Unreal Nature

August 31, 2010

The Dance of Agency

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:20 am

… One of the best case studies on science-instrument interactivity can be found in Andrew Pickering’s The Mangle of Practice (1995). He describes well the ‘resistance and accommodation’ discovered in instrument development, the ‘dance of agency’ between humans and machines, the ‘tuning’ which is necessary, and so on. But once the interactive skills and tuned instruments begin to work in human-technology conjunction, then an origin trajectory can lead to greater and greater refinements, variations, and progressive development.

This is from the essay Phenomenologists and Robots in the book Embodied Technics by Don Ihde (2010):

… beginning with the Renaissance camera obscura, a progression of science’s imaging machines were variations upon that camera.

… The optical effects of the camera obscura were already known in antiquity — Mo Ti in China (400 BCE), Aristotle (350 BCE) and then fully by Al Hazen on optics (1036 CE). It later became a favored optical toy in the Italian Renaissance (15th century). for our purposes the camera has a light source (sun or artificial light), an aperture (at first a round hole), and a screen upon which an image is cast. Early cameras were objects of fascination by producing what I call isomorphic or picture-like images. DaVinci used on to produce an image of a crucifix in his room, and later Galileo used a version of the camera as a helioscope to image sunspots (1609). But I shall begin later with Isaac Newton’s transformative variation on the camera (1666), to produce a non-isomorphic image which does not look like the image source. What Newton did was to set up his camera by cutting a round hole in his window shades, through which the sun could shine, but then he placed a prism at the aperture and the ‘white’ light which streamed through the prism produced a ‘rainbow spectrum’ on the blank wall opposite. This was the imaging technology which stimulated his theory of color, including the recognition that ‘white light’ was a composite of the ‘rainbow’ of colors — and he ingeniously showed this to be the case by reversing the ‘rainbow’ back into ‘white’ light by adding a second prism.

Ihde skims over further work with prisms by Wollaston, Fraunhofer and finally Kirchhoff until:

… 19th century scientists finally recognized that each part of the now distinct spectra were chemical signatures, with one being sodium found being emitted from the Sun. So, now we have two important variants upon the non-isomorphic spectral imaging, Newton’s rough ‘blended’ spectrum to Kirchhoff’s distinctly lined spectrum.

Ihde next describes how Thomas Young, who “knew that light through a peculiar crystal, Icelandic spar, produced a double refraction with two rays producing different effects,” went on to invent interferometry. He then continues:

… Were we to bring this [brief history] up to date with contemporary hi-tech versions of these instruments, we would find whole classes of ‘beam splitters,’ ‘ mirror-plus-optics, and above all ‘beam active’ light analog sources such as with the coherent light sources of lasers, photon beams, electron beams, ion beams, all producing phenomena at previously unknown micro-levels.

… What we are seeing here is the emergence of discoveries from the very core of human-technology relations. Galileo did not expect to discover sun spots; nor did Newton expect to discover the composite structure of light; and the eventual discovery that spectra were chemical signatures was hard-won over decades of time. In short, what this perspective shows, does not map well upon a hypothetical-deductive predictive practice notion of science. It rather shows a much more pragmatic, experimental, and materially based science whose ‘observations’ and thus discoveries are technologically mediated by the instruments of science. Such a ‘material’ science is fully embedded, I argue, in the lifeworld. An instrumentally mediated science is a human-technology-world interactive science.

A more detailed, close-up analysis would show that each of these origin trajectories were attained through human-technology interrelations in which whatever human aims were being sought, an interactive and learning process was engaged in such that the human gradually ‘learns’ what the material forms of machinic ’embodiment’ allow. Bob Crease, for example, told me that when writing about the Young double-slit camera, he tried to construct one following Young’s description. He succeeded, but only after much tinkering and much effort since the tiny split in the aperture required him to learn considerable skills.

… One neither is directly aware of the possibilities or constraints of the instrument, nor does one derive this set of capacities from simple material properties. Rather, it is in use that one reflexively becomes aware of such capacities. The same phenomenon can be seen in musical examples: performers must always learn and usually through extensive practice sessions, the capacities of their individual instruments.




  1. I remember the frustrations of trying to dup;icate the double-slit experiment in physics at school … it very nearly put me off science for life :-)

    The interactive exploration thig is so very true, though … if only those that fund research, and want to focus every cent on defined objectives, could be brought to realise it. Learning is about play, in art and science as much as in childhood.

    Comment by Felix — August 31, 2010 @ 8:45 am

  2. Ha! In the next paragraph after the quote above, Ihde says, “However, very often in the history of such interactivity, play is also a factor in the acquisition of our awareness of machinic embodiment.” He then goes on to tell of a time when, on a visit to a university, he was invited to try their ‘virtual reality cave’ which included use of 3-D goggles. He says it took a while to get the hang of it but soon:

    “I discovered that I could ‘fly’ virtually and as I became more accommodated to this ‘virtual’ motility, began to experiment, or play with the new motion possibilities. To cut the story short, I soon decided to ‘escape’ the island and ‘fly’ off the cliff which formed the horizon of the scene, so accelerating as fast as my hand set allowed, I headed for the cliff — only to have the whole scene abruptly halt. The program did not allow such an escape, or one could say, I discovered a constraint-limit in this virtual ‘reality’ by means of the play I had undertaken. Again, in this case the quasi-world of the virtual scene reveals its embodiment through my failed interaction.”

    Comment by unrealnature — August 31, 2010 @ 11:09 am

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