital Artifacts: New Roles, Skills and Practices."

The question around the structure of the social system has been a topic of debate and opposing views by anthropologists, sociologists and philosophers. For anthropologists, the patterns in the social structure can be explained by mapping the connections between members of a kinship (Knox 2010). In social-network analysis the “social” is traced in the “relations and patterns” (Wellman and Marin 2010, 1) between people or groups with emphasis on their interactions within “whole” or “ego” networks (Knox 2010, 118). Human agents and their roles in the social structure have always been the central building block in sociological and anthropological approaches towards social relations. For structuralists like Anthony Giddens (Giddens 1984), only humans can have agency within the social system and with this view, agency is understood as humans’ “capability to make a difference” (ibid, 14). But for scholars like Bruno Latour (Latour 1994), John Law (Law 1992) and Madeleine Akrich (Akrich 1994), social systems should not only be studied in terms of relations between humans, but the analysis should expand to include non-humans as an essential part of the social structure. This view is central in the actor-network theory (ANT) described by the anthropologist Bruno Latour (Latour 2005). In “Reassembling the Social” he presents the ANT as an approach for exploring the complex interactions of social actors by tracing and describing their actions. Latour’s understanding of an agency is defined as “any thing that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference” (ibid, 71). The notion of “social” for Latour is in the dynamics of movement and transformation by social actors which he calls “actants” (ibid, 54). By this term, he encompasses both humans and non-humans which are recognized as having an agency by their ability to act and “to do things” (ibid, 154). In this sense, Latour sees social actors in kettles, knives and hammers as they can perform certain actions like boiling, cutting or hitting nails. In the notion of ANT, humans and non-humans are symbolically intertwined and exploring “social relations without the non-humans is impossible” (Latour 1992).

The social in technologies
For scholars of ANT our contemporary world is so “pervasively fabricated” (Cuellar 2010, 148) by tools and technologies that our social construction cannot separate humans from the machines. For Latour, machines have always been part of society. Based on the concept of non-human agency, central to his work is the notion that machines also possess social dimensions. Both humans and techniques are seen as actors in “chains of associations” (Latour 1991) in which they form relations and shape each other. In this view, there is no clear distinction between humans and machines, between facts and concepts, material and immaterial – only paths, trails and transformations. The concept of the agency of technologies is also supported by sociologist Madeleine Akrich (Akrich 1994). According to Akrich, technical objects “participate in building heterogeneous networks” (Akrich 1994, 206) of humans and non-humans which, when stabilized become “instruments of knowledge” (ibid, 221). For Latour, the social is embedded in the machines and, in his view, technologies are “full of people” (Latour 1991).

Techniques are not mere objects but complex networks that have a story and programme of actions, “goals and functions” (Latour 1994, 34). Machines carry a certain meaning inscribed by their inventors. According to Latour, each artifact “has a script” or an “affordance” (ibid, 31). The term “affordance” is defined by Donald Norman as “the possible actions a person can perform upon an object” (Norman 2010, 2008). For Latour, the affordance is the potential of artifacts to allow or forbid certain actions and the ability to force humans to “play roles” (ibid, 31). Technologies not only carry an instruction but they also have social characteristics, “values, duties and ethics” (Latour 1992). In order to illustrate the notion of the social dimensions of machines, we will elaborate and expand the case study of the “gun” which Latour presents in “On Technology of Mediation”. The gun is a technology, created by humans in order to fulfill a certain action – to attack or to defend by shooting. This function can be performed by the humans themselves but it is more efficient and effective if they delegate it to the non-humans. But in order to serve well, the gun has to be given the skill to operate in a certain way. When constructed, the gun might be designed with a strong trigger or with a lighter one. A stronger trigger will express a tough behavior of the gun and a light trigger will exhibit hesitation. The design of the gun also presents an instruction of use so that a stronger trigger will force humans to apply more power. Guns also have a safety-bolt which is not only another prescription of use but has a disciplinary nature as it does not allow humans to shoot without a conscious reason. By this way, the non-human gives a prescription to the humans and shapes their actions. Latour describes the prescription as “the moral and ethical dimension of mechanisms” (ibid). In this sense, based on their inscribed character, machines can train humans by inviting them to use new practices and competences.

Technologies are seen by Latour as active mediators, meaning that they can “transform, translate, distort, and modify” (Latour 2005, 39) social relations. According to him, artefacts not only possess a meaning, but they also “produce a meaning” (Latour 1994, 38). This view opposes the concept of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger gives to technologies stating that the essence of technologies is to “bring-forth” (Heidegger 1982, 12) rules and instrumentality. In the view of Latour, this concept describes technologies not as actants but as intermediaries that only “transport meaning”(Latour 2005, 39) without bringing transformation which contradicts the concept of the social nature of machines. In the notion of Latour, the gun is not a dead object, and it also can make a difference. A person carrying a gun without a license is assumed to be a criminal and thus the gun modifies the relations between the holder and the society. Technologies, as well as humans, also have goals inscribed in their design. What is more, in the interaction between humans and technologies, the goals of the human and artefact might change into a third one which has not been expected – a process which Latour calls “translation” (Latour 1994, 32). That means that technologies and humans are in a creative relation towards each other since their interaction can produce an unplanned action and result.  Moreover, technologies act differently in relations with different roles – for example, the gun behaves in another way when used by a militant than when used by an amateur. Humans also demonstrate a different behavior when they hold a gun or a knife. Moreover, with their relation, humans and non-humans can shape each other. The human can turn the gun from an object in the drawer into a weapon and the gun can turn the good citizen into a criminal and in this sense, the agency of the non-human can affect the agency of the human.

Sometimes, techniques can illustrate an entire political ideology. The Berlin key, described by Latour (Latour 1992), is an example of this idea. The key is an object created in Germany in the beginning of the twentieth century whose design is constructed in a way that the mechanism does not allow the owner to take the key unless the door is locked. This artefact illustrates how a political doctrine aimed to discipline the city of Berlin can be embedded into an object and, moreover, this object has the affordance to maintain social relations. The importance of technologies in the social system is emphasized by the notion that machines can participate in the stabilization and negotiation of rules and roles of the actors. In this sense, social relations cannot be analyzed without taking into account the role of technologies.

The agency of the software
Based on the notion of the agency of technologies by Bruno Latour, this journal is going to explore the agency of digitally-created artefacts, enabled by software platforms. In order to conceptualize this view, we are turning to the new media scholar Mirko Tobias Schäfer (Schäfer 2011). In the book Bastard Culture! he gives an agency to software and software-based programs in order to reveal his concept of social participation in Web 2.0. The term “software” has several definitions but one way to describe it is as “instructions and associated data that directs the computer to accomplish a task” (Shäfer 2010, 26). Schäfer presents the software as having an ambiguous nature, located between the material and immaterial, between the real and the symbolic, and he defines it as a “rather strange phenomenon” (ibid, 63). Software-based programs have inscribed programs of action but they are powerful because they can modify social relations. In Latour’s view, we can call the software and software-based artefacts “quasi-objects” (Latour 1993, 51). A quasi object is a mobile object that is passed between actors within a network of relations but is not just an intermediary that only “transports meaning” (Latour 2005, 29), as it can also “mediate and transform personal and collective identity and network relations” (Boje 2002, 3). Quasi objects have a collective nature because they “attach” humans (Latour 1993, 89) and non-humans to one another and they trace networks. Schäfer explores the software artefacts in relation to three properties: “affordance, design and appropriation” (Schäfer 2011, 17). Software affordances refer to the “specificity of technology” inscribed in the design of software artefacts. As mentioned earlier in this paper, Bruno Latour also utilizes the term in order to illustrate the potentials embedded in non-humans. In this sense, software applications and digital artefacts created by them invite the users to use certain skills and practices which are preliminarily designed in the technology. The design of a technology relates to the shape of the artefact made by certain technologies or materials. Schäfer argues that design is dependent on the properties of the materials but it also “creates its own affordances” (ibid, 19). In software platforms and artefacts the possibility of new affordances is much greater than in traditional artefacts due to the complex features integrated within the design of the applications. The third aspect, appropriation, refers to the fact in the everyday life, users adjust the technology and tailor to their needs which can “transform the original design” (ibid, 19) in a way that was not necessarily predicted by the creators of the product. All the three design procedures of software technologies are independent and at the same time interrelated and shaping each other.

Digital artifacts on focus
The journal is going to explore how traditional artefacts are transformed into a new type of digital artifacts, based on sophisticated software platforms. The first article focuses on the artifact of the interactive students book Inanimate Alice which is examined as a new tool by which people can perceive literature. The topic reveals the characteristics of the new artifact as well as the way it enables new practices and roles for readers and writers. The goal of the article is to present how the digital book trains humans new skills and enhances the traditional experience of reading. The next topic explores the online social music platform SoundCloud as software that provides a new space for production, dissemination and audition of recorded music. By focusing on the case of the collaborative creation of alternative electronica musician Imogen Heap's next album, this article examines the agency of online social music network interfaces to prescribe new roles and processes and the effects those processes have on the recorded music experience. The third article puts the focus on film-making and the shift from the traditional to the digital environment. This paper illustrates the transformation of the artifact and how it invites participation in online platforms like Stroome or YouTube by affecting the processes of production and consumption of space. The fourth topic explores the alternative production of game content as a new practice in modern games and uses the practices of modifications or mods to explore these practices of creating and producing game content. A new agency for the gamer as a game developer is arriving and this implicates transformation of the complex network of games; social and creative roles in game culture are changing when the gamer can participate in the production of game space. A central case study is the game StarCraft 2 which aims to show how gamers can participate in game culture and how they are able to negotiate with the control of the game industry and the interaction between gamers and game developers. The last article focuses on the interface of the forum on the social network platform Last.fm. By performing a comparative analysis on social communities before the affordances of Web 2.0, the article aims to show how the design of the new platform encourages users to participate in the social construction of the space of the community.

The ultimate goal of the journal is to present how software affordances can transform the space of traditional artifacts and how software itself can embody new types of instruction, behavior and values in comparison to its predecessors. By exploring the agency of software platforms and software-based objects that seem ontologically distinct, the journal aims to present how five different digital artifacts have something in common – they are all mediators of social and cultural relations and prescribe new practices of use, negotiate new roles and redefine the human experience.

Akrich, Madeleine. 1994. The De-Scription of Technical Objects. Shaping Technology / Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change (Inside Technology), ed. Wiebe Bijker and  John Law. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Boje, D. 2002. How Does Quasi-Object Relate To Enron: Stream 2: Objects and the Study of Organizations. New Mexico State University.

Giddens,  Anthony.  1984.  The  Constitution  of  Society:  Outline  of  the  Theory  of Structuration. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cuellar,  Michael  J.  2010.  Conceptualizing  the  IT  artifact:  A  Non-Reflexive  Actor. Proceedings 27. SAIS.

Heidegger, Martin. 1982. The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. New York: Harper Perennial.

Knox, Hannah, Mike Savage, and Penny Harvey. 2006. Social Networks and the Study of Relations: Networks as Method, Metaphor and Form. Economy and Society 35 no. 1: 113-140.

Latour, Bruno. 1991. The Berlin Key or How to Do Words with Things.  Bruno Latour Web Site. http://www.bruno-latour.fr/poparticles/poparticle/p036.html .

Latour, Bruno. 1992. Where are the Missing Masses? Sociology of a Door. In: Shaping Technology/Building  Society.  Studies  in  Sociotechnical  Change,  ed.  Wiebe  Bijker  and John Law.. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992: 225-259.

Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. London, UK: Harvard University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 1994. On Technical Mediation-Philosophy, Sociology, Genealogy. Common Knowledge 3 no. 2: 29-64.

Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Law, John. 1992. Notes on the Theory of the Actor Network: Ordering, Strategy and Heterogeneity.  

Shaffer, Ann, Patrick Carey at al. 2010. New Perspectives on Microsoft Office 2010, First Course. Boston, MA: Course Technology.
Schäfer,  Mirko  Tobias.  2011.  Bastard  Culture!:  How  User  Participation  Transforms Cultural Production. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Wellman, Barry, and Alexandra Marin. 2011. Social Network Analysis: An Introduction. The Sage Handbook of Social Network Analysis. London: Sage.
Willson,  Michele. 2010. Technology,  Networks  and  Communities:  An  Exploration of Network and Community Theory and Technosocial Forms. Information, Communication & Society 1 (5): 747-764.