I can’t say I’ve internalized (routinized? inscribed?) Latour’s Laboratory Life yet, but in the mean time I present you with three quotes on routinization, inscription, and facts:
To counter these catastrophic possibilities, efforts are made to routinise component actions either through technicians’ training or by automation. Once a string of operations has been routinised, one can look at the figures obtained and quietly forget that immunology, atomic physics, statistics, and electronics actually made this figure possible. Once the data sheet has been taken to the office for discussion, one can forget the several weeks of work by technicians and the hundreds of dollars which have gone into its production. After the paper which incorporates these figures has been written, and the main result of the paper has been embodied in some new inscription device, it is easy to forget that the construction of the paper depended on material factors. The bench space will be forgotten, and the existence of laboratories will fade from consideration. Instead, “ideas,” “theories,” and “reasons” will take their place. Inscription devices thus appear to be valued on the basis of the extent to which they facilitate a swift transition from craft work to ideas. The material setting both makes possible the phenomena and is required to be easily forgotten. Without the material environment of the laboratory none of the objects could be said to exist, and yet the material environment very rarely receives mention. It is this paradox, which is an essential feature of science, that we shall now consider in more detail. (p. 69)
The production of a paper depends critically on various processes of writing and reading which can be summarised as literary inscription. The function of literary inscription is the successful persuasion of readers, but the readers are only fully convinced when all sources of persuasion seem to have disappeared. In other words, the various operations of writing and reading which sustain an argument are seen by participants to be largely irrelevant to “facts,” which emerge solely by virtue of these same operations. There is, then, an essential congruence between a “fact” and the successful operation of various processes of literary inscription. A text or statement can thus be read as “containing” or “being about a fact” when readers are sufficiently convinced that there is no debate about it and the processes of literary inscription are forgotten. Conversely, one way of undercutting the “facticity” of a statement is by drawing attention to the (mere) processes of literary inscription which make the fact possible. (p. 76)
A fact only becomes such when it loses all temporal qualifications and becomes incorporated into a large body of knowledge drawn by others. Consequently, there is an essential difficulty associated with writing the history of a fact: it has, by definition, lost all historical reference. (p. 106)
Can we profit from focusing on objects/processes that “facilitate a swift transition from craft work to ideas”? I spent a few pleasant hours this afternoon doing some Rails programming; that framework shines because of the small amount of craft work necessarily to see a manifestation of your ideas. Does a software framework count as an “inscription device”? Does a programming language? Does a compiler, an interpreter? If not, is there some generalization of that concept that we can use here?
Agile processes value a swift transition between the programmer’s craft work and the Customer’s ideas. (A transition in both directions, I should add.) What are the inscription devices here? Ironically, one of the key mechanisms that agile uses to speed this transition is to remove certain inscription devices, or at least inscriptions, in favor of people talking directly to each other.
Can we relate tests to inscriptions and inscription devices? Test runs can certainly lead to thousands, millions of inscriptions over the course of a day; most of those inscriptions are internal, in that the software is noting that an assertion passed, but I label them as inscriptions nonetheless. They’re a very good form of persuasion; if you’re on a project where test runs act as a reliable safety net, then your worry level decreases, you can treat the software’s behavior as a “fact”, and spend time in idea land. Until, of course, a test failure (or, much worse, a failure that your tests didn’t catch) undercuts your software’s facticity.
I’ve been pretty obsessed with A3 reports for the last few months, which are certainly a form of inscription. And one of the strengths of the process is the extent to which the A3 report doesn’t serve as a source of persuasion, the extent to which the “sources of persuasion seem to have disappeared”: if the process is doing well, it’s a summary of facts to which all participants agree. Or have the sources of persuasion disappeared? Perhaps better to say they’ve been distilled down to a trace, as with a scientific paper; I don’t want to underestimate the importance of that trace.
I don’t suppose I can relate this to video games somehow? One issue that I struggle with, especially in games with a large variety of techniques to reach a goal, is how to internalize the various gameplay options that are available to me. Most of the time, I end up leaning on a few standard ways of progressing through a game’s levels; I suspect my experience would be richer if I had a broader tapestry of “facts” to choose from in the form of live tactical (or, better yet, strategic) options. What can games do to help me reach this state? What inscriptions can they present me with to ease this journey? How can I modify my own play styles to reach this state?
This post has not been revised since publication.