Ep. #36 If machines talked: Lucy Suchman on drone warfare, stubborn photocopiers & human-robot relations

“The claim was ‘isn’t this wonderful that remote controls keep humans safe’. Now, all you have to do is recognise that this is referring only to certain humans. The assumption is the humans that matter are those who are involved in US military operations. And it completely  dehumanises the humans who are of course the objects, the targets of these weapon systems and it’s really indicative of a much wider problem”
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In episode number 3 of our STS Series, Lucy Suchman, Professor of the anthropology of science and technology at Lancaster University, recipient of multiple awards including the 4S John Desmond Bernal Prize for Distinguished Contribution to the Field, and previously a Principal Scientist, manager and co-founder of the Work Practice and Technology Area at  Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, Chats with our own Jodie-Lee Trembath at the 4S conference in Sydney last year, which Lucy was President of in 2016 and 2017. They unpack the complex choreography between humans and machines, from an anthropological perspective, including what it means when someone says that using the photocopier is ‘too complicated’ (I’m sure we’ve all had this frustrating moment), the fundamental differences between humans and AI, the ethical conundrums that Google has faced with drones and what is involved in STS for an anthropologist.


“I was really intrigued by this complaint that the machine was too complicated, and … what we need to do is start by understanding what people actually mean when they say it’s too complicated. What are the experiences that they’re really having that lead them to report that trouble?”

“Differences between us and machines make it extremely difficult to create machines that are actually human-like”

“In a way as an academic… and in a way as a US citizen…one of the things I do appreciate about the United States is that you can be pretty outspoken in your position. And relative to a lot of places in the world, you can do that safely.”

“I think one of the things that draws a lot of us to STS is that it’s very much an inter-discipline. So it’s a field that brings together people who are interested in historical and contemporary and to a large extent critical … in the sense of questioning received assumptions in the worlds of science and technology”


Lucy’s blog can be found here: https://robotfutures.wordpress.com/author/suchman

If you’d like to read Lucy Suchman’s book (2006) Human-machine reconfigurations: plans and situated actions, you can find it here:

And the book Lucy mentioned at the beginning of the interview, Reinventing Anthropology, can be found here:

‘Google’s march to the business of war must be stopped’ by Lucy Suchman, Lilly Irani and Peter Asaro:

A quick explainer of ‘technological determinism ‘can be found here (just watch the first 25 seconds or so) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_sEWPSNwg4 and a longer explanation of how we can think about it – from the World Science Festival 2015 – can be watched here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lKblR2h2t-M

This anthropology podcast is supported by the Australian Anthropological Society, the ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific and College of Arts and Social Sciences, and the Australian Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, and is produced in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association.

Music by Pete Dabro: dabro1.bandcamp.com

Shownotes by Deanna Catto

[Image: ‘Drone hand control by Best Picko, available at:

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