Kelsie Nabben & Michael Zargham:
"Techno-reflexivity, as awareness of how one’s own ontological framework is projected in their work, is especially pertinent to automated infrastructures. Black-box platforms whose operative code is not publicly disclosed structure and govern society in opaque and non-transparent ways. This is even more pronounced with the evolution of technological automation, such as machine learning, automated decision making (ADM) and artificial intelligence (AI), which is given a set of ‘rules’, processes and procedures, by which to make and execute on decisions."
Kelsie Nabben & Michael Zargham:
"The origins of infrastructure matters in relation to the social outcomes it supports, enables or undermines. Yet, as emerging technologies become more enmeshed in everyday life — and more powerful: it is rarely highlighted how crucial it is for technology developers to be aware of the values in which they imbue into their creations.
Digital infrastructures are the material objects constructed by people, and the complex ecology of their relationships with other social and technical objects (Jewett & Kling, 1991; Star & Ruhleder, 1996; Star, 1999).
Anthropologist Brian Larkin emphasises how intent and politics is structured and released through the ‘technopolitics’ of built infrastructures (2013). In contrast, scholars agree that the cognitive bias of technology developers is reflected as “algorithmic injustice” in their creations (Gupta, et al., 2020). Where an infrastructure originates, including the ontology of its makers, will affect how and where it grows, in response to legal, political, environmental and social factors (Larkin, 2013). The same is true for technological systems, as digital infrastructure.
Larkin focuses on how “infrastructures reveal forms of political rationality that underlie technological projects” once a technology has been released in the world (2013). The ontology of a technology is comprised of elements internal to the object itself, to form infrastructure which consists of technical, administrative and financial components (Larkin, 2013). These artefacts interact to contribute to certain goals (Hughes, 1987). Here, we draw out how the elements internal to an object are embedded by its designer. In contrast to ‘technopolitics’, which aims to surface the politics of infrastructure, this piece offers a methodological tool to aid developers and system engineers to surface biases and assumptions in the design and development phases of new technologies and reflect on their own ontologies. We call this tool ‘techno-reflexivity’.
Just as “social research is almost inevitably digital” (Pink, 2019), so is the digital inherently social. Ethnography in a digital world requires methodological creativity (Pink & Postill, 2019). Defining ‘techno-reflexivity’ as a tool is a necessary approach towards methodological creativity to bridge common language and practice across the fields of social science and system engineering. In taking this liberty, we borrow the concept of ‘reflexivity’ from ethnography, apply it to the process of systems engineering, and create a shared language for the co-creation of more self-aware digital infrastructures.
In order to apply the concept of ‘techno-reflexivity’, we frame technology developers as researchers and apply ethnographic and anthropological qualitative social research strategies to the development process for greater awareness of subjectivity in technology design."