Bruno Latour on Digital Revolution of Networks and Sociology

Bruno Latour in his talk addressing the participants of International Seminar on Network Theory (2011) offers a brief introduction to Actor-Network theory and proposes the future development of technology, software, and interfaces which would bring the intelligence of network thinking to the end-users as well as the sociologists who study their behaviour.

Read the paper online: Networks, Societies, Spheres: Reflections of an Actor-Network Theorist

Some interesting quotes:

“You see that I take the word network not simply to designate things in the world that have the shape of a net (in contrast, let’s say, to juxtaposed domains, to surfaces delineated by borders, to impenetrable volumes), but mainly to designate a mode of inquiry that learns to list, at the occasion of a trial, the unexpected beings necessary for any entity to exist.”

“As you may know, one of the criticisms often made about networks (particularly by Peter Sloterdijk) is that they are extremely poor metaphors, since they remain entirely made of nodes and edges to which are often added some conveniently drawn potato-like circles. (I will come back to this impoverished visual vocabulary later.) To say that something is a network is about as appealing as to say that someone will, from now on, eat only peas and green beans, or that you are condemned to reside in airport corridors: great for traveling, commuting, and connecting, but not to live. Visually, there is something deeply wrong in the way we represent networks, since we are never able to use them to draw enclosed and habitable spaces and envelopes. Well, the great virtue of Saraceno’s installation (this one in the latest 2009 Venice Biennale) is that he has managed to obtain comfortable and enclosed spherical sites which are nonetheless entirely made of networks. The trick, as you can see, is in changing the density of connections until a net ends up being undistinguishable from a cloth. And the work of art is even better because neither spheres nor nets are actually the real physical thing, which is made of elastic tensors carefully arrayed and fixed on the walls. A beautiful case of action being redistributed, since visitors are able to check for themselves (when there is no guard around, that is), by pushing or pulling a tensor, what else is moving in the whole array. Like his mentor Olafur Eliasson, Saraceno is one of those artists who is exploring, often more daringly than social theorists, visual possibilities where self-contained substances are captured with their attributes fully deployed. This is why they are rightly called “ecological artists.”

“Even though it seems commonsense to say that the whole is superior to the parts, a minute of reflection is enough to realize that this is due to the introduction of the discontinuity in data collection I mentioned earlier. You notice individuals reduced to very few properties walking or working in downtown Los Angeles; then you look at the huge skyscrapers that tower above them; and then it seems reasonable to say that “the whole is superior to the parts,” or that there emerge out of individual interactions many things that the individual had not anticipated. Possibly. But this does not mean that at some point the action of individuals has been taken over ex abrupto by some sui generis entity that could be called Los
Angeles society.”

“If we pursue this thought experiment, we realize that we have already solved (or rather dissolved) one of the classical problems of social theory: The reason why people said that interactions create phenomena superior to the individual social atoms is because they had first defined the atoms as self-contained entities deprived of all the other entities necessary for their subsistence. (They had failed to see actors as actor-networks.) Then no wonder that, when entering any interaction, those simplified and castrated atoms had produced unintended consequences: Too little was known about them in the first place! Strictly speaking, it is not true that there are interactions between individuals. Individual action is much too distributed to be defined in terms of interaction. This is one of the first strange consequences of taking seriously the notion of actor-network. But the second consequence of gathering so much information about individual profiles is even stranger. The very notion of the whole begins to be deeply modified. What is a collective phenomenon once you deploy all the information you have about individual associations? It is certainly not something superior to the Web they form by sharing their profiles. What is it then? Probably something inferior, something smaller than the parts.”

“The true digital revolution in social theory is to open a way whereby it is possible to study the individuals and their aggregates without relying at any point on two levels, without accepting any discontinuity where the individual action disappears mysteriously into a sui generis structure. I really believe, that if we succeed in doing this, we will achieve for human societies discoveries just as revolutionary as what has been done with insect societies—and without in the least looking reductionist, since we will not have to commit the rather silly mistake of discarding all the available information to limit humans to ants or atoms just because physicists and biologists like to have masses of interchangeable elements for their models. Why not try to move from complexity—the parts—to simplicity—the whole—instead of doing the opposite? Since the information is here, why not use it?”

Image by Rossel78@FlickR, Artwork “Galaxies Forming along Filaments’ by Tomas Saraceno, Venice Biennale, 2009