A desire to put some theoretical acro props under my vague unease with the determinist narrative of so much of our technology discourse has led me to the writing of the French anthropologist Bruno Latour. His work on the social construction of science, an ethnography of the R&D lab, has a special resonance for me, a humanities graduate who finds himself colleague to a legion of French engineers.
I’m stumbling intermittently through Catherine Porter’s translation of Latour’s 1991 work “We have never been modern“, as a prelude to David Edgerton’s “The Shock of the Old“. At times it feels a bit like eating up the broccoli before allowing myself desert, but the rich, buttery morsels like the following make it all worthwhile.
The story so far.
Latour argues that modernity, from Civil War England onwards, managed its contradictions by placing boundaries between nature and society. Thomas Hobbes, writer of the Leviathan, was taken up as a founder of political philosophy while Robert Boyle, he of the air pumps, was channelled as a natural philosopher and pioneer of scientific method. In truth both men speculated on both politics and science, but this inconsistency was whitewashed by their modern successors seeking only the pure narrative of one or the other.
And so we are today in a world still riven by CP Snow’s two cultures, where right-wing bloggers can grab acres of media coverage against climate scientists by finding just the tiniest trace of political “contamination” on the lab’s email servers.
But I wonder if the disconnection and reconnection of nature and society is also a useful way to understand some of the ideas I’m expecting to hear today at dConstruct, a conference at the cutting edge of technology and media convergence.
The 19 years since Latour published “Nous n’avons jamais été moderne” roughly spans my working life so far. I’ve witnessed the amazing things that can happen when you expose the humanities-soaked world of newspapers, books and TV to the attentions of software engineers and computer scientists. The results have been delightful and depressing, often both at the same time. Who knew back then that floaty copywriters would have to cohabit – for better or for worse – with the number-crunchers of search engine optimisation?
This fusing of the worlds of media and technology is only just beginning, and the next step is evident in the hand-held touch-sensitive, context-aware marvel of creation that is the latest smartphone.
Hitherto we have seen the the world of human-created information, the texts of the ancients and the tussles of our own times, through the pure window of the newspaper, the book, the TV, the PC screen. But the smartphone is a game-changer, like Robert Boyle’s air pump. With its bundle of sensors, of location, of proximity, and in the future no doubt heat, light, pressure and humidity it becomes a mini-lab through which we measure our world as we interact with it.
All manner of things could be possible once these facts of nature start to mix with the artifacts of society. My Foursquare checkins form a pattern of places created by me, joined with those of my friends to co-create something bigger and more valuable. My view of reality through the camera of the phone can be augmented with information. We will all be the scientists, as well as the political commentators, of our own lives. This is the role of naturalism in my “Mobile Gothic” meander.
To recycle Latour on Robert Boyle’s account of his air pump experiments:
“Here in Boyle’s text we witness the intervention of a new actor recognised by the new [modern] Constitution: inert bodies, incapable of will and bias but capable of showing, signing, writing and scribbling on laboratory instuments before trustworthy witnesses. These nonhumans, lacking souls but endowed with meaning, are even more reliable than ordinary mortals, to whom will is attributed but who lack the capacity to indicate phenomena in a reliable way. According to the Constitution, in case of doubt, humans are better off appealing to nonhumans. Endowed with their new semiotic powers, the latter contribute to a new form of text, the experimental science article, a hybrid of the age-old style of biblical exegesis – which has previously been applied only to the Scriptures and classical texts – and the new instrument that produces new inscriptions. From this point on, witnesses will pursue their discussions in its enclosed space, discussions about the meaningful behavious or nonhumans. The old hermeneutics will persist, but it will add to its parchments the shaky signature of scientific instruments.”
I don’t yet know where I stand in this picture. Am I the experimenter, his audience, or the chick in the jar?
An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768