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Where the action is: distributed agency between humans, machines, and programs

[working paper]

Rammert, Werner

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Abstract "In this paper it is argued that the advanced technologies take part in the course and constellation of human action and that they do this with real effects, not only metaphorically. The first part starts with the search for a useful concept of agency that enables the researcher to describe and classify all activities that contribute to the performance of an action. The concept shall include different levels of human agency as well as different levels of technologies in action. The following chapter treats the consequences that these activations of technologies have for the human-technology-relation. If technologies change their role from passive means into agents and mediators, then the narrow concept of instrumental action should be replaced by a broader concept of inter-agency. This part of the paper culminates in the presentation of a gradual model of agency that can be used to describe and discriminate between different levels and grades of action without any regard to the ontological status of the acting unit, may it be human-like or machine-like. In the second part of the paper the question 'What is the adequate unit of action?' is answered. It starts with a thought experiment about the question: Who is really flying the Airbus? We learn from both views, the humanist's and the technologist's one, that what is usually called action, like flying 240 tourists to Tenerife airport, consists of many distributed actions that have to be coordinated by social organization or technical configuration. The concept of distributed agency is spelled out during three steps: It presupposes many loci of agency, not one actor. It declares the hybrid constellations made of the mixed human and material agencies to the adequate research unit, neither the homogeneous social organizations nor the technical configurations. Finally, a third mode of integration called 'framed interactivity' is elaborated that may emerge between the hierarchical mode of master-slave-relation and the open mode of autonomous systems." (excerpt)
Keywords man-machine system; distribution; genesis of technology; technical development; innovation; social actor; model; behavior model; hierarchy; interaction; social behavior; pilot; technology transfer
Classification Sociology of Science, Sociology of Technology, Research on Science and Technology
Method theory formation
Free Keywords action; Distribution; humans; machines; programs; agency; technical; technology; artifacts; agents; gradual model; homogeneous constellation; hybrid constellation; hierachy; framed interactivity
Document language English
Publication Year 2008
City Berlin
Page/Pages 22 p.
Series TUTS - Working Papers, 4-2008
Status Published Version; reviewed
Licence Basic Digital Peer Publishing Licence