Tuesday 5 October 2021

On Smartphones, Sandwiches and Teddy Bears: Energy flow in the Academy

I had an interesting discussion today about the nature of technology. It partly revolved around Latourian interpretations of agency, with the kind of criss-cross of concrete examples and theory which is particularly enjoyable when talking about technology. The "is x technology" game is fun, and its associated "does x act in a network?". It's perhaps defensible to play this game with a smartphone or computer, but harder to consider these questions with the concrete examples of food or teddy bears. 

Does your carrot act on you? Is your sandwich technology? Is this even a useful question? Well - it is if it exposes some fundamental weaknesses in social theory to which we are otherwise blind, and which if overturned, changes our perspective on other categories of understanding. 

In Latour's work, the sociomaterial co-construction of tools and humans arising through the emergent interaction of human and non-human "actors" is pivotal to an analytical approach which seeks to map out these networks and their dynamics. It's an idea which relates partly to systems-theoretical, process-oriented ontologies, and to mapping techniques which have become increasingly available in the wake of computers. 

I've never been particularly comfortable with the concept of "agency", and particularly with the concept of non-human agency. Apart from anything else, what is conceived as non-human agency seems to be really human agency at a distance. But then there is a question as to whether one can even draw a distinction around human agency itself. To what extent is the concept of agency meaningful - when do we "not-act"? Is thinking agency? Even when people's physical liberty is constrained,  they are still able to think. Anna Akhmatova's composing of poems in her head, committed to memory for fear of writing anything down, is agency, isn't it? 

For a number of reasons, I wonder if "energy" may provide a better way of thinking. It is useful to think in terms of energy because when education loses energy, it is not very good - irrespective of the agency involved. Moreover, when we act, we are involved in some kind of "energy exchange": Akhmatova's organising of her poems required energy in her body; participating in a conversation requires energy; depression and other mental health problems drain us of energy; and all educational development is the realising of "potential".... do we in fact miss the word "energy" from that? Are we really about unlocking the "potential energy" for future transformation that could be exercised by a student?

Discussing controversial objects as "technologies" also present a further case for thinking in terms of energy. For example, is a sandwich technology? Irrespective of the fact that human agency is involved in its construction, what is a sandwich but a container of energy? The same can be said of a carrot (and ultimately carrots and sandwiches get their energy from the sun). I find this interesting because seeing a sandwich as an energy container then throws the spotlight on the eater of the sandwich. The seeking out of food, the moving of the jaw, salivation, etc all requires energy. This latter energy is physiological, which the energy in the sandwich is "potential" (for want of a better word). But this is not a "gaining of energy" by eating the sandwich; it is a transformation of one kind of energy (physiological) to another (the sandwich) which in turn becomes transformed by metabolism (another process requiring energy) into physiology. Across the interaction between eater and the sandwich, total energy is conserved, but transformed from one form into another. The sandwich is a transducer.

What about a child's teddy bear? That is even more interesting I think. My daughter raised this with me when she was about 6 or 7 (she's now 21!). The child's reaction to her teddy bear is to expend energy on it: she hugs it, maybe talks to it, is concerned for it, she invents a world for it to exist in. She draws an imaginary distinction about the teddy bear as a "person" in her life. So what is happening energetically? It is as if the teddy bear is transforming energy within the child. Hugging requires the expense of energy. But what is gained is epigenetic information about the environment. The smell of the teddy and the release of oxytocin (the "hug hormone") are all critically important features of this interaction. It is an energy transformation where energy expended by the child is made and energy in terms of information is returned. The results are new distinctions, new actions, new (imaginary) conversations - and indeed some real conversations (when the parent asks where the teddy bear is). 

In the philosophy of Gilbert Simondon, all technologies are transducers. They exist at the boundaries of our interaction with an uncertain environment, what Simondon calls the "margin of indeterminacy between two domains ... that which brings potential energy to its actualization". Moreover life at all levels is made up of "margins of indeterminacy": it is the relationship between cells in their extra-cellular matrix, or the functional differentiation of the organs of the body, organisms in an epigenetic environment, the boundaries of social institutions, the interfaces of technologies, or concepts of personal identity. And the point about technology as transduction is that this "interface" that I perceive between myself and my computer is a process of energy conversion which is connected to every other process of energy conversion in my body and the universe. 

The physicists tell us that energy is conserved. They also tell us (at least the Quantum Mechanics people) that there is a dynamic balance between local and non-local phenomena. What happens at the boundary is a transformation of one form of energy into another which amount to the same quantity: the total energy in the system is preserved. In biology, we may see this energy transformation in the form of a balance between the energetic processes inside a cell which lead to protein production by DNA, alongside the epigenetic environment of the cell and its communication and organisation with other cells. It is the cell boundary which serves as a transducer (which is of course, exactly how the cell biologists describe it: Transduction (genetics) - Wikipedia)

Transduction is both the process of converting energy from one form to another, and the process of identifying the boundary across which transduction occurs. Thought generates transducers in the form of concepts. Akhmatova generated her poetry in her head, and as she did so, she created herself - what Simondon calls "individuation". Is there any real difference between the transducers in our heads, our concepts, and the transducers we type at and browse the web with? I doubt it. Gordon Pask was probably the first to think this: he saw concepts and objects in a very similar way - the results of self-referential processes, what von Foerster called "Eigenforms". Simondon's transduction is very similar. 

What this means is that we are looking at technology wrong. If we see tools as "objects" we will miss what is actually happening, and if we fail to understand what is actually happening in terms of energy, we will not be able to control effective energy flows. That is basically what has happened in education and technology. It is (yet another) explanation for why Zoom education is usually crap! It also helps us to explain what happens when we become "addicted" to social media: transductions can be highly inefficient, creating demand for more engagement which in turn is increasingly unrewarding.

However, if we see energy manifesting and transforming in human relations through tools, language, interfaces and even sandwiches, then we can gain better and more effective control of ways in which the "potential" (energy) of every individual in education can be realised. 

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