Tag Archives: Bruno Latour

A Double Header in New York


courtesy of yodababy 26

courtesy of yodababy 26

As an ardent childhood fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers–one, in fact, who paid her dollar to keep the team in Brooklyn–it is perhaps natural that I viewed my recent trip to New York as a double header.

Fortunately, I was able to preface my participation in the Columbia University Conference, Changing Dynamics of Public Controversies, with a visit to my grand daughter Sophie’s kindergarten class, where the students were celebrating her 6th birthday. To my surprise, I discovered an interesting connection between the two events.  It was a link that–as it turned out–relates to norms.

I discovered an interesting connection between the two events–a link that relates to norms. 

Sophie’s class room is not only cozy and comfortable, it is also flush with excitement, enthusiasm, and riotous color–all of which is mirrored in the artwork and projects displayed in every nook and cranny.

Red a la Kindergarten (courtesy of Fun Monitor)

Red a la Kindergarten (courtesy of Fun Monitor)

Thinking of my own experience with graduate students, I marveled at Sophie’s teacher’s ability to keep all of these somewhat hyper children consistently and cooperatively engaged while moving seamlessly from one set of activities to the next.   First there were art projects, then a general gathering with the children assembled on a bright rug at the front of the class, where I had the pleasure of reading to them.  Returning to their tables,  the children sang happy birthday; ate cupcakes topped with multi-colored icing, and played with their wind-up party favors.   Before orderly lining up to go home, they had one last chance to expel their energy, dancing together on the rug.

How, I wondered to myself, did Sophie’s teacher orchestrate this ensemble? Certainly her knowledge of, and empathy with, the children was key. But the children also did their part. They were following established norms, which were listed prominently on the classroom wall. Having committed to these few simple rules, each child was able to demonstrate his or her individuality, while working together as a group.  

My day and a half visit with my grandkids was far too short.  But it was full of special moments. By far the best was the interaction between Ben and Sophie in which they negotiated their behavior with respect to one another. Clearly, they had a common idea of what it meant to be  good. final_img_35341

“Sophie,” said 8-year old Ben, “I am going to be nice to you today because it is your birthday,” “Ben,” Sophie responded: “I am going to be good today because it’s my birthday.”

Taking my leave, and driving into New York, my thoughts shifted from my childhood in New Jersey to my graduate days at Columbia University. Advancing down the Henry Hudson Parkway, and turning onto 125th Street and Broadway (a recurrent scene in my dreams) I felt like a student again, full of anticipation and excitement for the day’s events. Above all, I wanted to hear what Bruno Latour and Jochai Benkler had to say, not only to the audience, but also-and especially–to one other. Both speakers are featured in my classes, and the students from my Networked Economy class were waiting for a full report.

The conference focused on the question of whether and where effective public controversies will likely be aired, given the recent decline of the newspaper industry and the journalism profession. Participants were concerned lest, in the absence of robust newspapers, the public will lack the knowledge and wherewithal to foster societal norms much less hold the government accountable to them. Dean Nicholas Lemann of Columbia University’s School of Journalism and Paul Starr from Princeton University laid out the problem, while Bruno Latour and Jochai Benkler spoke to it.

Bruno Latour dismissed the problem, as it was defined. Echoing Walter Lippman‘s notion of the phantom public, he contended that neither the public–nor for that matter society–exist in reality. As Latour claims, there really is no social stuff–that is to say, norms–out there.  (See, for an in-depth discussion, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor Network Theory 1995.) Instead, as Latour describes it, actors assemble sporadically when specific issues arise. Lacking in-depth knowledge, the public should not engage in the resolution of issues but rather  act like lighthouses, signaling their existence to policy actors.

In contrast, Jochai Benkler’s remarks were premised on the existence of norms.   As he described, using today’s digital technologies, individuals have a far greater opportunity to generate a public  than they did in the past. Digital technologies not only allow them to  gain greater access to knowledge; they can also employ these technologies to act on that knowledge is conjunction with others.  However, this collaboration is only possible, given the existence of norms such as trust and reciprocity, which sustain a gift economy.

Riding home on Amtrak, I reflected about the issue of norms, especially Latour’s assertion that they are ephemeral.  Questioning his perspective, I asked myself: Have I had not just witnessed their actual existence in my grand daughter’s classroom?  Moreover, have I not seen how norms are negotiated in the interchange between my two grandchildren Sophie and Ben?   As importantly, have I not witnessed via the current  financial crisis what happens when a society–in the name of deregulation–has renounced its norms?  These experiences lead me to believe that what is needed today is not only an economic stimulus “package”, but also–and more importantly-normative guidelines about how the American people’s monies should be spent.

Technology Indeterminism

the question I wrestle with is about agency–when it comes to technology, how much agency do we have? 

For me, being a professor is very refreshing. It is an occupation that never gets stale. For, even when I work with the same material year after year, I get to share it with a new class of students each of whom has unique interpretations to offer. If I am too provocative, or appear too certain, no doubt I will be challenged. Questioning whether my thoughts and ideas hold up in the face of this kind of scrutiny, I am thoroughly reengaged.

In the Communication Culture and Technology Masters Program, at Georgetown University, the topics I most frequently address revolve around technology. More specifically, the question I wrestle with most is how much agency do we have? At what points are technologies brought into question, and how can they be influenced most effectively?

This question has dominated my thinking ever since my days at the Office of Technology Assessment, when I first read Langdon Winner’s opus Autonomous Technology. Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 1977). Surveying the range of positions that major thinkers have adopted with respect to the march of advancing technologies, Winner challenges us, not to be technology somnambulists, but rather to develop our own philosophical positions with respect to technology. I try to pass this challenge on to my students.

I am a Technology Whore (courtesy of Theiss)

I am a Technology Whore (courtesy of Theiss)

To be sure, developing a coherent philosophy of technology requires a sound theoretical understanding of the relationship between technology and society. This relationship is the focus of my CCT course Technology and Society. In this class, we employ different theoretical lenses through which to consider how technology affects society and vice versa. In examining these theories, I encourage my students to approach them the way they select their clothes–that is to say, try them on for size. Each theory has its own strengths and weaknesses, but some are more suitable than others for the purpose at hand.

The Dressing Room (Courtesy of Eric Photostream)

The Dressing Room (Courtesy of Eric Photostream)

Thus, for example, theoretical approaches associated with technology determinism, such James Beniger’s The Control Revolution, can help us understand the big picture–that is, what underlies technological momentum and unintended consequences, but it says little about how and by whom technology decisions are actually made. On the other hand, while the SHOT approach (Society for the History of Technology) hones in on how concerned interests and decision-makers arrive at a consensus, it give short shrift to the role of power and the institutional and cultural environment in which decision makers act. Like the SHOT approach, Actor-Network Theory (ANT)–developed by French philosophers Michel Callon and Bruno Latour, discounts the social frame of reference. Its focus, instead, is on how actors (including technology) employ their power and resources to create networks in support of technology outcomes. Most comprehensive of all is evolutionary theory, which conceives of technology outcomes as emergent and indeterminate –the product of complex, cumulative forces.

Teaching a class on Technology and Society, I want to be able to assure my students that–yes–they can make a difference.

Teaching a class on Technology and Society, I want to be able to assure my students that–yes–they can make a difference, whatever their views about technology. And I certainly hope that they go on to do so. As well, I think that, when viewed together, the theoretical perspectives outlined above suggest a number of entry points where they might intervene successfully on behalf of technology-related issues. So I am not a pessimistic, technology determinist. But neither am I an optimistic somnambulist, ready to stand aside and give way to whatever forces come my way. After years of engaging with my students around these issues, I am existential in the face of technology. That is to say, I am–for lack of a better word–a technology indeterminist. Recognizing the complexity of the problem, and the unintended consequences of technology that are strewn all around us, I know I need to act, even if the outcome of my actions is uncertain. I draw comfort from the idea that, in a complex social environment, small changes at the local level give rise to large scale repercussions at the level of the whole.