Theorising Microsoft’s how-old.net Bot; is the internet now Mundane? What happens when things don’t work?

So I read a tweet from @NathanJurgenson earlier that got me thinking a lot about why it is that things that don’t work become popular, and what happens when things online stop working the way they are meant to. The tweet is below:

This immediately triggered a few thoughts for me; firstly, why is it that only things that don’t work become interesting, and secondly how do things become mundane online? The answer for this can be found by looking at Latour’s Actor-Network Theory.

A few blog posts ago I talked about how there is no longer a clear dichotomy between the online and offline, the digital dualism is collapsing (see link here). It could be argued that part of the reason the internet is so integrated into offline culture is due to the ‘mundane’ nature of the internet. It is no longer a special entity, no longer a tool for the few, and instead it is another social tool that is very often taken for granted and not considered. The internet is no longer a wonder of technology, but an entity, a whole, or as Latour suggests, the internet has become Blackboxed.

For Latour, Blackboxing refers to the process by which a successful machine becomes to be thought of as a complete whole, rather than as a series of interconnecting parts. Or in Latour’s own words Blackboxing is:

“the way scientific and technical work is made invisible by its own success. When a machine runs efficiently, when a matter of fact is settled, one need focus only on its inputs and outputs and not on its internal complexity. Thus, paradoxically, the more science and technology succeed, the more opaque and obscure they become.”


Take, for example, a car. We generally don’t think of a car as a series of interconnected parts, as a series of sensors, gauges, meters, electrical supplies, wiring, transmissions, etc. Instead, day-to-day, we think of it as a functioning whole. The parts literally become boxed, they get put into a neat box, which is sealed up and shut, and put away from our day-to-day thoughts. We seal up the box, and instead engage in a form of ‘metonymy’, referring to the whole instead of the parts. This makes a car an easy concept to consider, rather than considering all the unboxed items, we just consider the functioning object as a whole.

So the parts become invisible, we no longer think of the myriad of things that act, interact, and react to create a car, but we just think of it as a polished whole. That is, Latour argues, until something goes wrong. The key part of blackboxing a functioning item, of course, is the functioning. When the car stops working, we immediately open the blackbox. We stop thinking of it as a functioning whole, and start to rethink of it as a series of parts. We begin to think about which part is working and which part isn’t, and start to again think about the myriad of things that interact to make the car run. We begin to see it again no longer as a whole, but as a series of parts, any one of which is open to failure. We no longer see the complete actor, and instead, begin to see the network that creates the actor, viewing both the whole and the network that forms the whole (hence Latour’s term actor-network, a purposeful ontological shift towards viewing objects as both an actor and a network)

This is very similar to Heidegger’s theorizing of the concepts of ready-to-hand (zuhanden) and present-at-hand (vorhanden) in which he talks about how we begin to see objects differently when they stop functioning.

As the internet becomes more and more common place, there is great importance in studying the everyday uses of the internet, unpacking everyday activity, and understanding the routine and the taken-for-granted. Though in many ways, much of the internet has become mundane, it is still worth unpacking.

In the field of Digital Sociology, since the turn towards the contextualisation of the online experience, there has been much more of an emphasis upon mundane social activity online, and upon how this technology has quickly become assimilated into our social interaction in order for it to play a mundane role. Digital Media has for many people become part of a daily routine, and research into Digital Media has been quick to point out how embedded these process have become in daily life (Awan & Gauntlett 2013, Atton 2004, Wellman & Haythornthwaite 2002, Miller & Slater 2000). Christine Hine, for example, has recently discusses how internet use has become an embedded and embodied part of modern Western life, and describes the internet as “banal in everyday life” (Hine 2015, 5). Some scholars have argued that the process of banality, and the ease at which these Social Practices have become embedded and accepted aspects of Social Space has lead an acceptance of questionable data collection and circulation (Beer 2013) and an easy acceptance of Social Discourses and relations that could otherwise be questioned in this new medium (Mackenzie 2006). This reaffirms Lefebvre’s theories on the invisible works of Social Practices that enforce and affirm the abstracted claims to reality, foregrounding and privileging certain social ideals and actions.

A similar line of thinking can begin to explain how the internet has become to be thought of as a whole, and potentially why Microsoft’s how-old.net Bot is blowing up all over the internet right now. Rather than being presented with something mundane, we are presented with a flawed product, something that is unboxed and broken, something that is novel. In many ways there’s an appeal to this sort of thing, an appeal towards something that doesn’t work, towards an unboxed product. We start to treat them differently, shifting the way we think about these broken products. Their lack of ability to work properly, and their refusal to be blackboxed, literally changes the way we interact with them.

Latour’s work is particularly useful in this regard as it allows us to think of both how the human and nonhuman aspects work to shape the activities we are viewing online. It aims to emphasise and re-appropriate the realm of the physical in sociology, in order to understand that the realm of the social does not exist in a vacuum, and is not the product of human action alone, but that the non-human and inhuman world we inhabit works to shape the Social realm, and as such should not be ignored or explain away as merely as an unimportant ‘other’ in Sociology. Latour argues that objects should not be a side thought when discussing sociology, but that they should be given equal consideration with humans in the creation of the Social (Latour 1996). Latour argues that the values, ideals, Discourses, attitudes, and practices of dominant Social groups not only enter into our daily practices, but are also present in our technology and our physical spaces, and as such, they also serve to reinforce these ideals and to discipline and mould our actions and interactions, a practice that Latour calls ‘prescription’ (Latour 1992).

The importance objects can have upon social interaction and their role in prescription of dominant ideals and Discourses could hold to be particularly pertinent as we are now increasingly socially interacting with, though, in, and within, objects such as laptops, tablets, game consoles, and mobile phones. The increasingly important role of objects in our social interactions (Abeele 2014, Correa 2014, Vaterlaus et al 2014, Park 2014) means we can no longer ignore their presence and must actively acknowledge their part in the ongoing creation of Social Space. Latour shows how the realm of the Social, and thus Social Space, is a collaborative process, between human, non-human, and inhuman, and a model is needed that does not privilege any of these aspects over the other, but affords them an equal role in the creation of Social Space, understanding that they act upon, with, and through each other to continually shape Social Space.

This, in part, is the job of a digital sociologist; to unpack these environments, to not take them for granted, to view the mundane and to examine how it has become mundane, and what parts are working to keep this system seemingly functioning as a whole. It is also interesting to look at what happens when this doesn’t work, when we get failwhales, when we get 404s, and when OldBot tells me I’m 46.

In many ways, OldBot is popular because it is flawed, because it refuses to be boxed, it refuses to become mundane. OldBot reminds us that technology is, and should be thought of as, a sum of its parts, both an actor AND a network. It is out job as Digital Sociologist to explore and unpack the box, to look at the whole, and the parts, and understand the complex networks that work to form the whole.

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