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A Mailman's Digitized Grammar of Action

A Mailman's Digitized Grammar of Action

A chapter from a recent handbook on privacy studies by Jo Pierson and Ine Van Zeeland pointed me towards an older article by Philip E. Agre, called Surveillance and capture: Two models of privacy. Agre surely took his own work on privacy seriously, because it seems that he disappeared in 2008 and lives completely off-grid since then. Pierson and Van Zeeland particularly highlight Agre’s “capture model” that expresses how various human activities are reorganized so that they can be “captured” and tracked in ICT systems.

By analyzing the elements of patterns of human activity you can rearrange them into what Agre calls “grammars of action.” That is something we already know from industrialization and automation processes. What Agre adds is that the imposition of these grammars of actions on human activities also allows systems to better track these activities. Hence the relevance for privacy studies. It may very well be that humans end up fighting a losing battle against the informational needs of ICT systems. Since reading about Agre’s “grammars of action” I start seeing more subtle effects of digital technology in my own life. I want to share a recent example.

I currently live together with eight other people, so it happens quite often that we accept packages for housemates when they are not home themselves. Let’s call two of my roommates Alice and Bob. The other day the doorbell of my housemate Alice rang, but Alice turned out to not be home. After hearing the doorbell ring for a second time in the distance, Bob opens the door to find the mailman holding a package for Alice. Of course, Bob offered to accept the package, but to his surprise the mailman refused to hand over the package because he already registered it in the digital Track & Trace system as being not delivered. Instead, he said, Alice had to pick up the package later at the address of some store.

We first of all see that the actual job of a mailman nowadays consists for a great part of entering information about his physical activities in a digital system, specifically designed to track the whereabouts of each parcel at any time. That this ipso facto also tracks the mailman is part of the job nowadays. The presence of ICT systems thus clearly reorganizes the labour process of mailmen. Secondly, digital systems intervene in direct, physical interactions between people in quite subtle ways. It was very weird for Bob to open the door and find a mailman unwilling to hand over a package that was physically present at the intended address.

These kind of social effects of digital technology are very hard to predict from a design perspective. Nevertheless, I suspect that as digital technologies are becoming ubiquitous in our daily lives, the future years will see a rise in research precisely on their opaque rol in shaping our lifeworld.