Surviving by Objectifying

Those who attended the joint meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) and the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST) held in Rotterdam in 2008 might remember the talk entitled ‘Acting with Mundane Technologies’ given by Steve Woolgar, the winner of the Bernal Prize that year, in the Presidential Plenary. In the talk, he showed a short video clip, which was taken by his colleague at Oxford Javier Lezaun, of an incident of power cut in Oxford. The scene was captured just outside the Said Business School, where the two had their office, and during the power cut, the traffic ran much smoother than it normally did with traffic lights properly functioning. As far as I understood, it was an example where the failure of technology (and a social order created by one’s interaction with his or her environment, including cars and the traffic lights) invited new socio-technological configuration where each driver recognized the presence of conscious subjects in the environment – i.e. fellow drivers – and produced a different and more efficient social order by interacting with them.

I thought of this talk because of my recent experience of commuting by train in Tokyo. Even those who have never visited the city may know that commuter trains in Tokyo during the peak time are extremely crowded. You have to squeeze in (or sometimes pushed in) to get on, and there is no way you can avoid physical contact with fellow passengers on the train. No need to say, getting off at your station is equally challenging. This is for me one of the worst aspects of living in Tokyo, but unfortunately you have to survive it through everyday unless you are rich enough to live within a walking distance from your office… As a novice in this context, I started to wonder what kind of strategy is there for people to minimize such discomfort and to arrive their office safe and sane. Provided this happens to people who are not necessarily used to having much physical contact with others (for example, handshaking, hugging and kissing are not usual ways of greeting others in our culture), there must be one or two.

Then I realized people try not to recognize fellow passengers are conscious subjects like themselves but see them as part of the environment. In other words, they survive by objectifying others. But how they do that? The simplest way of doing so is by avoiding an eye contact, and this is why most passengers hold on to their books, newspapers and mobile phones, however limited mobility they have, on the train. By being connected only to the object they hold in their hand, they try to live in a small social world of their own. This simultaneously helps others to live in their own social worlds. So, the act is mutual. The situation from this point of view is no different from the social order created by cars and the traffic lights in Oxford. However, this act of objectification of fellow passengers in some cases also allows one to push them away and to block their way out. So where necessary, you may have to cause ‘power cut’ – an incident that disturbs the existing social order and invites different configuration in which you become recognized as a conscious subject. Actually, this can be done by a simple action too: if you say ‘Excuse me’, you see the people around you start reacting to whatever you are trying to do. You can probably tell they are annoyed by it, but that is a sign that they are drawn out of their small social worlds. One thing you might want to remember is that causing the ‘power cut’ requires you to come out from your social world too, and reminds you of the discomfort of being in the unpleasant and challenging social context.

As a small note to end with, the traffic lights in Oxford has gone and is now replaced by a roundabout. I am pretty curious to find out what kind of ‘replacement’ may be possible for the commuter trains in Tokyo.


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