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Agency in the Digital Age

Recent advancements in technology challenge our fundamental notions of human power and agency. Tools and techniques including machine learning, artificial intelligence, and chatbots may be capable of exercising complex “agentic” behaviors (Dhar, 2016). Advanced technologies are capable of communicating with human beings in an increasingly sophisticated manner. Ranging from artificial chat partners through the commercial algorithms of social media to cutting-edge robots, these encounters with interactive machines often result in a complex and intimate relationship between users and technologies (Finn, 2017). For instance, people now may have their own virtual assistants such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa. Other commercial technological agents “help” people find new movies on Netflix or friends on Facebook. Robotic companions, like Huggable developed by Cynthia Lynn Breazeal at MIT, can read human emotions and react to them accordingly. Chatbots have long evoked reactions from people that can be used therapeutically for psychological counselling and now these tools are being rolled out as apps to help people cope with anxiety and depression (Lien, 2017; Neff and Nagy, 2016). Such developments present a quandary for scholars of communication. Does the agency of the people and, increasingly, of things that we chose to communicate with matter? This question prompts us to urge communication scholars to develop a better definition of agency and more clarity on how agency is enacted in practice within complex, technologically-mediated interactions.

  • Neff, Gina & Nagy, Peter. “Agency in the Digital Age: Using Symbiotic Agency to Explain Human–Technology Interaction” in Zizi Papacharissi, ed. The Networked SelfHuman Augmentics, Artificial Intelligence, Sentience. Routledge. 

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