vendredi 20 juin 2014

Normal Design.

n.a., Paris dans 20 ans, 1967 (via NDLR).

But focus on technology as knowledge has ramifications beyond the science-technology question. Hugh Aitken, for example, makes it basic to the historical method adopted in his book The Continuous Wave. To recount the early technical and institutional history of radio, Aitken regards "history of technology as one branch of intellectual history or the history of ideas." From this approach, he explains the origins of the history of inventions crucial to radio by examining "the flows of information that converged at the point and at the time when the new combinations came into existence." As the work of Aitken and other historians makes clear, however, the ideas we deal with are not disembodied - they are, as Layton points out, the ideas of people (and communities of people). Emphasis on knowledge thus brings history of technology into symbiotic relation, not only with intellectual history and philosophy, but with social history and sociology as well. Such emphasis is critical, in particular, for understanding technological change, a fundamental concern in one way or another for all these disciplines. As remarked by Rachel Laudan, "shifts in the knowledge of the practicioners play a crucial role in technological development." People who aspire to understand such development - economists and policy makers, for instance - might do well to focus accordingly when they delve (in Rosenberg's graphic phrase) "inside the black box" of technology. If these ramifications are valid, as I believe they are, laying out the features of engineering knowledge very much needs doing.

In addressing this task, I will structure the inquiry around the goal of design. For engineers, in contrast to scientists, knowledge is not an end in itself or the central objective of their profession. Rather, it is, as illustrated by the quotation from the British engineer, a means to a utilitarian end - actually, several ends. Engineering can, in fact, be defined in terms of these ends, as in the following quotation from another British engineer, C.F.C. Rogers:

Engineering refers to the practice of organizing the design and construction (and, I would add, operation) of any artifice which transforms the physical world around us to meet some recognized need.

Here I take "organize" to be meant in the sense of "bring into being" or "get together" or "arrange". The first end, "design", has to do with the plans from which the artifice is built, as in the many drawings (or computer displays) of an airplane and its components. "Construction" (which I shall call "production") denotes the process by which these plans are translated into the concrete artifice, as in manufacture of the actual airplane. "Operation" deals with the employment of the artifice in meeting the recognized need, the related example being the maintenance and flight operations of the airplanes of an airline. Definitions of engineering sometimes mention other ends such as "development," and "applications" or "sales"; these can usually be subsumed under one of the foregoing three, which will be sufficient for present purposes.

Of the three, design is frequently taken as central. Layton, in treating technology as knowledge, takes it as such (with minor mention of other ends). He adds in a later paper, however, that recent attempts among engineers to "reestablish design as the central theme of engineering" are "not without ideological overtones." Other scholars contend that rhetorical emphasis on design by engineers is primarily an attempt to gain status, that "engineers have seized on design as a way to liken their activity to that of scientists, to assert that they too are engaged in creative activity." Whatever the truth of the situation, I will restrict my focus here almost entirely to design. To attempt more would extend impractically an already lengthy study. Great numbers of engineers do, in fact, engage in design, and it is there that requirements for much engineering knowledge originate in an immediately technical sense. Though extaengineering needs - economic, military, social, or personal - may set the original problem, for many workaday engineers things come into focus at the level of concrete design. My emphasis on design, however, should not be taken to imply anything derogatory about other areas of engineering. For a complete epistemology of engineering, production and operation will require equal attention. For the time being, however, my concern will be limited to engineering design knowledge.

"Design," of course, denotes both the content of a set of plans (as in "the design for a new airplane") and the process by which those plans are produced. In the latter meaning, it typically involves tentative layout (or layouts) of the arrangement and dimensions of the artifice, checking of the candidate device by mathematical analysis or experimental test to see if it does the required job, and modifications when (as commonly happens at first) it does not. Such procedure usually requires several iterations before finally dimensioned plans can be released for production. Events in the doing are also more complicated than such a brief outline suggests. Numerous difficult trade-offs may be required, calling for decisions on the basis of incomplete or uncertain knowledge. If available knowledge is inadequate, special research may have to be undertaken. The process is a complicated and fascinating one that needs more historical analysis than it has received.

Design is important here, however, mainly as it conditions the knowledge required for its performance. Knowledge itself forms the primary focus; while requirements from design must be kept in mind at all times as determining that knowledge, details of how the process takes place are secondary. I have never attempted to design an airplane in my entire career as a research engineer (though I participated in planning and designing large aeronautical research facilities). The atmosphere  in which I worked, however, and the knowledge I helped produce, were conditioned by the needs of airplane designers who visited our laboratory. My colleagues and I were keenly and continuously aware of the practical purposes we served. The situation in this book is somewhat similar. Though only one of the historical studies deals directly with the design process, the needs of design play a determining role throughout. 

To keep matters manageable, I shall further limit attention to what can be called normal design. In The Origins of the Turbojet Revolution, Edward Constant defined "normal technology" - "what technological communities usually do" - as comprising "the improvement of the accepted tradition or its application under 'new or more stringent conditions.'" Normal design (my extension, not Constant's) is then the design involved in such normal technology. The engineer engaged in such design knows at the outset how the device in question works, what are its customary features, and that, if properly designed along such lines, it has good likelihood of accomplishing the desired task. A designer of a normal aircraft engine prior to the turbojet, for example, took it for granted that the engine should be piston driven by a gasoline-fueled, four-stroke, internal-combustion cycle. The arrangement of cylinders for a high-powered engine would also be taken as given (radial if air-cooled and in linear banks if liquid-cooled). So also would other, less obvious features (e.g., tappet as against, say, sleeve valves). The designer was familiar with engines of this sort and knew they had a long tradition of success. The design problem - often highly demanding within its limits - was one of improvement in the direction of decreased weight and fuel consumption or increased power output or both. Normal design is thus very different from radical design, such as that confronting the initiators of the turbojet revolution described by Constant. The protagonists of that revolution had little to take for granted in the way that designers of normal engines could. In radical design, how the device should be arranged or even how it works are largely unknown. The designer has never seen such a device before and has no presumption of success. The problem is to design something that will function well enough to warrant further development.

Though less conspicuous than radical design, normal design makes up by far the bulk of day-to-day engineering enterprise. The vast design offices at firms like Boeing, General Motors, and Bechtel engage mainly in such activity. In the words of one reader of this material, "For every Kelly Johnson (a highly innovative American airplaine designer who will figure in chapter 3) there are thousands of useful and productive engineers designing from combinations of off-the-shelf technologies that are then tested, adjusted, and refined until they work satisfactorily." In addition, knowledge for normal design is more circumscribed and easier to deal with. Though it may entail novelty and invention in considerable degree, it is not crucially identified with originality in the same way as knowledge for radical design. My restriction to normal design thus related to both substance and expedience - there are sufficient matters of importance to confront at this stage without opening the Pandora's box of technical invention.

I do not mean to suggest that normal and radical design, and the knowledge they require, can be sharply separated; there are obviously middle levels of novelty where the distinction is difficult to make. The difference, nevertheless, is sufficiently real to serve as a basis for analysis. I likewise do not mean to suggest that normal design is routine and deductive and essentially static. Like technology as a whole, it is creative and constructive and changes over time as designers pursue ever more ambitious goals. The changes, however, are incremental instead of essential; normal design is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. As we shall see, even within such limits the kinds of knowledge required are enormously diverse and complex. The activities that produce the knowledge, unlike the activity it is intended to support, are also something for from normal and day-to-day. 

W.G. Vincenti, What Engineers Know and How They Know It, Edition : Reprint. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993, 5-9.

vendredi 13 juin 2014

Engineering Knowledge.

Tobias Revell, 88.7, 2012 (via

Engineering knowledge, though pursued at great effort and expense in schools of engineering, receives little attention from scholars in other disciplines. Most such people, when they heed to engineering at all, tend to think of it as applied science. Modern engineers are seen as taking over their knowledge from scientists and, by some occasionally dramatic but probably intellectually uninteresting process, using this knowledge to fashion material artifacts. From this point of view, studying the epistemology of science should automatically subsume the knowledge content of engineering. Engineers know from experience that this view is untrue, and in recent decades historians of technology have produced narrative and analytical evidence in the same direction. Since engineers tend not to be introspective, however, and philosophers and historians (with certain exceptions) have been limited in their technical expertise, the character of engineering knowledge as an epistemological species is only now being examined in detail. This book is a contribution to that effort.

My involvement in the study of engineering knowledge stems in part from a question put to me by my Stanford economics colleague Nathan Rosenberg over lunch in the early 1970s: "What is it you engineers really do?" What engineers do, however, depends on what they know, and my career as a research engineer and teacher has been spent producing and organizing knowledge that scientists for the most part do not address. My attempts to deal with Rosenberg's question led me therefore - without at first realizing just what I was doing - to examine the cognitive dimension of engineering. Given a long-standing interest in history, it was also instinctive for me to approach the problem historically. To my pleasant surprise, I found myself in step with the work being produced by historians of technology.

In the view developed by these historians, technology appears, not as derivative from science, but as an autonomous body of knowledge, identifiably different from the scientific knowledge with which it interacts. The idea of "Technology as Knowledge" - title of an influential paper by Edwin Layton, one of the view's early champions - credits technology with its own "significant component of thought". This form of thought, though different in its specifics, resembles scientific thought in being creative and constructive; it is not simply routine and deductive as assumed in the applied-science model. In this newer view, technology, though it may apply science, is not the same as or entirely applied science.

This view of technology - and hence engineering - as other than science accords with statements sometimes made by engineers, such as the following by a British engineer at the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1922: "Aeroplanes are not designed by science, but by art in spite of some pretence and humbug to the contrary. I do not mean to suggest for one moment that engineering can do without science, on the contrary, it stands on scientific foundations, but there is a big gap between scientific research and the engineering product which has to be bridged by the art of the engineer." The creative, constructive knowledge of the engineer is the knowledge needed to implement that art. Technological knowledge in this view appears enormously richer and more interesting than it does as applied science.

The newer view comes from the work of historians over several decades. The historiographic development has been examined in an extended study by John Staudenmaier and a shorter review by George Wise. Both come to the conclusion, as expressed by Wise, that "treating science and technology as separate spheres of knowledge, both man-made, appears to fit the historical record better than treating science as revealed knowledge and technology as a collection of artifacts once constructed by trial and error but now constructed by applying science." The evidence to be presented here supports this conclusion. The reality of the distinction is emphasized for me by the fact that the school of engineering at my own university, as at all such institutions, finds it necessary to maintain its own library, separate from those of the departments of physics and chemistry. This separation is more than a convenience. Engineers, though they require many of the same books, journals and documents as physicists and chemists, need others not kept in the science libraries. Despite the historical and institutional evidence for its autonomy, however, the features that distinguish technological knowledge have not been laid out in detail.

The view of technology as an autonomous form of knowledge is bound closely with the debate over the relation between technology and science, which has been a long-standing concern of historians of technology. Staudenmaier sees the view of having emerged out of that debate and become a major theme in itself, with the science-technology relation reduced to a subtheme. Wise regards the science-technology relation as still an organizing issue for research, with the view of technology as a special kind of knowledge defining the technological side of the relation. However that may be, viewing technological knowledge as autonomous leaves the relation between technology and science still open to specification. Technological knowledge then takes its place as a component on one side of what can be called an "interactive model" of the relationship. In this model, which has been summarized concisely by Barry Barnes, technology and science are autonomous forms of culture that interact mutually in some complicated and still-to-be-spelled-out fashion. The nature of technological knowledge constrains but does not define the relationship.

Things look very different if the knowledge content of technology is seen as coming entirely from science. Such a view immediately defines the science-technology relation - technology is hierarchically subordinate to science, serving only to deduce the implications of scientific discoveries and give them practical application. This relation is summarized in the discredited statemen that "technology is applied science". Such a hierarchical model leaves nothing basic to be discussed about the nature of the relationship. A model with such rigiditiy is bound to have difficulty fitting complex historical record. 

W.G. Vincenti, What Engineers Know and How They Know It, Edition : Reprint. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993, p.3-5. 

vendredi 6 juin 2014

Complex Acronym.

Jungle, The Heat, 2014.

'The common misapprehension is that a messy desk is a sign of a hard worker.'

'Get over the idea that your function here is to collect and process as much information as possible.'

'The whole mess and disorder of the desk on the left is, in fact, due to excess information.'

'A mess is information without value.'

'The whole point of cleaning off a desk is to get rid of the information you don't want and keep the information you do want.'

'Who cares which candy wrapper is on top of which paper? Who cares which half-crumpled memo is trapped between two pages of a Revenue Ruling that pertained to a file three days back?'

'Forget the idea that information is good.'

'Only certain information is good.'

'Certain as in some, not as in a hundred percent confirmed.'

'Each file you examine in Rotes will constitute a plethora of information,' the Personnel aide said, stressing the second syllable of plethora in a way that made Sylvanschine's eyelids flutter.

'Your job, in a sense, with each file is to separate the valuable pertinent information from the pointless information.'

'And that requires criteria.'

'A procedure.'

'It's a procedure for processing information.'

'You are all, if you think about it, data processors.'

The next slide on the screen was either a foreign word or a very complex acronym, each letter in bold and also underlined.

'Different groups and teams within groups are given slightly different criteria that help inform what to look for.'

The Personnel aide was thumbing through his laminated outline.

'Actually there's another example of the information thing.'

'I think they've got it.' 

The CTO had a way of turning one foot out perpendicular to its normal direction and tapping it furiously to signal impatience.

'But it's right here under the desk thing.'

'You mean the deck of cards?'

'The checkout line.'

They seemed to believe their mikes were off.


'Who'd like to hear another example illustrating the idea of collecting information versus processing data?'

Cusk was feeling solid and confident, as he often did after a series of attacks had passed and his nervous system felt depleted and difficult to arouse. He felt that if he'd raised his hand and given an answer that turned out not to be correct it wouldn't have been that big of a deal. 'Whatever,' he thought. The 'whatever' is what he often though when he was feeling jaunty and immune from attack. He had twice actually asked women out when in this cocky, extroverted, hydrotically secure mood, then later failed to show up or call at the appointed time. He actually considered turning around and saying something jaunty and ever so slightly flirtatious to the noisome Belgian swimsuit model - on the upswing, he now wanted people's attention.

At age eight, Sylvanshine had data on his father's liver enzymes and rate of cortical atrophy, but he didn't know what these data meant.

'There you are at the market while your items are being tallied. There's an individual price for each item, obviously. It's often right there on the item, on an adhesive tag, sometimes with the wholesale price also coded in the corner - we can talk about that some other time. At checkout, the cashier enters the price of each grocery, adds them up, appends relevant sales tax - not progressive, this is a current example - and arrives at a total, which you then pay. The point - which has more information, the total amount or the calculation of ten individual items, let's say you had ten items in your cart in the example. The obvious answer is that the set of all the individual prices has much more information than the single number that's the total. It's just that most of the information is irrelevant. If you paid for each item individually, that would be one thing. But you don't. The individual information of the individual price has value only in the context of the total; what the cashier is really doing is discarding information, which in the cashier runs through a procedure in order to arrive at the one piece of information that's valuabe - the total, plus tax.'

'Get rid of the layman's idea that information is good. That the more information the better. The phone book has lots of information, but if you're looking for a phone number, 99.9 percent of that information is just in the way.'

'Information per se is really just a measure of disorder.' Sylvanshine's head popped up at this.

'The point of a procedure is to process and reduce the information in your file to just the information that has value.'

'There's also the matter of using your time most efficiently. You're not going to spend equal time on each file. You want to spend the most time on the files that look promising in terms of yielding the most net revenue.'

'Net revenue is our term for the amount of additional revenue generated by an audit less the cost of the audit.'

'Under the Initiative, examiners are evaluated according to both total net revenue produced and the ratio of total additional revenue produced over total cost of additional audits ordered. Whichever is the least favorable.'

'The ratio is to keep some rube from simply filling out a Memo 20 on every file that hits his Tingle in hopes of jacking up his net.' Cusk considered: An examiner who filed no Memo 20s ever would have a ratio of 0/0 which is infinity. But the net revenue total would, he reflected, also be 0.

'The point is to develop and implement procedures that let you determine as quickly as possible whether a given file merits closer examination -'

'- that closer examination itself involving some type or types of procedures blended with your own creativity and instinct for smelling a rat in the woodwork -'

'- although at the beginning of your service, as you're gaining experience and honing your skills, it will be natural to rely on certain tested procedures -'

'- a lot of these will vary by group or team.'

'Incongruities on the Master Files, for one thing. That's pretty obvious. Disagreement of W-2s plus 1099s with stated income. Disagreement of state return with 1040 -'

'But by how much? Below what floor do you simply let an incongruity go?'

'These are the sorts of matters for your group orientation.'

Sylvanshine now know that two separate pairs of new wigglers were actually, unbeknownst to them, related, one pair through a liaison five generations ago in Utrecht.

David Cusk was now feeling so relaxed and unafraid that he was almost getting drowsy. The two trainers sometimes established a rhythm and concert that was soothing and restful. Cusk's tailbone was a tiny bit numb from settling back and slumping in his seat, resting his elbow casually on the foldout desk, the heat of the little lamp of no more direct concern than news of the weather somewhere else.

David Foster Wallace, The Pale King, Penguin Books, 2012, p.342-345.

vendredi 30 mai 2014

Design Research.

Atelier Bow-Wow, Miyashita Park, Tokyo, Excerpt, 2011.

Atelier Bow-Wow, Nora House, Sendai, Japan, 2006.

Atelier Bow-Wow, Kawanishi Camping Cottage B, 1999.

In the Battle of the Books, which is an English characterization of the long struggle between old and new learning in our culture, design was clearly part of the old learning. It was “paleoteric" - the term that was used to name the old learning. The new sciences, which promised to put all human understanding and activity on a firmer footing, were the new learning. They were “neoteric”, since they addressed new problems in understanding the world and tended to shape the organization of learning around such problems. The new learning was theoretical and oriented towards subject matters, marked off from each other by principles and causes that were, in a sense, in the nature of Being. (...)

What I want to suggest for this conference is that the discovery of design in the twentieth century is more than as mall incremental addition to the tradition of theoretical learning upon which our universities have been based since the Renaissance. True, design and its various branches have entered the universities under this guise, and their practical significance for economic development and the well-being of citizens may help to account for this development in tolerance among those who are committed to the old structure of universities and the old models of research. After all, universities had already found ways to accommodate within their missions the study of Law, Theology and Divinity, and Medicine. However, the discovery of design is more than this.It is a sign, I believe, of a new battle of the books in our time: a new round in the struggle between the old and the new learning in human culture. 

There reason for this new battle is evident. While we do not deny the value and the ongoing benefit of theoretical investigations of subject matters in the sciences and arts, we also recognize that the powerful development of this learning has left us in a deeply troubling situation. We possess great knowledge, but the knowledge is fragmented into so great an array of specializations that we cannot find connections and integrations that serve human beings either in their desire to know and understand the world or in their ability to act knowledgeably and responsibly in practical life.While many problems remain to be solved in the fields that currently characterize the old learning - and we must continue to seek better understanding through research in these areas - there are also new problems that are not well addressed by the old structure of learning and the old models of research. 

It is a great irony that what was once the new learning is now the old learning, and what was the old learning is now the new learning. For I believe that is what has happened to design; it has become the new learning of our time, opening a pathway to the neoteric disciplines that we need if we are to connect and integrate knowledge from many specializations into productive results for individual and social life.To besure, those who practice, study, and investigate design in the contemporary world are themselves divided along paleoteric and neoteric lines. Some see no need for design research, and some see in the problems of design the need for research that is modeled on the natural sciences or the behavioral and social sciences as we have known them in the past and perhaps as they are adjusting to the present.But others see in the problems of design the need for new kinds of research for which there may not be entirely useful models in the past - the possibility of a new kind of knowledge, design knowledge, for which we have no immediate precedents. We face an ongoing debate within our own communityabout the role of tradition and innovation in design thinking. 

Without developing this theme further at the moment, I want to suggest that our discussions of design research hold open the possibility of a core insight regarding a new kind of university that is information today and that will emerge more clearly in the next century.The old, venerable universities will remain withus because they contribute valuable knowledge that must be disseminated through well-educated individuals. But there may be a new kind of university that will also have value. It will be a university that prizes theory but does not disdain practice and does not ignore the distinct problems of, and the need for substantive knowledge about, making or production. Making products - and by “product” I mean a range of phenomena that is very broad, including information, artifacts, activities, services, and policies, as well as systems and environments - is the connective activity that integrates knowledge from many fields for impact on how we live our lives. This new kind of university - and there may be only a few of them in the future - will discover a dynamic balance among theory, practice and production, a balance that we do not now find in the vision of most universities today.

R. Buchanan, “Design Research and the New Learning,” Des. Issues, vol. 17, no. 4, pp. 3–23, Oct. 2001.

vendredi 23 mai 2014

Framing & Overflowing.

J. Levy, Pourquoi l'Espace?, 2014.

Framing is an operation used to define agents (an individual person or a group of persons) who are clearly distinct and dissociated from one another. It also allows for the definition of objects, goods and merchandise which are perfectly identifiable and can be separated not only from other goods, but also from the actors involved, for example in their conception, production, circulation and use. It is owing to this framing that the market can exist and that distinct agents and distinct goods can be brought into play. Without this framing the states of the world cannot be described and listed, and consequently, the effects of the different conceivable actions cannot be anticipated. 

What economists say when they study externalities is precisely that this work of cleansing, of disconnection, in short, of framing, is never over and that in reality it is impossible to take it to a conclusion. There are always relations which defy framing. It is for these relations which remain outside the frame that economists reserve the term externalities. The latter denotes everything which the agents do not take into account and which enables them to conclude their calculations. But one needs to go further than that. When after having identified some of these externalities, the agents, in keeping with the predictions of Coase’s famous theorem, decide to reframe them – in other words to internalize the externalities – other externalities appear. Callon, in his contribution, suggests the term ‘overflowing’ to denote this impossibility of total framing. Any frame is necessarily subject to overflowing. It is by framing its property rights by means of a public patent that a pharmaceutical firm produces externalities and creates overflowing. It is by purifying the products that it markets that a chemical firm creates the by-products which escape its control. 

The impossibility of eliminating all overflowing has, in reality, a profound reason discussed by Callon in his chapter. To ensure that a contract is not broken, to delimit the actions that can be undertaken within the framework of this contract, the agents concerned have to mobilize a whole range of elements, called, to use Leigh Star’s expression, boundary-objects (Star and Griesemer, 1989). These objects allow the framing and stabilization of actions, while simultaneously providing an opening on to other worlds, thus constituting leakage points where overflowing can occur. (…) 

The framing/overflowing duo suggests a move towards economic anthropology and more specifically towards the entangled objects of Thomas and the career of objects of Appadurai (Appadurai, 1986). The latter shows that the status of goods can change, that they can be commoditized, decommoditized and recommoditized, etc.: one is not born a commodity, one becomes it. (…) 

This notion of entanglement is very useful, for it is both theoretical and practical. It enables us to think and describe the process of ‘marketization’, which like a process of framing or disentanglement, implies investments and precise actions to cut certain ties and to internalize others. The advantage is that this analysis applies to anything and enables one to escape the risk of essentialism. To entangle and to disentangle are two opposite movements which explain how we move away from or closer to the market regime. No calculation is possible without this framing which allows one to provide a clear list of entities, states of the world, possible actions and expected outcome of these actions.

M. Callon, “Introduction,” in The Laws of the Markets, M. Callon, Ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998, pp.17–19.

vendredi 16 mai 2014

Guidelines & Plotlines.

Marc A. Reynolds, Minor Third Series: Harmonics, 2011.

The line of Culture

In algebra, a line is defined by the equation of any two terms, each of which is the product of a constant and the first power of a variable. It might be expressed by the formula ax + by = 0, where a and b are constants, and x and y variables. Plotting the possible values of the two variables by means of Cartesian co-ordinates, the result is a line that is perfectly straight. Other, more complex algebraic functions yield figures of the kind mathematicians call curves. For example, the equation y2 = 4ax generates a parabola. Equations of this kind are called non-linear, even though the curves they specify are composed of lines. It seems as though the quality of straightness has become somehow fundamental to the recognition of lines as lines, not just in the specialized field of mathematics but much more widely. Yet there is no reason, intrinsic to the line itself, why it should be straight. We have already encountered plenty of instances where it is not. Thus our question becomes a historical one: how and why did the line become straight? 

In Western societies, straight lines are ubiquitous. We see them everywhere, even when they do not really exist. Indeed the straight line has emerged as a virtual icon of modernity, an index of the triumph of rational, purposeful design over the vicissitudes of the natural world. The relentlessly dichotomizing dialectic of modern thought has, at one time or another, associated straightness with mind as against matter, with rational thought as against sensory perception, with intellect as against intuition, with science as against traditional knowledge, with male as against female, with civilization as against primitiveness, and – on the most general level – with culture as against nature. It is not difficult to find examples of every one of these associations. 

Thus we suppose that protean matter, being the physical stuff it is, has a texture revealed to close inspection as a mass of almost chaotically tangled threads. We saw in Chapter 2 that the word ‘tissue’ – applied to the materials of living things – carries a similar connotation. This is the stuff we feel with our senses. But we imagine that, in the formation of interior mental representations of the material world, the shapes of things are projected onto the surface of the mind – much as in perspective drawing they are projected onto the picture plane – along straight lines modelled on rectilinear rays of light. And if the lines along which light travels are straight, then so are the ways of enlightenment. The man of reason, wrote Le Corbusier, the supreme architect of rectilinearity in modern urban design, ‘walks in a straight line because he has a goal and knows where he is going, he has made up his mind to reach some particular place and goes straight to it’ (Le Corbusier 1924: 274). As he walks, so he thinks, proceeding without hesitation or deviation from point to point. What Ong calls the ‘sparsely linear’ logic of the modern analytic intellect has often been compared in this vein with the more circuitous, mytho-poetic intuitions attributed to people in ‘traditional’ societies, and above all to those without writing of any kind (Ong 1982: 40). Through this comparison, ‘thinking straight’ comes to be regarded as characteristic of literate science as against oral tradition. Moreover, since the straight line can be specified by numerical values, it becomes an index of quantitative rather than qualitative knowledge. ‘Its function’, as Billeter notes, ‘is to separate, to define, to order, to measure, to express number and proportion’ (Billeter 1990: 47). (...) 

Guidelines and plotlines 

In earlier chapters, following de Certeau, I have shown how the modern maker or author envisions himself as though he were confronting a blank surface, like an empty page or a wasteland, upon which he intends to impose an assembly of his own design. The straight line is implicated in this vision in two quite distinct ways: first, in the constitution of the surface itself; secondly, in the construction of the assembly to be laid upon it. For the first,imagine a rigid line that is progressively displaced along its entire length, in a direction orthogonal to it. As it moves, it sweeps or rolls out the surface of a plane (Klee 1961: 112–13). For the second, imagine that the plane is marked with points, and that these points are joined up to form a diagram. This, in a nutshell, is the relation between our two manifestations of the straight line. One is intrinsic to the plane, as its constitutive element; the other is extrinsic, in that its erasure would still leave the plane intact. In what follows, and for reasons that will become evident as we proceed, I shall call lines of the first kind guidelines, and those of the second plotlines. A few familiar examples will help to clarify the distinction. 

In the assembly line of modern manufacture, the surface upon which the assembly takes shape is literally rolled out in the movement of the conveyor belt. On the surface of this belt, components are joined together in the construction, piece by piece, of the final product. Here, the unrolling line of the belt is a guideline; the joints of the construction are plotlines. However, the first assembly line, as Ong has pointed out, ‘was not one that produced stoves or shoes or weaponry, but one which produced the printed book’ (Ong 1982: 118). In printing it is the job of the compositor to assemble the blocks of type on a composing stick before placing them in the galley. The line of assembled type is a plotline, but the straight, raised edges of the composing stick and the galley, against which the type rests, are guidelines. Of course, on the printed page, neither guidelines nor plotlines are visible as such. On the modern musical score, however, we can see both. Here the five parallel lines of the ruled stave are guidelines that establish a space, arrayed on the dimensions of pitch and tempo, on which the values of individual notes can be plotted. The ligatures connecting successive notes into phrases are then plotlines. ‘Musical notation’, as Kandinsky observed, ‘is nothing other than different combinations of points and lines’; however it should be added that the lines, respectively, forming the stave and joining the notes are of an entirely different character and significance (Kandinsky 1982: 618–19). 

Next, imagine a modern scientific graph. The lines of the graph, drawn with a ruler, connect points, each of which has been plotted by means of co-ordinates on the surface of the page. To facilitate this, the page itself is ruled with fine lines in two parallel sets, running respectively horizontally and vertically. These are guidelines that effectively establish the page as a two-dimensional space. And the lines connecting the points of the graph are plotlines. When graphs are reproduced in published texts, the original guidelines usually vanish, such that the plotlines figure against a plain white back- ground. It is as though they had been swallowed up by the very surface they have brought into being. All that remain are the straight lines marking the axes of co-ordinates. Yet they are still followed implicitly when we ‘read’ the graph, running our eyes or fingers either up or across to reach each point. It is rather the same with a cartographic map. Here the ruled lines of latitude and longitude are guidelines that enable the navigator to plot a course from one location to another. 

T. Ingold, Lines: a brief history. London; New York: Routledge, 2007, pp.152-153 & 155-156.

vendredi 9 mai 2014

Technical Steps.

Professor Bourbaki, IMG_0291, 2013.

Local practices form the place of origin of novelty and new technical knowledge. New technologies emerge as small technical steps in response to local problems, and only later give rise to new technical trajectories. Thus, both new artefacts and knowledge emerge through localised work. But local technical knowledge does not simply flow to other locations, as if it were a discrete entity. Before knowledge can circulate, it has to be made sufficiently context-free. (…) To create generic knowledge that can circulate, dedicated socio-cognitive work is needed to bring about a process of aggregation. “Aggregation” is the process of transforming local knowledge into robust knowledge, which is sufficiently general, abstracted and packaged, so that it is no longer tied to specific contexts. (…) 

Typical aggregation activities include standardisation, model building, writing of handbooks, formulation of best practices. Also codification, a term used by economists to describe the transformation of tacit into codified knowledge, is part of aggregation. (…) 

Codification means recording in a “codebook” and involves model building, language creation and message writing. While codification highlights the “coding” aspect of dynamics, aggregation also emphasises the “de-localisation” aspect. Aggregation refers to a broader socio-cognitive process of which codification is an aspect. 

Aggregation entails the production of a collective good: abstract knowledge that can be used by others. Because of free-rider problems, participation in aggregation processes is not self-evident. Why would you contribute to the build-up of a collective knowledge reservoir and share experiences with others, especially when they are competitors? Without proper arrangements or incentive structures, such collective goods will not be produced optimally, because they can be used by others who have not contributed to its production (Deuten, 2003). An important arrangement is the creation of intermediary actors, for example, professional societies, industry associations, standardisation organisations. Such intermediary actors may be created when actors perceive themselves as part of an emerging community with collective interests. In that case, perceived benefits of producing a collective good may outweigh perceived disadvantages. 

Intermediary actors may perform aggregation activities, because they have special responsibilities and roles. Standardisation organisations, for instance, are responsible for creating and maintaining a collective reservoir of (standardised) technical knowledge (Schmidt and Werle, 1998). Professional societies and industry associations also stimulate and facilitate the production and circulation of technical knowledge. They may create technical standards, articulate problem agendas, and exchange experiences and findings to further the interests of the (emergent) field as a whole. Also firms that travel between local practices may aggregate knowledge. Engineering firms or sector research institutes, for instance, are hired by other firms to perform certain jobs. They can compare experiences in different locations, reflect on differences and draw general conclusions. They can use this aggregated knowledge for other jobs in different locations. Initially, they may aggregate their experiences for intra-organisational purposes only. But they may also be willing to share (parts of) their knowledge reservoirs to enhance their reputation and visibility in relevant forums. 

Aggregation activities by intermediary actors do not revolve around finding technological solutions for local, specific problems, but rather around the creation, maintenance and distribution of generic, abstracted knowledge that can be used throughout a technological field (Rip, 1997; Deuten, 2003). So there is a division of cognitive labour: practical technical work in local practices, and dedicated aggregation activities to transform local experiences into global knowledge. Intermediary actors work at this global level. Intermediary actors are not always present from the start. They are often created as part of the emergence of a new technical community. Also the creation of an infrastructure for circulation and aggregation processes is important. Such an infrastructure consists of forums that enable (and induce) the gathering and interaction of actors, the exchange of experiences and the organisation of collective action. Examples of such forums are conferences, seminars, workshops, technical journals, proceedings, and so on. The creation of these forums tends to be part of community formation processes.

F. Geels and J. J. Deuten, “Local and global dynamics in technological development: a socio-cognitive perspective on knowledge flows and lessons from reinforced concrete,” Sci. Public Policy, vol. 33, no. 4, pp. 265–275, May 2006.