When I was floundering about in graduate school, I read “Aramis or the love of technology” cover to cover. At the time, I was obsessed by the then state-of-the-art ASRS automated materials storage system that had just been installed at the heart of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at UBC. Now, of course you can find automated, miniature sorting and retrieval systems at public libraries, and Amazon’s warehousing and delivery systems are Things of public legend:
My first steps into ANT were to ponder mediation, affordances, and the classic Engstrom activity theory model with Mary Bryson.
That led me to think about the assemblage of scholars, librarians, research knowledge artefacts, research libraries, giant climate-controlled storage environments, retrieval robots, computer networks, and the software that connects them. I even delved into the military-industrial history of the development of automated storage by the RAND corporation in the glorious, Modern 50s.
Which brings me to “Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory“. The book presents Latour’s explanation of the basic premises and implications of Actor-Network Theory. Its object is social science in general, and sociology in particular. Latour presents a methodology of activity-network theory. It is a history of ANT and a history of the Science Wars from the 1990s. Strangely, reading Latour brought be back to sitting at my parents’ kitchen table in 1996 as an English undergraduate, listening to an “As it Happens” interview about the Sokal Affair and those long-ago attacks on postmodernism.
I am struck by the sorts questions that Latour offers as a heuristic for courageous analysts to follow:
- What controversies? What actants? Where do they lead?
- “Where are the structural effects actually being produced” (p.174)
- “in which movie theatre, in which exhibit gallery is […The Big Picture…] shown? Through which optics is it projected? To which audience is it addressed? (p.187)
- “In which room? In which panorama? Through which medium? With which stage manager? How much?” (p.189)
- “How is the local itself being generated?” (p.192)
- “Where are the other vehicles that transport individuality, subjectivity, personhood, and interiority?” (p.206)
- What form “allows something else to be transported from on site to another?” (p.222)
- What happens upstream and downstream of the situation where subject and object arise? (p.237)
I doubt many people outside of academia will want to read this book but it offers a masterclass in how to question the most basic assumptions that most people take for granted, particularly society, culture, nature, science and politics.
Students of higher education will enjoy how Latour uses the example of a university professor lecturing in a lecture hall to explore how cognitive abilities assemble and are shaped by the scripts, forms, capabilities, and materials.
Despondent graduate students wrestling with theses can take solace from Latour’s perspective on academic writing. In a nutshell, write the 40,000 words and move on to the next challenge. One text does not a career make. Academics can also learn a lot from Latour about writing. Even though his text is complex, Latour is also entertaining, self-aware and humorous.
Thoughtful designers may want to consider Latour’s analysis of the relation between local, global and context in connection with the recent practical scholarship on context for post-thing design. For example, part of me wants to reconsider Andrew Hinton’s “Understanding Context“, Resmini and Rosati’s “Pervasive Information Architecture” and Thomas Wendt’s “Design for Dasein” with Latour in mind. If the aim of service and strategic design is to co-create pervasive information architectures and meaningful assemblages of digital and embodied experiences, then should one deploy, stabilize, and compose the social in the context of design before designing solutions or platforms. Furthermore, reading Latour made me wonder what ANT might offer design for social innovation. social innovation should embrace concepts like cosmopolitan-localism and rely on “sociologists of the social”, as Ezio Manzini suggests.
If the aim of service and strategic design is to co-create pervasive information architectures and meaningful assemblages of digital and embodied experiences, then should one deploy, stabilize, and compose the social present the context of design before designing solutions or platforms?