Travis Wall

(Sometimes Graphic) Designer. Working on a PhD: Design Thinking +/= Heterogeneous Engineering. General flâneur. Chronic knowledge gatherer.

Location: Sydney, Australia

Steven Johnson The Ghost Map : A Street, A City, An Epidemic and the Hidden Power of Urban Networks 2006

For millennia, most cities had been bound inexorably to the natural ecosystem that lay outside their walls: the energy flowing through the fields and forests around them established a population ceiling they couldn’t grow beyond. London in 1854 had shot through those ceilings, because the land itself was being farmed more efficiently, because new forms of energy had been discovered, and because shipping and railway networks had gready expanded the distance that energy could travel. The Londoner enjoying a cup of tea with sugar in 1854 was drawing upon a vast global energy network with each sip: the human labor of the sugarcane plantations in the West Indies and the newly formed tea plantadons in India; the solar energy in those tropical realms that allowed those plants to flourish; the oceanic energy of the trade currents, and the steam power of the railway engine; the fossil fuels powering the looms in Lancashire, making fabrics that helped fund the entire trade system.

The dramatic increase in people available to populate the new urban spaces of the Industrial Age may have had one other cause: tea. The population growth during the first half of the eighteenth century neatly coincided with the mass adoption of tea as the de facto national beverage. (Imports grew from six tons at the beginning the century to eleven thousand at the end.) A luxury good at the start of the century, tea had become a staple even of working-class diets by the 1850s. One mechanic who provided an account of his) weekly budget to the Penny Newsman spent almost fifteen percent his earnings on tea and sugar. He may have been indulging in it fc the taste and the salutary cognitive effects of caffeine, but it was a healthy lifestyle choice, given the alternatives. Brewed tea posses several crucial antibacterial properties that help ward off waterborne diseases: the tannic acid released in the steeping process kills off those bacteria that haven’t already perished during the boiling of the water. The explosion of tea drinking in the late 1700s was, from the bacteria’s point of view, a microbial holocaust. Physicians observed a dramatic drop in dysentery and child mortality during the period. (The antiseptic agents in tea could be passed on to infants through breast milk.) Largely freed from waterborne disease agents, the teadrinking population began to swell in number, ultimately supplying a larger labor pool to the emerging factory towns, and to the great sprawling monster of London itself.

Steven Johnson's books are always orientated towards network thinking. This passage is dealing with the surrounding circumstance of the 1854 cholera outbreak in London that lead to John Snow creating a map of deaths. This helped him trace the source of disease to a particular water pump, proving that cholera is waterborne when it was previously speculated as airborne. Key point to take away here - a map of cholera deaths is not just a map - it is a heterogeneous assemblage of West Indian sugar, Indian Tea (and the shipping technology allowing them to get to England), heated water, exploding populations and so on. The difficultly with emergence is how it generates 'a sum of its parts' way of understanding things, which tends to cause hierarchy where a flat approach deals with things in a more useful way - performances of things aligning to generate entities.

John Law On the Methods of Long Distance Control: Vessels, Navigation, and the Portuguese Route to India 1986

I want to argue that it is not possible to understand this expansion unless the technological, the economic, the political, the social, and the natural are all seen as being interrelated. My argument is that the Portuguese effort involved the mobilisation and combination of elements from each of these categories. Of course kings and merchants appear in the story. But so too do sailors and astronomers, navigators and soldiers of fortune, astrolabes and astronomical tables, vessels and ports of call, and last but not least, the winds and currents that lay between Lisbon and Calicut.

John Law Notes on the Theory of the Actor-Network: Ordering, Strategy and Heterogeneity 1992

Just occasionally we find ourselves watching on the sidelines as an order comes crashing down. Organizations or systems which we had always taken for granted – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Continental Illinois – are swallowed up. Commissars, moguls and captains of industry disappear from view. These dangerous moments offer more than political promise. For when the hidden trapdoors of the social spring open we suddenly learn that the masters of the universe may also have feet of clay.

How is it that it ever seemed otherwise? How is that, at least for a time, they made themselves different from us? By what organizational means did they keep themselves in place and overcome the resistances that would have brought them tumbling down much sooner? How was it we colluded in this? … they are the questions that lie at the heart of “actor-network theory” … It suggests, in effect, that we should analyze the great in exactly the same way that we would anyone else. Of course, this is not to deny that the nabobs of this world are powerful. They certainly are. But it is to suggest that they are no different in kind sociologically to the wretched of the earth.

John Law After ANT: complexity, naming and topology 1999

Some stories about actor network theory.

First story. Actor network theory is a ruthless application of semiotics. It tells that entities take their form and acquire their attributes as a result of their relations with other entities. In this scheme of things entities have no inherent qualities: essentialist divisions are thrown on the bonfire of the dualisms. Truth and falsehood. Large and small. Agency and structure. Human and nonhuman. Before and after. Knowledge and power. Context and content. Materiality and sociality. Activity and passivity. In one way or another all of these divides have been rubbished in work undertaken in the name of actor-network theory.

Of course the theory is not alone. There are cognate movements in feminist theory, cultural studies, social and cultural anthropology, and other branches of post-structuralism. But even so, we shouldn’t underestimate the shock value, nor indeed the potential for scandal. Sacred divisions and distinctions have been tossed into the flames. Fixed points have been pulled down and abandoned. Humanist and political attachments have been torn up. Though, of course, it is also a little more complicated, and the scandal may sometimes be more metaphysical than practical. For this precise reason: it is not, in this semiotic world-view, that there are no divisions. It is rather that such divisions or distinctions are understood as effects or outcomes. They are not given in the order of things.

There is much that might be said about this. To take the notorious human/non-human divide, much ink has indeed been spilled over the importance or otherwise of the distinction between human and non-human. Or, for that matter, the machinic and the corporeal. But this is not the place to reproduce such set-piece debates. Instead, I simply want to note that actor-network theory may be understood as a semiotics of materiality. It takes the semiotic insight, that of the relationality of entities, the notion that they are produced in relations, and applies this ruthlessly to all materials – and not simply to those that are linguistic. This suggests: first that it shares something important with Michel Foucault’s work; second, that it may be usefully distinguished from those versions of poststructuralism that attend to language and language alone; and third (if one likes this kind of grand narrative) that it expresses the ruthlessness that has often been associated with the march of modernity, at least since Karl Marx described the way in which ‘all that is solid melts into air.’

Relational materiality. this catches, this names, the point of the first story.

The second story has to do with performativity. For the semiotic approach tells us that entities achieve their form as a consequence of the relations in which they are located. But this means that it also tells us that they are performed in, by, and through those relations. A consequence is that everything is uncertain and reversible, at least in principle. It is never given in the order of things. And here, though actor-network studies have sometimes slipped towards a centred and no-doubt gendered managerialism (more on this below), there has been much effort to understand how it is that durability is achieved. How it is that things get performed (and perform themselves) into relations that are relatively stable and stay in place. How it is that they make distributions between high and low, big and small, or human and non-human. Performativity, then, this is ‘the second name, the second story about actor-network theory. Performativity which (sometimes) makes durability and fixity.

Michael Shanks The life of an artifact 1998

Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. In his work is it possible to see the supposed separation of technical and social factors? Edison has been studied by Thomas Hughes in the context of the electrification of the United States (1983, 1985).

Edison did not just ‘invent’ the lightbulb. The model of technology which supposes the application of reason to material and objective reality is not at all adequate. The light bulb was part of a sociotechnical system which required and enabled its invention and use. Edison was a system builder (Hughes 1987). He worked on inanimate physical materials, on and through people, texts, devices, councils, architectures, utility companies, economic considerations … . He travelled between these different domains weaving an emergent web which constituted and reconstituted the bits and pieces that it brought together. In the history of Hughes the distinctions between humans and technical devices is subordinated to exploring a sociotechnical system: cable laying, electrical transmissions and resistances, city power stations, politics of city government, gas utility companies, laboratory experimentation. It was the characteristics of this network that conditioned the design of the light bulb – down to the material of the filament which had to perform in a particular way to suit the rest of the network.

In the words of John Law, Edison was a heterogeneous engineer, linking diverse elements in his work, elements which do not respect the conventional and abstract boundaries between people and things, the social and the technical (Law 1987).

Many other works in the sociology and history of technology and science reveal this intermixture of people and things (Mackenzie and Wajcman (eds) 1985; Bijker, Hughes and Pinch (eds) 1987; Elliott (ed) 1988; Law (ed) 1991; Latour 1987, 1988). Their ‘thick description’ results in concepts such as heterogeneous engineering, seamless webs (Hughes 1988), actor networks (Callon 1987, 1991), wherein are no absolute distinctions and categorisations; they are all being historically defined and redefined.

Michael Shanks The Life of an Artifact 1998

People and the realm of the social become material, and the object world, nature, acquires a history (of different relations with people). So there is nothing purely social or technical, human or non-human. There has not been a ‘pure’ human social relation for perhaps over 2 million years, since artifacts came to regularly accompany hominids. If a pure social relationship is sought, reference should be made to primate society (Byrne and Whiten (eds) 1988; Strum and Latour 1987). So where are we now? We are inextricably mixed up with non-humans. Our histories are united. This is also to argue that society is not sui generis, but has to be materially constructed. …

This means that we are part machines (Haraway 1991, Law 1991). The easy integrity of the person and the self have been questioned in a historical and philosophical decentring of the subject. A monstrous elision of people and things is a continuation of the contemporary project of inscribing text on bodies and things, constituting agents in discourses (from Levi-Strauss through Foucault and beyond; the focus on agency and the social theory of those such as Giddens). If you do not like being part machine what are you going to do? Become a baboon? (See Deleuze and Guattari 1980.)

If there is no essential difference between the social and object worlds, and if objects come to be in their history, then objectivity (the quality of the objective world), which is often conceived as the basis of fact and truth, is not an essential and abstract category, removed from history. Objectivity and truth are not absolute but come into being; they are achieved. They are contingent, but nonetheless real. They are both material and social.

If there is no timeless quality such as objectivity, the technical world and that of science are social practices like any other (Latour and Woolgar 1979; Knorr-Cetina 1981; Knorr-Cetina and Mulkay (eds) 1983; Lynch 1985; Latour 1987; Pickering (ed) 1992) . In a world of no essential difference between people and things, the social and the technical, the arts and sciences are united or symmetrical in that they all deal with mixtures of people and things.

Michael Shanks The Life of an Artifact 1998

Artifacts are often treated as entities in themselves, self-contained, their interactions with people separable. We forget or ignore their living. Artifacts become black boxes – closed, technical, often a mystery.

Consider the video recorder. This is indeed for many people a mysterious black box, high- tech product. The troubles people have with video recorders are notorious. At the same time they are very popular as providers of home entertainment. Manufacturers battled over the format of cassettes, compete to provide different functions, compete to make operation easier (from programmable remote controls to light pen input, to numerical programming supplied by newspapers and magazines). The video recorder delegates and prescribes all sorts of actions and troubles to its users, while bringing together viewers, artifact designers, stylists, programme makers, film companies, repair men, newspaper editors, frustrations, wonder, families, discord etc etc

When the black box is opened there is no easy distinction between people and things, the social and the technical. What is social and what is technical about the video recorder? I suggest that we forget the question and ask – what does it hold together and how does it do it? What work does it do?