Visible and univisble standards

The visibility of jpeg-encoded data yet the unvisibility of jpeg itself is not a chance occurrence. The fact that in my “digital imag(in)ing apparatus” the process of light-becoming-information works the way it does is because of material and concrete actor-networks: Google engineering labs, Apple design studios, surveillances state departments, academic practice-research committees etc. It is these spaces and sites of jpeg instantiation that render it power full and condition its visibility.

Geoffery Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, in their discussion of categories and standards, emphasise the material location of standards systems. They say: “The hype of our postmodern time is that we do not need to think about this sort of work any more. The real issues are scientific and technological, stripped of the conditions of production”. They stress the importance of addressing, “the day-to-day work of building classification systems and producing and maintaining standards” (Bowker 2000: 10). Here standards are produced in material conditions, commodities churned out of factories, even if those factories are distributed and networked.

For Bowker and Star, the issue is how a particular scientific classification system or standard is instantiated in the world, how the classification of bacteria and microbes as distinct forms of life became a material (as well as (bio)powerful) part of the world in terms of company washroom regulations or hygiene legislation. Just as John Tagg traces the instantiation of eugenics classification systems and standards within photographic and governmental practices (Tagg 1993), so Bowker and Star locate standards firmly in the lab, the boardroom and the street. This is not just a history of standards but an archaeology of its working that parallels the media archaeological investigations of the scopic regime and scopic apparatuses. Here standards and systems are apparatuses of classification, “powerful technologies” (Bowker 2000: 319) enfolded within governmental relations and biopower and embedded in practice (Keller 1996). The historical content of Bowker and Star’s work is interesting in the same way as the sweep of Crary or Kittler’s but the point fro all these writers is more profound, it is about how any technology or standard is inevitably enfolded in material and governmental relations.

This is more than simply a critique of labelling, it is an exploration of the enfolding of labels as part of systems of knowledge – the ways in which: “‘truth’ is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it” (Foucault 1980: 133). How that regime of truth is instantiated in technologies including standards.

A key issue for Bowker and Star is how those technologies (systems and standards) become background, infrastructural or “invisible” within those very material settings. In this they draw on Bruno Latour’s account of translations and “immutable mobiles”; how scientific knowledge moves from the field, through the lab to textbooks. As Latour says of Mendeleev’s (standards) table: “What is also extraordinary is how chemical reactions taking place in gallipots and stills all over Europe have been brought to bear on a simple pattern of rows and columns through a long cascade of translations. In other words, the logistics of immutable mobiles is what we have to admire and study, not the seemingly miraculous supplement of force gained by scientists thinking hard in their office” (Latour 1987: 236-237). Bowker and Star identify this process, this invisibility at work in ‘Nursing Intervention Classification’ (NIC) a system designed developed by nursing scientists to standardise nursing interventions.

Bowker and Star are not in the business of attacking standards. “Black boxes are necessary, and not necessarily evil,” they say (Bowker 2000: 330). It is the networks within which they function, the alliances within which they are enfolded that render them power full and potentially ‘evil’.The invisibility that Latour identifies as the characteristic of a black box actant such as NIC or jpeg,   sits alongside a very real visibility in documents and practices. That technology or standard is invisible in terms of its pervasiveness within the network, its infrastructural location.

Adrian Mackenzie looks to William James to expand this concept of technological invisibility by reading his ideas of “inner” and “outer” experience as a way of exploring the “process of making something visible in some forms so that it can become invisible in others” (Mackenzie 2010: 226).

  • Bowker, G.C. & Star, S.L., 2000, Sorting Things Out: Classification And Its Consequences, MIT, Cambridge, Mass..
  • Foucault, M. 1980, Truth and Power, in C Gordon (ed), Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, The Harvester Press, Brighton, pp. 109-33.
  • Keller, C.M. & Keller, J.D., 1996, Cognition And Tool Use: The Blacksmith At Work, Cambridge Univ Pr, Cambridge.
  • Latour, B., 1987, Science In Action: How To Follow Scientists And Engineers Through Society, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass..
  • Mackenzie, A., 2010, Wirelessness: Radical Empiricism In Network Cultures, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass..
  • Tagg, J., 1993, The Burden Of Representation, Macmillan Education, Basingstoke.