Saturday, November 11, 2006

Reading :: Acting with Technology

Originally posted: Sat, 11 Nov 2006 02:04:06

Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design

by Victor Kaptelinin and Bonnie A. Nardi

Activity theory is complex, intricate, and often difficult to understand, and until now, no full-length text has managed to provide a good solid understanding of what it entails. That's especially problematic since AT has been adopted by people in so many fields and used to do so many things, leading to some conceptual drift. When I taught a graduate course on activity theory and human-computer interaction a couple of years ago, I ended up using Nardi's Context and Consciousness and excerpts from several other works, but students rightly objected that the threads of AT had not been brought together in a coherent way.

If I were to teach that course again, I'd use this book. Kaptelinin and Nardi have worked hard to develop a single text that lays out AT for those without much background in it, and in general they do a really fine job. In particular, the chapters that summarize AT's principles, development, and treatment of objects are all quite strong. The case studies, which are largely based on published articles, are also valuable but are sometimes not well integrated with the overview and theory chapters. But that's okay -- the authors do a great job of referring to external AT studies and resources, so readers can easily find additional, relevant articles and cases.

So what does the book say about AT? The authors emphasize AT's coherence and its emphasis on human intentionality, themes that contrast with the characteristics the authors see in rival frameworks such as distributed cognition and actor-network theory (see, e.g., p.10). They also discuss how AT's new interest in Bakhtinian dialogism and multivocality (p.23) help to position it to study recent changes in work, since "work is more distributed, more contingent, less stable" (p.26). In fact, in their chapter on objects, they do a really nice job of discussing "polymotivation" (p.138), a key move in addressing the issue of networked work organization. And their chapter discussing AT's development and discontinuities is tremendously helpful for anyone who has wondered how AT relates to Vygotsky and Leont'ev and Bakhtin, or whether Engestrom's triangles are an essential part of an AT analysis, or why they're called "objects."

The authors also discuss AT in relationship to other postcognitivist theories in Chapters 9 and 10, particularly actor-network theory and distributed cognition. Bonnie was kind enough to let me review draft copies of these two chapters, and also kind enough to cite my work in them. My reaction, then and now, is that these chapters do important work -- but they tend to take AT's goals as the gold standard for comparison and criticize the other approaches for falling short of those standards. Since ANT and DC have very different objects (to use AT's terms), of course they fall short. I should say here that I consider myself an activity theorist, and I have a strong interest in individual human activity, development, and ingenuity (as the authors themselves point out by kindly citing my work). But I do think that other projects can be pursued and that examining their separate objects could have produced a more amicable comparison.

Despite that wrinkle, the comparison is tremendously valuable, especially in Chapter 10, where the authors compare treatments of agency. When activity theorists criticize how symmetrical approaches handle agency, the obvious counterclaim is that in emphasizing individuals so strongly, activity theorists actually ignore the incredibly important concept of mediation developed by Vygotsky. Isn't one obvious implication of mediation that cultural activity is mediated activity, i.e., activity that only exists because heterogeneous elements such as workers, practices, artifacts, and material objects form assemblages that mutually change each other? That is, doesn't AT point to a form of symmetry?

Kaptelinin and Nardi, anticipating that counterclaim, furnish what is perhaps the most important new development in the book. They produce a typology of agents (p.244), breaking down the concept of agency into several subtypes and demonstrating how these are operationalized differently through different agents. For instance,

  • Natural things have conditional agency -- they produce effects -- but they don't demonstrate delegated agency or needs-based agency.
  • Cultural things have conditional and delegated agency, but not needs-based agency.
  • nonhuman, domesticated living beings have conditional, delegated, and partial needs-based agency (they act according to their own biological needs, but not their cultural needs).
  • only human beings (such as "Spinuzzi's traffic engineers") exhibit all these kinds of agency in full.

This really is quite brilliant, as it nails down some of the slippages in the term "agency" that have allowed actor-network theorists to claim agency for things. For instance, Latour argues elegantly that speed bumps have agency just as much as people do, since these "sleeping policemen" are delegated the responsibilities that human policemen have, and often discharge those responsibilities more faithfully. But no, this chart says, Latour is confusing two very different types of agency. We all intuitively know this, the argument goes, but now we can point to exactly where the confusion is and we can avoid that mistake. Or so the argument goes; I'm still processing it.

Well. As you can tell, I'm really quite impressed with this smart and timely book. Although I've spent a bit of time in this review questioning assumptions in a couple of the chapters, partly because I've been so engaged with them lately, the book overall is a huge contribution to the AT literature. I'll certainly refer to it, cite it over and over, and think hard about its implications.

Blogged with Flock