Trump, Brexit, the earthquakes in Groningen, interdisciplinarity in energy research, the poor showing of the Netherlands in the energy transition–this collection of glocal issues has recently spurred me to think and write about our systems of knowledge and how they come to matter. One the threads in this series of reflections has been the importance of techniques of calculations. They sustains a ‘valuation’ imaginary of truth, one in which the possibility of calculating return on investment is the leading logic (see this blogpost).

Where the preferred question about knowledge is how much value does it add, then calculation becomes indispensable.

In Verran’s classification, dominant types of truth are articulated, and these help us to see motifs in everyday practices and in the dynamics of institutions. At the same time, such types are never pure, and there are always areas of tension or of hybridization between ways of knowing–especially when knowledge is set in the context of human interactions.

A recent book by Maarten Derksen* addresses  such interfaces and the skills needed to reconcile calculative logics to other modes of knowing and to other kinds of truths. In this book-length study of myriad social technologies, Derksen shoHistories of Human Engineeringws how tact can be deployed and provide relief from ambivalence about calculation. Interrogation techniques, social psychology experiments, or principles of scientific management can best be applied using tact; the implementation of a technology is performed as an artful tuning of abstract rules or approaches to the exquisitely particular interaction with an individual.

Given modern sensibilities about the uniqueness of individuals, the incommunicable essence of our subjective experience and the private nature of our phenomenological trajectories, we tend to be ambivalent about social technologies and their implication that people’s buttons can be pushed, as though they were machines. Tact is both a means to address the reluctance to use a calculating approach to dealing with people (especially face to face), and the magic sauce that makes a social technology work. I find this approach especially interesting because it identifies a conjunction where there might be an articulation between techniques of calculation and the arts of listening.

*Full disclosure: Maarten and I will be celebrating 20 years of enduring conjugal bliss on 15 July 2018.

Derksen, Maarten. 2017. A historical study of tact: Histories of Human Engineering: Tact and Technology. Cambridge University Press.









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