Virtual, Phenomenal, Real and Mobile

sptDavid presented a paper at the Society for Philosophy of Technology conference, in Denton, Texas, USA, entitled ‘Virtual, Phenomenal, Real and Mobile’ in May 2011.  The Call for Papers is archived here.

Abstract:  The debate between ‘realism’ and ‘social constructivism’, rehearsed and overviewed in Ian Hacking’s book, “The Social Construction of What,” (Hacking 1999) has nonetheless seen a number of attempts to find common ground, or unifying principles / theoretical frameworks.  Notable amongst these have been Karen Barad’s feminist/cyborgian inspired agential realism, and Wanda Orlikowski’s actor-network-theory inspired sociomateriality.   Barad links Neils Bohr’s quantum mechanical reformulation of objective reality with Michel Foucault’s theorising of the social and political aspects of practices and apparatuses(Foucault 1995a; 1997), to conceive objects as material-discursive phenomena: ‘agential realism.’ “If our descriptive characterizations do not refer to properties of abstract objects or observation-independent beings but rather describe agential reality, then what is being described by our theories is not nature itself but our participation within nature” (Barad 1999:7).   Beyond the similar dichotomies between ‘techno-centric’ and ‘human-centred’ approaches to understanding technology, whereby either technology “leverages human action” or “‘vanishes’ from view in the preoccupation with the social,” (Orlikowski 2006:461), Orlikowski proposes a third approach, citing Latour (1992; 2004), and Law (1992) among others as having provided a theoretical framework that eschews this binarism. Orlikowski’s approach focuses on what she terms the “scaffolding of knowledgeability” (ibid 2006:462), characterising knowing as being scaffolded “culturally (e.g., through codes, language, norms) and materially (e.g., through physical objects, biological structures, spatial contexts, and technological artifacts),” (ibid 2006:462) with special emphasis upon the last.

This paper offers a brief precis of the position taken by these two authors, in the context outlined by Hacking, and picks out some of the linkages between the two. It then seeks to explore how these twoattempts to bridge the gap between realist and social constructionistpoints of view might benefit from the philosophical standpoint of HenriBergson’s concept of the durée réelle, or real duration, and its poststructuralist interpretation by Gilles Deleuze (Bergson 1944;  Deleuze, 1991).  Bergson maintains that intellection splits and categorises the past, not the unified unfolding present, which is apprehended intuitively, rather than intellectually, in our consciousness, thus offering a reconceptualisation of time and space that allows for both realism (in our intellectual apprehension of the past) and social constructivism (in our immediate experience of the present.)   

Finally, smartphones have enjoyed phenomenal growth in the latter part of the first decade of this century. By 2012 sales of such devices are predicted to outstrip sales of PCs, and by 2015 more people will be accessing the internet with such devices than they will be with a PC.  (Meeker et al 2010)   Key to the growth and popularity of such devices has been the convergence, not just of telecomms and photographic equipment, which helped drive mobile phone sales, and the addition of internet access, which defined the smartphone, but the addition, following the success of in-car satellite navigation devices, of GPS receivers into mobile internet devices.  The integration of GPS technology into smartphones, coupled with the consumer-led approach of Apple’s iPhone, gave birth to a whole new class of location-based services for mobile internet devices, available in particular for the iPhone, but also for Android, and other devices.  

With location based services becoming an increasingly important part of our lives, this paper lastly asks whether daily and intensive use of smartphones offers us a virtual layer to sociomaterial agential reality –making agential reality media-rich – and how this might present us both with further Bergsonian intellection ever closer to the present, but at the same time a much more ephemeral sense of the ‘real.’   Is such virtuality, the paper concludes, to be seen as any the less real than Barad’s objectivity-as-phenomenon?  


Kreps, D (2011) ‘Virtual, Phenomenal, Real and Mobile’. Paper delivered at  17th Society for Philosophy and Technology Denton, Texas, May 2011

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