Who does Mike Judge, David Byrne, and Kevin Kelly Agree with- Latour or Winner

Image c/o 20th Century Fox™It is an unfortunate reality of teaching that students, who act out and behave inappropriately, get the most attention from the instructor. Their rambunctiousness puts all eyes on them (and this is usually the student’s aim) thereby winning the zero-sum game of gaining recognition from the powers of legitimation and authority.  Just as the teacher must stop the class in order to cease the distractions provided by a rowdy student, the reader of any edited volume on technology and society is forced to respond to Bruno Latour’ s claims. Specifically, in Bijker & Law’s Shaping Technology/Building Society (1994), one is forced to spend less time considering the historically nuanced analyses made by the Social Construction of technology (SCOT) theorists, so as to devote enough time to figure out what, exactly, Latour means when he says, “In spite of the constant weeping moralists, no human is as relentlessly moral as a machine, especially if it is (she is, he is, they are) as ‘user friendly’ as my Macintosh Computer (P. 232).”

Before launching into a caparison between Latour’s chapter on the “Missing Masses” and what I consider to be more accurate accounts of the sociotechnical world, I will go over some of the better points made in Shaping Technology/Building Society. Bijker concludes in his chapter on the social construction of fluorescent lighting, that “Basic to all ‘new’ technology studies is the observation that even in diffusion stage, the process of invention continues (P. 97).” This point has been widely accepted in the Science and Technology Studies community for decades, but must still be reinforced every time we travel to a new country. The editors of Science Technology and Human Values seem to still be impressed (to give one recent example) by accounts that the Internet (and the hardware that enable access to it) are considered and used differently in the Internet Cafes of Accra, Ghana (Burrell, 2010). It is almost like we do not believe ourselves. Perhaps this is because teacher has been tied up dealing with Latour. While Bowker notes that innovation is influenced greatly by physical and social reality, and Law & Callon notice that the attempted production of a single object (a new jet engine) can reorganize enormous social institutions. These are polite, academically interesting conclusions, but do not garner the same amount of attention as claiming a horde of despised masses is knocking on the door of sociologists, demanding to be let into their social theory.

Latour, to use his own nomenclature, has devised a program and in so doing, inscribed social scientists into an anti-program of his own devising. In much the same way Bush-42 devised the false dichotomy “you’re with us or you’re against us” the social theorist is forced to be “against” Latour unless they give up their “prejudice” against nonhuman actants. If we do not see human and nonhuman actors as directly equal within a web of causality and meaning, we are providing a skewed analysis. This does not leave much room for negotiation and nuance.

At this point it is important that I clarify who the “teacher” is in my classroom metaphor. It is we, the public, which is selectively paying attention to the noisiest kid. For if a social theorist take an epistemological fall, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Here we must regard the work of Winner (1988) and the (in his own words) provocative statement that “artifacts have politics. Through several historical examples, we see that machines are far from “moral.” Rather, “many large, sophisticated technological systems are in fact highly compatible with centralized, hierarchical managerial control (P.35).” The particular arrangement of technology creates a demand for a certain kind of power arrangement. It is also true that only through certain power arrangements do we even see certain kinds of technological systems. Winner also warns the reader (almost as if he presages the work of Latour and ANT theorists) that we must not dupe ourselves into thinking that our technology is ”politically benign” or only an instrument to our needs. Latour and Winner seem at polar opposites. If we are to take a page from the ANT and SCOT playbooks and say that technologies are a kind of texts, we can put the two to the test of various sociotechnical assemblages and see which comes out on top.

Obviously, our first stop in popular culture is a Mike Judge film. More specifically, the 1999 cult classic “Office Space.” If the mine was the embodiment of Victorian artificiality, then the cubicle is equipped to take up that mantle in the 21st century.  Office Space itself is only a starting point. It is one of the first public recognitions of the ennui-inducing environment the knowledge worker is destined to face. While the miner (and the factory worker) was in constant danger of physical harm and replacement by the machine, the cube dweller must fend off the psychic death that consumes their lives both on and off the clock. The Talking Heads’ David Byrne may have been the first cultural icon to see this coming. In his 1986 film “True Stories” we hear Earl, a business tycoon, exclaim to his children (after extolling the virtues of corporate wage slavery), “Larry, Linda! No one has a concept of weekends anymore!” The revelatory moment- that through the promise of semiconductors, people go to work not for a paycheck, but for self-fulfillment and a sense of purpose- we build the future hand-in-hand with our cars and computers.  We also see Kevin Kelly, the creator of WIRED magazine and the author of the book What Technology Wants (2010), ignoring Latour all together, and instead extensively quoting Winner. The assemblages of popular culture are speaking, and they do not agree with the one that wishes to give them the agency of humans.

This should force Latour to sit down in his seat. The problem with social theory has nothing to do with the units of analysis, and everything to do with conditions of power and meaning within the socio-political milieu. In essence, the technosocial condition has more to do with understanding how the human and nonhuman influence their day-to-day lives, than giving them equal footing in social theory. We see through the assemblages of popular culture that the “missing masses” see technology more in terms of Winner than Latour. We see that when we grant them the agency Latour demands, they go ahead and speak against him. Nonhuman actants are not missing by any means, they have always been here, playing politics.

Bijker, W. E., & Law, J. (1994). Shaping technology/building society: Studies in sociotechnical change. Cambridge Mass.: the MIT Press. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=7i1hO90ZDHUC&oi=fnd&pg=PR9&dq=Shaping+technology+building+society+:+studies+in+sociotechnical+change&ots=CdQ8H1swZX&sig=TcLuqAHNDd_LlEJlGhWoXXGC7KY

Burrell, J. (2010). User Agency in the Middle Range: Rumors and the Reinvention of the Internet in Accra, Ghana. Science, Technology & Human Values, 36(2), 139-159. doi:10.1177/0162243910366148

Kelly, K. (2010). What technology wants. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=_ToftPd4R8UC&oi=fnd&pg=PT89&dq=What+Technology+Wants&ots=nzh8T_ii_g&sig=blCRkuZh1LpIxO072xC0TQiPBIM

Winner, L. (1988). The whale and the reactor: A search for limits in an age of high technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=kgFgksillkYC&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=The+whale+and+the+reactor+:+a+search+for+limits+in+an+age+of+high+technology&ots=wgaSRyckyn&sig=aBaRtqUjwHkRbYayPobAH0h10FA