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Talking to Bots: Symbiotic Agency and the Case of Tay

In 2016, Microsoft launched Tay, an experimental artificial intelligence chat bot. Learning from interactions with Twitter users, Tay was shut down after one day because of its obscene and inflammatory tweets. This article uses the case of Tay to re-examine theories of agency. How did users view the personality and actions of an artificial intelligence chat bot when interacting with Tay on Twitter? Using phenomenological research methods and pragmatic approaches to agency, we look at what people said about Tay to study how they imagine and interact with emerging technologies and to show the limitations of our current theories of agency for describing communication in these settings. We show how different qualities of agency, different expectations for technologies, and different capacities for affordance emerge in the interactions between people and artificial intelligence. We argue that a perspective of “symbiotic agency”— informed by the imagined affordances of emerging technology—is required to really understand the collapse of Tay.

Neff, Gina, and Peter Nagy. “Talking to Bots: Symbiotic Agency and the Case of Tay.” Edited by Samuel Woolley and Philip N. Howard. International Journal of Communication 10, no. Special Issue (2016): 20.

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Technologies for Sharing: lessons from Quantified Self about the political economy of platforms

Quantified Self (QS) is a group that coordinates a global set of in-person meetings for sharing personal experiences and experiments with self-tracking behaviours, moods, and activities. Through participation in US-based QS events and watching online QS presentations from around the globe, we identify a function of ambiguous valuation for supporting sharing communities. Drawing on Stark’s (2011) theory of heterarchy, we argue that the social and technical platforms supporting sharing within the QS community allow for multiple, sometimes conflicting, sets of community and commercial values. Community cohesion benefits from ambiguity over which values set is most important to QS members. Ambiguity is promoted by sharing practices through at least two means, the narrative structure of members’ presentations, and what counts as tracking. By encouraging members to adhere to a three-question outline, the community ensures that multiple values are always present. Thus, it becomes a question of which values this sharing community emphasizes, not which value sets members present, at any given time. By leaving the tools and methods of tracking open − from sophisticated wearables and data analysis to pen-and-paper and storytelling − the community creates space for and embraces self-trackers with a broad spectrum of technological proficiency and interest. QS as a group capitalizes on circulation of knowledge valued somewhat ambiguously to sustain and grow the community, both encouraging and supporting the commercialization of self-tracking technologies while keeping technology developer interests from overwhelming community-building interests. This, we argue, has implications for researchers hoping to understand online communities and the ‘sharing economy’ more generally.

Kristen Barta & Gina Neff. (2015). Technologies for Sharing: lessons from Quantified Self about the political economy of platforms. Information, Communication & Society. DOI:10.1080/1369118X.2015.1118520

Imagined Affordance: Reconstructing a Keyword for Communication Theory

In this essay, we reconstruct a keyword for communication—affordance. Affordance, adopted from ecological psychology, is now widely used in technology studies, yet the term lacks a clear definition. This is especially problematic for scholars grappling with how to theorize the relationship between technology and sociality for complex socio-technical systems such as machine-learning algorithms, pervasive computing, the Internet of Things, and other such “smart” innovations. Within technology studies, emerging theories of materiality, affect, and mediation all necessitate a richer and more nuanced definition for affordance than the field currently uses. To solve this, we develop the concept of imagined affordance. Imagined affordances emerge between users’ perceptions, attitudes, and expectations; between the materiality and functionality of technologies; and between the intentions and perceptions of designers. We use imagined affordance to evoke the importance of imagination in affordances—expectations for technology that are not fully realized in conscious, rational knowledge. We also use imagined affordance to distinguish our process-oriented, socio-technical definition of affordance from the “imagined” consensus of the field around a flimsier use of the term. We also use it in order to better capture the importance of mediation, materiality, and affect. We suggest that imagined affordance helps to theorize the duality of materiality and communication technology: namely, that people shape their media environments, perceive them, and have agency within them because of imagined affordances.

Peter Nagy and Gina Neff. 2015. “Imagined Affordance: Reconstructing a Keyword for Communication Theory,” Social Media + Society, July-December 2015: 1–9. DOI: 10.1177/2056305115603385

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