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In the previous post in this series I discussed some foundational principles (at least for the module I am teaching) of how we can understand technology by looking at the work of Martin Heidegger and Michel Foucault. In different ways they both suggested that technologies should be understood as not just technical devices but as ways of “enframing” and revealing the truth of the world and ourselves.

Here we will look at one of the most influential theories for understanding what impact technologies (understood in the broad sense) have on how we think and engage with the world.

We will focus on Actor-Network Theory (ANT) which is most commonly associated with science and technology studies but has implications outside of simply the analysis of scientific and technical practices.

Probably the most fundamental insight, and the one with which ANT is most associated, is the ontological position that human beings cannot be separated from the world around us and when trying to understand and analyse human society (or individuals) we have to take account of what are referred to as “sociotechnical systems”. That is, we need to understand how human “actors” are integrated with not only other humans and human institutions or structures (such as schools, universities and politics) but also animals and nature, physical environments and objects.

The basic principle of ANT is that all of these things (including humans) are “actors” which form a “network”. The special qualities or abilities we often associate with human beings are actually the outcome of complex networks of human and non-human actors. Individual actors within the network have particular capacities which are transformed when they are brought together with others who have similar or different capacities.

This sounds like a strange way of analysing society simply because the use of non-human actors is so fundamental to how we live that it has almost become invisible. We can, however, easily see how our capacities to achieve particular tasks change depending on what other actors form part of our network.

For instance, we can take communication. Today I can communicate with pretty much anyone I want to in the world (assuming they want to communicate me) immediately via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Skype or telephone. Not only can I do this I can do it whenever I like, wherever I am. Prior to the invention of the smart phone (or at least the mobile phone) I could engage in auditory communication at a distance only when I was at home or in the office. This change enables me to engage in different kinds of communication  and also places new responsibilities on me to respond to other people or to be to them pretty much all the time.

Prior to this the analogue telephone had revolutionised communication by enabling people to communicate with people over vast different distances in their own homes. They could talk to people they otherwise would not have been able to have brought with it responsibilities to stay in touch or to return calls potentially at any time of day or night. Prior to the widespread use of telephones a form of instantaneous communication was available (at least to some people) through the telegram system in which text based messages could be communicated over long distances.

Further back still a different kind of actor was introduced in the form of the postal system (or perhaps the postal worker) who enabled people to communicate over vast distances by sending a letter that might take one or two days (or more) to reach the receiver.

Before this most people could only communicate with those immediately around them and the furthest distance communication could traverse was restricted by the volume of a person’s voice (unless they were able to pay someone to physically take a message somewhere for them).

So, we see how particular technologies (or actors) enable new kinds of communication as well as new expectations of what it is possible for actors to achieve. We can investigate the impact of these technological developments through analysing the “associations” between actors (human and non-human) in the network and what the particular configurations which are produced enable.

Bruno Latour is one of the founders, and biggest proponents, of ANT. But for him the significance of ANT goes beyond just the study of science and technology. Instead he sees the “associations” which users of ANT analyse between humans and telephones or telegram systems to be just one type of “association” in the world. Other associations exist between humans and other humans, between bees and flowers and between electrons and neutrons. In principal these “associations” are fundamentally similar.

For this reason he does not see sociology as studying a particular area of existence simply concerned with how human beings interact with one another. He believes that sociology should not be a “science of the social”. Instead it should be concerned with “tracing associations” between things which may or may not be human (Latour, 2007).

In the next post I will discuss the importance of the “medical gaze” in constructing how we interpret the truth of our bodies and how we understand health.

Latour, B. (2007) Reassembling the social : an introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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