‘Securing conduct through codes: some reflections on sociomaterial agency’

Lucas Introna – LUMS, Lancaster University

Value-sensitive design seeks to shape code to conform to values. But looking at search engines or facial recognition that are hard to understand, who can do what? The paper focuses on how agency works here.

The inter-actional human-centred account is often invoked. The original agency is assumed to be human. The determination of original agency becomes an ethical-social requirement. On this account, it becomes really hard to account for agency (e.g. Foucault’s work shows this). Also Latour’s work helps shows that materials are very active in practice. Barad’s notion of intra-action makes phenomena ‘primitive’ and relata are not pre-given. Where does all this lead us in terms of responsibility? Responsibility is sedimented around particular practices that we play a role in shaping. Finally Heidegger’s account of being-in-the-world provides an account of how things become present-to-hand. The constitutive relation is ontological – it performs all participants, human and nonhuman, at once. The intra-action that constitutes is prior to any scripting of our behaviour.

Figuring intra-actional sociolmaterial agency in the context of plagiarism detection systems such as TurnItIn.com is illustrative. This a vast technology, receiving 50,000 essays/day. Students were asked about how their work came to be detected by the system. They spoke of having many electronic sources open on the screen. They would cut and paste relevant fragments into a document that becomes the skeleton of the document. They then write over the fragments in a way that becomes their own. Sometimes that involves changing little, for others a lot. Sometimes they just connected the fragments with writing. The students think they are writing their essays, using re-use. This is highly valorised in object-oriented programming. They use the discourse of reuse, and this reconfigures the social-mterial practice of writing.

turn it in originality report

The TurnItin system understands plagiarism in terms of thresholds of copying – the ‘traffic light’ system. TurnItIn incorporates all the essays into its databases. The students are then sometimes asked to sign off their essays for submission to TurnItOn. The effect is to constitute students as intellectual producers. Their essays can then be sold on ebay, especially if they can show that it has not been submitted to TurnItIn. Internet ghost-writing services offer guarantees that their products will not be detected by TurnItIn.

An ethical debate against the Turnitin software can be read here at DontTurnItIn

Advertisements