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Social practices and dynamic non-humans : nature, materials and technologies
Maller C., Strengers Y., Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, Switzerland, 2019. 264 pp.  Type: Book (978-3-319921-88-4)
Date Reviewed: Jul 20 2020

In the contemporary world, there is perhaps an implicit, or even explicit, presumption that human experience matters above all--human society and actions seek to quash, or at least subjugate to the extreme, all nonhuman actors and their effects. Humans now prefer to assign meanings and roles to everything in the world based on their own chauvinistic perspective. As Harari notes, “According to humanism, humans must draw from within their inner experiences not only the meaning of their own lives but also the meaning of the entire universe” [1].

The consequences of this egocentrism are of course becoming obvious. We have by and large improved the lot of humanity with advances in technology, medicine, communications, and the like. However, our wanton disregard for nature is also causing serious problems like anthropogenic climate change. It is also becoming clear that technology can often outpace a careful examination of ethical and social concerns, or else that technology alone does not always indicate how to address such concerns. There is thus a push in the present day to include social science issues in the analysis of algorithmic technologies, such as in understanding the effects of algorithmic systems on society [2], understanding the ethical issues of algorithms [3], and in designing algorithmic systems with an explicit social context such as for crisis intervention [4].

This is the context of the present book, which is a collection of social science essays on various aspects of nonhuman actors (such as animals, plants and trees, and human-designed systems such as software and autonomous vehicles) and their interactions with and effects on human society. After a chapter of introduction, “Dynamic Nonhumans in a Changing World,” coauthored by the editors, the book is divided into two parts with six chapters apiece. Part 1, “Nature, Materiality, and Processes,” deals with such topics as the effects of plant weeds on agriculture and the “materiality” of wood and trees. Most of this part of the book will possibly hold little interest for a computer science audience, who may also find it hard to relate to the “fashionable nonsense” [5] postmodern style of writing.

Part 2, “Technologies, Automation, and Performativity,” is perhaps a bit more relatable for a technologist, but again, some of the writing is rather doctrinaire and does not clearly address any pressing real-life issue. For instance, in chapter 9, “How Software Matters: Connective Tissue and Self-Driving Cars,” the author does not go into any of the ethical issues of autonomous vehicles, or even give any sense that she clearly perceives the difference between classical software systems and cyber-physical systems. She rather has things like this to say (page 174):

For theories of practice, software is a challenging “material” to conceptualize and study. This is, firstly, because some forms of software “enliven” and automate processes in complex ways that reduce, remove, or otherwise decenter the active and practical doings of people.

This instance, or indeed this chapter, is unfortunately not the only place in the book where one encounters such gobbledygook. Similar occurrences may be seen also in later chapters, including the final two--chapter 11, “Robots and Roomba Riders: Nonhuman Performers in Theories of Social Practice,” and chapter 12, “Automation, Smart Homes, and Symmetrical Anthropology: Nonhumans as Performers of Practices?”--which would otherwise have been of some interest to technology professionals.

In all, despite the obvious scholarly abilities of all the chapter authors, I came away from the book feeling a sense of dissatisfaction. While one must give the social scientists their due and accept, if not applaud, their own approaches, this work is, in my opinion, an opportunity lost. There are many vexatious issues to be addressed in the confluence of society (or even the world at large) and technologies, but this book has not done a reasonable job of addressing any of them.

Reviewer:  Shrisha Rao Review #: CR147019 (2012-0283)
1) Harari, Y. N. Homo Deus: a history of tomorrow. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 2017.
2) Finn, E. What algorithms want: imagination in the age of computing. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2017.
3) Mittelstadt, B. D.; Allo, P.; Taddeo, M.; Wachter, S.; Floridi, L. The ethics of algorithms: mapping the debate. Big Data & Society 3, 2(2016), 1–21.
4) Palen, L.; Anderson, K. M. Crisis informatics—new data for extraordinary times. Science 353, 6296(2016), 224–225.
5) Sokal, A.; Bricmont, J. Fashionable nonsense: postmodern intellectuals’ abuse of science. Picador, New York, NY, 1998.
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