CSE268D: Social Aspects of Technology and Science
Notes for the Fifth Meeting
5. Actor-Network Theory
        (This continues from the notes for the fourth meeting.)

Having (briefly!) surveyed some history and philosophy of science, we now consider the sociology of technology and science, which in some ways may seem a much more radical approach. A sociological approach must concern itself with what engineers and scientists actually do, which is often very different from what they say they do. (This is a special case of a very general problem in anthropology and ethnography, called the say-do problem.)

Much of today's sociology has a statistical flavor, being based on questionaires, structured interviews, and various kinds of demographics. While this seems to work rather well for selling soap and politicians, it will not help us very much with understanding how various technologies come to take the shape that they have.

We will mainly discuss actor-netowrk theory (abbreviated ANT), which was initiated by Bruno Latour and Michel Callon in France. (Note: a lot of this comes from my class notes for CSE 271.) The sociological angle is expressed by one of Latour's favorite slogans, "follow the actors", which means not only look at what they do, but also be interested in what interests them, and (more doubtfully) even believe what they believe. Actor-network theory focuses attention on the networks that engineers and scientists create to get their projects done, emphasizing that no one acts alone (or if they do, then no one notices, so it doesn't matter). In contrast to most other work in sociology, actor-network theory does not distinguish (very much) between "human" and "non-human" actors. In my opinion, this is more of a rhetorical, or even dramatic, device than a theoretical axiom, but it certainly serves to bring forward the important roles played by resources of all kinds, such as equipment, data, money, publicity, and power. The neologism actant is sometimes used as a neutral way to refer to both human and non-human actors, avoiding the strong human bias in the word "actor".

Latour says people and machines should be treated as equal, in ways that may be surprising. For example, he says we have to negotiate with machines just as with people, we need to recruit them as allies, to authorize and notify them, and to mobilize and delegate them; he claims that this kind of language should be taken literally not metaphorically. Of course, this is opposite to what most philosophers (and ordinary people) think. What do you think?

Latour's latest book Aramis, is the sad story of a project to build a highly innovative public transport system in the suburbs of Paris; the story is sad because the project fails, and the Aramis system is left without any friends. In this book, Latour claims that only in successful projects can you figure out what actually happened; this is perhaps a bit shocking. Does objectivity really only exist for successful projects? This strange viewpoint comes from his requirement that you (in the role of sociologist) should take the viewpoint of the actors.

Another piece of Latour's eccentric terminology is continous chains of translation, which refers to the ever ongoing efforts to keep actors involved with the project, by "translating" into their own languages and values. This is part of his effort to overcome technological determinism, which he sometimes describes in terms of "heroic narratives of technological innovation". Probably we've all heard the aphorism "If you build a better mousetrap, then the world will beat a path to your door." A few months ago, I saw "Cloning is inevitable once it is possible" and "Fusion power just doesn't have the impetus to succeed" in the local paper. These articles talked as if projects have nothing to do with their context of people and things.

In Aramis, Latour says (p.99, 101):

The only way to increase a project's reality is to compromise, to accept sociotechnological compromises.

The pertinent question is not whether it's a matter of technology or society, but only what is the best sociotechnological compromise.

These quotations not only deny the separability of the social and the technical (and even munges them into a single word), but they also make the same point as mentioned above, about the necessity for translations. Once all these translations, or recuitments, succeed, the technology "disappears", i.e., it becomes "transparent" and can be taken for granted. But if the translations fail to "interest" the actors enough, then the actors go their own ways again, each with a different view of what the project is (or was).
That's why ... it can never be fixed once and for all, for it varies according to the state of the aliances. (p.106)

...each element ... can become either an autonomous element, or everything, or nothing, either the component or the recognizable part of a whole. (p.107)

On page 108, Latour argues that the "division of labor" into subprojects (and other aspects of projects) can only be made after a project has succeeded (I called this the retrospective hypothesis in Requirements Engineering as the Reconciliation of Technical and Social Issues). This may sound like a radical view, but it is what you see in real projects, and quotes from Latour's interviews, as well as my own experience, back this up empirically. Pages 118 to 120 contrast VAL (a different French public transportation project that actually succeeded) with Aramis, arguing that VAL can be described "heroically" only because it succeeded. More significantly, Latour also argues that VAL succeeded because it continued to compromise and Aramis failed because it did not continue to compromise.
The more a technological project progresses, the more the role of technology decreases, in relative terms. (p.126)

To study Aramis after 1981, we have to add the filaments of its network a small number of people representing other interests and other goals: elected officials, Budget Office authorities, economists, evaluators, ... (p.134)

A single context can bring about contrary effects. Hence the idiocy of the notion of "preestablished context." The people are missing; the work of contextualization is missing. the context is not the spirit of the times, which would penetrate all things equally. (p.137)

In fact, the trajectory of a project depends not on the context but on the people who do the work of contextualizing. (p.150)

In particular, he denies that sociology can ever attain a viewpoint that is "objective" - above and beyond the viewpoints of the participants - or a "metalanguage" in which to express such a viewpoint.
Does there really exist a causal mechanism known only to the sociologist that would give the history of a technological project the necessity that seems so cruelly lacking? No, the actors offer each other a version of their own necessities, and from this they deduce the strategies they ascribe to each other. (p.163)

The actors create both their society and their sociology, their language and their metalanguage. (p.167)

There are as many theories of action as there are actors. (p.167)

To the multiplicty of actors a new multiplicity is now added: that of the efforts made to unify, to simplify, to make coherent the multiplicity of viewpoints, goals, and desires, so as to impose a single theory of action. (p.167-8)

To study technological projects you have to move from a classical sociology - which has fixed frames of reference - to a relativistic sociology - which has fluctuating referents. (p.169)

With a technological project, interpretations of the project cannot be separated from the project itself, unless the project has become an object. (p.172)
This is the only case when "classical" sociology might apply.
By multiplying the valorimeters that allow them to measure the tests in store and to prove certain states of power relations, the actors manage to achieve some notion of what they want. By doing their own economics, their own sociology, their own statistics, they do the observer's work ... They make incommensurable frames of reference once again commensurable and translatable. (p.181)
(The neologism "valorimeter" just refers to some way of measuring how well an actor's requirements are being met; examples are passenger flow, cost, publicity, etc.)
The interpretations offered by the relativist actors are performatives. They prove themselves by transforming the world in conformity with their perspective on the world. By stabilizing their interpretation, the actors end up creating a world-for-others that strongly resembles an absolute world with fixed reference points. (p.194)
("Performatives" are speech acts that actually "perform" what they say, i.e., they cause it to be the case; standard examples are christening and marrying.) Latour claims that technologists, in doing their jobs, are actually doing better sociology than the classical sociologists.

It is interesting to contrast the view of ANT with the "dead mechanical universe" of classical mechanics; the ANT universe is very much alive, full of actors and their actions, full of all kinds of interactions, that are constantly reconfiguring the network. This is a very non-classical point of view.

Actor-network theory can be seen as a systematic way to bring out the infrastructure that is usually left out of the "heroic" accounts of scientific and technological achievements. Newton did not really act alone in creating the theory of gravitation: he needed observational data from the Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, he needed publication support from the Royal Society and its members (most especially Edmund Halley), he needed the geometry of Euclid, the astronomy of Kepler, the mechanics of Galileo, the rooms, lab, food, etc. at Trinity College, an assistant to work in the lab, the mystical idea of action at a distance, and more, much more (see the book by Michael White). The same can be said of any scientific or technological project.

        (This discussion continues in the notes for the sixth meeting.)

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Last modified 30 October 1998