Opening the blackbox

Discussions over interpretations of the reality seem over-talked for many. They are long, nuanced and very often the point they make seems so small that it almost looks like splitting hairs. After reading about Lucy Suchman’s concept of Situated Action, I have realised that opening the door for new interpretations is also a very courageous thing to do.

None of the theories can explain everything. It simply takes an element of the reality in order to bring the light on it and let others (researchers, designers, public) work with the idea in their own way. But the concept (validated by research methodology and argumentation) has to leave the head of the originator and be heard. Arguing the idea also needs the same level of professionalism in order for discussion to be fruitful and enriching for the field. Otherwise it just closes the door. 

As a researchers, we might try a theory, see how it supports our work and eventually leave it aside. Working with the theory it’s not only about leaving old clothes and trying new ones (Wright, 2011). In my view, it’s more about the reflection what we gain with this specific perspective but also what we are resigning from, what we are deciding to not take into account during our work. The answer to the latter question is crucial. 

Suchman’s Situated Action brought a new light on the reading of the role of plans in AI (Suchman, 2007). Once seen as neutral tools, they became an element of the complex picture. Researchers were proposed to reflect on the way users interact with plans, how they put them in the context and navigate within constrained information (Duguid, 2012). This perspective opens the door to new ressources for designing plans, once one would like to accept it. 

The shift Suchman proposes is a change for plan’s status from intermediary to mediator, using Latour’s language of Actor-Network Theory. His perspective, revolutionary as well, opened the door for reading on agency of non-human elements (Latour, 2006). Plans as intermediaries are clean, they transfer the meaning without changing it. On the contrary, when we read them as mediators, we need to be more careful in identifying what goes in and what comes out, just like we would approach a blackbox. Although it’s so exciting, it needs scrutiny in tracing multiple connections between elements of the network. 

In her book “Vibrant Matter” Jane Bennett presents the theory of vital materialism (Bennett, 2009). As Latour offered us the idea of non-human agency, Bennett goes one step further and talks about agency of assemblage, which is built from infrastructure, people, law, economy, nature, etc. Different elements of the reality are in constant relation with each other. The sum of the relations is stable, but in every body there is in a flow of affecting and being affected by other bodies. Our agency, as Bennett says, is similar to the situation of riding a bicycle on a gravel road. Through balancing the body weight, we influence the trajectory, but we can’t fully decide on the direction we go to. 

Whether we choose to use the perspective of cycling on a gravel road or canoeing through the rapids, whether we look on the world as a network of actants or not, we make a statement on our perspective of the world we live in. As researchers we need to be clear that this choice strongly influences the way we conduct research and our approach to analysis. It’s worth to make a conscious decision about it. 



Bennett, J. (2009) Vibrant Matter. A political ecology of things. Duke University Press.

Duguid, P. (2012) ‘On rereading. Suchman and Situated Action’, Le Libellio AEGIS, 8(1), p. 6.

Latour, B. (2006) Reassembling the Social, Politica y Sociedad. doi: 10.1163/156913308X336453.

Suchman, L. (2007) Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Actions. Cambridge University Press.

Wright, P. (2011) ‘Reconsidering the H , the C , and the I’, Interactions, 18(5), pp. 28–31. doi: 10.1145/2008176.2008185.

Author: Agata Jałosińska

One response to “Opening the blackbox”

  1. Matt Wood says:

    Very nice Agata, you provide a complex discussion about taking up the idea of situated action, and a very well placed theoretical discussion of how these underpinning ideas are changing and evolving – and you incorporate the literature really nicely. I might like to see some application of your argument here – how can we use Bennett’s “agency of assemblage” to think about issues in HCI? Might Digital Civics be particularly relevant here? I agree we need to be clear about the perspective we’re bringing to our research, but some application to cases in HCI may have made this all the more pertinent – perhaps this might relate to Feminist HCI? Anyway, great stuff Agata!

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