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It's Mediated

danah boyd’s It’s Complicated ranks with the best books I have read about technology. 1 I hesitate to pick on what may be simply a linguistic difference, but I hope the effect is to draw attention to a deep point that boyd makes about the continuities between the online and offline worlds. I think this book should be required reading. To be fair, in Ambient Commons, Malcolm McCullough also employs a similar contrast: “To mediaaddled kids, the unmediated world is boring.” (p 39)   At the heart of the book, lies a narrative about loss. As teenagers navigate a host of issues to do with maturation, “The structured and restrictive conditions that comprise the lives of many teens provides little room for them to explore these issues, but social media gives them a platform and a space where they can make up for what’s lost.” 2 boyd, p 95-6

 

In part, boyd’s argument turns on the idea that teens and adults use online technologies in different ways. While adults often use technologies to pursue interests, teens use technologies to socialize and create their own publics.  boyd’s analysis makes it clear that the affordances that mediate those online publics make a difference.  “While teens move between different social contexts – including mediated ones like those produced by networked publics and unmediated ones like those constructed at school – they manage social dynamics differently.” 3 boyd, p 39

 

We need to take seriously the affordances of new technologies- persistence, visibility, spreadability, and searchability – while at the same time recognizing that “the same biases that configure unmediated aspects of everyday life also shape the mediated experiences people have on the internet.” 4 boyd, p 158  While we cannot escape offline biases, technology also does not guarantee an escape from the other painful aspects of offline life: “teens who are struggling in everyday life also engage in problematic encounters online.” 5 boyd, p 113

 

Yet, in the narrative centered on loss, I find the contrast between the mediated world online with an unmediated world offline sets us up to feel an acute loss for “unmediated social communities” 6 boyd, p 38 , which I argue simply do not exist.

 

As Bruno Latour argues, humans never have unmediated social interactions.  “If anything, the modern collective is that in which the relations of human and nonhuman are so intimate, the transactions so many, the mediations so convoluted, that there is no plausible sense in which artifact, corporate body, and subject can be distinguished.” 7 Latour, B. (1994). ‘On Technical Mediation – Philosophy, Sociology, Genealogy.’ Common Knowledge, 3(2), 29–64, p 53  Our techniques constantly weave a fabric of artifacts and social relations.  Other primates such as baboons or chimpanzees might have purely unmediated social interactions, but the strength of our fabric comes from the weaving. One component of the fabric, language – an artifact – plays a central role in configuring our social interactions, yet it would be pointless to search for unmediated social interactions stripped of language.

 

There never was a zero point of mediation for humans, and conversely, no other animals socialize and care for the material world by bringing it into a sociotechnical economy. 8 See Barry Allen’s ‘The chimpanzee’s tool,’ Common Knowledge, 6:34-51 (1997) If we don’t understand the differences between how humans create artifacts and use tools, and what chimpanzees do when they fish for termites with a stick, then any kind of philosophy of technology is hopeless.

 

In the slider photograph, the cell phone in the hand of the young woman mediates her interactions with peers who are not present. Perhaps less obviously, the whole economy of artifacts, from clothing to skateboards, from public transit to skate parks, mediates our every action. There are no unmediated publics free of the effects of architecture or unmediated presentations of self.

 

When boyd writes about the “biases that configure unmediated aspects of everyday life”, she comes very close to talking about the offline world in terms of mediation. She recognizes that the fundamental point behind Langdon Winner’s idea that artifacts have politics: the “combination of regulation and design produced a biased outcome” in Moses’ overpass design.  9 boyd, p 157 And, in her earlier discussion of affordances, she writes that “the design and architecture of environments enable certain types of interactions to occur.” 10 boyd, p 10 While boyd’s work recognizes the importance of what shapes our everyday actions (produce, enable) , by not using the term ‘mediation’, we risk obscuring the intersections between the online and the everyday.

 

 

Winner argues that in some cases, during the design process “the technological deck has been stacked long in advance to favor certain social interests, and that some people were bound to receive a better hand than others.”  11 Winner, 126 The forces that stack the technological deck online are largely aligned with the forces that stack it offline, making it even more pressing to pay attention to mediation in our world.

References   [ + ]

1. I hesitate to pick on what may be simply a linguistic difference, but I hope the effect is to draw attention to a deep point that boyd makes about the continuities between the online and offline worlds. I think this book should be required reading. To be fair, in Ambient Commons, Malcolm McCullough also employs a similar contrast: “To mediaaddled kids, the unmediated world is boring.” (p 39)
2. boyd, p 95-6
3. boyd, p 39
4. boyd, p 158
5. boyd, p 113
6. boyd, p 38
7. Latour, B. (1994). ‘On Technical Mediation – Philosophy, Sociology, Genealogy.’ Common Knowledge, 3(2), 29–64, p 53
8. See Barry Allen’s ‘The chimpanzee’s tool,’ Common Knowledge, 6:34-51 (1997) If we don’t understand the differences between how humans create artifacts and use tools, and what chimpanzees do when they fish for termites with a stick, then any kind of philosophy of technology is hopeless.
9. boyd, p 157
10. boyd, p 10
11. Winner, 126
I footnotes