Friction – Work – Mangle

I’ve been preparing lately for a conference on Monday about the use of multiple models in evaluating water quality on the Chesapeake.  I’m part of a panel that will be discussing the social and cultural implications of multiple modeling, and the gist of what I want to present is that models don’t simply represent or help us understand the complexity of the Bay (or whatever they happen to be modeling), they also add to that complexity (the subtitle of my talk is “Making a Mess with Models” paraphrasing the title of a paper by John Law on methods – pdf).  In order to make this case, I introduce three concepts that I’ve come to see as tied together – Friction, Work, and the Mangle.

Friction – I borrow this concept from two sources: Anna Tsing’s Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, and Paul Edward’s A Vast Machine.  Edwards discusses the concept of computational friction and data friction where the problem is integrating different data sets with one another in order to create a more comprehensive data set (e.g. global climate data).  Tsing describes friction as “the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference” and uses this concept to explore the phenomenon of globalization – specifically, the global lumber trade that has shaped the Indonesian landscape.  So, very simply, friction for me is a metaphor for the resistance to interconnection across some difference.  This difference keeps two or more things from connecting, but also offers an almost infinite possibility if the two things are made to connect.

Work – This is a concept I’ve talked a lot about already, but in this context, it’s the process of overcoming the resistance produced by friction.  It’s through work that the possibilities contained within the space of difference are actualized.  In the process of bringing things into relation with one another, a new world is created, and different ways of working to build relationships produce different kinds of worlds.

Mangle – Another borrowed concept – this time from Andrew Pickering.  This is merely to remind us that everything is mangled in the encounter between work and friction.  People are mangled (altered and affected) as much by the technologies, knowledges, organisms and other beings they work with as those beings are mangled by us (the result of the efficacy of beings).  In other words, humans are not engineers of reality – safely reshaping the world from a distance – we are active parts of the world and are continually reshaped by it.

It is my hope that these three concepts, in the context of my presentation at least, will be able to get the modelers, policy makers, and others at the workshop to think differently about their practices.  My goal is to think about the ways that different modeling practices (e.g. participatory modeling, open access models, etc.) can remake the reality of the Chesapeake – not just for the people, but for all of the beings involved.

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