Agents and artifacts

A good read in the train: "Agents and Artefacts" by John Pickering (Social Analysis, March 1997, Issue 41 (1), pages 45 - 62). The article addresses the role of technological artefacts play in the integration of technology with human practices and how they create skilled practices in which humans and machines interact socially. Pickering describes how social interactions with machine "intelligence" is becoming more realistic. Although it's more simulation than genuine "human intelligence", the important point is that technological artefacts are treated as "agents" and that "new values and sensitivities are being created as people and agents co-operate". Conversely, artefacts will participate in the development and transmission of skilled practices.

"Human relations will be technologised to the extent that such artefacts are able participate as agents in social interaction rather then merely to mediate it. The encounter with these artefacts will occur earlier and earlier in human development. They will thereby take part in the sociocultural learning by which skilled practices, and the values they express, are transmitted. The attribution of human like agency to artefacts will change the image of both machines and of human beings. (...) Theories of psychology and evolution that emphasise internal cognitive or genetic mechanisms will not be much help in understanding what is going on here. (...) Moving beyond these restrictions makes it easier to bring these sciences together with anthropology and ethnography. This blend of disciplines is needed to understand how technology supports thought and creates human values. In the longer sweep of cultural evolution, and the broader perspective of anthropological and ethnographic observation, it is clear the use made of artefacts by human beings shows that technology is assimilated to human practices rather than the other way round. (...) technology shapes the cultural conditions within which people develop their ability to live together. These conditions now include agent like artefacts with which human beings will need to co-exist."

Why do I blog this? This is the type of paper I like reading in the train stepping back from down-to-earth issues. There are important point here, especially about how to grasp this new situation. Coming from a background in life sciences and psychology, I have to admit that Pickering's stance is entirely true: methods and theories from psychology (for example) are a bit limited to grasp these issues (think about running lab experiments, or about reductionism).