Digital criticism: in favor of the scientific instrument

7 minutes read

My father, Bruno Jacomy, is a French engineer and historian of technology. His most read book is titled Une histoire des techniques. He spent a large part of his career in closed museums: he prepared the redesign of the Musée des Arts et Métiers, that reopened in 2000, and contributed to designing the Musée des Confluences, that opened in 2014. His passion for culture technique passed on to his three children.

The scientific instrument is, to me, one of those familiar things that are part of a kid’s world. It does not mean that I understood it. It simply feels like it has always been there. A noble version of tool.

My father’s tools as he accommodates a new room for his thousands of books.

I started using the notion of scientific instrument when writing about digital tools to emphasize their use in a scientific context. I did not think much about it at the time. But I now realize that it does something for me that I find lacking in critiques of the digital.

Think of a tool. You probably have in mind something that you can take in your hand, such as a hammer or a wrench. That is because tools are extensions of the body. Tools typically allow you to do stuff you cannot do with your natural body.

Glasses are tools too, as they extend the body. They allow you to see things you cannot see with your natural eyes. Seeing is an active process; in some sense it is doing, too.

Scientific instruments are often measuring tools. Measuring is an active process; measuring is doing. And like glasses, measuring instruments mediate. We perceive through them, they transform what we perceive – that is their point.

There are non-measuring instruments too, for instance the alembic. Some instruments are huge, for instance the Large Hadron Collider. And there are also digital instruments.

Digital instruments

The digital infrastructure is so distributed that our physical intuition does not work well to understand it. It poses a problem to critical thinking, because the materiality of digital objects is full of misleading metaphors. For instance this post appears to be a document, an individual thing, because if you leave and come back, it is still there. And it appears to be somewhere because it has an address. But in fact it has no physical unity; it is actively produced on-demand and immediately deleted; it exists as a scattered inscription across multiple spaces at the same time. And the metaphor can be misleading the other way around: the “cloud” is not ethereal but material, devouring thunderstorms of energy in temperature-controlled server farms.

There are two ways of thinking of the digital as a technology that transforms our scientific practice. One way is to look at the whole, starting from the world and following consequences down to our scientific practice. The other way is to start from our problems and try to fix them by investigating outward.

When Noortje Marres and Evelyn Ruppert reflect on the digital, they do not restrain their eye to the perspective of the scientific practice, but encompass what the digital does to society. They are concerned with the politics of methods inside science, but also outside. They question what social media platforms mean for sociological methodology, but also for citizens. Johanna Drucker too, when she criticizes digital visualization, argues on the nature of the digital and its inherent reductionist effect. I gathered quotes on that topic in my previous blog post.

There is no better way to be critical of the digital, because it is so laminated and distributed that as soon as we leave aside a part of it, we lose the track of its effects.

There is however a good reason to get back to the comfortable metaphor of the tool. It is to adopt the point of view of the designers, engineers and researchers who make them.

Let’s not overlook the digital tool because it bears a misleading unity. The unity of all tools is illusory, because they precisely proceed via incorporation. The pen in your hand becomes a part of your body; you do not feel it, but you feel the paper with it; it is not writing: you are writing. The pen is a mediation, same as your glasses. The tool is not just within the tool, it is also within you.

Digital tools do not draw their unity from their technical nature, but from their history: they are first and foremost projects. The unity of a project is illusory but also real, because it performs. As we need to refer to them, projects have a name, a logo, a website, etc. Digital instruments are less metaphor than metonymy: we end up conflating the tool with the project.

As a tool maker myself, I get to see that not all critiques are equally useful to producing better scientific instruments. The most unfair kind is when tools are accused of things they can do nothing about. For instance Johanna Drucker writes in Graphesis: “These graphical tools are a kind of intellectual Trojan horse, a vehicle through which assumptions about what constitutes information swarm with potent force.” But her main problem lies in the formal nature of the digital. She explains in another piece: “The graphical tools that are used for statistical display depend, in the first instance, on quantitative data, information that can be parameterized so that it lends itself to display. Virtually no humanistic data lends itself to such parameterization … , and it is in fact precisely in the impossibility of creating metrics appropriate to humanistic artifacts that the qualitative character of capta, that which is taken as interpretation rather than data, comes sharply into relief.” But to software developers, the digital is a given; that critique does not help us. Pointing at the instrument when the problem is with the digital as a whole is not only unfair, it is also unproductive.

Bruno Latour once told us, the médialab guys, that critique is pointless if it does not empower. That day I understood why engineers mostly disregard what academics write about technology. That criticism fails to empower them.

To be fair, Johanna Drucker’s critique empowers other people; humanists. That is fine, necessary. I am well aware that the critique it is not all about tool makers. But there is a lack, a void to fill in the literature. This is why I want you to use the concept of scientific instrument.

Just convoking the concept of scientific instrument in your writing on the influence of technology does the following for you:

  • Separate infrastructure-related issues from tool-related issues. Those issues call for different modes of action. The pervasive effects of the digital are difficult to address, but if a tool poses a specific material-semiotic problem, identifying it already suggests an intervention. It helps design better instruments.
  • Distinguish profane from expert interpretation issues. Visualizations can be misleading to profane users and not to experts. It is most important for a scientific instrument to empower researchers, because their needs are more demanding. It might be more difficult to design for the profane, but a tool that does not work for the expert will not work for the profane anyways. Expert use is legit.
  • It forces you to pinpoint local material-semiotic features. As we agree that influence is material-semiotic, let’s also agree that the origin of a tool does not substantiate what it performs. Not everything that comes out of an oven is cooked. Tool makers have an agenda, but users do not follow the rules. The instrument has its own life, independent from its creators.
  • It helps you account for the practices. The instrument is where material inscriptions bridge with practices. It is only from there that some key concerns arise: how the produced inscriptions (knowledge) recombine and circulate, mobilize new allies, etc. The cultural halo around an instrument may hold more of its influence than the instrument itself.

The concept of scientific instrument may not help much understanding the digital infrastructure, it helps producing a critique that can be leveraged by tool makers.


A last word addressed to the academic authors. Please stop summarizing your detailed argumentation down to “tools influence us because of presuppositions built into them”. Nobody stuffed your tool. That is not how it works. Most tool makers do not really know what they are doing – they just experiment. They do not try to influence you – they probably do not care about you. And even if they wanted to, tools are highly constrained constructions, full of side effects that one can see yet not get rid of. Most digital scientific instruments are under-funded experiments co-designed by enthusiastic hybrid collectives. Everybody wants to succeed, but that is not something one can decide. Instruments you use came to you for mysterious, accidental reasons – not as the Trojan horses of methodological imperialists. Scientific instruments do not influence you more than what you are willing to delegate to them. You know that. Yet in your abstract or conclusion, you suggest that they manipulate you. Please reconsider the shortcut, it misses the point and does not help us make better scientific instruments.


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