The Pathology of Platforms

Matt ratto
Apr 16, 2015 · 15 min read

Matt Ratto
Faculty of Information
University of Toronto

Below is the text from the pre-recorded talk delivered during the Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production, HUMlab Umeå University, December 10–12, 2014. It has been edited, some sections have been dramatically increased and only a few of the images are included. Comments appreciated.

My main interest is in new socio-technical arrangements that trouble current articulations between modes of engagement that we have typically thought of as virtual and modes that we have typically thought of as embodied. I do not say ‘the digital’ and ‘the material’ in order to try and bypass any accusations of being a ‘digital dualist’ in Nathan Jurgenson’s parlance. Nor do I want to reduce the problem to older binaries of ‘real’ vs ‘constructed’, social vs technical, and so on. I believe there is a power in understanding how the above modes are blurring into one another, how the assumptions of embodiment and computational logics are being leveraged, performed, enhanced, and transformed. Such work partakes of both a kind of engineering knowledge but is also deeply humanistic in its intent.

A starting point is to understand these modes as dispotifs in Foucault’s sense — as:

“decidedly heterogeneous set[s] of discourses, institutions, architectural arrangements, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative decisions”

—Michel Foucault, Dits et écrits, vol. 3 [Paris: Gallimard, 1994], p. 299; cited in Keating and Combrosio, 2000.

This beginning encourages us to see what we call the digital and the material as differing but overlapping sets of human and non-human actants (Latour) or, conversely, as generalized phenomenon that in the moment of engagement become ‘cut’ into social and technical aspects (Barad). As the references to Latour and Barad demonstrate, there are a variety of ways to try and parse these digital and material dispotifs in order to better understand them, each with its specific epistemic commitments and ontological capabilities. Latour, Callon, Law and others Actor-Network Theory, Pinch and Bijker’s Social Construction of Technology, Haraway’s material-semiotics, Barad’s post-human performativity, Pickering’s mangle of practice, and so forth and so on. Here I am only naming perspectives from Science and Technology Studies, there are many alternatives from other fields and areas of scholarly work. The concept of ‘platform’ that I will deploy later in this text shares similarities and conceptual linkages with many of the above theory-methods. It differs in one important regard — namely a notion of the ‘pathological’ and a focus on describing the work that is done to articulate its corollary, the normative.

Since 2007 (when I was here at the HUMlab) I have been developing what I termed ‘critical making’ (Ratto, 2009, 2011a, 2011b,; Ratto & Hoekema, 2009; Ratto & Boler, 2014; Ratto, Jalbert, and Wylie, 2014; Ratto & Hertz, 2014) as a conceptual-material process somewhat adjacent to the above theory-methods, drawing selectively upon them and linking in specific hands-on work with technical systems as an additional resource. In much of this work I have argued for a kind of scholastic making, focused on the processes of critical material-conceptual engagement. I have been and remain decidedly suspicious of critical making endeavours aimed at external show, concerned about the ways making for others (for exhibition, for use) can reduce the potential for making as a process of self-discovery and insight generation. I have worried about the way such forms of making potentially position others as passive observers of didactic or diagetic objects. The model here is that others see what we have made and they are enlightened!


There is nothing wrong with such a model for engagement and, in fact, much of modern art and science is predicated on it. Few would question the power of objects in an art gallery to evoke responses or the value of witnessing scientific experiments to better understand the natural world. By way of example (and implicitly calling upon the ‘modest witness’ of Shapin and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985), the image above is of a 1768 painting by Joseph Wright, depicting a reproduction of Robert Boyle’s air pump experiments, demonstrating the principles of air pressure to an astounded (and disturbed) audience. But my sense has been that there is also value to be found in making experiences that bypass the traditional value propositions of both science and art — propositions of universal utility on one hand and expression on the other — in favor of a more mundane and tinkery practice. I do not need to explain the rejection of utility as a primary value proposition — much of the work in Philosophy of Science and, more recently, Science and Technology Studies demonstrates the fallacy of naturalizing notions of utilization. However, my past rejection of some of the standard assumptions of expressive practices of art and design requires more explicit attention that I have given to date.

There are two explicit benefits to a rejection of expression, specifically for those of us not trained as artists or designers. First, pragmatically, leaving aside the expressive object in favor of the personal experience (to paraphrase Dewey (1934) provides the space for a process-focus that does not necessarily come easily to everyone. In my observations of students at Umea School of Design and in my engagements with professional designers since, I have noted the mechanisms (sketching, mood boards, design funnels, etc) they learn and apply in their curriculum that support reflection within project work. To explore socio-material systems through making without end-gaming the result is something that must be learned through experience. It is easy to pay lip-service to ‘process’ in abstract conversations about design and making, but remarkably hard to maintain such a commitment in actual practice. One must work to develop the ‘muscles’ associated with these commitments through ongoing material engagements. Minimizing the exhibitory impulse focuses attention on insight generation and critical responses rather than the development of works-for-others.

Second, just as the instrumental and objectifying logics of dominant modes of science and technology reduce the space for creative and critical play, one needs to be aware of the limits of values associated with traditional forms of art and design. As fields of human action shaped by social institutions, these forms are no more free of epistemic commitments than any other. These commitments are expressed in the attention paid to finish, to aesthetics, to novelty, and to innovation. It is of course the case that these values can and are resisted by practitioners working within such fields. But one does so at great peril — breaking the epistemic conditions of particular fields is a good way to delegitimate either oneself or the results.

I have felt that figuring out and working around these values was a distraction from the unpacking of the socio-technical that has been the focus within my critical making activities. My goal has been to extend conceptual work by scholars such as Haraway, Latour, Shapin, Barad, Bowker, Star, and others through a deeper/different type of engagement with the material world than is typical in academic scholarship. Therefore, since 2007 most of my own critical making engagements have focused on navigating the complex pathways between expression and instrumentality, choosing not to engage directly with either art and design on science and engineering. Working against the instrumental or exhibitory impulse has meant that these engagements have been purposefully liminal, frangible events focused on process rather than product and with the main value accrued by participants rather than observers.

I continue to believe in the value of a certain distance from the dominant forms of science and art and the critical and creative insights that can be generated by maintaining a kind of epistemic freedom from the commitments described above. As a goal, trying to navigate between the rock of instrumentality and the hard place of aesthetics has been and continues to be a rich means for denaturalizing simplistic arguments about the intrinsic nature of technology and the built environment.

But my (attempted) bypass of the exhibitory and objectifying impulses has been resisted by both instrumental and artistic practitioners who note the importance of engaging with audience as a valuable resource for makers, either as real or imaginary entities, as users or as observers. Moreover, in avoiding the epistemic commitments of art and science I have minimized my ability to comment on these fields. In attempting to ‘route around’ the value propositions of science and art I have reduced my ability to engage with these domains in critical and constructive ways. In my focus on the materials themselves as socio-technical entities needing closer attention, I have discarded other socio-material entities and, despite my best intentions, they have begun forcing themselves back in.

Such forcings clearly highlight one of the most important reasons to engage with the material world and to pay attention to the terms this world sets within our own scholarship — as de Man famously said “reality is that which resists.” Such resistances perform the limits of our theories to encompass the complexity of a real, material world and, as such, are a powerful site for reconceptualizations. In my case, the above resistances have engendered a need to move beyond the relatively simple idea about critical reflection and material-semiotics from which I initiated my critical making work to attend more deeply to the politics of the socio-technical world.

One of the socio-technical targets within the Critical Making lab has been 3D printing, since it emphasizes the hybridity of the digital and the material (sic) that has been an emphasis within my work. The initial material and conceptual world involved relatively simple exploration, breaking down some of the myths associated with the technology such as the hylomorphic conceit that, like other public discourses regarding information technology, make certain types of labour invisible (Ratto and Ree, 2012). But we were soon asked to comment more publicly on matters for concern regarding 3d printing.

Specifically, we were asked to comment on the 3d printing of guns, and to do so in a very public venue — a current events show on a public broadcaster in Canada. IN 2013 I appeared on TVO’s The Agenda alongside Cody Wilson, the main instigator, cyberanarchist and gun advocate who uploaded models of the 3d printable ‘liberator’ hand gun.

In that conversation, I did all the normal ‘critical making’ type work — I discussed the deep material realities of 3d printing guns based on our hands on experiences, the costs and capabilities of current printers, the difficulties in design and printing, and compared these to other ways of procuring guns — notably the ability to go to home depot, buy some pipe and other bits and pieces, and make a ‘zip gun’, a device of similar capability to that of the liberator model. When asked about the future capabilities of 3d printing and other digitally-inflected forms of fabrication, I deferred the question with a quick flip of erudition, referring the interviewer and audience to scholarly work on the ‘proximate future’ (Bell and Dourish) and the complex processes through which new socio-technical developments interpolate into society in unexpected ways.

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

I have to say that I felt a bit duplicitous in that answer — Cody Wilson had very clear things to say regarding these technologies and the internet more broadly. Taking his lead from John Perry Barlow’s libertarian idea of cyberspace as an unregulated and unregulatable zone, Wilson sees 3d printing and digital manufacturing more generally as driving an wedge into contemporary forms of regulation and governance. For Wilson, the gun serves as a good example of the problems of regulation more generally and the ways in which the new articulations between the digital and the material manifested by digital fabrication and 3d printing trouble previous forms of governance.

Not only did Wilson have some very clear ideas to say about our socio-technical future, he was easily able to appropriate — at least superficially — critical making as a form of political engagement, going so far as to call his liberator work, “…a critical form of making.” At that moment I felt a little like many STS scholars must have felt in hearing their own critical tools deployed to support ‘Intelligent Design’ or to deny climate change science. (CF, Latour, 2004, ‘Why Critique has Run Out of Steam.”)

In his understanding of the 3d printed gun as a political artifact, Wilson is describing one of the important insights from both STS and materially-mediated forms of political action such as tactical media — namely that socio-technical systems such as 3d printed guns can be understood as political arguments. What he either intentionally or unintentionally understates— like Barlow and other cyberlibertarians — is the complex interleaving of social and technical work that makes the 3d printed gun or the internet itself a political entity. Despite his statements that 3D printed guns essentially (and this is a key term here) make worthless the regulatory efforts of governments, the politics of 3D printed gun do not depend entirely on their physical, ‘natural’ form and capabilities, but emerge from the relations between these aspects and the social and political work of humans (and other non-humans). By positioning 3D printed guns within a dominant technological trope, Wilson is trying to naturalize the potential effects of such guns on regulatory systems, e.g. to turn them into ‘matters of fact’ rather than ‘matters for concern.’

My bog-standard responses to Wilson and the host of The Agenda did some work to denaturalize the 3D printed gun — at the very least highlighting the material realities and complexities of 3D printing and the ways other forms of making that already exist provided greater capabilities to create unregulated guns. But after the event and upon reflection I realized that I needed to do and say more, to engage more deeply with the politics that Wilson was espousing through the 3D printed gun. I needed to not only describe the socio-technical complexities but to clearly articulate a position that opposed the one of Wilson. I needed to participate in the value talk and activity — not merely to describe the value activities of others such as Wilson. Somewhat surprisingly — to me anyway — I found this pretty difficult to do.

I believe my issues with normative statements follows from my reliance on constructivist forms of socio-technical analysis that have a tendency to avoid taking on specific value perspectives. Langdon Winner as far back as 1991 (Upon opening the black box and finding it empty), pointed to the difficulty these modes have in expressing normativity. Winner puts this down to a variety of reasons, most importantly a lack of attention to the deep-seated political biases that constrain and shape technical choices. We might more charitably (and appropriately) describe this as a desire to avoid under-analyzed structural influences in favor of more immediate and context-specific causal factors. This issue — in particular the ‘winner-takes-all’ attitude of ANT — has been noted by scholars including Langdon Winner, Leigh Star, Hans Radder, and Philip Brey.

Certainly, the reason I struggled to articulate alternatives to Cody Wilson’s perspective borrows this hesitation from constructivist analyses. Critical making can follow these approaches, using the added repetoire of material specifics and hands-on experiences to demonstrate the fallacy of his idea, to denaturalize the ‘is’ of his gun and reveal it as a construction. But in fact Wilson already knows this and makes use of it (CF Latour’s notion of the ‘factische’) The more important work is to demonstrate the work that the gun does to normalize certain ways of seeing the world, and to figure out alternatives. In which case, an avoidance of dominant modes within technical work provides little to debate the naturalizations and their politics. Instead, what is required is to clearly articulate the material-semiotic work that attends political actions like Wilson’s, to highlight the way such work plays up to dominant tropes about society and technology, and to posit alternative materialities and politics through hybrid material-semiotic work of our own.

I believe that it remains important to highlight the joint human and non-human agencies through which politics — whether of 3d printed guns or anything else — is enacted. We still need to overcome the technological determinisms and values of utility associated with the value propositions in traditional forms of science and technology. But there is equally a need to go beyond the epistemic commitments that attend the material work aimed at expressive ends within traditional forms of art and design. Not addressing the epistemics of dominant fields where material work takes place results in a somewhat strange effect, whereby no matter how much hands-on work we add to our conceptual explorations we remain unable to address their truly material effects.

A particular notion of platforms, developed by Keating and Combrosio in their analysis of biomedicine serves as an impetus for my future work in this regard. Keating and Combrosio focus on a definition of platform that allows them to relate human and non-humans and to account for both routine and innovative action. In their article (2000) and subsequent book (2003) on Biomedical Platforms,they describe a set of criteria of platforms that include characteristics such as the alignment of material-semiotic entities, their timeliness and visibility (unlike infrastructures), and that they do not rely on shared understandings. But they differ from most of the STS frames described above (such as ANT) in their highlighting of normativity and its opposites. They note that platforms are:

“…material and discursive arrangements, or sets of instruments and programs, that, as timely constructs, coordinate practices and act as the bench upon which conventions concerning the biological or normal are connected with conventions concerning the medical or pathological.”

—Keating and Cambrosio, 2000:386

The notion that platforms articulate relations between the normative and the pathological provides an initial inroad into a broader evaluatory stance that can be fruitfully connected to critical making. While Keating and Cambrosio are attending to biomedicine and its socio-technical developments, their notion of the pathological can be extended to other, less directly biological forms.

Simply saying that bodies and buildings are part of the same dispotif is not enough. Need to address how they are made to relate and why. This latter question - the why - moves us uncomfortably out of the zone of thick description and into the normative and the critical. But as an intervenor and participant in the reworking of these bodies and buildings I do not really have a choice. Need to understand this pragmatically in order to design a working platform. Need to understand it critically in order to try and minimize inequalities and injustices called into being by the platform.

Specifically, to return to the 3d printing of guns, we might ask the question how the platforms Cody Wilson and other cyberlibertarians try to put in place attempt to redefine what is normal and what is pathological in society, and what entities/phenomenon are leveraged in order to do this work. This focus on platforms, instruments, and conventions rather than institutions, social collectives, individuals (humans) —or their counterparts of infrastructures, networks, and objects (non-humans)

Equally, as critical making moves from pure scholarly practices and contexts and into broader public forms, we need to ask ourselves how the platforms we ourselves are implementing do similar types of normativizing and pathologizing work. Understanding the pathologies of platforms is a next step in our ongoing project as digital humanists, as science and technology scholars, to productively intervene in society.

Works Cited (to be completed)

Ratto, Matt. “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life.” Hybrid Design Practices workshop, Ubicomp, Orlando, Florida, USA, September 30-October 3, 2009.

Ratto, Matt and Stephen Hockema. “Flwr Pwr: Tending the Walled Garden.” Walled Garden. Eds. A. Dekker and A. Wolfsberger. Amsterdam: Virtueel Platform, 2009. 51–60.

Ratto, Matt. “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life.” The Information Society 27.4 (2011a): 252–260.

Ratto, Matt. “Open Design and Critical Making.” Open Design Now: Why Design Cannot Remain Exclusive. Eds. P. Atkinson, M. Avital, B. Mau, R. Ramakers and C. Hummels. Amsterdam: BIS Publishers, 2011b. 203–209.

Ratto, Matt and Robert Ree. “Materializing Information: 3D Printing and Social Change.” First Monday 17.7–2 (2012): n.p.

Ratto, Matt and Megan Boler, eds. DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (2014)

Ratto, Matt, Kirk Jalbert and Sara Wylie. “Critical Making as Research Program: introduction to the forum on Critical Making.” Special Forum issue on Critical Making, The Information Society 30(2). (2014) 85–95.

Ratto, Matt and Garnet Hertz. “Critical Making.” Special Issue on The Culture of Digital Education: Innovation in Art, Design, Science and Technology Practices: Leonardo Electronic Almanac. Accepted, January, 2014.

Record, Isaac, ginger coons, Daniel Southwick, Matt Ratto “Regulating the Liberator: Prospects for the Regulation of 3D Printing”, in the Journal of Peer Production #6: (2015) Disruption and the Law,

Wylie, Sara, Kirk Jalbert , Shannon Dosemagen & Matt Ratto “Institutions for Civic Technoscience: How Critical Making is Transforming Environmental Research,” The Information Society 30:2, (2014) 116–126.

Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production

Post-conference dialogue after the Dec 10–12, 2014 event at HUMlab

Thanks to Patrik Svensson

    Matt ratto

    Written by

    Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production

    Post-conference dialogue after the Dec 10–12, 2014 event at HUMlab

    Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
    Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
    Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade