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Is ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ Latour’s favourite film?

In reading Bruno Latour’s work over the years, one of the overt messages that comes through, and one of his lasting legacies, is the importance he gives to non-humans in society. The actant-networks that constitute the body politic are spun by the constant processes and actions of nonhumans, just as much as they are by nonhumans. Latour’s classic example (it’s when the penny dropped for me anyway) is of Bill Gates and his Microsoft empire. Latour argues that;

“Since Bill Gates is not physically larger than all his Microsoft employees, Microsoft itself, as a corporate body cannot be a large building were individuals reside. Instead there is a certain type of movement going through all of them, a few of which begin and end in Mr Gates’ office. It’s because an organisation is even less a society than the body politic that it’s made only of movements, which are woven by the constant circulation of documents, stories, accounts, goods and passions”.

(Latour, 2005: 179)

The ‘constant circulation’ of nonhuman actants have therefore as much agency in the formulation of perpetual structure as humans do. This sparks one of the major criticism of ANT as it seen as little more than technological determinism and that humans ultimately have dominance over their tools. This rather Kaczynskian view however misses the point. As Latour suggests that power is heterogenously disseminated through a rhizomatic actor-network, to say that one is dominant over the other is erroneous as it implies a linear power-relationship that is pre-existent. Agency, if defined as the ability to ‘thingify’, is just as much inherent in, say a laptop as it is in a human being. Ever since Man picked up a bone fragment to beat his prey to death, tools and nonhuman actants have been intertwined through the networks we generate.

Which leads nicely onto Kubrick’s seminal 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The rest of this post will contain ‘spoilers’ for the film although if you have not seen the film or do not know what happens then I can only assume you are more akin to those in the opening scenes of the film rather than the latter ones. The monolith’s presence at the ‘Dawn of Man’ is symbolic of our use of tools, as Kubrick heavily infers with the ape smashing up the skeleton of his prey with a large femur bone. And the monolith on the moon is a representation of man’s next technological leap, that of space travel. The other monoliths (near Jupiter and in ‘the room’) are Kubrick’s attempt at suggesting that man needs further evolutionary leaps. Debates around the meaning of the monoliths are varied and some more rigorous than others (see this compelling argument – part 1 and part 2), however, if taking an ANT point of view, it would seem that they are indicators of man’s evolutionary ability in their use of tools.

The use of tools and their interdigitisation with humanity effects us all, so much so that the human/nonhuman divide is becoming increasingly indistinguishable. Future inventions blur the dichotomy even further (see this enlightening talk by Dr Kaku at the RSA). Therefore, in 2001, the beautiful and esoteric implications of the way human and nonhuman entities’ futures are intertwined to produce the ‘star child‘ can be, I would argue, an indirect inference to the nature and ethos of ANT. However, 2001 also tells us (or at least, one interpretation of it) that to achieve this state, man has to destroy his dependence on technology (the destruction of HAL) and embrace the frailty of the ‘container’ body. Hence, Kubrick brings the nonhuman aspect to a further ‘dimension’ by implying that the human body itself is nonhuman (to be dispensed with) and what is left can be reborn as the ‘star child’. This is perhaps an uncomfortable ethos for ANT, as it brings an inherently philosophical (and even spiritual) idiom to what is essentially an empirical rhetoric.

Therefore, in answer the question of the post’s title, I would say probably not. What could be however, is Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 masterpiece, Koyaanisqatsi. The film’s basic tenant is man’s increasing tendency to live life ‘out of balance’ with technology. The term Koyaanisqatsi is a word in the Hopi language meaning ‘crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living’. Again, this is perhaps a dystopic view of man’s continuing evolutionary journey with technology, but the film itself is quite haunting and it’s depiction of nonhuman’s agency is meritoriously accurate.

Nonhumans are integral to the way in which society is held together and so, ANT would argue, cannot be ignored when analysing how reality constructs itself. Any visualisations that can help to achieve this are welcome, and 2001 and Koyaanisqatsi are fine examples of this. Whether or not Latour himself agrees would be interesting, and there may be other examples which you could offer. However, if anyone suggests Antz, then your are neither big, nor clever…

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What now for Actor-Network Theory with the advent of Web 2.0?

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 clich̩, 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 Рwhich 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.