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Internet as actant


“The internet” doesn’t have any information. The internet (‘INTernational NETwork’) is the collection of hard and software that enables the storing and transmission of data. Basically, a massive version of the network in your office. You access the information, which is created and stored by individuals.

In practice, apart from people actively involved in its governance (The Internet Society), and network engineers of various types, ‘the internet’ – as an empirical material reality – has no practical prosaic reality for people (unless of course it stopped working…). However, simultaneously, millions of people around the world (as in the comic strip above) interact with ‘the internet’ – objectively, that is what they say is giving them information; so empirically we cannot ignore this. Just as if a person was to say aliens made her assassinate the president – we can’t locate those aliens, but ‘they’ did make her shoot the gun.

I think this is what Latour means by an ‘actant’: it is assigned agency by actors, and is ‘enrolled’ – brought to bear as part of their active engagement with others. Miller & Slater also use that approach in their classic - The Internet - An Ethnographic Approach.

Reflexivity

"In general, what passes for reflexivity in most social sciences is the sheer irrelevancy of questions raised by the analyst about some actors' serious concerns." (Latour 33)

LOL :-D

The above from: Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

I have just started reading it today, and so far (touch wood), I am finding it refreshingly lucid and useful. Something that is not always a feature of social theory :-)

Update 20/1

Well, I finished the book and am find myself to be somewhat inspired by it; the explanations are mostly clear, and the basic message is simple: don’t invent agencies and overarching ‘frames’ for whatever subjects you are studying – listen to them and follow them where they take you.

Laying the whole mass of actors and connections on a ‘flat’ social world is a useful way of visualising ‘social’ relations: no actor/actant is ‘above’ another, and all potentially influence each other. More importantly perhaps, all that connect are ‘part’ of each other, they have contributed to building the ‘site’ as it is. Thus we are all sites, and understanding how sites are ‘stabilised’ is an important way of effectively describing the situation.

Actor-Network Theory is an essentially descriptive process, and to counter accusations of ‘mere’ description he argues that if something is properly described, in all its minute detail, then no extra explanation (i.e. frame, context, meaning, …) should be required. And he has a point there, though a difficulty is to decide when to stop tracing the connections between different actors, or actants.

In spite of what I said above about lucidity and all that, the last two chapters before the conclusion (“Second Move: Redistributing the Local”, and “Third Move: Connecting Sites”) get pretty convoluted. He comes across sometimes as somewhat structuralist/determinist: he mentions “structuring templates” that circulate, and uses that analogy of ‘plug-ins’ to explain how we cannot do anything (e.g. rationally choosing something in a supermarket) without having these ‘plug-ins’ ‘downloaded’ from other sites. For me this ignores our basic sociality, and ability to negotiate with the world based on some basic instincts (i.e. survival, social, and reproductive). In a way, it’s like he’s being an ‘atomised structuralist’, or ‘powerless structuralist’ – he’s mapping out the social world in a ‘flat’ manner, arguing that all element affect others etc., but just saying there’s no central motor force to it all, which ain’t a bad point.

In the second-to-last chapter, he asks what will be between the lines that connect the sites in the network, and starts to speculate about ‘plasma’ and “vast outside” – all very strange… My feeling is that there doesn’t have to be anything ‘between’ the connections – for the connections are what make our world, mediators affect it, things change, traces are left and actions initiated; but as he said, if it leaves no trace it is not there. I would also say, perhaps tautologically though, that what is visible is visible because it’s part of ‘society’; though he’s arguing that with his method we can discover more, etc.

His conclusion (for anyone looking for a shortcut to reading the whole book ;-)) isn’t actually a summary of the book, but an argument for the political validity of ANT. He argues that ANT is political; proper data collection needs to let subjects have all their agency, and include all relevant entities; secondly, it is political because it has as a task to make the ‘composition’ of the data in a manner accessible to all, and in a manner that loops between the elements and the composer (so to speak).
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