Actor-Network Theory (or simply, ANT) has been my staple diet of social theory, methodology and research direction for the last 6 years now, with my PhD thesis revolving around the tenant of ANT and Bruno Latour‘s writings. Adding a temporal dimension, one could say that it was in the late 90s to early 2000s that ANT had its main usage in the social science, with geographers among them; the late great Jonathan Murdoch was a major factor in this usage. The nuances of ANT, if you are not familiar, are fascinating and if you are interested, read Latour’s fantastic book, Reassembling the Social, or take a tour around this excellent resource, ANTHEM.
Other authors (Michelle Callon and John Law to name but 2) have contributed, but Bruno Latour can be considered the ‘godfather’ of ANT and at a recent talk he gave at the LSE, he offered much of the theoretical background to ANT through the lens of the recent technological advances in computer software. Since completing my thesis, I have been content with ANT’s place in my theoretical/methodological armoury, knowing it’s place and it’s limitations. At the time of the talk, I was interested in ANT’s properties for social innovation, but now with my foray into the topologies of Web 2.0, ANT has reared it’s linguistical head once more.
The associative ontology offered by ANT is one which speaks to the networked nature of Web 2.0 connectivity, for a number of different reasons. But primarily, ANT’s focus on practice and action as the formulating power of the network aligns with the performative aspects of Web 2.o. If we take the example of Twitter, the networks formed by people following each other only surface when those people actually contribute, i.e. write something! There are lots spam followers and people who set up an account just to see what it’s all about, but then soon lose interest and stop contributing. These ‘dead links’ create a ‘hinternet’ of defunct (or dormant) connections which are not acted upon and hence cannot be considered part of the networks (from a performativity point of view). This can be applied to a whole host of digital graveyards – webpages not updated since 2002, blogs going untouched, Facebook groups which are now defunct – they all exist (in terms of wasted memory on some dusty server somewhere) but are not doing anything, and therefore do not ‘effect’ the constitution of the network.
Also, ANT talks of translation, which is the power of actors to influence the network connectivity properties. This is particularly noticeable with web 2.0 with the ease at which people can get across their point of view. My previous blog entry focused on how information is readily available and how this has the possibility to shape public opinion, and it is this ‘power’ which is effected through the generation of heterogeneous (or Web 2.0) connections.
The advent of Web 2.0 and the advancements in the semantic web mean that we will be become increasingly connected. While this is a cliché, its truth holds precisely because of the fact that this technology is allowing for more communication and therefore action to these connections. Whereas a link between you and me can be said to exist, unless that connection is acted upon (by talking to each other – which Web 2.0 facilitates) then it remains simply a metaphysical link without any real tangible meaning. Technological change and the link with ANT is now the subject of a specialized journal, and so it is not just me and my ramblings which puport to the fact that ANT has a place in the increasingly connected virtual world.
As I constantly remind people (and myself), ANT works best as a language for describing the world in which we live (well, also as a methodological tool – but that is for the social scientists out there) and it seems tailor-made for Web 2.0. Latour gives frequent talks around the world and if anybody can make it to them, I strongly recommend them, as he gives a very compelling (and always witty) account of technology which is infused with his ANT-inspired lexicon. Web 2.0, more accurately, the multiplicity of apps that seem to be related to it, increase our embroilment with each other, and therefore, as our actor-networks increase, we would do well to increase our understanding of how to best describe and articulate it – and we have a ready made blueprint with ANT.