Society for Linguistic Anthropology
Abstract: What has happened to the human hand? A common story of epochal change says that inscriptional machines have largely replaced it. Automatic registering and writing machines, which began to proliferate in nineteenth-century medicine and science, came to by-pass humans to inscribe nature “objectively,” for instance. Or, to cite one of many dramatic contemporary examples, vast networks of underwater geosensors register and respond ‘directly’ to environmental life--as if auguring a future of post-human governance. Many inscriptional technologies have certainly tried to reduce if not eliminate human semiotic labor, but this tells us little about the semiosocial entanglements of the manual and mechanical. This roundtable turns to inscriptional technologies, old and new, that retain—sometimes begrudgingly--a central role for humans. We focus on machines that still demand “the hand” (as this is a metonym, they demand much else, too). Keyboards of all kinds discipline the erratic hand but concede much to human capacity. Drop-down menus constrain choice but still require it.
How should we understand the forms of interaction, sociality, ethics, and even affective attachment, that seem to take place across the threshold between human and machine? As this question suggests, we avoid only asking who-did-what-to-whom--as if determining cause and effect, agent and patient, or sorting out which “part” of the human-machine manifold belongs to whom—were the most pressing questions.
To explore forms of life in and around this threshold, we entertain the notion of interface. That we know this term from several sciences suggests that we cannot understand the interface apart from the reflective practices and projects that try to know and manage it. Ergonomics mobilizes knowledge about everything from biomechanics to psychology to design machines that humans can use well (e.g. efficiently and effectively, without injury to either party), much as “human-machine interaction” in computer science studies design principles of the user interface. So named ergonomics dates from the 1950s and is linked to notions of the efficiency of work that humans do with machines. If Taylorism was a brutal and one-sided adjustment of human capacities to machines, ergonomics countered with something responsive to human need, something bidirectional. The interface, in a word, has history.
When sciences constitute the interface by scrutinizing points of contact between human and machine, they usually locate the interface “in” the latter. Yet as the metonymic hand remind us, the body has its interfaces, too, which mediate self-other relations and much else. Gesture researcher Jürgen Streeck, for instance, describes a mode of gesticulation that is a “bodily form of conceiving.” For Heidegger, thinking wouldn’t exist without the hand. While Heidegger imagined the typewriter as alienating and extractive, we know there is no single story to be told about what the human-machine interface does. As anthropologists, how can we narrate, theorize, and historicize the forms of life that the interface enables and constrains? To address these questions, we convene a conversation that looks for an interface between fields, especially linguistic and semiotic anthropology, STS, and the anthropology of media and mediation.