Devices of Articulation

If ubiquitous computing is characterized by connectedness and results in the construction of collectives, how does this figure into a discussion of adversarial design? In what ways can these connected collectives function as political provocations, and what political issues are at stake in these collectives? The answers to these questions are found in the notion of articulation. It is my contention that the products of ubicomp should be understood as devices of articulation. In the context of adversarial design, these devices of articulation do specific political work: they engage in the formation and expression of agonistic collectives. They do so by leveraging the capacities of ubicomp to establish linkages among objects, people, and actions to create open, interpretive, and participatory spaces of contest, thereby providing yet another example of design doing the work of agonism.

This concept of devices of articulation combines the idea of articulation from social and political theory with the more vernacular usage of the term. The common reference point for articulation in social and political theory is the work of Antonio Gramsci (1971), who tied articulation to class struggle. Just as they did with the notion of hegemony, Ernesto Laclau and Chantel Mouffe (2001) reconsider articulation as a process that extends class struggle and thereby broaden the use of articulation as a theoretical construct. As a general concept in contemporary theory, articulation describes the linkage of discourses and practices to produce hybrid expressions of ideologies and identities. As Laclau and Mouffe (2001, 105) state, articulation is "any practice establishing a relation among elements such that their identity is modified as a result of the articulatory practice." Articulation thus includes a broad range of activities and contexts that extends the common frames of politics and the political. For example, cultural theorist Dick Hebdige (1981) uses the notion of articulation to describe the ways that subcultures form by mixing styles, attitudes, and values between each other and across class boundaries. Whether the example is one of subcultures or political agendas, articulation is a process that creates "chains of significance" (Laclau and Mouffe 2001; Smith 1998) or connections between discourses and practices and that establishes new meaning, value, and consequences among what otherwise would be disparate, perhaps even incongruent elements.

In his research on articulation work in organizations, sociologist Anselm Strauss (1988, 1993) spoke of the mechanics of articulation. This was an apt reference to the most basic conception of articulation—as a quality of physical systems. In physical systems, to articulate means to form a joint, and something that is articulated has multiple parts united by flexible joints that allow for movement. A familiar example of articulation can be found in the human arm and hand. In the arm, three joints—shoulder, elbow, and wrist—articulate a series of bones. Each of these joints, together with an assemblage of muscles and tendons, allows for a range of motion. The hand is articulated through fifteen joints and twenty-seven bones that enable grasping and release actions. Taken together, the articulation of the bones in the arms and hand enables a range of diverse activities, including throwing balls, chopping onions, rolling dice, and writing. Remove any one linkage, however, and the possibilities of motion and action change dramatically. Articulation is also used in engineering to describe the design and use of joints to enable movement in any system of parts, usually with the purpose of enabling a particular functionality that would otherwise be impossible. A familiar example of such articulation is the turntable ladder fire truck. To reach fires at great heights, fire trucks need long ladders, and to carry long ladders, the trucks themselves need to be long. But the longer the truck, the less maneuverable it is. To solve that problem, the turntable ladder fire truck was designed to be articulated with a pivot point that allows the rear end of the truck to be maneuvered separately from the front of the truck, decreasing the truck's turning radius and thereby better enabling the truck to move safely through streets and neighborhoods. The turntable ladder fire truck thus illustrates the central notion of articulation in physical systems as the making of connections between parts, and these connections are significant because they bind together the parts to establish particular capacities and modes of action.

In making the claim for understanding the products of ubicomp as devices of articulation, I am drawing equally from these two notions of articulation. Articulation in physical systems (and specifically in engineering) is not just a metaphor for political articulation. My intent is to merge these concepts and to claim that articulation in the engineering sense can be, by design, an actual instantiation and form of political articulation. As devices of articulation, the products of ubicomp join together, by design, multiple elements in a manner that transforms the identity and meaning of those elements and results in a new object—an articulated collective.

The idea of an articulated collective is partially drawn from the work of Bruno Latour. In The Politics of Nature, Latour (2004) develops the idea of the collective as a way of reconceiving relations among human and nonhumans. For Latour (2004, 238), the term refers not to a singular thing, not to a collective, but rather to a "procedure for collecting associations of humans and nonhumans." This move to bring and bind together humans and nonhumans is part of a larger project of Latour 's to reconsider the roles of tools and machines, animals, laws, infrastructure, and the envi- ronment—that is, to reconsider the role of things other than people in the construction of facts and society. For Latour, this is important in order to better describe how things get made and done in the world—not by human hands alone but by networks of actors and actants (nonhuman actors) that result in different configurations and experiences of agencies and effects. Articulation, for Latour, is a quality of such collectives. As he states, "We shall say of a collective that it is more or less articulated in every sense of the word: that it speaks more, that it is subtler and more astute, that it includes more articles, discrete units, or concerned parties, that it mixes them together with greater degrees of freedom, that it deploys longer lists of actions" (Latour 2004, 86).

Through my concept of devices of articulation, I want both to focus and extend Latour' s ideas. First, my attention is on collectives that are the products of design, and more specifically, designed collectives in the context of ubicomp. Second, in addition to claiming that collectives are articulated, I argue that collectives actively engage in the process of articulation. As devices of articulation, the products of ubicomp both enable and participate in the ongoing endeavor of establishing linkages between elements in the collective. This idea is not foreign to Latour, for whom objects are assertive and actor networks form to enable or thwart all manner of interactions and effects. But the scale that I want to emphasize and explore is that of the collective as a distinct designed thing, which is more than a singular object but less than a network.

With regard to its political potential, articulation is not by definition agonistic.5 Articulation is agonistic when the product of the articulatory transformation questions, challenges, or offers alternatives to dominant perspectives and practices. Put another way, what is agonistic is not necessarily the process of articulation but the outcome of that articulation—the kind of collective created and the affordances of that collective for experiences of contest. Within the frame of adversarial design, the tactic of articulation constructs linkages between objects, people, and actions that transform them into an agonistic collective—an open space of contest in which the elements gathered together are able to act out a plurality of conflicting practices, values, and beliefs. These agonistic collectives extend beyond people and discourses alone to gather together all manner of objects, including plants, animals, software, hardware, networks, tables, chairs, buildings, streets, and cities.

The question of precisely what and how the products of ubicomp articulate is explored in the rest of this chapter. To begin with, although ubicomp systems are in part physical systems, they are not articulated in a manner identical to an arm or a fire truck. Articulation in ubicomp systems is not just the introduction of a physical pivot joint between two objects. Rather, one form of articulation in the products of ubicomp comes through sensors, actuators, software, protocols, and networks. That is, articulation is an outcome of leveraging the qualities of procedurality and embodiment, together with the materialities of the object itself, to provide new functionalities, meanings, and possibilities for action by establishing novel linkages between elements in a system. This provides new opportunities and affordances for doing the work of agonism.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >