User-Technology Relations in Science, Technology and Society studies

On 20 February 2020, professor emerita Nelly Oudshoorn presented “How users and non-users still matter. New themes in Science, Technology and Society research on user-technology relations”. In the first part of the lecture professor Oudshoorn started by explaining why we should study users, and how users matter. Secondly, and most importantly, the presentation talked about three recent themes in Science Technology and Society (STS) studies: non-users, innovators, and users living with technology inside the body.

Part 1: Users Matter

Historians of technology have long criticised the technological determinism present in early works, since users are not passive victims of technology but rather active agents. Furthermore, feminist concerns on the suppression by technology have exposed power relations in the 1980s and focussed on the social shaping and co-construction of technology in the 1990s. Another area of research contesting and interviewing on behalf of users are patient organisations who for instance urged the pharmaceutical concerns to develop drugs for HIV or AIDS in the 1990s (Steve Epstein). Participatory design has also been advocated, especially in Human-Computer Interaction, and meant to democratise technology and innovation. Each of these research domains considers “users as active agents of socio-technical change instead of passive consumers”.1 Users are thus capable of shaping the development of technology either by (de)stabilising new technologies, modifying existing technologies, or developing technologies themselves and effectively becoming producers.2

Science, Technology and Society research into users is relevant because it lays the theoretical foundations for understanding the dynamics of user-technology relations. These insights can in turn have a normative or political relevancy by empowering users and user collectives. Finally, these findings can provide tools for engineers to attune new technologies to future users.

Part 2: New Themes

Counteracting the discourse of non-users

Modernist discourse often portrays non-use as a deficiency or an irrational act, since the adoption of new technology is considered the norm in the rhetoric of technological progress. Researchers in Science Technology and Society (STS) have come up with new concepts to direct the attention to the distinction between voluntary and involuntary aspects of non-use (Wyatt, 2003).3 Voluntary non-users might resist technology for fear of losing their jobs or reject technology for religious reasons (i.e. Amish), whereas involuntary non-users could be excluded or repelled because the infrastructure is lacking or because they cannot pay the electricity bill. Voluntary non-use is a “self-reflective and symbolically significant act” in so far as humans “are in a shaping relation [subjectivation] to technology also when not using it.4

Non-users keep technologies and its morality alive even when its existence may be threatened by the introduction of new technology, either through maintenance or repair.5 Furthermore, non-users articulate and defend moral routines that are challenged or contested by new technologies.6 An example of a moral dilemma that arose when social media were introduced is the unspoken expectation of being available at all times, which voluntary non-users actively resist by refraining from making social media accounts.

However, the binary distinction between use and non-use is too static.7 Instead, several researchers have suggested a more dynamic approach either looking at selective use which may vary over time and place or a techno-geographic approach, as well as studying in-between practices (Loder, 2014).8

 

 

User-led innovation
In the following part of the presentation, professor Oudshoorn focused on users as innovators or co-producers of technologies. Although most studies focus on individual users or ‘lead users’, the internet and its open source communities have demonstrated the role of user collectives.9 Collectives include Do-It-Yourself (DIY) groups such as fab-labs, makerspaces, hacker communities, and citizen-science.10

The dynamics of user collectives have led to a new vocabulary of diversity, reciprocity and communication, as well as warm users.11 An illustration of a user collective is the citywide WiFi network “Wireless Leiden” which was built by a community of unpaid volunteers who would teach each other new skills and donated their time in a gift-based economy.

In the context of software user groups, the motivation of users is usually multifaceted since user communities form an arena of power, a place of innovation, a peer-to-peer exchange, and a networking site (Mozaffar, 2016).12 So far, most user studies are focused almost exclusively on external devices, which ignores the widespread presence of technology inside the body.

Technology implanted in the body

In the final part of the presentation, professor Oudshoorn asked the question: What happens to human agency and vulnerability when technologies move under the skin? Contrary to external human-machine interaction which is finite, limited, and temporal (Latour), when technologies move inside the body, “they introduce a continuous, internal machine surveillance” (Pollock, 2008) that is irreversible and often lasts a whole lifetime.13

Haraway’s concept of the cyborg as a heuristic highlights the merging of bodies and technologies, however feminist criticism has rightfully claimed that the cyborg as a discursive entity silences the lived experience of people with implants and loses the very materiality of the human-machine relation. Recent feminist studies have started to refocus on the intimate, lived relationships between bodies and technologies moving away from what people think to what they feel (sensory experiences) and do (material practices).14

When looking into pacemakers and defibrillators (ICDs), the concepts of vulnerability and resilience appear as emergent properties rather than intrinsic and static characteristics of people or technological systems.15 The reciprocal human-technology interactions and interdependencies include guarding, disciplining and domesticating.16

On the one hand, pacemakers and defibrillators keep watch over the heart rhythm, but on the other hand ‘cyborgs’ have to watch or guard their implants by keeping external factors from disrupting their implants. Furthermore, technicians and cyborgs have to collaborate to tune and re-adjust the technology. The sensory experience of the patient is especially helpful when regulating the machine. Inversely the devices discipline the patient by ganging beeps to signal empty batteries, which in turn creates an awareness of the vulnerability of hybrid bodies. The beeping sounds also introduce a new sensory experience. Finally, pacemakers and defibrillators can run wild and even hurt patients due to wrong adjustments, inappropriate shocks, and visible scars. Some patients use magnets to stop inappropriate shocks and thus regain a sense of control through material practices. By regaining control, patients domesticate technological devices into their daily life. Another form of domestication are the coping strategies of female patients who face more difficulties from visible scars because their bodies are more subjected to the gazes of others than male bodies.17 In an attempt to cope with the scars, female cyborgs have adjusted their clothing to cover the scar or concealed scars with tattoos.

In conclusion, professor Oudshoorn repeated that users and non-users still matter and urged the audience to build bridges between Science, Technology and Society (STS) and other relevant fields. In particular, she highlighted human geography for emphasising the importance of place for instance with regards to differences between technology inside and outside the body, innovation studies that study new forms of socio-technical change, feminist post)humanist studies that demonstrate the relevance of the intimate relationships between bodies and technologies, and the engineering disciplines in particular for integrating Science, Technology and Society (STS) findings when developing new technologies.

 

  1. How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technology, Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch (eds.), MIT Press, 2003.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Wyatt, Sally, “Non-users also matter: The construction of users and non-users of the Internet,” in Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch (eds.), How Users Matter: The Co-construction of Users and Technology, MIT Press, 2003, 67-79.
  4. Rosenthal and Ribak, 2008; Kiran, Asle H., “Technological Presence: Actuality and Potentiality in Subject Constitution,” Human Studies, 2012, 35 (1), 77-93.
  5. Lindsay, Christina, “From Within the Shadows: Users as Designers, Producers, Marketers, Distributors, and Technical Support,” in Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch (eds.), How Users Matter: The Co-construction of Users and Technology, MIT Press, 2003, 29-49. See also REPAIR project
  6. Kiran, Verbeek, Oudshoorn, forthcoming.
  7. Baumer, Eric P.S., Adams, Phil., Khovanskaya, Vera D. et al., “Limiting, leaving, and (re)lapsing: and exploration of facebook non-user practices and experiences,” in CHI 2013: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, April 2013, 3257-3266. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1145/2470654.2466446.
  8. Oudshoorn, Nelly, Telecare Technologies and the Transformation of Healthcare, Springer, 2011; Loder, C., 2014, “Negotiating Space Between Use and Non-Use.” In CHI 2014 Workshop Considering Why We Should Study Technology Non-Use. Url: http://nonuse.jedbrubaker.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Loder_nonuse.pdf.
  9. Eric von Hippel (1989) New Product Ideas from ‘Lead Users’, Research-Technology Management, 32:3, 24-27, DOI: 10.1080/08956308.1989.11670596
  10. van Oost, Ellen, Stephan Verhaegh, and Nelly Oudshoorn, “From Innovation Community to Community Innovation: User-initiated Innovation in Wireless Leidein,” Science, Technology and Human Values, 34 (2), 2009, 182-205; Maxigas, Peter, “Hacklabs and hackerspaces: Tracing two genealogies,” Journal of Peer Production, 2, 2012. Url: http://peerproduction.net/issues/issue-2/peer-reviewed-papers/hacklabs-and-hackerspaces/.
  11. Verhaegh, Stefan. 2008. How Community Innovation Works: A Material-Semiotic Analysis of the Wireless Leiden Wi-Fi Network. PhD Thesis. University of Twente.
  12. Mozaffar, H., “User communities as multi-functional spaces: innovation, collective voice, demand articulation, peer informing and professional identity (and more),” in Hyysalo S., Jensen T., and Oudshoorn N. (eds), The new production of users: changing innovation collectives and involvement strategies, Routledge, 2016.
  13. Mention of Latour in Pollock, Anne, “Pharmaceutical Meaning-Making beyond Marketing: Racialized Subjects of Generic Thiazide,” Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics, 36 (3), 2008, 530-536.
  14. Dalibert, Lucie. 2014. Posthumanism and soma technologies: exploring the intimate relations between humans and technologies. PhD Thesis. University of Twente; Lettow, Susanne, “Somatechnologies: Rethinking the Body in the Philosophy of Technology,” Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology, 15 (2), 2011, 110-117; Oudshoorn, Nelly, “Sustaining Cyborgs. Sensing and tuning agencies of pacemakers and ICDs,” Social Studies of Science, 45 (1), 2015, 56-76; Oudshoorn, Nelly. 2020. Resilient Cybors: Living and Dying with Pacemakers and Defibrillators. Springer.
  15. Hommels, Anique, Jessica Mesman and Wiebe E. Bijker. 2014. Vulnerability in technological cultures: new directions in research and governance. MIT Press.
  16. Oudshoorn, Nelly. 2020. Resilient Cybors: Living and Dying with Pacemakers and Defibrillators. Springer.
  17. Bartky, Sandra Lee, “Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power,” in Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, and Sarah Stanbury (eds.), Writing on the body: Female embodiment and feminist theory, 1997, Columbia University Press, 129-154; Bordo, Susan, “The body and the reproduction of femininity,” in Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, and Sarah Stanbury (eds.), Writing on the body: Female embodiment and feminist theory, 1997, Columbia University Press, 90-110.

Leave a Reply