Agre After Techno-Utopianism

Workshop Call for Papers
Agre After Techno-Utopianism
1-2 September 2022 (University of Siegen, Germany: Media of Cooperation)
In person/hybrid

It is hard to imagine digital culture without the work of Philip E. Agre. His description of the mutual dynamics of digital technology and ideology, so-called ‘grammars of action’ (Agre 1994), and the appeal for a critical technical practice (Agre 1997) have inspired scholars across media studies, HCI, and digital art and design for over 30 years. This workshop, ‘Agre After Techno-Utopianism’, seeks to evaluate his contribution to the study of technology, ideology, critique, and practice since the ‘techno-utopia’ of the early internet era ended, and more dystopic energies emerged.

The relevance of his work today is substantial. In Surveillance and Capture (Agre 1994), Agre saw the threats new workplace technologies posed that would mutate into examples of surveillance capitalism. In Real-Time Politics (Agre 2002), he wrote extensively on the downsides of digital cultures when the web was still considered a techno-utopia. In Pengi (Agre and Chapman 1987), Agre and David Chapman explored critiques of dominant AI conceptualizations. Together, these strands can be considered precursors to work, now commonplace, in software studies and integrated into computational methods for the study of digital culture. In Toward a Critical Technical Practice (Agre 1997), Agre famously offered a synthetic approach to studying technology, straddling the ‘craft work of design’ and the ‘reflexive work of critique’. In High Tech to Human Tech (Agre 1995) the political economy of digital culture became an even greater interest, debunking the ideology of ‘empowerment’ in newly ‘computerized’ workplaces. Even lesser-known work on the Networked University (Agre 2000) offered a prescient insight into the ‘promise and danger’ of remote learning.

Agre’s contribution to, as well as critique of, digital culture was just as significant. He ran the monthly mailing list The Network Observer (TNO) (1994-96) before starting the Red Rock Eater News Service (RRE) (1996-2001), offering regular insights into the ‘social and political aspects of computing and networking’. Not only did Agre critique the emerging digital world, but contributed to the counterculture within it. Since this period, we have experienced the downsides of networks, social media, and platforms, with AI and sensory media accelerating capitalism further. Bringing the founders of the nettime (1995-present) mailing list into conversation with the history of REE we want to think about how list cultures equally manifest as cultures of resistance. In this, we want to re-discover ideas that resisted tech-utopian narratives, and practices that challenged these ideologies.

Collectively, we want to deepen our understanding of Agre’s thinking and the significance of his work. From revisiting well-known texts to rediscovering less-popular work, and exploring the exciting interconnections between various disciplines and forms of ‘net activism’ that engaged with Agre’s work from computational science to sociology, and from work in political economy to across the wider arts and humanities. Within the context of the contemporary platform condition we want to collectively reflect on the relevance, as well as limitations, of his work; continuing to debunk cyber utopias, whilst disassociating and rearticulating narratives of power.

For this purpose, we invite contributions to a two-day workshop, 1-2 September 2022 where workshop participants will dive into the work of Agre through different formats: conversations, exegese, and critiques. In this, we are equally interested in exploring his role in shaping digital culture as we are in his academic work.

We invite contributions that engage with Agre’s work in a comprehensive manner. We want to develop a foundation for how to read and work with Agre. We especially welcome contributions that seek to apply, and develop, Agre’s key concepts. However, the workshop will also aim to make sense of how Agre’s thought has itself developed, from his early experiments with Pengi to the political economy of the internet. How, for instance, did his work on Pengi shape the idea of critical technical practice? What kinds of critique does Interactionism offer for the digital?

While the written contributions are designed to support a thorough examination of Agre’s thinking, we will provide ample space for discussion. Here Agre can be confronted with contemporary questions. How, for instance, to think about ‘data practices’, sensor media or automation along with Agre?

Our second concern is to discuss the possibilities and practical implications of a collective inventory or archive of Agre’s work, exploring methods of documenting the network that developed around the RRE in the US and Europe and consider how it might be preserved and/or re-presented. We believe his heterogenous interventions deserve to be organized in a way that is respectful to the media specificity and materiality of early net critique, as well as being made accessible to the broader public.

As the location of the Harold Garfinkel archive, and a pioneer in the study of media practice, ethnomethodology, early internet studies, and the study of infrastructure, SFB1187 Media of Cooperation at the University of Siegen is well suited to host this workshop.

Format: 2-day discussion workshop with conversation formats and interviews as well as dedicated discussions of contributions. Papers will be circulated in advance.

Please submit an extended abstract (1000 words). 

Deadline for submissions: 10 May, 2022

Suggested (non-exhaustive) topics. How did Agre develop critiques around the following issues:

  • Web communities and cultures (mailing lists, social media, tactics, resistance)
  • Connectivity and networks (wired-ness, de/centralization, infrastructure)
  • Capital-isms and technology (surveillance, networked, corporate, managerial)
  • Work and the workplace (tasks, practices, organizational forms)
  • Meaning of work (empowerment, the entrepreneurial self)
  • Surveillance and privacy (grammars of action, capture model)
  • Ethnomethods (accountability, activity, plans)
  • Activity Theory (L. S. Vygotsky) and Interactionism as modes of critique
  • Medium specificity (devices, platforms, AI)
  • Critical Technical Practice (CTP), design and methodology (critique, tech ethics, APIs)
  • Archives and histories (interactivity, accessibility, documentation)
  • Other topics open to ‘Agre-ian’ analysis (e.g. environment, ecology, race)

We also welcome contributions from former colleagues and contemporary witnesses. We also hope to hear various personal  accounts of these early days of the internet: the ideas, visions, and hopes that shaped, and have been reshaped, by these early developments.

Please send submissions to: Tatjana Seitz:

Date: 1-2 September 2022

Place: University of Siegen, Germany (hybrid: in-person & online)

Organizers: SFB1187 Media of Cooperation, University of Siegen

The organizers Tatjana Seitz, Sam Hind, Carolin Gerlitz, Sebastian Gießmann


Agre P.E. and Chapman D (1987) Pengi: An implementation of a theory of activity. AAAAI-87 Proceedings 268-272.

Agre P.E. (1994) Surveillance and capture: Two models of privacy. The Information Society: An International Journal 10 (2): 101-127.

Agre P.E. (1995) From high tech to human tech: Empowerment, measurement, and social studies of computing. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) 3 (1): 167-195.

Agre P.E. (1997) Toward a critical technical practice: Lessons learned in trying to reform AI. In Bowker GC, Leigh Star S, Turner W and Gasser L (eds) Bridging the Great Divide: Social Science, Technical Systems, and Cooperative Work. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 131-158.

Agre P.E. (2000) Infrastructure and institutional change in the networked university. Information, Communication & Society 3 (4): 494-507.

Agre P.E. (2002) Real-Time Politics: The Internet and the Political Process, The Information Society, 18(5), pp. 311–331.

Web resources:

The Network Observer:

Red Rock Eater News Service (RRE):