(H)appy Thoughts: Technique, Prosthesis, Interface

“(H)appy Thoughts: Technique, Prosthesis, Interface” is a session I organized and will do with the four great presenters for the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) annual meeting which will be held in San Diego on October 9-12, 2013.

Presenters: Benjamin Bratton, Dock Currie, Jamie Allen, and myself

“Think appy thoughts,” Nokia’s app store tells us. Advertising rhetoric does not exhaust itself entertaining associations between technology and happiness. In this sense, iPhone ad campaign’s slogan “There’s an app for that” is a “(h)appy thought”: not only the slogan promotes apps as a major technique for operating mobile devices but also, by extension, for operating our lives. Apps are techniques, at least, in the following three understanding of the term: they are the controlling and powerful autonomous agency that transgresses hardware (Jacques Ellul); they are integrated with culture as the operative sequence preceding media concepts (Bernhard Siegert); and lastly, they embody the logic and mechanisms of prosthetic supplementation (Bernard Stiegler). Our session will explore the question of what it means to identify apps as technique. Also, by distinguishing between extension and prosthesis, this session will address the scenarios where ‘life,’ digitized into ‘news feeds’ or data, becomes a mere extension (addition) of technology; while technology has been thought in terms of prosthesis (substitution). We will explore apps as metaphors of functionality in a series of sequential remediations to address the ways apps project interfacial elements on the environment and render it for the user, while also rendering the user for the environment according to the logics and limits of that programmability. Our session invites the participants to engage with one or several mentioned accounts as well as other STS-informed discussions on apps as techniques of ubiquities computing.

Abstracts:

Apps and the Elementary Forms: Larval Political Theology

Benjamin Bratton (University of California, San Diego)

This essay will consider how emergent genres of apps that superimpose interfacial elements onto the display of what is seen through the camera’s eye (including but not limited to augmented reality), may radicalize and literalize Abrahamic monotheisms, particularly fundamentalist strains, as well as spawn as yet unimagined new cloud/AR-based political theological mutations. For example, in many versions of AR textual annotation is fused with perception. How might this collapse of representational distance into the direct perceptual field transform the dynamics of metaphoricity and referentiality vs. immanence and tactility? Does the categorized interface, like a GUI, work differently when it is perceived as a real worldly object as opposed to a screen event at a distance? Further, when its annotations are labeling and dividing not commodity x and commodity y, but the sacred and the profane, can the primate brain manage to keep open the critical space of metaphor?

Burning Down the Real: What The App Means for the Skeuomorphic

Dock Currie (York University)

The direction that both Apple and Microsoft are progressing in the design of their respective operating systems and devices is such that they less and less feature reference to the material functions that they supplant. This design aesthetic is hence in opposition to the ‘skeuomorphic’ – that is, that which retains design elements of previous technological iterations. Arguments against the skeuomorph in consumer electronics software design commonly focus on these previous elements being only nostalgically maintained, serving no other purpose but epistemic convenience and the maintenance of habit, often to the detriment of the functionality that could be attained by omitting skeuomorphic design elements. This work will articulate how the denigration of the skeuomorph is ideologically premised, and that far from mere nostalgia and habit, the skeuomorphic serves the purpose of resistance against appropriation into the smooth space of digital Capital. The Skeuomorph is not, in other words, a matter of lazy aesthetic preference for the representation of earlier technology, but moreso a reaction against the disconnected irreality that is manifest by contemporary anti-Skeuomorphic design.

Imaginary Technologies – The Applied Culture of Apps

Jamie Allen (Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (CIID)

A recent Art Forum essay declares that “every era has its interface” (Provan 2013). Increasingly, our interfaces are not those of reference, of screens, veils, partitions and pointers, but those of function and functionalism: the App. Apps are parceled action. They are not the icons of yesteryear, as each of them gives indication of potential far beyond an interface, creating more than just a pointer to memory lying otherwise dormant elsewhere. The congealing computing culture of the App purports bundled possibility, a set of hidden capabilities and cosmic potentialities released as we launch actors into action. With this new direction of computing comes a host of aesthetic and social metaphors derived from the culture it reflects: continuous churning of data, reconstitution of the network and the elaboration for digital artists and creators of new ways of making and imagining.

Using examples from contemporary art and design practice, a platform study (Bogost, Montfort 2000) of the graphical and software interface of the App will be presented. The talk will approach Apps through comparative media studies (Hayles) and media archeology (Parikka 2012) toward elucidating and differentiating the value of ‘imaginary’ technology projects, their creative and critical capacities, as a practice-based arts and research method.

Apps and Interpassivity

Svitlana Matviyenko (Western University)

The app as the ultimate imaginary tool, the embodiment of what that Evgeny Morozov criticizes as “technological solutionism.” However, I will argue, truly disturbing in this scenario is that the user engaged in the obverse, interpassive (to use Slavoj Zizek’s term) relation with an object does not even come to acknowledge or confront own needs. Now needs are defined by apps and as such: they are either “pre-installed” on the mobile devices or, ironically, available for purchase at the app stores. The challenge of “There is an app for that” is not only in testing whether or not the user is ready to delegate tasks to technology; it invites users to test their willingness to delegate the production of needs to the machine. The app stores catalogue the “solutions” that are being sold to us along with the problems they are meant to resolve and the needs they fulfill.

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