Activity Theory: fundamentally humanist or anti-humanist?

When my father worked for Philly Carpenter’s Union he wore a hip-holstered flip phone by his right hand at all times. Because he was often using his left hand to hold, clamp, or carry projects, he had an elaborate one-handed method of detaching his phone from his belt, opening it, and answering it. It was an action that was itself a response to the technological availability of small devices, workforce exigencies of rapid communication, his own perceptions of masculinity, and in a way it stood as an act of social rebellion (“a phone holster—really dad?”). But the very act of picking up the phone was usually executed gracefully and with not a small amount of flourish.

To describe the same relationship with vocabulary offered by Kaptelinin and Nardi in Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design: Vern’s relation towards the object of his cell phone had “cross[ed] the border between conscious and automatic processes” (Kaptelinin 68)—he would answer the phone consciously, but his hand motion, which he mastered over a number of years, was performed automatically. Through his engagement with the phone he was able to conduct business, earn a living, gain status (or lose status, depending on whom you ask), and eat regular meals; his work, which was object-oriented by any measure of the phrase (he was a cabinetmaker), acceded in a special sense to the demands of his phone, and the particular human movements and responses on which that phone insisted.

While reading I’ve identified one of the central themes of the Kaptelinin and Nardi text (and to some extent the Dourish text, too) as “development.” The first three chapters of Acting with Technology, for example, based on my rudimentary and unscientific count of the text, include variations on the word “develop” around 200 times, which puts the average per-page count to just shy of three. This is to say: it is a text that is obsessed with the importance of development, whether the term refers to the development of a theory of mind, the development of a child, or the development of a subject’s relationship with the objects that define and orbit them. Even if one disregards the big-picture repetition of the word throughout the first three chapters of Acting with Technology, the text very explicitly identifies “the importance of human development” as the third tenet of activity theory (10). On the following page the authors write that “it would be desirable to establish a practice of design in which the development of users—their ability to grow and change with technology—is of paramount importance” (11). The beginning of Chapter three too hinges on Vygotsky’s increased attention to “developmental potential” of young people.

But what if a user—a subject—loses the ability to develop in relation to objects? While reading I’ve found myself turning my thoughts to a few specific communities: individuals diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s, for example, or simply older individuals who have difficulty incorporating new information into older operational schematics.

To return finally to my first example: Vern, just before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and dementia in 2014, bought a new iPhone. The iPhone’s interface, even with Apple’s reputation for intuitive design, has been entirely intractable to him: where once he had a physical button that clicked when he accepted calls, now he has a slider that displays on the phone’s surface. And while one understands that digital literacy is a broader conversation than that which concerns specific populations with specific ailments here, I nevertheless wonder out loud: does a theory of relational ontology that privileges learning and development in its core necessarily prioritize dynamic human-object relationships over static human-object relations? Put another way: what is the minimal form of “action” required by the phrase “interaction”?

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