So much of the challenge of doing critical theory in the humanities today is that we just don’t know what’s going on and it’s difficult to find out as we seldom talk to the people who are doing these things. When I visit design studios, talk with architects, and talk with to people doing serious IT, I’m astonished by what I see and hear. They’re making things that I certainly would have never imagined; sometimes very beautiful and emancipatory, at others disturbing. As a friend of mine, theorist of technology Heather Wiltse, recently said, we still treat Heidegger’s hammer as the paradigm of technology (a hyperbole, but one that’s not far off mark). Yet all of these things are more or less invisible even though they affect every aspect of our lives.
These technologies are so well integrated in our lives, so seamless and there, that we don’t even notice them. They are persuasive objects. I suppose the investigation of persuasive objects was what I was angling after in Onto-Cartography. Perhaps there’s a rhetoric to these entities, but it’s not the sort of rhetoric we encounter in language where, among other things, a speech-act can lead us to share a belief or develop an identification. Rather, persuasive objects persuade by gently directing our action in particular directions without us noticing it or really attending to it. They exercise what I have elsewhere called “gravity”, my name for power exercised at the level of signs, objects, and features of physical objects.
A group of us had occasion to encounter a persuasive object one bright evening in Umeå, Sweden. We were walking to a restaurant downtown. To get there we had to walk along a trail in a beautiful park. The road we needed to reach was directly ahead of us, yet the trail curled away in the opposite direction taking us away from the road we needed to get to. One member of our group complained bitterly, expressing frustration at how this path takes you away from your destination. The path was a sort of persuasive object. We could have climbed down a steep hill to get to the path we wished to take, but that would have been difficult, especially since one of us had a bike. Instead we were carried along by the path as the direction of least possible resistance, condemned to the fate– I say this tongue in cheek –of a leisurely stroll through the park. It’s as if the path demanded that we slow down and refuse the purposiveness of our business, requiring us to enjoy the beauty of the park. It didn’t do this by instilling a discursive content or belief in our minds, but simply by creating a groove along which we moved. We still exercise our freedom– there is no technological determinism here –but nonetheless amble along the path before us.
That’s how it is with gravity in the specific sense that I use the term. We don’t notice these persuasive objects because we simply move along them. We can stop. We can go back. We can climb down the hill. Yet still, there they are, nudging us in a particular direction. These machines, these persuasive objects, are all about us. The path is a machine encouraging enjoyment of the park despite our own aims (to reach our destination by a direct path). There are all sorts of techno-semiotic machines like this as well. When I do a Google search, for example, the list of links I see is different than the one you will see for exactly the same search. That list is compiled by some sort of algorithm based on my geographical location as well as my past search history. Those links, in their turn, direct me along a particular path. I indeed choose the links, but as Zizek would say, the range of choices is already chosen for me. It’s hard to see the persuasive objects because we dwell so intimately among them and seldom experience alternative configurations of space-time landscapes, yet there they are directing us in all sorts of subtle and gentle ways that reinforce various social patterns. Without a knowledge of emerging technologies how can we hope to understand what is going on? And more importantly, to what degree can we imagine a politics that not only persuades and deconstructs meanings, but that also builds emancipatory environments for life, becoming, and movement?