Tracking objects

The fact that the iPhone tracks a user’s movements and saves that data to an unencrypted file on the user’s handset and the computer and potentially in the Cloud is more than a  matter of privacy. It is a matter of objects, and object-oriented approaches to media can offer productive ways of exploring the implications of this software activity.

The IoS software is not a single unity. It is an assemblage of processes, protocols, routines and subroutines. It connects with hardware components such as the camera ccd, the lens, the GPS receiving chip, the screen etc. At another scale it connects with the human user, the corporate walled garden and its software, the factory manager in the manufacturing facility in China as well as more immaterial actants such as the Apple brand. All of these elements are in play in a complex mesh or media ecology. This fractal complexity is commonly agreed. The question comes in terms of how to address and ultimately intervene in that assemblage or actant network.

As Harman argues in Prince of Networks, Latour’s democratic account of objects as actants takes us a long way towards a framework that can explore these complex sets of connections, enfoldings and ecologies. Latour, and Harman’s willingness to place hardware, software, humans and ideas and ideologies on the same footing opens the possibility for a picture of the actant-network in its multiple scales and dimensions. Similarly Jane Bennett’s approach to actants as vibrant matter allows us to open up seemingly non-concrete actants such as electricity or protocols to a materialist/realist analysis.

The point of difference for Harman is that those objects need to remain the focus and that they can and should be addressed outside of any relations. In his terms objects exceed their qualities, accidents and relations. Following this account, that component of the IoS software that logs location via cellphone mast triangulation should be addressed as an object above and beyond its relation to the other actants. We can never encounter the totality of that object, we only ever encounter a particular instantiation or running of that object. It withdraws from view and from relations. It always remains more than our perceptions or encounters. In fact we, or any other object in the assemblage, encounter a particular instantiation of that software-object. The phone’s hardware memory card encounters a dimension of its working in the data it records. I encounter a visualisation of its working when I use Pete Warden’s software object to overlay that data trail on a map. For Harman, the point is that these relations, or connections as he calls them, are not the full story. They never exhaust the nature or power of the object.

It is important to note that Harman does not deny relations, he simply denies the primacy of them. The puzzle for him is how objects connect if they withdraw from view. His answer is that they connect within objects, that objects form the bridge between objects. Here the connection between that component of the IoS software that logs location and the SSD happens within IoS object or perhaps the geo-locative IoS object. The encounter between the logging software object and the ‘image’ of the SSD (i.e. not the totality of the SSD object) and that between the SSD and the ‘image’ or intentional software object, is a specific, actual encounter that can be addressed at the scale of objects. The actant-network or assemblage is real, but it is does not have a primacy. It is not the context, background or ‘plasma’ that gives meaning or power to objects. Objects can and do have an existence, presence, power and capacity to connect apart from that field of relationality and potentiality. This is particularly important in the case of software such as this where there is no need, possibly even no intention of human perception or relation, no broader field. The logging is a machinic connection – machine-object connects with machine -object. Regardless of whether this software was written as part of some Apple or CIA conspiracy or simply an ‘accident’, coding creep, that software working happens outside the human-world correlation and that is why its object-connections beyond any relational field is important.

An object-oriented approach that explores objects in their actuality and specificity allows an understanding of those machinic dimensions of assemblages and places those connections (within objects) on the same ontological footing as human-technology connections.