Woolgar and Cooper, “Do Artefacts Have Ambivalence?”

I stumbled across Steve Woolgar and Geoff Cooper’s article, “Do Artefacts Have Ambivalence? Moses’ Bridges, Winner’s Bridges, and Other Urban Legends in ST&S” (Social Studies of Science, 29.3, June 1999), a few weeks ago as I prepared for a session of ENGL516:Computers and Writing: Theory and Practice in which we were taking up, among other things, Winner’s chapter from The Whale and the Reactor, “Do Artefacts Have Politics?” Reading the chapter yet again, I thought I would try to learn more about these well-known bridges. I’d never seen one of them, after all.

Woolgar and Cooper’s article is one of those I wish I’d read years ago. It opens with an unexpected event: Jane, a student in a grad seminar, challenges the premise of Winner’s artefact-politics example. In effect, she says the clearance-challenged bridges are passable, that they don’t actually prevent buses from traveling the parkways on Long Island, that Winner’s claim is a “crock of shit.”

Woolgar and Cooper turn next to Bernward Joerges’ investigation of Winner’s bridges, their history, and the legitimacy in Winner’s attribution of politics to these artefacts. Rather than accepting Joerges’ position that Winner’s example crumbles because the actual bridges allow buses to pass, however, Woolgar and Cooper suggest the bridges-articulated wield a certain “argumentative adequacy” that is not necessarily eclipsed by the bridges-actual (434). In fact, they say that proof of Winner’s error is difficult to come by, despite the bus timetable they ultimately obtained, despite Jane and another student’s efforts to corroborate the effect of these bridges on bus traffic.

The important recurrent feature in all this narrative [about efforts to corroborate the effects of the bridges] is that the definitive resolution of the story, the (supposedly) crucial piece of information, is always just tantalizingly out of reach…. For purposes of shorthand, in our weariness, in the face of the daunting costs of amassing yet more detail, or just because we’re lazy, we tend to ignore the fact that aspects of the story are always (and will always be) essentially out of reach. Instead we tell ourselves that ‘we’ve got the story right.’ (438)

Following a discussion of urban legends and technology, Woolgar and Cooper conclude with several smart points about the contradictory aspects of technology, that it “is good and bad; it is enabling and it is oppressive; it works and it does not; and, as just part of all this, it does and does not have politics” (443). They continue, “The very richness of this phenomenon suggests that it is insufficient to resolve the tensions by recourse to a quest for a definitive account of the actual character of a technology” (443). And, of course, once we can relax in efforts to trap a-ha! an “actual character,” we might return an unavoidably rhetorical interplay among texts and things, between discourses and artefacts. Winner, too, has built bridges, “constructed with the intention of not letting certain arguments past” (444). Periodically inspecting both bridges-actual and bridges-articulated is also concerned with mapping or with accounting for the competing discourses, the interests served by them, and so on: “Instead of trying to resolve these tensions, our analytic preference is to retain and address them, to use them as a lever for discerning the relationship between the different parties involved” (443). And, importantly, this is a lever that produces a different kind of clearance, “under which far more traffic might flow” (444).

Note: There’s much more to this, including Joerges’ response here (PDF), which I have not read yet, but I nevertheless find the broader debate fascinating, relevant to conversations about OOO we’re having on our campus in preparation for Timothy Morton and Jeff Cohen’s visit next month, and–even if I have arrived late–a series of volleys I need to revisit if and when I return to Winner’s example in the future.

I-Search and Quantified Self

I am 70-percent committed to a plan for ENGL326: Research Writing this fall revolving around research networks. I’ve been reading over the syllabus and materials Geof Carter generously shared with me from a similar class he taught at SVSU recently. The basic idea here is to begin with a key (or keyless, as circumstances warrant) scholarly article in a given field of study (i.e., the student’s declared major, probably) and then trace linkages from the article to/through the various places (inc. schools of thought), times, affinities (inspirational sources, pedigree/halo re: terminal degree), and semantic fields (inc. contested terms) out of which it was written.  We will probably adopt a workshop model, maybe use CMap Tools for representing these research yarns, develop reading and research logs in something semi-private, such as Penzu, and, if things go well, lay some groundwork for a relatively focused going over of what entails “research” in their respective areas while also doing a lot of reading and writing, including some sort of an update or response to the first article. We could even write those in Etherpad for the way it lets us present a document’s evolution as video (video which invites a layer of commentary and reflection, a­­­­­s I imagine it possibly working out). If this sounds like June thinking for a class that starts in September, well, it is. Anyway, what good is early summer if not for breezily mulling things over?

Now, had I to begin again, I might create a different version of Research Writing tied in with the Quantified Self stuff. Monday’s entry on Seth Roberts’ work reminded me about this. Here is a small slice of Roberts’ article abstract, which is posted on The QS blog:

My subject-matter knowledge and methodological skills (e.g., in data analysis) improved the distribution from which I sampled (i.e., increased the average amount of progress per sample). Self-experimentation allowed me to sample from it much more often than conventional research. Another reason my self-experimentation was unusually effective is that, unlike professional science, it resembled the exploration of our ancestors, including foragers, hobbyists, and artisans.

Although the QS projects are rooted in quantification, they are not exactly bound to traditional science or notions of experimentation and measurement for public good.  Instead, they assume a useful blend between quantitative tracking and personal knowledge.  I don’t have in mind a QS-based research writing class concerned so much with “optimal living” or with diet and exercise, although I guess there’s no good reasons these things should be excluded from possibilities.  I’m thinking more along the lines of Quantified Self meets McLuhan’s media inventories meets Macrorie’s I-Search.  The class would inquire into data tracking, narrating spreadsheets, rhetorics/design of data visualization, and the epistemological bases of the sciences, while it “grabs hold of the word ‘authority’ and shakes it to find out what it means” (Macrorie, “Preface”). Again, just thinking aloud, June thinking for a class that, depending upon how things turn out this fall, starts in September 2011 or 2012.

Most Polluted?

<snark>Every so often I go looking for examples of astonishingly astonishing
web design. With that said, I’m no standards-waving design puritan, and I admit
I am attracted to departures from conventionality (unusual CSS tricks, and so
on). This morning an email arrived with a link for PTA listserv subscribers to
the Syracuse City School District
web site
, a site so overstocked with informative tidbits that it can only be
described as belonging to the "dump it in, anywhere" school of design, a school
matching with the old industrial mindset that caused Lake Onondaga to be so
choked with mercury and other debris that it for many years won acclaim as the
U.S.’s most polluted. I get it that the school district is complex,
but…my oh my. Just try to find anything here (e.g., the media release

To be fair, I have done little in this entry other than pot-shot on the site (and remember a link for future returns). And, to be even fairer, I don’t even need anything from it today. But this craggy little hike through the cluttered SCSD corner of the web got me thinking that it
might be interesting in a class to look around for the most polluted school
district web site in the U.S. (or in a given state) and then to work on improving its usability.

Week Eight

FF.Team Charmin: Week Eight

I don’t think I’ve mentioned that I’m in a fantasy football league this fall. It’s a low-key affair: select a “starting lineup” from among your team of players and then watch each Sunday as their on-field performances translate into fantasy points. I’m finding that I enjoy it far more than straight-up picking winners for every game each week (and getting half or more wrong). This fantasy football league strikes a nice balance, meaning that it’s not too time-intensive (just a few minutes each week to set the roster) but it re-focuses my attention and my drifting, contingent fanhood to a different group of players than I would otherwise root for, much less notice. Because I’m in on the FF league, I’m slightly more interested each Sunday and partial to certain players than I would be otherwise–perhaps it’s the only way to remain interested as an unflinching Lions fan.

Above, I adopted the Fantasy Football analysis format used by Sean Yuille at Pride of Detroit. My impression is that our league is not as detailed in its scoring, and I don’t have the time or inclination to provide analysis on all eight teams, but I have summed today’s clash between my own Team Charmin and the Salacious Antiquarian Society, a team that handily trounced us and disposed of our three-game win streak today. Today’s loss makes it a sweep of Team Charmin for the Antiquarian’s this season.

What’s not to feel lowly or dispirited about? Well, for one thing the rating shows that I scored exactly as many points as I could have with the roster I have. It wouldn’t have helped had I started my other QB or juggled the lineup otherwise. I should qualify that this will remain the case until Chris Johnson (RB, Titans) has a record-setting four touchdown game tomorrow night. He’s on the bench (i.e., Team Charmin’s bench), and perhaps he should have started ahead of Maurice Jones-Drew (RB, Jaguars) who racked up a staggering three points for the club earlier today. Anyway, that’s today’s FF analysis: Team Charmin was walloped, 103-75. Next week, always next week.