Designing Agonistic Encounters with Social Robots

Agonistic encounters with social robots work to expose perspectives and assumptions in robot design and make veiled issues and excluded possibilities available for inquiry and critique in material form. Through such agonistic encounters, critical perspectives on human-robot relations are put forth. They thus work to keep open the space of possibilities for design and for our future interactions with robots, allowing for a pluralism of design engagements. I characterize the endeavor of designing such agonistic encounters as reconfiguring the remainder, bringing together Lucy Suchman 's notion of reconfiguration with political theorist Bonnie Honig's notion of "the remainder."

In Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Actions, Suchman (2006) proposes reconfiguration as a tactic for rethinking the design of computational systems and our interactions with them. Suchman's notion of reconfiguration is developed from feminist approaches to science and technology studies, particularly those of Donna Haraway, positing that "technologies are forms of materialized figuration; that is, they bring together assemblages of stuff and meaning into more or less stable arrangements" (Suchman 2006, 226). Following from this idea, according to Suchman (2006, 226), "One form of intervention into current practices of technology development, then, is through a critical consideration of how humans and machines are configured in those practices and how they might be figured—and configured—differently." This notion of configuration and reconfiguration refers both to the technological organization of the system and to the relationship between people and technical systems.

Increasingly, the design of computational systems and products is as an activity of innovation through configuration. Although some aspects of a computational system may be newly invented, most often design produces a custom arrangement of parts, capacities, affordances, and concept to achieve some desired result. For example, the design of a consumer product such as the Apple iPod can be understood as the configuration of various sensors for gestural interaction, a touch-screen display, hard-drive storage and access, and the concept of mobile personal entertainment. Likewise, the design of PARO can be taken as the configuration of various haptic, vision, and auditory sensors, actuators, fur and the baby seal form, and the concept of therapy. Each particular configuration structures, by design, specific kinds of relations between users and the artifact.

Drawing from Suchman, I extend her term reconfiguration to describe an agonistic alternative to the design of computational objects. With agonistic reconfiguration, the object is still designed by a custom arrangement of parts, capacities, affordances, and concept. But it is done in a provocative manner that purposefully deviates from familiar configurations. The agonistic activity of reconfiguration is the combining of components and concepts together in unexpected, exaggerated, or otherwise purposefully atypical ways, which produce disjunctions between expectations, the material artifact or system, and the experience of it. Such provocative reconfigurations are not accidental or arbitrary. Rather, the activity of reconfiguration leverages an understanding of the standards of configuration, both technically and socially. It works by manipulating those standards and addressing what is left out of common configurations, which can be referred to as "the remainder."

Political theorist Bonnie Honig uses the term remainder to describe what is expelled in politics. This term refers to the people, practices, and discourses that are overlooked or written out of institutions, policies, legislation, and theories in the attempt produce a consensus that lacks conflict or disruptive differences. But under every condition and from every political position, something is excluded. As Honig (1993, 5) states, "All sets of arrangements are invariably troubled by remainders." One agonistic endeavor is to identify what has been excluded and ask, Why?, and, How would its inclusion reconstitute a given condition or thing?

This excluded remainder can also refer to the veiled issues and excluded qualities that are overlooked, written out, or otherwise expelled from designed things. Reconfiguring the remainder is an agonistic tactic of including what is commonly excluded, giving it privilege, and making it the dominant character of the designed thing. In the case of social robots, rather than using design to hasten the acceptance of a social robot or to settle the question of how people and robots will interact with one another, reconfiguring the reminder gives critical pause to this process of social integration.

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