Jones: Symmetrical Networks Breaking Down and Modification

“Disciplined human agency and captured material agency are, as I say, constitutively intertwined; they are interactively stabilized” – Pickering, 17,

Andrew Pickering’s The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency & Science is a complicated piece about the sociological studies of science, and his theory points to the limitations of SSK while also utilizing actor-network theory to explore the practice of science. While reading this text, I found that Pickering conversing in the dialogues around SSK and I found that even after reading Laboratory Life, I still found it somewhat difficult to immerse myself in his theory  (I also found this video to be helpful). I’m particularly interested in focusing closely on Pickering’s theories about actor-network theory and how the social and the technological are “co-evolving”. This includes how humans and nonhuman agents, the nonhuman agents typically as machines, are ‘intertwined” and “stabilized” in their performance with one another. I wanted to focus on discussing the limitations of these symmetrical exchanges and how they can become re-engaged. If indeed technology and the social are co-evolving, then I feel that it may become very important in stressing the relationships of technological outputs to their social functions. In this regard, I’m interested in the limitations of human intentionality and the limitations of the machine to run the functions, but I believe modification may infuse both with the ability to reengage.

At my work, I act as a business analyst, and I was recently tasked with improving a very old, very paper-intensive process. I was asked to propose a work-flow and was told to create the perfect process and then the technology would follow the process. However, there are limitations to this strategy and I believe Pickering hints at many of these limitations. In one regard, I could not fully imagine the perfect workflow, because the workflow is limited and constricted by the technology available. In this way, co-evolution is clearer to me because the social and cultural can be restricted by what’s available, and my process would evolve with the technology at hand. For me, Pickering’s intentions are limited or restricted by this relationship. Pickering suggests that intentions may be “partially tamed, already on the way to being brought to heel by the cultures in which they are situated” (18), which plays out daily in work and scholarly life. We can only do so much with what we have, culturally and technologically. Pickering’s approach suggests that this is both a culturally impacted “taming” and a technological and material process as well. Goals are often shaped by the functions, abilities and capacities of the machines we use.  Pickering states that scientists seek future goals and “seek to bring them about” (18) and this can be influenced by human and nonhuman agents. This includes the laboratory function of building, testing, and implementing new functions in the machines we use.

What’s particularly interesting is that while intentionality seeks to build, shape or create new “contours” of material agency, we are also still restricted by the here and now. Pickering also mentions this: “Especially I want to stress the temporal emergence of plans and goals and their transformability in encounters with material agency” (18). Here “transformability” could suggest that the act of building can shape materiality, but materiality can also then transform intentions. Do laboratories think about building as a way to further materiality and its abilities? In some senses, my work is limited by technology, but depending upon the vendor or programming platform, our developers may suggest or create modifications to the platform. We are still restricted by the limitations of programming languages and what vendors are or are not willing to do, but there’s also a sense of modification or change. We can use the data available, and try to tweak it in order to reassess how our business processes are conducted. I wonder if this is also the same for how laboratories try to think about their machines and the machines’ material temporality or abilities?

In this sense of symmetrical co-evolution, intentionality appears to be one space where the symmetrical nature of the network “breaks down” for Pickering (17). We’re not always sure what the next programming tool will be, and so that requires a certain amount of ambiguity and flexibility when institutionalizing business processes. Yet there’s the continued network where humans and nonhuman agents are acting upon each other through practices. I’m curious to see how the output of technology is both acknowledged as a limitation, but also to see where modification lies in this process. When looking through labs, I found the Modlab at UC Davis. It appears that for this lab, experimentation is a way to explore modification for “new media technologies”. In the material sense, office space is transformed into a laboratory to encourage experimentation. This is an infrastructural development for creating a material system for exploration. In their optical tracking system, they are focused on creating the physical space that is interested in positioning, projection, and using applications to input data. The work space has been modified to create as a system that can respond to, draw, and track what is seen. They’ve also modified a Wii mote to this end, in order to accomplish some of their tasks. It’s interesting to see this physical transformation of a gaming system to perform their experiment, showing how technology and intention can be modified to create new goals. If intention is a breaking down of the symmetry, I think modification may be a way to re-infuse both human and nonhuman agents together in an act of evolution. Yet this can not always be accomplished at first, and can at times be hindered by time or cultural estimations of what’s possible. I wonder further still how modification can play into laboratories and actor-network theory, but I believe that it’s an interesting place highlighted through Pickering’s study of scientific practice.


Pickering, Andrew. The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Print.


One thought on “Jones: Symmetrical Networks Breaking Down and Modification

  1. ebcousins says:

    Your point about modification seems like a really crucial element of the “dance” between human and material agency – how does the idea of modification complicate the “mangle” – is it another (re)assertion of human agency? If one works against the original intentionality of an object, or appropriates it for a different purpose, does that change the relationship between human / material agencies or complicate how we see them as separate categories?


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