Workshop 4: Lucy Suchman, 'Immeasurable Results'

Lucy Suchman (Centre for Science Studies/Sociology, Lancaster University) opened her presentation arguing that the experiment is one of those figures through which the natural sciences have stamped a large footprint upon our collective imaginary. Therefore, she proposed that she wants to approach the trope of ‘experimentality’ cautiously.  At the same time, having spent the first twenty years of  her working life in an organisation that identified itself as a technology research and development laboratory, its members (including Suchman) as scientists, and its objects as experimental, she is fascinated by the resonances through which such identifications are made.  Hence, Suchman argued that the challenge in thinking about the research and development laboratory through the trope of experimentality is one that attends any form of analogical thinking; that is, to be attentive to generative points of metaphorical and figurative connection, while avoiding too easy elision of differences that matter. 

Suchman followed in claiming that a starting place for a more careful approach is laid out for us in Hans-Jorg Rheinberger’s (1997) detailed articulations of what he names an ‘experimental system,’ through an account very specifically tied to the history and material practices of the molecular biology laboratory. She explained that Rheinberger’s investigations of the experimental system are focused on the emergence of objects of knowing, of what he names ‘epistemic things’.  Suchman proposed that the objects that she wants to bring into the discussion at the workshop, in contrast, involve new forms of affective and practical entanglement between persons and artefacts, under the sign of the interactive machine.  Like all projects in making new objects – including Rheinbergers’ epistemic things – these initiatives are not innocent, but rather deeply entangled themselves in specific cultural, political and economic conditions of possibility and desirability. 

Lucy Suchman emphasized that a starting premise for contemporary sociologies of science and technology is that rather than object boundaries being intrinsic, they are an effect of moments in which objectness is made relevant to particular purposes at hand.  Entities are, in Law’s words, 'presences enacted into being within practices' (2004: 84).  Crucially, she argued, their presence presupposes and depends upon absences, both manifest (that which is treated not as part of the object, but as its context) and unmarked (whether because they are unremarkable absences, or constitutive elements that are actively Othered or repressed). Hence, Suchman claimed that the shift from an analysis in terms of object form and function to a performative account of objectness carries with it, then, an orientation always to the responsibilities that enacted object boundaries entail.  At the same time, she pointed out that it implies as well an orientation to the intrinsic multiplicity of objects or, to put it differently, to the achieved nature of object coherence and singularity. Terms, categories, figurations – including that of ‘the experiment’ – are of course a powerful device for bringing things together.

Thereafter, Suchman turned to a particular category of objects; namely, interactive machines.  Here, she claimed that clearly one of the most compelling points of connection between the histories of scientific discovery and technology invention is the centrality of the demonstration. Suchman referred to the work of Wally Smith who defines the technology demonstration – the demo – as an occasion on which a prospective technological assemblage is presented in action, as evidence for its worth (Smith 2009).  Following, she claimed that noting the relative lack of attention to demonstrations in the literature, either practical guides to systems development or scholarly work in STS (with some notable exceptions, including work by Brian Bloomfield and Theo Vurdubakis (2002) here at Lancaster), Smith suggests that the unremarkable status of the demonstration might be due to a widespread view of its role as self-evident, a phrase that Steve Shapin & Simon Schaffer (1985), in their landmark work in science studies Leviathan and the Air Pump, use to describe the way that experiments are regarded in traditional histories of science.  . 

Talking about the interactive machine, Suchman emphasized that she is interested in the ways in which the objectness of certain artefacts – and particularly those figured in some way as modeled on, or as models for, the human – is enacted through practices that work to obscure the performative grounds of their objectness. These practices include stories aimed at fixing object boundaries in such a way that agencies, or capacities for action, are located inside the object – a time honored process, as we know, for achieving effects of mystification and enchantment.  Suchman argued that resulting artefacts work as well to replicate dominant discourses of object making, rather than to open those rhetorics themselves to new possibilities.

To illustrate her arguments Suchman referred to Figured Mertz the Speaking Robot (an experiment in the creation of what its designers describe as ‘a robotic creature that lives around people on a regular basis and incrementally learns from its experience’ (Aryanada 2005)) as a model organism within the cognitive and computing sciences.  In this context, she focused on the fluid boundaries of subjects and objects that it so vividly demonstrates. She was particularly fascinated by the moment-to-moment, shifting choreography of its lively objects and obliging subjects.

Suchman argued that to recover these results within the experimental systems of the robotics laboratory requires slowing down the rhetorics of humanlike machines, and attending more closely to material practices. She proposed that one obvious strategy is to bring the roboticist into the frame. Here, Suchman referred to the work of Morana Alac (2009) who does this very directly in her observations of how roboticists mobilise their own bodies as conduits to enact the movements of a sociable robot, demonstrating in the process the ways in which in her words ‘the body as a unified entity disintegrates through practice’, and reveals the social body as always already multiparty bodies-in-interaction. Suchman claimed that the roboticists of Alac’s study are moved by their subject/object and literally feel its body in their own movements, as a prerequisite for their problem solving and engineering practice.  It is in this sense, Alac argues, that the body of the ‘other’, or of the robot as ‘quasi-other’, functions not simply as a mirror or replica but as part of a larger configuration within which subjects and objects are made.

Thereafter, Lucy Suchman presented another example Robota, a humanoid robot created in the laboratories of the Adaptive Systems Research Group at the University of Hertfordshire, under the tutelage of Dr. Ben Robins.  Here, she proposed that the conventional demonstration of the humanoid robot enacts a more familiar kind of imitation game, and stages itself as a form of documentary – one that we’re invited to read as a glimpse into the ongoing life and development of the object.  Suchman followed in asking: But how might the demonstration open up possibilities for more transformative, rather than replicative, understandings of humans, machines, and the subject/object relations they enact? 

Suchman stated that more than humanlike machines,  this requires creative elaboration of the particular dynamic capacities that new computational materialities afford.  And in her view, it’s in projects in new media arts that the specific materialities of computing are under investigation, and reconfiguration, in forms that more radically rework traditional figurations of the human.

Finally, Suchman posed a following question: What modes of sameness and difference are generated through the reproductive situatedness of specific sites of technology innovation? Consequently, she argued that remembering that the dominant mode of technology demonstration reiteratively cites a tradition set down by the experimental sciences in the 17th century, we need to remember as well Donna Haraway’s observations regarding the stance of neutral observation that system coproduces.  The demonstration, wherein the scientific community become the experiment’s 'modest witness', is at the same time instrumental in staging the subject-object split that removes the body of the knower from what is known.  And as Robert Boyle's pump emptied its chamber of air, the cultivated civility among observers was emptying science of its political and moral dimension (Smith 2009).

Lucy Suchman concluded her talk stating that what Rheinberger had done so beautifully in his account of the experiment is to specify the experimental system as an identifying, and highly specific, achievement of the molecular biology laboratory. The inclination to generalise this trope comes, at least in part, from the privileged place of the natural sciences.  Consequently, Suchman closed by urging that we move cautiously in expanding its range of application: the experimental system itself cautions us against its over generalisation. Here, she argued that the relation between differential reproduction’s task of sustaining existing conditions of possibility on one hand, and making transformative difference on the other, is always and in every case – not least in the economically saturated realm of technology production – an ambivalent one.  Hence, Suchman ended with a question:  If realities are not independent of the apparatuses – social, technical, literary – that report them, what realities do we help to perform when we report the world as an experiment?  What, as a corollary, do we thereby render more unthinkable or less real?