Shaping the Human-Technology Frontier

— Jason Edward Archer —

At a moment when networked sensing technologies are emerging and proliferating at breakneck speeds, the conference theme of in(Sensibilities) in STS came at an opportune time. We find ourselves in a moment similar to the one Raymond Williams wrote about in 1961, where “the values and meanings [we] need are in the process of change … [that] require new ways of thinking and feeling” (The long revolution, p. xiii).

Across the conference, I attended sessions attempting to grapple with shifting values, meanings, practices, senses and sensibilities forming alongside changing socio-technical configurations. Shaping the Human-Technology Frontier I, organized by Richard B. Duque, serves as just one example. The research presented helped me make sense of how our current socio-technical milieu is being shaped. In a double sense of the word, the presentations also seemed to offer potential blueprints for how the human-technology frontier could be shaped through engaged theoretical and critical scholarship.

David Seibt argued that 3D printing has changed the way the prosthetics industry imagines and designs for users and has in turn created new types of prosthetic users. Digital technologies and 3D printing allowed for what Seibt called, “mass customization” where the industry can produce custom prosthetics at industrial scales, allowing users to have more control over functionality and aesthetics. Perhaps no longer stigmatizing, prosthetics, with emerging technologies, may come to signify personal identity in new ways.

Desiree Förster posited ways to explore how relationality between humans, the environment, and things happen and how aesthetics work at a non-conscious level to influence how we reflect on those relationships. Förster has designed an experiment in a virtual environment linking a plant to a human and using data imperceptible from the human to alter the environment of the plants. As she explained, her experiment is meant to test whether, “we can perceive the plant as part of ourselves, extend the self towards the plant – not as feeling what the plant might feel– but in experiencing the effects of a metabolic relation.”

I discussed how Human Augmentics afford humans more agency in effecting their environment by bringing otherwise imperceptible information about themselves and their surroundings into awareness. I argued that these alterations in perceptible information could strengthen personal privacy and security by making an individual more aware of risk, if designed with those values in mind. But because the technologies are also meant to operate below the level of human consciousness, they may make interrogation of infrastructures, devices, and algorithms increasingly difficult.

Finally, Richard B. Duque talked about a theoretical model he is developing to help us better understand workplace risk and violence. In the end, Duque argued that with the right theoretical model, integrated technologies may be able to help us predict and perhaps prevent workplace violence.