Models and Theories in Human-Computer Interaction/Electricity in Water

Electricity in Water (Daphne Mintz)Edit

In his book, Aramis, or Love of Technology, Bruno Latour recounts the history of the Personal Rapid Transit project, Aramis, from concept to closure. The story he unfolds describes a non-technical network of humans, policies, public interest, and finances that were the actors that kicked off the project, sustained it for 17 years, and finally killed it before implementation.

As I was reading this book in the context of observing Latour develop his sense of the actor-network theory, I analogized this non-technical network with electricity in water. When I want to metaphorically express a chaotic and rapid penetration or proliferation of an event, I use the phrase, “like electricity in water.” As every molecule of water is a conductor, the path of the strike is chaotic and random, or at least not readily predictable because the water itself is not stabilized (even static water can be disturbed milliseconds before a strike within the most contained study). Like electricity in water, I interpreted the events that led to the demise of the Aramis project to be caused by the impact of the social network, a network whose conductors are like molecules of water.

As this book is written in the style of a picaresque novel with Latour in the role of a naïve apprentice (very similar to the role of d’Artagnan) following his boss from interview to interview of the human players in the story, the actor-network theory is never directly addressed. I continued my own journey to get more precise definitions around this theory. My Internet search led to an article by Latour, “On Actor-Network Theory: A Few Clarifications,” wherein he expressly states that “the actor-network theory (hence AT) has very little to do with the study of social networks” (Soziale Welt, 1996). I realized I need to relearn what AT is about.

Comically, outside of his attempt to redefine the use of “network” in AT, the article is written in the abstract, and I experienced the opposite of clarification. I found myself becoming more confused. As if hearing my brain cry out, “I’m lost,” the article takes a turn as Latour explains that “AT is a reductionist and relativist theory.” He helps us by providing the “simplest properties common to all networks” (distance, scale, and boundaries); then, adds actors and analyze these properties from their point of view. For example, he reduces the variables for the property of distance to be far and close. He then provides an example of how the values for these variables are relative to the actors’ predicament, not the geographical distance:

“I can be one metre away from someone in the next telephone booth, and be nevertheless more closely connected to my mother 6000 miles away…”

This example shows how the actors are socialized within the network (part of the social fabric), not that they are doing the networking (conductors of a social network). Going forward, I think it will be useful to me to regard stakeholders in two categories: 1) the social network, where acceptance must proliferate, and 2) the social fabric, where usage must penetrate.

References

Latour, B. (1996). Aramis, or Love of Technology. Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (1996). "On Actor-Network Theory: A Few Clarifications." Soziale Welt, 47, 4, pp. 367, 369-381.