Technological#Failure

Curator's Note

My title includes a "hashtag" to draw attention to an absence in most discussions about technology. This theme week follows the Consumer Electronics Show, and, if Twitter or tagged blog posts offer any indication, CES seems to facilitate utopian dreams about technological futures without things that #FAIL (to function, win, or succeed). While the New York Times explains how the "#" character is used to tag posts on sites like Twitter, copy-editors can remind us of another use: the "#" designates an absence as a symbol for the need to enter an absent#space where one did not exist. Hashtags on Twitter aim to provide a meta-meaningful context for (often terse) comments but, similar to my title, fail to provide an overt connection between words by jumping from thought-filled phrase to under-developed theme. Discussions about technology at CES foreground fantasies about faster, newer, prettier, and thinner things by displacing conversations about older or failing devices. These discussions, like many others about technological things, fail to address the meaningfulness of technological failure.

What do we learn about the "thingness" of technologies when they "fail" to function? And, more poignantly, what might we learn about our misperceptions about "things" when we cannot or will not fulfill their expectations? This Intel advertisement problematizes the significance of successful, human invention. This robot’s reaction to being viewed as an object seems anything but artificial, which prompts us to consider things beyond their use-value, as some-thing other than use-filled. The robot’s anthropomorphic form might prompt our sympathies, but I wonder if or when we feel similarly sympathetic about other technological things. Maybe we fail to consider our inter-faced influence–how hard we use and abuse our technological things–when software glitches or computers fail to function, when things begin to reveal how improperly we understand our ability to inter/face an/other.

Each person participating this week on In Media Res will provide a unique response to the question that titles our theme, "What are these Technological Things?", and I hope our discussions about technology might also open up the possibility to re-/consider the power of failure. Let us consider the significance of failure by thwarting an emphasis on successfulness and mastery, which, Judith Halberstam argues, allows us to refigure our power over others toward relationships with others and things.

Comments

Shane Denson's picture

Vectors of failure

Thanks for this thought-provoking post, kicking off what promises to be a fascinating theme week. Just a few thoughts:

 As you write, tech conventions and marketing campaigns "foreground fantasies about faster, newer, prettier, and thinner things by displacing conversations about older or failing devices. These discussions, like many others about technological things, fail to address the meaningfulness of technological failure." At the same time, though, these discussions are positively dependent upon a certain type of failure: obsolescence. The new, the innovative, can only impress or amaze us against the background of the banal, the ordinary and everyday, of things that may be perfectly functional but that, in relation to the new (and hence self-referentially with regard to the discourse of novelty), are now made to appear inadequate: one’s trusty laptop suddenly becomes a failure at newness.

Simultaneously, though, the discourse of novelty itself can be seen to involve a form of technological failure (and I think this duality might be related to your thoughts on the double nature of the hashtag). The new technology, demanding from us awe and amazement against the background of the old, is presented much like the show-stopping special effects of sci-fi film: these disrupt narrative, demanding to be looked at as effects, as things that are amazing in their own right and not due to their instrumental value (i.e. they exceed their usefulness vis-a-vis the storytelling purposes of film). Similarly, the processors touted in the clip here are "amazing" only to the extent that they are presently being looked at rather than put to work (and forgotten) in the context of labor, a project, and the pressure to be productive. The clip seems to acknowledge this paradox by framing the discussion in the co-workers’ lunch break, in a space supplementary to work. At the same time, it counteracts the non-productivity of novelty, the failure that is fascination, by juxtaposing the "amazing" processors with an even more amazing robot, whose advancedness we recognize as still futuristic, hence not ready for production (or productivity), thus creating space for those processors to be both productive and interesting (if not amazing).

[Continued in next comment]

 

Shane Denson's picture

Vectors of failure (continued)

[Continued from previous comment]

Following Heidegger’s tool-analysis in Being and Time, the thingliness of technologies is itself a function of failure: due to breakage, the hammer fails to be absorbed in the user’s concernful employment towards the end of a given project. Then it appears as a thing (present-to-hand rather than ready-to-hand). And while this may not be the whole story, Heidegger’s analysis is instructive in the present case, as it highlights the processes by which sophisticated marketing both invokes and disavows or displaces several vectors of failure (obsolescence, fascination, and malfunction) to produce highly paradoxical technological things, things that are productive and fascinating at once.

Thanks again for your great post. I look forward to following the discussion!

Kristopher L. Cannon's picture

Failing at newness vs. obsolescence.

Shane,

Thank you for your very thoughtful comments. Many of your comments resonate with things I ran out of room to address in my post, especially discussions about concepts emerging from Object Oriented Ontology, such as Steven Shaviro’s "The Universe of Things" or Graham Harman’s Tool-Being. Here are some initial thoughts in relation to your comments:

While I do agree with Heidegger’s line of argument about how "thingness" emerges when things fail to function, I also hesitate to condition this upon human interaction alone. While humans may become more aware of thingsness when tools fail, the thingness of tools exists before and after they fail, and remains inter-connected with our materiality. Rather than use-full-ness, Shaviro points out the importance of our networked and inter-connected relationships with things (a la Latour), which he also discusses in relation to vital materialism. This is why, for example, I would agree with you about the "failure at newness," but am not inclined to correlate this with obsolescence (as in, "no longer useful"). [And, as I’m writing this, I see that Paul commented and made some of the points in what follows.]

It seems to me that many discussions about technology (at CES and in other contexts) foreground the "new-ness" of things within Capitalist models for anticipated and planned obsolescence. For example, Apple is "horribly" successful within this capital model of technological development, which obviously perpetuates a binary between use-filled new things and things that fail to be as use-full because they are older. While my iPad will become "older-than" the next model released later this year, it will likely maintain its usefulness and, obviously, maintains its thingness.

 

I wonder if we might think about the dignity and beauty of failure as an aesthetic of differential rather than difference. When things fail (to function) or glitch or crash or… they seem to create a "retreat and eruption," as Shaviro explains, and "demonstrate that there is more to them than we can gather of them." This aesthetic is a moment of contact between vital materialities. I would wager that this moment of contact also forces us to consider how things need not "miserably succeed" at fulfilling our anthropocentric expectations.

Shane Denson's picture

aesthetics of failure

Kristopher, thanks for your reply. I think I agree with you on most everything here, and I am especially interested in your ideas about the aesthetic dimensions of failure, which you describe nicely as "a moment of contact between vital materialities." I think this is definitely a route worth pursuing. As you know, though, such moments of contact are hotly debated amongst the various proponents and critics of object-oriented and other speculative realist philosophies. Real and material impingement, such as is at the heart of the affective dimensions pursued by Shaviro, seems to be ruled out by Harman, for example, who would only allow contact between sensual avatars rather than between real objects (hence, "vicarious causation" etc.). Bryant would seem more willing to allow material contact. Anyway (and at the risk of stirring up a bees’ nest), it seems to me that the decision between such positions will have to be made via some sort of quasi-transcendental argumentation: what does contact/no contact help explain? There’s a kind of pragmatic ring to the question, I suppose, and I think that’s a good thing (Ian Bogost has occasionally reframed such debates by asking "what can we do with philosophy x or y?"); but it’s not pragmatism in any human-centered sense. That’s because the quasi-transcendental aspect of the argument is not aimed at explaining the conditions of human experience so much as it’s aimed at discovering the ontological conditions that will square that experience with (or relativize it vis-a-vis) a non-anthropocentric view of the world. I agree with you that "moments of contact between vital materialities" are exactly those that will highlight the uncanny affectivity of a world that contains, but could just as well do without, us humans. Hence, I invoked Heidegger not as an authority on non-anthropocentric ontology, but as someone who can highlight the structures of the (sentimentalist/correlationist) aesthetics of tech marketing. As you rightly imply, though, the aesthetics of failure, as contact between vital materialities, runs deeper than the human-centered mismatch between "amazing" processors and a cute robot. But it would seem that tech marketers are by trade "correlationists"! What do you think?

Paul Boshears's picture

Struggling Against, Struggling With

I’m intrigued by your suggestion that there is a kind of power in the failure of (my words) dead tech. Today I am reading a nice post discussing the translation into Swedish and Dutch of Object-Oriented Ontology-type writings. This author, over at Commoniser, puts forward some interesting tidbits about the translation of sak as "object." Similar to the debates that surrounded Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics there is a potential for (or potential need toward) antagonism that one needs to be sensitive to when entering into object relations.

But in addition to this dramatic/controversial aspect of being oriented towards objects, I’d like to also introduce another consideration. You’re right to point to the marketing of the newness of tech at places like CES as deliberately excluding the potential for outmoded tech objects. While we may lose dead tech to the kind of urgency that CES-type hype creates, dead tech does something really interesting: it appreciates.

This appreciation happens as the relationships between humans and dead tech continue. As the prescribed roles for the once-new gadget gets repurposed. In Ghana I was amazed to see the bricoleur-styled engineering that kept tro-tro taxis going: pieces of rubber from old tyres and chunks of wood married into the suspension system, for example. The objects reveal new ways of being useful and as such their value is extended and enhanced. Thanks, MacGyver!

In this sense, I am at odds with Heidegger’s protestations about the ready-to-hand and the constant reduction of the world to a standing reserve. Appreciating what is at hand is a process of appropriating and making appropriate to the context in which one finds oneself (maybe Oneself, as a collection of things). To remain only concerned with the anthropocentric in this process, I grant you, is likely to be harmful, but there are ample reasons to think and examples in our collective histories to model ourselves after that can be trusted to serve us well in future endeavors.

Kristopher L. Cannon's picture

I'm intrigued by "appreciation."

Paul,

I really like what you suggest about appreciation as an element to consider within these contexts, and it may connect with some of the arguments I would make about an Aesthetic of Failure - as both art and point of contact. So, I’m interested in hearing a bit more if you are so inclined.

What I wonder is how we gauge or determine appreciation by things as opposed to projecting a human-oriented perception of appreciation upon them; or, can we get a sense of what or how things appreciate beyond our sense of things? One example that comes to mind is from Bill Brown’s discussion about Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper in his essay "The Tyranny of Things." In this essay, and similar to your points, Brown addresses how humans and things mutually constitute each other. To wit: "The Prince and the Pauper addresses not only the subject’s production of the object (seal or nutcracker) but also the object’s production of the subject (prince or pauper)." Brown’s argues that Twain effectively separates "the question of things"–how things are understood according to "status," "value," and "meaning"–from the fetishistic "tyranny of things" in America.

If I consider Twain’s story, I wonder how we might conceptualize appreciation in relation to things. The "thing" in Twain’s story becomes useful for these two humans in relation to their ability to make use of it, as a nutcracker or as the "King’s Seal". Is this an instance where the pauper misunderstands this technological thing and, thus, misuses it? Or might the pauper’s failure to understand be a moment when this thing is open to or appreciates malleable modes of interaction? Or, both; neither?

Paul Boshears's picture

Appreciation Isn't Only Human

Phil Stearns’ DCP series of photographs (FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m an editor of this publication) might be a great place to look for examples of an Aesthetic of Failure, in so far as they are images created through an exploration of digital camera glitches. I come to the OOO and Speculative Realism stuff from a background in both Sociology (so I’m glad to read Latour) and East Asian Philosophies (particularly classical Confucianism and Japanese Shinto).

In Shinto (before the Meiji Restoration and the nationalism that warped it) it seems very much appropriate to come from a position that the world itself appreciates humanity and it’s not only humanity that does the appreciating. There is a fundamental reciprocity involved and I hope that the OOO/SR projects that develop will include this sensibility. One way we can see this reciprocity in action is in the word kirei which means both beautiful and clean. Kirei is a fundamental orientation to the world, as important as our insistence on the power of "choice" in the U.S. One cannot be in the world, from the Shinto perspective without also recognizing that the world has a harmony to which we must strive to achieve something close to parity. But this parity is perhaps never possible because to perfect would be to close off the relational structure and ignore the foundational interrelatedness of our being.

Perhaps another concrete way of seeing how the natural world can appreciate humanity is in the Godzilla series. I grew up thinking Godzilla was a bad guy that slowly came to act, like a pet, to benefit humanity. Rather, Godzilla is a manifestation of the dislike that the cosmos has for the hubris and lack of concern for the cosmos. Godzilla arises to remind us that we are in this together. It’s a call to responsiveness rather than to responsibility. In this way, it’s a critique of the Westernization of contemporary Japan because Westernization as modernization presents an attitude of responsibility for the world as a resource to be exploited in the same way a shephard cares for a flock of sheep (whose function, ultimately, is only to satisfy human wants and all other benefits are relegated to secondary consideration if at all).

Jordan Peacock's picture

Systems Failure

Technological progress via accretion and through complete replacement are both problematic.

The former because with every modication, every concession made to new utilities and purposes, the resulting technology becomes rigid and baroque; the horrors of maintaing old COBOL business applications are emblematic; maintaining binary compatibility in each subsequent version of Windows is another.

The latter poses problems of different types; brand new technologies tend to be consilient, but they are untested, largely unintegrated, simple by being simplistic. They are not sufficiently evolved. If they are paradigm-shifting technologies, the expertise and comfort of the old paradigm becomes a liability rather than an asset. Concepts such as non-relational databases or eventually consistent data or multithreaded, monotonic programming all fall into this area. (As an interesting example, read this discussion of reverting from Scala to Java in development: http://codahale.com/downloads/email-to-donald.txt)

In either case, the technological environment is jarred yet again away from equilibrium, with neighboring technologies and our very psychology and sociology playing perpetual catch-up.

 

Kris Coffield's picture

Withdrawal Symptoms

One interesting, and often overlooked, developments in the OOOsphere is the use of materialism to account for object-oriented principles–such as anthrodecentrism–that were first conceived by Graham Harman, primarily through his radical re-reading of Heidegger’s tool-analysis. For example, while the concept of ‘withdrawal’, or the idea that objects always obtain a reality in excess of any relation, can be accounted for using the ready-to-hand/present-at-hand analysis described above, it can also be thought of in more materialist terms, whereby the presentation and prehension of an object is considered in terms of the manifestation of virtual potential. Levi Bryant does this, and has written about his material approach as recently as today at his website Larval Subjects.

I mention this because, to me, decentering the appreciation of objects from human domination entails accounting for an object’s ‘becoming’, or rather an object’s capacity to become. There are any number of possibilities for doing so (I attempt to delineate four in this video), but any approach, I think, must allow for ontological differentiation prior to epistemological representation (being before knowledge).

That’s important, since the appreciation of objects is additive and subtractive, but not ontologically determinative. In other words, appreciation may involve the manifestation of different qualia or alteration of certain objectal assemblages, but even absent these changes, an object’s ‘appreciation’, in terms of becoming, remains, as objects move through–and I would argue create their own–spatiotemporality. Relations between objects aren’t stagnant. 

For me, that leads back to an important point that you make about the primacy of the encounter (if I’m putting words in your…computer screen, please say so). Relata and the act of relating precede any given relation. Thus, to adequately think through the appareciation, as well as the failure, of entities requires an investigation of the formation and delimiation of sensibilities at the point of the encounter, prior to an outward extrapolation of actancy. I tend to think the focus, here, should be on the ‘how’ of an encounter as much as the ‘what’ in terms of the aesthetics involved, if that makes sense.

Feedback

1 person reported using this


You need to login to submit feedback or edit your feedback of this post!