The Mediation of Learning: When Tools Become Meaningful – A Posthuman Meditation

After a little bit of a break I am back to my writing/thinking about posthuman approaches to understanding higher education learning.  In the previous post on this I engaged with Andrew Pickering’s work looking at the practice of science.  As part of my exploration of posthuman understandings I came across the work of a Danish scholar, Cathrine Hasse.  Below are my edited notes on one of her articles; “Artefacts that talk: Mediating technologies as multistable signs and tools”.  In particular, this article helped me think about the human/non-human interactions and how this breaks down easy distinctions between humans and ‘things’ in learning situations.  The shift between ‘things’ as tools and signs was particularly instructive for me.


Abstract:  The article takes up the notion of artefacts as tools and signs and discusses how socially assistive robots impact professional work life and professional identities as multistable active change agents. It argues for a multistable understanding of tools as signs, building on a combination of post-phenomenology and cultural– historical activity theory to capture the embodied, cultural and historical learning processes initiated when technologies engage with humans in professional work life. Moreover, the article invokes the concept of relational agency as useful for capturing how staff may question the distribution of expertise between humans and machines.Subjectivity(2013)6,79–100. doi:10.1057/sub.2012.29

The discussion is built around the example of ‘Paro’, a piece of adaptive technology (socially assistive robot) designed to bring comfort and stimulation to the elderly and those with Alzheimer’s (Paro works as a robotic pet that can be stroked, will pur, etc.).

Hasse suggests that simultaneous with working as a ‘tool’- as a robot it works to calm agitated patients, it also functions as a ‘sign’ in the sense that it ‘speaks’ to us in a meaningful fashion.  Building on insights developed by Vygotsky ‘tools’ can be seen as those things that mediate human action on their environment whereas a ‘sign’ mediates this internally on our consciousness.  The use of tools can have a transformative effect on the material world (as when we learn to develop and use an axe in order to cut down trees with the intention of building a house).  Although signs are oriented to the consciousness they are also implicated in human action on their environments (so an axe becomes meaningful to human activity (a sign) in terms of its role in securing desired shelter, or as an aggressive weapon to defend oneself or dominate others – the axe becoming a weapon related to an I/thing distinction).

Hasse argues that in reality the distinction between tool and sign breaks down as artefacts are treated meaningfully by us.

What does this mean in the context of the pharmacology lab?

The students can be seen not simply to ‘use’ the apparatus as ‘objects’ without meaning (that is as tools) but interact with them as meaningful artefacts (signs).  If we understand learning as embodied, the corporeal interaction between student body, artefact and chemical compound is undifferentiated.  There is no ‘mind’ that sits wholly in a human domain separate from non-human materiality.  Instead, mind, and learning, occur as part of the human/non-human interaction. The apparatus is engaged with in a fully embodied fashion but they are also culturally and socially embedded.  In the context of the lab they carry a ‘particular’ meaning and can be articulated differently according to the emergent learning objectives of each student.   For instance, directing a lab partner to measure the water may be utilising the pipette as a tool to engage/align the partner in the lab practical, to recruit them to the task in hand.  In this instance the pipette can be seen to work as a multistable object (Hasse’s term) moving from a ‘tool’ to measure water for the practical experiment to a ‘sign’ of collaborative working and a ‘tool’ of alignment to task rather than just measurement.

The human and material agent blur into one another, they fold in on each other.

Hasse, C. (2013). Artefacts that talk: Mediating technologies as multistable signs and tools. Subjectivity, 6(1), 79-100.

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