Steering Our Own Systems: Reminding Ourselves that We Wield the Tools in Our Epistemic Culture


When it comes to your credit card, has the information on the computer screen ever been believed by others over what you thought was your balance? Have you ever felt a pang of uneasiness by news about the latest lone biohacker’s breakthrough? Has the interface of a program changed without preamble so that taking time to navigate was forced on you in that moment?

In our epistemic culture – where we foreground knowledge and champion the drive to access everything, all at once, now – these experiences are common. The way in which we interact with our tools solves some problems but creates and amplifies others. The computer and related technology magnify our ability to do work.

The problem of our epistemic culture has never actually been our tools or technology but what gets amplified along the way. This issue is  tripartite in structure:

  1. our awareness of ourselves within our world
  2. our recognition of our power and how we exercise it
  3. and our appreciation of our resilience

When examining complex human activity systems, the observer is central, as put forward through Heinz von Foerster’s second-order cybernetics. We can all use tools. For example, we can all Google that the etymology of cybernetics is “steersman.” But how do we keep our awareness that we google (lower-case intended) the etymology of a word? According to von Foerster, the steersman sees the system he is in and watches how he steers within this system, being responsible and accountable for steering.

I would add that we are easily distracted when watching ourselves and our steering within the systems, very similar to standing between two parallel mirrors and viewing the image reflected to infinity. Caught up in the reflections, we momentarily lose our awareness that we are steering and it is our activity alone that causes the oars to move at all.

Related to our awareness of the causal relationship of our steering is our recognition of our power and how we use it. A highly illustrative example is the individual who, while travelling along the highway, set cruise control on the motor home and went back into the kitchenette of the vehicle to make a sandwich. As you would expect, the RV ran off the road. The individual successfully sued the company; the judge ruled that nowhere in the owner’s manual did the company directly state that the driver needed to drive the vehicle. We can surmise that the driver believed that cruise control was synonymous with autopilot – which is yet another example of opportunities to lose our recognition of our power and, in so doing, abnegate it. Cruise control and autopilot are merely tools we use to magnify our ability to do work.  Our ability to do work, our agency, is our ascendancy to act.

Our awareness of our efficacy and our performance of our power, in turn, help us realise and value our resilience where resilience is arguably our most definitive characteristic. Resilience includes buoyancy, elasticity, adaptability, an overall expanded comfort level with adversity, and, ultimately, an enhanced scope with knowledge within our epistemic culture. We have a matrix of strengths which includes using our tools and our curiosity to see relationships and understand them and this matrix of strengths is the very impetus to actualise our resilience.

So yes our tools are changing us and with our added resilience, we want more, demand more, and expect better tools. But make no mistake that we are the agents, each adding our contribution to our systems. We are the ones steering every moment of our day.

Editor’s note: please see Allen Kempton’s post on tech rationality that are more reflective of Kittler’s view that we do not produce technology but technology produces us for a counterpoint to Nancy’s excellent argument.