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"Some Thoughts on Agency"




  > Onward! > Breakthrough Ideas

Some Thoughts on Agency

Bonnie Nardi, UC Irvine

As machines become more intelligent and responsive, I find myself thinking about the nature of agency and how humans co-exist with other agents in the world. Table One categorizes different kinds of agents and agencies. Row 3 indicates that all agents can produce effects in the most general sense. Rows 4-5 indicate that when producing effects, some agents realize their own needs. Row 6 indicates that an agent may realize the intentions of (other) humans.

Living beings are a special kind of agent in that they strive to meet needs in the world, engaging other entities as they do so in a patterned way. An erupting volcano has tremendous agentic power, but it simply explodes, affecting whatever lies in its path without regard for where its cinders rain down, where its lava flows. By contrast, a plant with its biological needs reaches for the sun, it produces chlorophyll, its flowers attract bees of a particular kind, its seeds are eaten by certain birds who scatter them in the woods.

The category "non-human living beings (cultural)" includes organisms such as domestic animals, plants, and fungi; live vaccines; clones; and genetically engineered plants and animals. The distinction is between organisms that have evolved outside human intention and those that have been cultivated, cultured, husbanded, bred, cloned, or genetically modified. Producing effects, acting, and realizing intentions, while potentialities of certain kinds of agents, vary within the enactment of a specific activity, so we can consider three kinds of agency that may be present in any given situation:

Need-based Agency. Human beings have both biological and cultural needs. To meet their needs, they form intentions and act from the intentions. Similar types of agency are manifested by social entities (though they do not have biological needs) and higher animals (though they do not have cultural needs).

Delegated agency. Various things and living beings can be said to realize intentions, but intentions delegated to them by somebody or something else. These things and living beings are agents in the sense of acting on somebody else?s behalf.

Conditional agency. Anything and anyone can produce unintended effects. Even without having a need or intention, something or somebody may constitute a force?or condition?to be reckoned with.

The table suggests an interesting tension. It is common human practice to design new technologies, especially today. But every agent is capable of producing effects for which there is no intention. The more cultural things (living and non-living) we have in the world, based on human design and intention, the more possibilities we introduce for conditional agency, that is, for new kinds of unintended effects.

Table 1: Forms of Agency