Agency

Agency

A lot of the discussions I listened to/participated in last week had to do with the problem of choosing adequate/appropriate vocabularies to describe phenomena. The problem is particularly intense in the case of the metaphors we choose to use in our descriptive vocabularies. Catching up on reading blogs, My Irony’s entry Info wants to be free (and searchable) is a good example.

The commonplace “Knowledge wants to be free” is not only absurd, but is completely untenable. John Logie pointed out that it attributes an agency to an inanimate object. Even allowing that, it seems that knowledge (as a commodity that drives a substantial portion of our economy) wants to be hoarded, protected, exploited, and used to generate profit. It’s dangerous to adopt such sayings because they are inherently reductive of complex problems. I think it was Lessig that spent a great deal of time arguing that knowledge as a commodity is unique in its inexhaustible nature.

Knowledge doesn’t really get “used up” as other commodities do; it actually increases in power as it spreads. Thus, while “knowledge wants to be free” is an interesting sentiment, it does not describe the phenomena in a remotely meaningful fashion. To get to the heart of the problem, we need a new metaphoric slogan. Much like the concept of “virtue,” open access to information multiplies its power. It needs a new economic model to make such dissemination seem worthwhile. Perhaps it’s viral. A virus has no “intention” beyond survival; it is in that sense alone that knowledge can be said to “want” anything.

I stumbled on a similarly meaningful critique in Jouke Kleerebezem’s piece on social software. How can software be social? Only real agents (the people who use such software) can utilize social software to make connections. The software itself has no agency, no desire, no utility outside the consideration of the people who use it. The attribution of even a metaphoric “agency” to such projects obscures the true complexity of its aims. Software (or knowledge) is neither transparent nor motivated. These things are created by people, for people—the only agents that can really possess intent. However, dominance of metaphors of attributing human agency to inanimate objects is apparent even in Jouke’s piece:

All performance tools are developed to improve and refine the purpose they serve. Tools are functional. They learn from their function and vice versa they inform that function. Only if you look at hammering with dedication, concentration and understanding of the physical co-ordination it demands, you will be well informed to design a hammer.

Tools do not learn from their function. People learn. A sentence which declares agency without an agent is passive. We need active metaphors, not passive ones, to strengthen our descriptive vocabulary. Just what those are, I’m really not sure.

1 thought on “Agency”

  1. Maybe as I remember it that commonplace was coined at a time when the idea of knowledge being anything other than book learning facts and flat data was shocking and new.
    Information passing through a system informs that system. Wasn’t that part of all that too?
    They were bits of the conversations of my elders as teenaged I ping-ponged around the scene, catching trickling-down aphorisms from Fuller and Bateson and other demi-gods.
    Beer seeks its own level.
    How’s that?
    Tools do learn. Even though they don’t really.
    Knowledge is the growth in the medium. Once it begins to be limited it’s becoming something else, something less.
    The phrase itself strikes me like that tubular impossibility thing, the visual anomaly, it shocks the brain-mind into new pathways.

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