Inspired Part 4: Tools vs. Machines—A Helpful Distinction?

One last—and regarding further work maybe even the most important—in this season of posts inspired by recent exposure to John Tresch’s The Romantic Machine deals with fMRIs in a rather broad sense: Even though Tresch does not write much about sciences of the brain, his reflections on human-technological alliances and their transformative potential add a lot to my interest in putting people in numbers and negotiating the measures between domains. Categorizing humans according to bodily and mental measures and personal characteristics by making use of devices of any sort is part of the attempt to inform contemporary policies and improve—or justify—social realities and political economy.

Tresch supplies food for thought concerning the machines/tools/instruments used in the sciences—and beyond that. I am not sure if or to what extent it would impact my work to find out if and where there are differences between tools on the one hand and machines on the other hand (and where instruments fits in), but the question keeps coming up in older and more recent works. But, clearly, more work has to be done: E.g., neither do I believe that François J.D. Arago’s refusal of distinguishing between tool and machine is justified by the things in themselves nor that Karl Marx’s weary definition of the machine as a “complex tool” is sufficiently precise to lend a hand in assessing experimental use of technologies.

An invaluable stimulus in this connection was Wendy Chun’s Control and Freedom I read a few days ago.1 I am convinced that her concept of vulnerability can contribute significantly to assessing tools and machines. Even though Chun illustrates the danger of private internet consumers to yield freedom and submit to control, her framework can be used for scientists and their devices as well: Without being entirely stripped of agency,2 researchers (and technology users in general) seem to hand over integral features of their independence, confidence, reliability or responsibility to the machine (tool?)—for better or worse.

I hope that further inquiries into whether scientific instruments are seen, treated or act as tools or machines could assist in finding out if:

  • thought styles, politics, racism, sexism, … are embedded in the thing itself or imposed upon it and its data through the use by humans, i.e., to what extent the instrument’s use is pre-determined and how far it can be molded by the using scientists;
  • there is a systematic pattern when and where scientists have seen their instruments as (i) a mere extension of their own imperfect senses denying the transformative impact Tresch writes about, and (ii) when scientists refer explicitly to their devices’ creative power (simply in order to obtain more precise data or make data acquisition and compilation more convenient, or to establish an interregionally shared basis of evidence or data for further calculations—or to deliberately distance themselves from their object of study, to claim more objectivity/reliability/validity, to justify unexpected results, to deny responsibility for disagreeable developments, …);
  • the conception of origin of failure and error changes with the conception of the instrument as tool resp. machine (failure to obtain vs. to interpret data, error in calculation vs. in measurement, soft- or hardware error, failure on part of the instrument vs. its user vs. its designer vs. its manufacturers vs. the object in question itself, …);
  • the conception of impact of failure and error changes with the conception of the instrument as tool resp. machine (creation of new individuals/labels/norms through unintended assemblage of data vs. obvious malfunction and error message, material vs. immaterial consequences of error and the blurred line between the two through reification—not least in the sense of brain plasticity).

I am really lucky to have the opportunity to pursue this project in my fascinating History of Technology class. You will read more about it soon, I promise.

1 Many thanks to Ben Wagner again for recommending this fabulous piece!
2 A concise critique of this very issue can be found in a review of Chun’s monograph.


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