Christian Pentzold

In this article, we propose to treat agency as something which is accomplished in the entanglement of humans with technologies. This redirects our attention away from the question of what distinguishes humans from smart machines and towards querying how people and automated apparatuses join in processes of mutual sociomaterial engagement. To further our argument, we look at self-service kiosks, which are ubiquitous yet largely overlooked components of mediated environments. We reflect on a participant observation in groceries stores and interviews with customers familiar with self-checkout facilities. They make us aware that operating this equipment is not an individual affair but a joint activity by default, taking place in a temporally regimented setting prone to human errors and malfunction when people try to respond to the terminals’ protocol. This sort of imperfect automation has ambivalent ramifications which rely on the capabilities of users and the capacities of an interface and its underlying operations. Agency, we conclude, thus becomes a matter of viable performance in which humans may act machine-like while machines perform an expanding share of activities.