CSE 190B: Social and Ethical Issues in Information Technology

7. Some Case Studies

The first three sections below apply some of the concepts and theories that we have been studying, especially ANT, while the last gives some practical motivation for studying them.

7.1 Four Case Studies for Actor Network Theory

In Traduction/Trahison - Notes on ANT, John Law (Department of Sociology, Univeristy of Lancaster, UK) discusses four case studies that apply ANT to various situations, in various ways. The paper is well written, and his comparative discussion is at least as interesting as the case studies themselves, revealing much about the recent evolution and somewhat elusive nature of ANT.

The first case study discussed by Law was done by Madeleine Akrich and it concerns technology transfer, a subject on which much has been written. The use of ANT allows a more insightful formulation of this case study, which shows that much more gets "translated" during the so called "transfer" than we might expect. This seems to be a counterexample to naive technology diffusion theories, which claim that technologies transfer simply by spreading out through some milieu, as assertion which is really a form of technological determinism. However the work of Akrich shows that instead of diffusion, there can be complex interactions between the source network (in this case, in Sweden), the target network (in this case, in Nicaragua), and the technology itself (a wood waste compacting machine), during which all three may be changed in significant ways. In this case, it is the technology itself that undergoes the most significant alteration, a finding that is somewhat against the spirit of the "canonical" (i.e., original) actor-network theory of Paris in the 1980s. The alterations are the result of the compromises needed to adapt to the values of the new environment; moreover, this network itself also undergoes significant alterations, even replacing some major actants by others - e.g., instead of compacting wood waste, the new machine in the new network compacts cotton plants after they have been harvested; this alteration is due to the difficulty of recruiting waste wood in the Nicaraguan situation, and the availability of cotton plant waste.

The second study discussed by Law, done by Charis Cussins (while she was at UCSD), concerns a medical procedure called "in vitro fertilization." As Law points out, Cussins pays close attention to inconsistency, and in particular, she questions whether objectification (being treated as an object, e.g., in a medical procedure) is necessarily a bad thing, as is often assumed without much thought. Law also points out that Cussins' approach differs in some significant respects from canonical ANT, which tended towards making things appear consistent, by finding a place for them in a network, other actants and events. Cussins' study also shows that time can play a dialectical role (involving a "thesis," "antithesis," and (perhaps) a final "synthesis" or resolution), with network relations changing not only over time and actor, but sometimes reversing in motivated ways, as actors change their values, look back and re-evaluate. Even what is said to exist (the ontology) can change over time. Cussins also emphasizes the work involved in making all this happen. The work needed to make things happen is a common theme in ANT, but some of the "things" involved here are unusual; in particular, studying the work done to change, even reverse, some key values, challenges ANT orthodoxy.

The third case study discussed here is by Vicky Singleton, and concerns another medical procedure, the Cervical Screening Procedure (CSP), in the context of British socialized medicine. Singleton points out a large number of ambiguities and ambivalences in the attitudes of both doctors and patients about this procedure, and then argues that these are not a problem for the CSP, but on the contrary, serve to strengthen it. For example, a woman may feel more comfortable with a doctor who is not highly authoritative and authoritarian. This version of ANT differs significantly from canonical ANT in not speaking of enrolling actors and locking them into continuous chains of translation. Instead, it speaks of the utility of actors changing roles and values, and of the utilities of the inconsistency of values, and even of exclusion and conflict in maintaining the network.

One conclusion that Law draws from this and the Cussins study is that in many cases, it may not be possible to tell any grand narrative, or single coherent (possibly heroic) story, of what happened to/in/with a given actor-network, even when the network is successful; instead, it will be necessary to tell many little stories, which in general will not be consistent with each other, and which in particular may embody different values. Law then "goes meta" (as computer scientists like to say), and claims that ANT now has a similar status, in that it can no longer be told as a single story, but instead has evolved into a set of no longer mutually consistent stories.

This discussion is reminiscent of postmodernism in the version of Lyotard (there are many different mutually inconsistent versions of postmodernism, some of which seem to me a bit crazy, but the general idea of the more moderate notions is that many different world views can and should coexist). Lyotard speaks of local language games (in roughly the sense of late Wittgenstein), i.e., of narrative systems that are not in general mutually consistent; these of course embody value systems that also in general are not mutually consistent, and that sometimes may not even be internally consistent.

Law's fourth case study, by Annemarie Mol, concerns the diagnosis and tratment of arteroschlerosis in the Netherlands (though there is little doubt that the situation is similar in most developed countries). This study perhaps departs furthest from canonical ANT, because it suggests that no single coherent pattern may actually exist in the data of the study. Law goes so far as to say

We are in the business of making the objects of our study. Of making realities, and the connections between those realities. Of making the realities that we describe.
This is exactly the kind of extreme position that Sokal wants to discredit: that the social scientists are creating the reality they study, not nature itself, not even the subjects of the study (in this case, doctors). However, my opinion is that Mol's study only warrants the weaker view that in some cases there may not be any single coherent story, not even a coherent pattern of inconsistency, like that found by Singleton, but rather there may be just an on-going process of forging links and enduring clashes; and given Law's somewhat loose writing style in this paper, it is not clear that he would himself subscribe to the extreme position of the above quote - in fact, my opinion is that he is just presenting it as one more possible version of ANT, another evolutionary outgrowth.

Law uses variants of the term ontology to describe the several variants of ANT that arise here, including ontological choreography, a term introduced by Cussins for the work of creating coherence, and ontological patchwork for situations like those described by Mol. He concludes that ANT is diasporic (i.e., spreading out), being "translated" ("traduction" in French), and in the process, being "betrayed" ("trahison" in French), i.e., changing in ways of which the originators of ANT might not approve. His final conclusion is that this is a good thing. I agree, for the reason that growth and change demonstrate vitality. As Kuhn's theory says, any good theory will continue to adapt through periods of normal science, and will inspire revolutionary revisions after a period of crisis (see Section Section 5 of the CSE 275 class notes). The paper of Law would seem to suggest that ANT is now in a period of crisis; personally, I consider such a judgement premature.

Social scientists are often interested in the sociology of sociology, and in particular, in applying whatever theory they are working on to itself; this is of course a reflection of their own values. The word "reflexive" is commonly used for this phenomenon, though computer scientists would probably rather say "recursive" or "self-referential." The paper by Law, and to a lesser extent the paper by Bowker and Star discussed in Section Section 7.2 below, demonstrate this tendency, and in particular, show an interest in the sociology of actor network theory, and in applying actor network theory to itself. The results are interesting, though at times perhaps a bit difficult to untangle. Reflectivity in various guises is an important theme in the 20th century arts and humanities, as well as science, and can be seen, for example, in the famous drawings of Escher and short stories of Borges; the early play Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello is also well known in the modern theatre community, and there are many other examples. In computer science, I have seen language design guidelines recommend that every feature possible should be made recursive (which seems to me very foolish advice).

7.2 Classification, Standards and Databases

In How things (actor-net)work: Classification, magic and the ubiquity of standards, Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star (technical report, from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 1998 - though both are now at UCSD) give a most interesting discussion of classifications and standards, which shows that treating them with ANT allows addressing political and ethical issues, through making infrastructure non-transparent. This case study considers the Nursing Intervention Classification (NIC), an attempt by nurses to develop a new classification system for their work that better represents their values, such as comforting patients. Their classification system is a move in the struggle of nurses to fit better into a healthcare environment dominated by HMOs with their heavy emphasis on financial accountancy. Two sample categories from the NIC are "hope installation" and "humor," where the latter is defined as "facilitating the patient to perceive, appreciate and express what is funny, amusing, or ludicrous in order to establish relationships." There is clearly a very different value system here from that of the HMOs, or the doctors, or even the patients.

From a computer science perspective, I would highlight the ways in which this paper raises important issues about the role of databases in healthcare (and other areas). Databases are significant for this study, because they mediate so much of modern healthcare. Classifications and standards are important, because standard representations of classified items are needed in order to enter information into a database. For this reason, the classification of work activities became a key area for debate between nurses and hospital administrators: even if some administrators believed that something not represented in any database was important, they would still have difficulty in justifying this belief unless relevant figures could be included in the reports that are read by administrators higher up the "chain of translations." However these reports are generated by application programs that take their data from the hospital databases, so that they cannot include details about the work of nurses if they are not in these databases.

Many facets of an organization's life are reflected in its databases, including the non-representation of certain features. The reason the nurses wanted to get their concerns into the hospital databases is that there is a tendency to regard only what is explicitly represented in such databases as "real," with the rest being implicit, or in the terminology of Bowker and Star, relegated to an invisible infrastructure. That which is not explicitly represented will have trouble getting the attention that it may deserve. On the other hand, some groups of nurses oppose the NIC on the grounds that not being represented gives them more flexibility, also noting that classifications and standards provide a basis for more detailed and oppressive monitoring of their work, and that high status groups, like doctors, are in general subject to less detailed description and supervision.

There is also a tendency for database intensive organizations to resist change, and hence to freeze a status quo, because it can be very difficult to change the structure of a large database once it has been deployed; hospital databases are some of the best examples one can find of inflexible legacy systems. The difficulty of changing database structure also implies that any associated classification schemes and standards will be difficult to change. Moreover, mechanistic and reductionist views of organizational operation tend to be reinforced, because they are easier to implement in a database and its application programs for analysis and reporting, than would be the more "holistic," "humane," or "ecological" views that the nurses might tend to favor; for the same reason, quantification is reinforced.

The view that computer systems tend to foster institutional inertia rather than institutional change is also made in a handout, The Myth of the Computer Revolution, by Neville Holmes, IEEE Computer, November 1998, pp 121-122. (Although Holmes sounds like a bit of curmudgeon, his piece is fun and easy to read; he makes his points clearly, although he tends to overgeneralize, and his arguments aren't always very tight.)

7.3 Information Technology "on the Fringe"

In the late summer of 1999, I participated in a panel discussion at a conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on information technology in developing nations. The panel was entitled "Information Technology on the Fringe," and during my short presentation, I used ANT to clarify (I hoped) some terms that are often used in discussing this important issue, which is in many ways similar to the "digital divide" issue which is currently the subject of much discussion in the US. Clearly, the main motivation for addressing these issues is an ethical concern for disparities in the level of development of information technology and its social effects.

It turned out that the word "fringe" refered here to what are often called "developing" countries, and sometimes called "second world" countries, among which Argentina may be included. (It is interesting to notice that these terms are all euphemsms, used instead of something crude like "poor country," and that "fringe" is a new euphemism.) However, the term "fringe" is suggestive, and can be given a fairly precise meaning, by saying that it refers to geographical areas where the density of links in the relevant network is low-ish, but not very low (being very low would bring us into "undeveloped" or "third world" countries). So Silicon Valley, with its very high connectivity, is definitely not fringe, nor is the Pacific Ocean, with its very low connectivity. (Actually, the word "fringe" makes the most sense if there is a sudden drop in density, rather than a smooth gradual drop.)

For two other examples, the term appropriate technology can be defined as a technology the required links of which will fit in well with links that are already in place; those existing links are then considered "infrastructure" for the new technology, again relative to the network that is appropriate. For example, PCs need reliable electrical power, good repair technicians, quickly available spare parts, and a reasonable telephone system. ("Appropriate technology" is often recommended as a powerful guideline for introducing technology into developing countries, following the work of E.F. Schumacher, well known as author of the book Small is Beautiful.)

It is important here that both the technology and its context are represented as networks, so that we can talk about the relationships between them; it is also important that these networks are heterogeneous, including both human and non-human actors. Of course, my definitions are no big deal, and in particular, they are not very precise by scientific standards. Moreover, following the discussions in Section 7.1, there will often be problems with applying them in practice. But they can bring a greater degree of precision than is usual to discussions of this important topic, by encouraging us not to ignore the infrastructure that is generally invisible in developed countries, to include both human and non-human actants in that infrastructure, and to inquire more deeply into the values of those actors.

7.4 So What?

It seems that certain errors are repeated again and again in information technology businesses. One of these is making an overly ambitious and overly precise business plan, and then trying to follow it to the bitter end. This is particularly common in startups, which by their nature are often committed to going all out after an ambitious goal. But what we have learned from actor network theory suggests that business plans should avoid being overly committed and precise, and instead should be more flexible, and in particular should include contingency planning: they should sketch and cost out all scenarios that at that time seem the most plausible, and should also explicitly budget for replanning at some point, where the most plausible scenarios will again be sought. We all know that IPOs are a gamble, and that this gamble usually fails; this empirical fact can be seen as a strong argument for the impossibility of making precise predictions about the social effects of technology, and in favor of flexible planning and re-evaluation.

Anyone who has worked in the computer industry, and especially in software development, will have seen many instances of the phenomena described by actor network theory, and will also have seen many instances of the kinds of myth and foolishness that it is capable of exposing, including naive optimism, hagiography, value conflicts, and technological determinism. In my opinion, a careful contemplation of actor network theory, including a number of good case studies, would be excellent preparation for any high technology manager.

7.4.1 Simplified Guidelines

Here are some hints on how to use ideas from ANT in a "quick and dirty" style that may help in resolving business decisions:

  1. Make a list of the most important actants, being sure to include both humans and non-humans (e.g. institutions, equipment, standards, regulations - things that are important influences, constraints, allies, enemies, etc.)
  2. Describe the roles played by each actant, and also significant other roles that they might be able to play.
  3. Describe the most relevant values of each actant, and also significant other values that might come into play in other situations.
  4. Work out the most important relations among these actants, and sketch the resulting sociogram; this will often lead to discovering more actants and further relationships, and so on recursively. Think about what translations of values are going on, and more generally, what ongoing work is being done to maintain these links.
  5. Look for instances of infrastructural submersion, e.g., work done by "low level" people, systems taken for granted. etc.
  6. Think about possibilities for conflict, ambiguity and instability, as well as for cooperation; annotate the sociogram with most the important of these.
  7. Think about the possible evolution of the network; if some scenarios seem especially important, sketch sociograms for possible future states; look for multiple alternatives.
  8. Try out your analysis on colleagues; important new ideas will often arise in the discussions that result from this process.

To Section 8 of CSE 190B notes.
To Section 6 of CSE 190B notes.
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Last modified: Wed May 2 22:44:39 PDT 2001