Critical technical practice

Last updated: Wednesday, 10 July 2024

Critical technical practice (CTP) is a concept that advocates for a reflective, critical approach to technology design and development. First introduced by Phil Agre, it seeks to integrate critical theory and technical practice, as a way of producing technologies that are socially and ethically sound.

A critical technical practice rethinks its own premises, revalues its own methods, and reconsiders its own concepts as a routine part of its daily work. It is concerned not with destruction but with reinvention. Its critical tools must be refined and focused: not hammers but scalpels, not a rubbishing of someone else but a hermeneutics and a dialectics of ourselves. — Phil Agre, Computation and Human Experience (1997)

Agre’s version of CTP was deliberative and collaborative; a practice that brings critical sensibilities to technical work. While critique could be formulated from outwith, CTP aimed to identify and articulate problems as a way to reform technical practice (in Agre’s case, AI) from within. (van Geenen et al. 2023)

  1. Identify the core metaphors and assumptions of the field
  2. Notice what is marginalised or left out
  3. Invert the dominant metaphors, to bring the margins to the centre
  4. Embody alternatives as new technologies

Aim is to develop a “split identity”, with one foot in the craft of technical creation, and the other in reflexive critique. Distinct challenge of writing, simultaneously, for multiple audiences (those in humanities and the social sciences, and computer science and engineering).

Initially, CTP was a response to the limitations of 20th-century AI research. Agre’s work at the MIT AI Lab, particularly his collaboration with David Chapman (and exchanges with Lucy Suchman), laid much of the groundwork for his approach. His critical stance was influenced by his dissatisfaction with the intellectual conservatism of AI and its limited sense of historical context.

CTP after/beyond Agre?

For example, in the context of AI research, [CTP] was envisaged as a way to formulate critique making it relevant to communities of technical fields; in HCI, it may be taken as a way to bring critical sensibilities into design; in STS, it may be taken as a way to bring STS perspectives to interventions with technical communities and practices; in art and making, it may be envisaged as a way to highlight how arts-based methods may intervene with technologically mediated systems; in media studies and humanities, it may be taken as a way to surface problems with and assumptions of digital technologies through hands-on engagements with devices and infrastructures (not just texts); in the context of computer science and engineering, it may be taken as a way to show critique is taken seriously in the face of broader societal concerns. — Daniela van Geenen et al., “Pluralising critical technical practice” (2023)

What is meant by critique? Where does it come from? Who and what is involved? How is it accomplished, performed, and materialised? For what and for whom? — Daniela van Geenen et al., “Pluralising critical technical practice” (2023)

What is technical? What counts as technology? Who and what is involved in the technological, and what is considered technique? What kinds of delegation of agency and responsibility accompany different conceptions of technology and technique? When and in what kinds of situations are things presented as technical? — Daniela van Geenen et al., “Pluralising critical technical practice” (2023)

What is practice? What counts as a practice? How are practices shared? How may we attend to how practices deviate from the scripts of technologies and associated formats? — Daniela van Geenen et al., “Pluralising critical technical practice” (2023)

Critical technical practice through toolmaking?

Authorial function of the tool-maker, and how this relates to critical technical practice.

Looking at ‘tools that address an audience beyond an immediate group of collaborators and acquire a certain stability and unity.’ (Rieder et al. 2022)

Particularly as applied to research tools?