At the core of the book is a focus on the devices of consumer credit and credit default. These include the credit card and the credit statement, the focus of Chapter 1, the debt collections letter, which features in Chapters 2 and 5 in particular, as well as the collections worker him/herself (Chapter 3). While in the book I raise some concerns about how the device is understood within certain work informed by Science and Technology Studies, what a focus on the device brings to the project is an appreciation of how objects that are often so mundane as to go unnoticed can, under the right set of conditions, end up playing major roles in the shaping of social (and economic) action.

Here’s my attempt at defining the device for readers unfamiliar with the concept, taken from the book’s introduction:

Devices are what John Law and Evelyn Ruppert have called “patterned teleological arrangements” (Law & Ruppert 2013, p.229). That is to say, these are things, potentially composite things (hence: arrangements), that are designed to stimulate forms of engagement along particular lines, according to particular patterns. Especially amongst researchers working in STS, the device has formed an important part of the vocabulary that is brought to the attempt to describe how materiality matters in social settings, even when the material object in question appears to be quite ordinary. This has meant charting how these devices operate to mediate and format a range of encounters and situations.

Within this research, devices are often discussed in relation to specific objects and self-contained technologies. When it comes to the role played by devices within markets, this includes an attention to how they shape/pattern the decision-making capacities of individuals and organisations—that is to say, their assessments and judgements as to how to proceed in a given situation. This has included looking at objects as mundane as shopping carts (Cochoy 2009), credit scores (Poon 2007; 2009), financial equations (MacKenzie 2007; 2009), trading screens (Beunza & Stark 2004) and particular visualisations used in sales demonstrations (Vargha 2011). This book quite consciously adds to this list—it spends time looking at the role of some quite mundane credit devices: the credit card and the collections letter.

At the same time we may want to at least think about whether to broaden our understanding of devices beyond specific things (see: Moor 2012). This would mean developing a broader perspective than some of the strongly object-centred approaches that have characterised much of the work within, or influenced by, STS. Perhaps a particular set of ideas can, in the right circumstances, act as a device for assembling certain market encounters—how to conduct and standardise a process of market research (Ariztia 2013). Or a set of expertise will—how a bank interview is devised to ‘test’ the characteristics of a good banking customer, perhaps (Lazarus 2013b). We may also wish to consider the way certain situations allow people to act as devices. There may be a tension in doing so—devices have tended to be thought about as closed, bounded entities; this doesn’t seem to map very cleanly onto the messiness of human life and human experience (see: McFall forthcoming, p.tbc). At the same time, we have to recognise that not only are people perfectly capable of being encouraged and/or compelled into performing themselves according to quite specific criteria but also their practices are routinely aided and part-determined by all kinds of technological and social apparatuses. In this sense, in certain settings, it can become hard to draw a clear line around where the human begins and the material ends.

Take the contemporary debt collections worker as an example. Sitting in a call-centre, she or he will perhaps be sitting in front of a sheet of paper with a range of pre-prepared prompts that can be turned to if necessary. Calls are recorded for processes of ongoing monitoring and appraisal. The calls themselves are largely controlled by a technology—an autodialler—that provides collectors with a mix of both inbound and outbound calls, without them having to find and dial different numbers, or wait for a telephone to ring (this is because calls will only be put through if someone answers). The collections worker will also be working with a piece of account management software that, as soon as a call comes through, provides an instant view of the recent history of the account in question. And, almost certainly, she or he will have been subjected to forms of training that aims both to standardise the approach taken by collectors at that particular organisation and to make sure they comply with the relevant regulatory requirements. If, as I will claim, the collections worker becomes a device, then devices should certainly be considered hybrid entities.

Related posts: