A Superior Touch: A Socio-Technical Study of Humans, Robotic Surgical Assistants, and Touch
thesisposted on 01.05.2021, 00:00 by Jason Archer
This study explores the co-construction of touch and technology using the da Vinci Surgical System (dVSS), a robotic surgical assistant (RSA), as a case study. It offers a sociotechnical and critical orientation to explore touch as developing between haptic engineers, surgical teams, and RSAs. It provides an analysis of data, applying a mixed qualitative methods approach, that includes observations in the operating room and the robotics training lab, hands-on experience, interviews with robotic surgeons, members of the surgical team, and haptic engineers, and an analysis of related documentation. The study finds that the dVSS reshapes the relational and power dynamics of touch in the OR through a series of contradictory socio-material negotiations. It flattens touch, situates vision as the primary mode of doing surgery, and shifts the locus of control to the robot. By providing ergonomic comfort and control, the surgeon is put in the care of the device and allowed to operate within the physical and visual constraints of a system that diminishes the skilled sensory work of surgical touch. Exploring the engineering of the da Vinci reveals a set of haptic ambiguities and sociotechnical translations that transform touch into chimera, reconfigure it as informatic, and treat it as untrustworthy. Haptic engineers reduce touch to forces, rending surgical touch as desirable but not essential. Finally, imaginaries about haptics and surgical robotic futures reinforce the nonnecessity of human touch in surgery, ultimately paving the way for surgeons to embrace the potential automation of surgery and the rise of a “superior” touch. These empirical findings help produce grounded theory about the co-construction of touch and technology that explain mundane and multi-agential forms of touch and suggests the way social and material aspects of touch are excluded through extension. These findings help conceptualize an emergent research orientation that centers touch for scholars in communication and media studies, human-computer interaction, and the medical humanities.