Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Technology, society and the spaces in between

I feel like I have been stuck for months, not doing the things that will move me towards my goals.  Not reading and keeping my mind active and not pushing myself to keep learning.  So this morning I promised myself that I would finish the article I have been reading by Bruno Latour, Technology is Society made Durable.  I have written about the work of this French philosopher a couple of times, both a review of his book "On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods"and here when I examine him in the larger context of Actor Network Theory (of whom he is the creator).

This article is one that is often referenced by others so it had been on my pile to read for sometime.  Basically, Latour wants to break down the distinction between concepts such as society and technology in order to support common discussion across these concepts.  So, instead of saying that we can't compare apples and oranges, we can classify them as fruit and then have a discussion that looks at these two things with the same criteria and vocabulary.  He calls the process translation, wherein two things, previously seen as existing in different spaces can be brought together.

As an example of this process, he describes the situation of a hotel manager who does want his guests to take their keys out of the hotel.  Latour walks us through attempts to modify behavior by means social interaction, where the hotelier asks the guests to leave their keys at the desk and hopes that the guests follow the rules.  He outlines the progressive translation of this message all the way to technological solutions, where the key is attached to a heavy piece of metal.  In this case, the inn keeper no longer needs to interact in order to pass on the message, nor does the guest need to be a person who follows rules - just one who is sensitive to extra weight in their pocket.  Technology has become the means of communication. 

Latour outlines how we can map these processes of translation without having to, "...judge how "intrinsically" realistic or unrealistic an association is." Things only exist in relation and it is relations that give things their value.  So, "Just as we let actors create their respective relationships, transformation, and sizes, we also let them mark their measure of time, we even let them decide what comes before or after."

As I have noted before with Latour, this is really a fancy way of getting to what the indigenous world view already believes.  We are all related, time is not linear and rigid, value is not a fixed concept... that we can learn from all around us and we must each tell our own stories.  It is the actors, be they human, animal or inanimate who get to pass judgment and add their input to the story.

Latour finishes by suggesting that, "Instead of "sinking into relativism" it is relatively easy to float upon it."  He is not suggesting that we just give in to a world where there are no value statements and everything is equally permissible, but rather one, where through the process of translation, we can translate disparate ideas and processes into something where comparison and discussion are possible without losing the voice and passion of the speakers.

This was a hard article for me.  While Latour does provide some clear examples in the text, he is a dense writer and as I have noted before, I often feel like I need to read and not worry about understanding.  The teachings are not in the words on the page, but in the spaces in between that I catch glimpses of from the side of my eye.  This is not a comfortable way of learning, but perhaps this transition of idea is truthful to the spirit of the message.  The words themselves are only part of the translation to understanding.

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