Monash University

In this paper, the autonomy of humans and nonhuman things, that is their ability to act freely and independently within the context of everyday life, will be investigated. The word autonomy is used in the figurative and literal sense and collective and singular cases. This will provide philosophical and theoretical grounds, and design practice insights for research involving objects who have multiples degrees of freedom.

The recent STS and Speculative Realism turns in Design Studies are considered in a comparative analysis to highlight similarities, differences and advantages for the perplexed designer. STS establishes a strong frame where human social autonomy and reason permit the construction of technology. Speculative Realism frames the object’s autonomy as equal, if not sometimes more influential inside the human‐nonhuman assemblage.

The oscillating arguments surrounding subject and object agency and causality demand a synthesis towards reciprocity. Especially when objects are integrating more know‐how. The final contribution of this paper is a total design framework that represents the subject and object, their autonomies and their communicative actions during the interaction event. Finally, the ideas of the affordance and structural coupling help unify the human and nonhuman inside the designer’s practicing perspectives. And inside the forthcoming practices of everyday life.

Keywords: Autonomy, everyday life, STS, speculative realism, frame analysis

Introduction to Everyday Life

At the level of society, Peter Berger and the late Thomas Luckmann’s (1984) description of everyday life is that of reality par excellence. It resembles one of communication constituting ‘an intersubjective world’ of phenomena where consciousness is in a pragmatic mode focusing past, present and future actions. Encounters with the other is face‐to‐face, reciprocal and reflective. The subject is formed via the other’s attitudes towards them (pp. 44‐45). Traditional sociological studies rely on pure subject agency. Dualism of the subject‐object is maintained in their view of the socialisation of society and the individual. This is characterised by three Hegelian like moments: externalisation, objectivation (of social institutions) and internalisation, all generating intersubjective meanings (Miller, 1995, p. 65). Even Michel De Certeau offers a similar account. We are always producing meaning from objects, always in poiesis, even a making of the consumption of objects is poetic in order to adapt to our interests and rules (1984, p. xii). This relation to the object occurs from infant development as s/he is orientated to the external world through the internal construction of objects.

Civilisation has been dramatically shaped by technical objects since the middle ages. Lewis Mumford catalogues how new mechanistic devices automate human labour. The subject is not fully responsible for the production of the objects anymore but for the “machine‐herd” (1963, p.140). An important categorical distinction must be made between tools and machines. Tools afford manipulation of material with high degrees of dependence on the skill and motive power of the operator. The machine, however, is an object of automatic action and independence, a “minor organism designed to perform a single set of functions” (p.10). A tool is highly flexible and a machine is rigidly automatic, neither are fully autonomous. Full mechanisation of production in agriculture, food processing and transport mirrored itself into the household with the appearance of electrical appliances in the kitchen and bathroom. These artificial machines and tools embedded themselves into the human psyche and modified the structural behaviours of humans, society and nature (Gideon, 1948, pp. 41‐42). As a result, there was More Work for Mother. According to Ruth Cowan, gender stratification of domestic labour from men and children to mothers and wives was caused by technological systems moving into the home and creating more work processes rather than ideological shifts in capitalism or patriarchy put forward by the Marxian project. This is reinforced by the subject wanting to imbue themselves with autonomy, as “most people will still opt for privacy and autonomy over technical efficiency and community interest” (1983, pp. 149‐150).

Of course, today’s everyday life is mediated between the tangible and digitally signified worlds. This was the cultural shift in Lyotard’s (1984) postmodernity, the time when the social grand narratives of progress, enlightenment and mastery over materiality is reversed. Dematerialisation also functions here through mobile computing tools, information processing and communication to allow Manuel Castells (1996) to foresee a networked society. Where the “action of knowledge upon knowledge” creates new occupational structures and modes of production from agricultural, to industrial to informational (pp. 16‐17). Even Lefebvre sees the pervasiveness of information technologies into daily life creating concrete and abstract duality. His technological apparatus is both hardware and codified software reinscribed into critical theory. He transforms the production‐(consumption) trope into one of production‐(creation‐information) (1981, p.153). In sum, everyday domestic existence is: factory life, office life, laboratory life, studio life and creative life, through technological forms of life (Lash, 2001).

Design Life

The normative definition of the word design suggests a process of action that involves making or planning to make something. It can also refer to the output of the process: design, thing, artifact or object. How things “ought to be in order to attain goals” reflects a teleological nature, a purposiveness used to solve perceived problems and achieve results (Simon, 1996, p.4). Political and ideological motive enters this definition as for courses “of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones” (p. 111). Recent influences in material culture theory have changed the landscape of Design Studies. Future turns are expected to come from the socio‐technical or social practice fields and the Thing Theory or Speculative Realism fields (Tonkinwise, 2014). For our analysis, here, we must justify the designer’s activity.

The overwhelming popularity of user centred design is linked to its ability to gain perceived insights into the needs, wants, desires, tastes and expectations of the subject relative to the object. Anthro‐ethnosociological research informs the designer of the user values to be infused into the object, so that the user will respond positively at acquisition and operation phases. The frame here is: the user knows best, knows what they want, knows what use and exchange value an object possesses. The user will unlock future innovation. The commercialised role of the designer demands they negotiate the user’s everyday practice environment, understanding activities like cooking, photography or DIY/bricolage/tinkering. At any one time, the human user is an activator and animator of the object’s competence, materiality and meaning (Shove, 2007, 2012). This is the case for passive tools and machines today.

Design, science and technology will shape these realisations. Design is the projection of intent into the future resulting in the conception of a transcendental object. The object is transcendental, in the Kantian definition, because it generates synthetic and analytic a posteri truths once actualised. The designer knows of the object through the process of conception from synthetic and analytic a priori truths. How does this defer from science? We might say scientism is the belief that all phenomena are describable by universal law. Whether the scientist fully subscribes to this, it nonetheless is a belief, not a knowing, because there is no proof such unity exists (so far). However, this coherentism has generated so much utility through scientific inquiry and technological application (Yearley, 1988, p. 22). Science explains what things are made from and what things do. Empirical sensory measurement generates predictive theory and models within an ideal system and boundary conditions. In contrast, design designates what things are made from and what things do. It uses existing knowledge but does not generate knowledge directly, it generates objects directly. Technological development enlists the telos and methods of both disciplines.

Autonomous technologies will deskill and displace human skills but they open up new human skills and knowledge for the control of that autonomy. This is an extreme case of distributed competencies introduced by Latour (1994, p. 223) and retained by Shove (2015). However, the promise of the internet of things (IoT), smart objects, driverless vehicles, ubiquitous artificial general intelligences and robotic automation challenges the paradigm of the human‐user‐subject being at the locus of control. Human beings design objects and have precise knowledge of their construction and assembly. Likewise, the designer has control and mastery of their tools when crafting. Humble users are ignorant to this understanding. Breakdowns and technical malfunction are ambiguous and can cause anxiety. Humans may find themselves functionless in this world if they collectively surrender all mastery and control to technics.

The tools at the designer’s fingertips today offer a meta‐medium in which physical and electronic object projections can be made inside an integrated dynamic digital software environment (Manovich, 2013). Software is commanded and controlled via code, assembled into programs, carry out complex sequences of operation. Deterministic top‐down narrow artificial intelligence (AI) can afford human social interactions codified by rules and computational metaphors mimicking human cognition (Woolgar, 1989). This approach relies on the programmer explicitly articulating the problem‐space, objects, relations, semantics, goals and solutions to optimise towards. If the programmer omits any representation, the program is blind and unable to solve (Winnograd & Fernando, 1986, p. 97). These expert systems are developed by experts and intended for end users. They are easily fooled by tacit‐cultural information. But this technology doesn’t need to pass Turing tests to become autonomous. Computer science AI has already passed basic selfawareness tests using logic and reason rather than just logical if statements. AI has not achieved sentience and is a different material base than human consciousness. Deep machine learning neural networks that are trained via patterns recognised through Big Data are still explicitly programed by their human masters to win, survive, adapt, evolve or solve the narrow problem.

Nevertheless, computer programs that are structurally plastic have the ability to change modular relations as well as the properties inside their modules. This behaviour is unpredictable like biological autonomy, learning and evolution. The concept of structural coupling, proposed by Maturana & Varela best describes this phenomenon. Here the act of embodied cognition inside the organism allows the world to coemerge regardless of its internal motor‐sensory structure. In other words, development is completely shaped by interactions with the environment or with other actors. A bottom‐up, structurally coupled evolutionary path to strong artificial intelligence holds future research promise towards greater autonomy (Johnston, 2008).

Social Autonomy

Langdon Winner’s reading of Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society endorses the attitude that technology is an out of control force, following a trajectory independent of human direction. Ellul’s definition of technology is the “totality of the means employed by a people to provide itself with the object of material culture” (Winner, 1977, pp. 8‐9). This may refer to techniques, methods, tools, mechanisms, machines, and systems. All humans ultimately submit themselves to it, allowing it to self‐generate, as all “motives, decisions, creative insights and acts are placed at its service” (p. 62). Human autonomy is negated and transformed into technical autonomy, albeit in hindsight. Winner’s views of technology are more neutral and non‐deterministic, capable of being guided by human democratic political action. Sympathetic to this position, Cowan (1983) demonstrates that free willed social construction can prevail against technical efficiency. Mechanical refrigeration was invented several decades earlier to its assimilation into the domestic household. The system originally had a gas heated ammonia absorption condenser (Gideon, 1948, p. 601). However, the humming, lower efficiency and lower reliability of an electrified and motorised vapour compressor system proliferated. Cowan attributes this to the market‐value decisions made by stakeholders in the electrical supply oligarchy.

Winner’s and Ellul’s notions can be incorporated into a systems’ view where technological propagation depends on networks of energy and momentum. Any resistance to change is based upon the system’s own inertia. This objective and scientific view acknowledges resources, structure and contingency (Hughes, 1989, pp. 76‐80). Yes, Cowan’s historical sociotechnical decisions must be made to give rise to any technical advance but such causality is masked by the interplay of local and global material activities. Transformation and incorporation becomes the two‐step towards a strong theory of technological politics (Winner, 1977, 208).

The metaphysics of autonomy lies with the cryptic foundational notions of freedom and morality. According to Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, autonomy of will, obligation and volition is exercising a subject’s faculties to keep with all supreme practical law. Morality is independent to any objects of desire. You, the subject, are independent to make choices. These choices provide positive freedoms in that you can use pure and practical reason. These choices also provide negative freedoms in that you must be weary of objects of desire, impulse, inclination and pathological law. In opposition to these faculties, the “heteronomy of choice” refers to any action against morality but still in accordance with natural law (2015, pp. 30). In other words, if a technological object was autonomous (a subject in Kant’s critique) and against morality, it is because of natural law (Kant would define this as a deterministic force). But what is natural about technology or any natural law that it may follow? Designed objects are artificial and would necessitate an artificial supreme practical law. The ambiguity here is the main reason the control of technology will be highly supervised and regulated to transfer fully causal effect to the human subject. Nonetheless, this hinges on the design of autonomous objects and intentionality. Ultimately control is the last say ‐ executive political control.

Actor‐Network Theory (ANT), as developed by Michael Callon, John Law and Bruno Latour, studies sociotechnical networks including relations inside the design project. The agency of actants, humans and things, are explained via empirical grounded inquiry. The agency of things here refers to their ability to “authorise, allow, afford, encourage, permit, suggest, influence, block, render possible, forbid and so on” (Latour, 2005, p. 72). When ANT is recognized as a philosophical ontology (what is), humans and non‐humans are defined solely by their relations. The problem here is that you cannot explain change or emergence. Any dynamic reconfigurations of the network cannot be explained solely from the gestalt of the network itself. Likewise, the framework is a descriptor of past events not showing possibilities or potentiality. The later Latour reforms this work in his Compositionist Manifesto proposing a new platform that can better account for all heterogeneous parts inside a composite, previously a networked assemblage. Compositionism is still a flat ontology but allows the analysis of a project or technology from a position and by an entity inside the same material network as that which it is analysing. Thus, the analysis and analyser can compose (Latour, 2010). For Design Studies, this can be recast towards the design of object; the immanent agency of the object cannot be separated from the immanent agency and intention of agency by the designer inside the design project. The immanence of a subject can be transferred to the immanence of the object, assuming the ontological foundation is one of Materialism. This renewed interest in the agency of material objects in sociotechnical networks resonates with the newly forming philosophical schools.

Absolute Autonomy

Speculative Realism (SR) is a newly formed philosophical genus, a response to Postmodernity. Its birth is attributed to the impending crisis of ecology and human sustainment inside our finite world, the result of industrialised consumption and object production. SR revives the historical metaphysical concerns by using the thought of Spinoza‐Hume‐Whitehead‐Bergson‐Deleuze to probe for answers. Apart of continental philosophy, outside the analytic tradition, the human subject is decentered from thought. Any anthropocentrism, including social construction, is abandoned in the quest to describe objects in their absolute nature. Realism indicates the search for the real. The speculative component refers to a special style of contortionist thought required to arrive at the paradox: that objects can exist outside human thought whilst still using that thought for their understanding. This is opposed to Kant’s transcendental idealism in his Critique of Pure Reason. Here we can only know the external world through phenomena. The things‐in‐themselves, the noumena are outside knowledge, they are trivial and inaccessible. This metaphysic endured through Hegel‐Husserl‐Heidegger and still underpins the majority of scholarly thought. SR breaks from this, opening up the world of direct accessible objects. It has received popular interest in contemporary fine art, architecture, the post humanities and now Design Studies.

This proposition seems unsurpassable when phenomenology (study of appearances) has taken precedence over ontology (what entities exist). Collectively, the camps inside SR aspire to think outside and break away from what Quentin Meillassoux (2008) calls correlationism. The idea that you can never talk or think outside the human‐world correlate; all objects or things are defined relative to situated embodied thought of the human subject in relation to the object. Meillassoux argues for the ancestral: the earth was absolutely created 4.5 billion years ago, through facticality, the fact that carbon dating, a scientific technique, proves this. The correlationist’s counter argument here would be: the earth was created 4.5 billion years ago, according to humans. And so, correlationism is diametrically opposed to all forms of finite human social knowing and construction. To move away from the human‐world‐correlate, the four founding SR proponents generate different epistemologies (how we know what we know) for the object as well as levels of access. Meillassoux relies on scientific thought independent of the human‐world. He invokes mathematics and contingency through the reversal of the Kantian transcendental argument of necessity. Ray Brassier decenters the human using rational scientific discovery qua Galilean‐Copernican‐Newtonian‐Darwinian‐Freudian knowledge. Graham Harman’s object orientated philosophy (OOP) takes an aesthetic approach breaking the whole object into sensual and real realms. The real realm is inaccessible to thought, so we never really exhaust the object ‘s depth fully. He resists the tendency to undermine (reductionism) or overmine (holism) inside his ontology. Ian Grant Hamilton inverts the Kantian sublime and pre‐aesthetic judgment presenting thought as a force of nature, preceding and exceeding us and thereby outside the human‐world‐correlate (Shaviro 2014, pp. 10‐11).

The agnostic vital materialist, Jane Bennett, has also influenced SR asserting that cause and effect are bundled into the one matter‐energy, derived from Bergson’s vital force, yet conditioned by heterogenous flows and motions (2010). Causality, for her, is both mechanical, clunk or efficient and also emergent (Harman, 2011). Moving away from discrete causal agents, all human and nonhuman actors are placed on the same footing in the same agentic assemblage, similar to ANT. However, she factors in part‐to‐whole relations that permit emergence, change and trajectories. Bennett and ANT are both culprits of using the Deleuzian assemblage, or working arrangement, in non‐analytic or problem solving ways according to Buchannan (2015). The process of designing autonomous objects outside a socially constructed ontology is fairly straight forward with the help of SR. In fact, objects are already somewhat autonomous by their nature, if your ontology breaks from correlationism, social construction and human centered thought.

Methodological Framing

A designer may choose to pledge their allegiance and services to the human subject, the object, or both. To unite the perspectives of subject and object centeredness, the method must be capable of describing the autonomy of each actor. The design of future interactions and communications can never be known to any determinism. If that were the goal, the design would have an authoritarian orientation. All the designerly frames‐of‐reference need to be conceptually introduced. Erving Goffman’s (1974) Frame Analysis represents all institutions through structured frames and has been influential in semantic and cognitive linguistics research. Frames attempt to match scenarios, experiences, boundaries and rules in social situations. Established frames are vulnerable to keying, transformations and fabrication. The utility of a framework has had recent resonances, however, without reference to Goffman’s work (Dorst, 2015).

Objects, devices, appliances and vehicles situated in their primary frameworks have an established human purpose. A refrigerator affords access to a container that preserves food for consumption. A mobile phone receives and sends information and communications to and from the human owner. A domestic robot/co‐bot automates laborious, low/high skill, routine and repetitive jobs and tasks. A driverless car automates the transport of human and non‐human passengers to and from specific destination and via specific routes. With the ubiquity of cameras, microphones, sensors and facial recognition algorithms, the interface ceases to exist for an autonomous object. It is simply replaced by the face. And so, the primary modality of interaction becomes one of visual perception, body language and then verbal language. This constitutes an equalisation in communicative affordances between subject and object. These frames should be anchored into a domestic environment, however, for the pure frame of analysis here, white empty spaces will suffice. The external frame is scientific and conceptually absolute. The two adjacent views are relative perspectives of both actors in question. At last, subject and object‐centred design can be fulfilled (fig. set 1).

Figure set 1 Frame Analysis as design method showing subject and object (refrigerator, mobile phone, domestic robot & driverless car). Author’s artwork.

In any face‐to‐face Interaction Ritual, the encounter with the other is: “where the action is.” It involves consequence, fate, gambles, adaptation, character, contest and chance (Goffman, 1967, pp. 149‐270). When chance is involved in a system, probability is calculable but only once all outcomes are known from a top‐down tree. This means, the designer must exhaust and explore as many possibilities of the interaction, in order to come to know the human‐nonhuman assemblage conceptually.

A communication event involving social face value can be illustrated from multiple external frame progressions during the interaction. This allows the designer to incorporate affordances of both the subject and object. The affordance is a property of the ecological environment that affords embodied seeing(perceiving) and acting (Gibson, 1979, p.222). Subject’s and object’s physical acts and linguistic speech acts may be scripted into the affordances of the others and vice versa, entering into a general category of   communication. Of course, affordances assume know‐how. There is a prerequisite stage where affordances must be played with, learnt, experimented upon, the user of the affordance goes through trial and error to gain mastery and control of them. After many interactions: patterns, characters, relationships and social value emerge. Through many progressive frame layers, body language and speech language is represented (fig. set 2).


Figure set 2 Exhaustive communicative actions and reactions of subject and object from the external frame. Author’s artwork.


Results toward critical and reciprocal causation

Critical theory (CT) examines the nature of human identity through social relation and its contingency throughout history. Represented by the thought of Hegel‐Marx‐Lukács ‐the Frankfurt School, identity is signs, semiotics and ideology. Marx’s commodity fetishism attributes a liveliness to things and Lukács’ human reification turns humans into things. Appadurai and Kopytoff (1986) focus on the object exclusively, a commodity in transaction and circulation but then individuated and singular. It is then, the object accumulates its own biography and social life. Whilst this trope lacks any vitality like the earlier vital materialism, it nonetheless concedes that objects, like people, have social lives. Extrapolating towards a future where objects become more autonomous and their computations become more human like, we realise an equality emerge, from fetishism and reification. Objects act like subjects and are treated so. Harmans’ OOP actually treats everything as an object or subject unit. A homogeneous social ecology entails all to practice their own reflection and reflexivity adding to the complexity of any attempt towards a theory describing causality (fig. 3).

Figure 3 Subjects and objects in reflection and reflexivity. Author’s artwork.

David Hume viewed causality as empirically established habit, an assumption without sensory evidence. In response to his scepticism, Kant necessitates causality to restore certainty and foundations back into science. In the same sense, the activity of design carries a similar uncertainty. Boradkar adds “designing things, therefore, refers to a reciprocity of agency and an ambiguity of design’s locus of action. People and things configure each other” (2010, p. 4). Is there a way that other modes of human being can describe causality? It can only be defined counterfactually, “it is our senses that impose this belief in causality upon us, not thought” (Meillassoux, 2008, p. 91). A much‐needed clarification of the relation between thought and sensibility. As with Kant, thought is capable of conceiving an ontology in which the rules of causality are defined. Levi Bryant’s own Onto‐cartography describes all entities as machines rather than objects. These machines have inputs, outputs and transformations (Bryant, 2014, p. 37). His degrees of freedom (DOFs) can exist as both rigid and plastic properties of objects. Causality is immanent, inside the machine. Autonomy can cause machines to change circumstances. For Bryant, the freedom to act, will depend on the machine’s DOFs. Machines with a greater number of plastic DOFs have more independence and flexibility, a quantitative and qualitative measure. A human being has more freedoms, than a dog, than a rock to act upon. When two machines with different DOFs interact, both machines structurally couple. When a human and non‐human couple, they both come to know each other via the phenomenal experience of other, this is bidirectional. Structural coupling is a “communicative interaction” and both subject and object are reciprocally affected (Varela, 1979, p. 49).


Designers are poised at the nexus between science, art, communication and philosophy in guiding their designations of an autonomous technical object. Everyday life is where human subjective sensibility and thought encounter the concrete world. STS studies and other similar discourses that only rely on social construction can only be strengthened by acknowledging the autonomy of objects, naturally occurring and imparted via design affordances. This involves treating objects with the same privileges as the human subject. A step toward this unification involves using multiple frames to fully realise interactions where degrees of freedom and structural couplings are present. SR is trying to show that categories of thought and conception allow the thinker to come closer than ever before to knowing the thing‐in‐itself, the noumena. More research is needed to fully understand this implication upon Design Studies. Likewise, the equal representation of the actions of autonomous humans and nonhumans in a sociotechnical ecology will only grant more foresight to the designer in constructing their preferred future frame.


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