Actor-Network-Theory starts from the assumption that all the ways in which we have hithereto understood actors – as natural, social or constructed – are inadequate in an age in which technology plays such an important role (Latour 1996). Instead, Latour and others have suggested to think of humans and things as networks – or associations – which form an integrated whole. The argument is not, that they are the same. But the argument goes so far, I believe, to argue that there is no reasonable way to differentiate between the ways things and technologies shape the world an the way in which we humans do. In fact, they are so intermingled, that we can never attribute an action purely to one or the other. My personal favourite is the example of the door:
“Walls are a nice invention, but if there were no holes in them, there would be no way to get in or out; they would be mausoleums or tombs. The problem is that, if you make holes in the walls, anything and anyone can get in and out (bears, visitors, dust, rats, noise). So architects invented this hybrid: a hole-wall, often called a door, which, although common enough has always struck me as a miracle of technology. The cleverness of the invention hinges upon the hinge-pin: instead of driving a hole through walls with a sledge hammer gently push the door (I am supposing here that the lock has not been invented; this would over-complicate the already highly complex story of this door). Furthermore, and here is the real trick, once you have passed through the door, you do not have to find trowel and cement to rebuild the wall you have just destroyed; you simply push the door gently back (I ignore for now the added complication of the “pull” and “push” signs).” (Johnson 1988: 298)
The door, in other words, ‘acts’ in the sense that it is replacing and thereby transforming the action of biological and social actors. This effect may well be used to create certain behaviours – for example when hotel keys are given out with large heavy metal objects hanging from them to make people remember not to take them home…
So far, so simple. In a way, this kind of thinking is just one variation of the ways in which human-technology interaction has been described in Science and Technology Studies, the strand of sociology focusing on just such interactions. It comprises a broad spectrum of ideas, from more deterministic perspectives to the favouring of social construction. However, ANT has its own distinct perspective. We must rethink any social actors ability to act and consider the ways in which we encounter technology that – in fact – acts upon us. To a reader pof Foucault, of course, this is no entirely alien idea. The panopticon may well be viewed as a a technological representation of the surveillance society. However, with Foucault that is as far as this goes. Latour (with Callon and others) goes further and asks us to consider society not as constituted by social actors but think instead of associations.
In a way this asks us to abandon the idea of a natural self. The individual is inseparable not just from the next individual or its social relations (as in constructivism), but also inseparable from the material objects that surround us. It is not so much that we are cyborgs but that we must acknowledge that our being cannot be understood unless we think of ourselves as part of associations of things and humans/animals. Our mobile phones are mediating and shaping our social interactions – and we would be different if they did not exists.
Of course, thinking of my phone as doing something rather than a tool is challenging and slightly disturbing. It has its charms, though. And the anthropomorhisms we use with regard to many technological objects are an indicator that the whole idea is not as counter-intuitive as one might suspect: Computers can have bad days, traffic lights have it in for you and the printer usually tries to screw you over just when that paper is due – like they knew. Surely, this does not mean that the theory is useful with regard to scientific analysis of social and political phenomena.
Latour’s analyses, interestingly, do not focus on current network technologies – he works with much simpler and seemingly antiquated examples. However, in one paper he addresses the issue of globalization and clarifies some things with regard to the ways in which ANT relates to the problems we look at in political science. He raises one question, that I find most interesting:
“Is space this inside which reside objects and subjects? Or is space one of the many connections made by objects and subjects?” (Latour 2009: 142)
What if we, as well as the world around us, were constituted by the connections we make? These connections would be spatial, social, material and temporal. They would make each one unique and at the same time make them only possible as part of a wider network of things and beings. I believe this networked understanding of the self opens many possibilities. Instead wrapping our head around a mutual constitution theme, we can then imagine how a complex process of self-construction would work – it is about making connections. However, this is a spatial metaphor and it remains to be seen, if different kinds of ties, e.g. temporal and emotional, between networked individuals are indeed better imaginable in the network metaphor.