An important achievement of actor-network theory is that technological and social determinism are impossible if you use its method and language correctly. Of course, ANT has been much criticized, but (in my opinion) much of the criticism has been from people who either didn't understand it, or who rejected it for failure to conform with their own pre-exisiting paradigm. The most valid criticisms should come from within this new paradigm. One criticism is that ANT dehumanizes humans by treating them equally with non-humans; there is a brave new world coming our way that involves more and more interaction with machines, to the point of our becoming cyborgs, but (they say) we should resist it rather than celebrate it. Another criticism is that ANT fails to provide explanations for the dynamic restructuring of networks (this criticism is false, in my view). It is also said that ANT fails to take account of the effects that technology can have on those who are not part of the network that produces it, and that it therefore fails to support value judgements on the desirability or undesirability of such effects. ANT is also criticized for its disinclination (or inability) to make contributions to debates about policy for technology and science. Some other criticisms can be found in How things (actor-net)work: Classification, magic and the ubiquity of standards by Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star.
Another criticism, which applies to most work in the sociology of technology and science (abbreviated STS) is that it destroys the credability of science, by leaving no place for the objective truth that science (allegedly) uncovers. Of course, sociologists deliberately avoid making commitments of this kind. The resulting discussions between (some) scientists and STS has been called "the Science Wars"! ANT is part of an area of STS that is often called constructivist, because it focuses on how social systems get constructed by their participants. The developers of ANT (Latour and Callon) have recently declared that ANT is over, but of course it's too late now to stop others from using, criticizing, and modifying their ideas.
A name for the general method of looking for what supports a technical or scientific project, instead of telling a heroic tale, is called infrastructural inversion (this term is due to Geoff Bowker). Its converse, which is burying the infrastructure, I call infrastructural submersion. The work of lab technicians, secretaries, nurses, janitors, computer system administrators, etc. is very often subjected to infrastructural submersion, with the effect of creating a very misleading picture of the network involved.
Leigh Star has defined boundary objects to be data objects or collections that are used in more than one way by different social groups, and that therefore provide an interface for those groups, translating across their differences. One reason that this idea is important is that it provides a model of cooperation that does not require consensus. The notion of translation used here comes from ANT. Boundary objects should be a very useful concept in computer science, with applications for example to many areas of design.
We discussed three papers which applied the concepts that we have been studying in various ways:
(This discussion continues in the notes for the seventh meeting.)