[I Think] I’ve Got Your Back, Latour

Dear Diary,

Yesterday I went to a birthday party in a bar in Lawrenceville. A friend of mine, Becca, decided she was feeling stingy, and snuck in a flask full of tequila in her purse so that she could mix her own drink and save a few dollars. When we arrived, she walked right up to the bar, got the bartender’s attention and ordered a Sprite. I got a beer. He handed her the soda first, and to the utter bewilderment of the whole group, she immediately brought out her flask and proceeded to nonchalantly pour the alcohol into her drink…right in front of the onlooking bartender.

“Give me that!” he shouted, sniffing the open flask to confirm his suspicions. “Get out of my bar!” Another bartender, who had seen what had happened, rushed out from behind the bar and began to physically escort my friend out of the bar. All of my remaining friends stood there dumbfounded. Why had she done that? What was she thinking? She had been well aware of the illegality of her actions, so why had she been so forthright with her execution?

We requested our money back from the bouncer, but were denied. I finished my beer, and we went down to the street to see what had become of Becca. She was standing near my car like a deer in the headlights. She was just as surprised as we were by her actions. It didn’t make sense to anyone.

There was no simple explanation that neither us, nor she herself could think of for what may have caused her to act with such apparent, uncharacteristic stupidity. This is because there was no simple cause. In order to understand her actions, one would have to understand all forces acting on her at that time; was she disoriented by the thumping music and jumping patrons of the bar? The discomfort of her high heels? Was it some drug or substance under whose influence she was acting? No, she was completely sober. Then was it something more abstract? The naïveté brought about by a sheltered upbringing? Was she distracted by an attractive guy across the room? Was she accustomed to B.Y.O.B. bars in the state where she grew up? Any combination of these actors, or countless others could have influenced her to act in this out-of-character, oblivious manner.

These are the thoughts that were going through my head last night, thanks to our Narratives and Technology class. This story exemplifies much of what I have learned — nothing is as clear as it seems. In a world driven toward entropy, we humans spend our lives trying to simplify the perpetual disorder. But as was the case with the four-minute mile, each barrier we hurdle leaves another in our path (take the seeming incompatibility of Newtonian Laws of Physics and Quantum Mechanics). In order to make out recognizable forms through what Latour calls the “veils of subjectivity,” we create dichotomies, but these are fragile and easily broken, even by a bunch of Pitt students in an English class.

Take the relationship between Technology and Nature, for example; Technology is often used as a scapegoat for its unanticipated consequences. Nuclear energy gave birth to a new class of monster-weapons. Industrialization threatens to accelerate the onset of global warming. But what is “technology” if not a means for humans to better pursue their “natural” instincts — for food (farming equipment), shelter (air conditioning), sex (contraceptives), knowledge (microscopes)…survival.  I guess this stance makes me a “compositionist,” “one that sees the process of human development as neither liberation from Nature nor as a fall from it, but rather as a process of becoming ever-more attached to, and intimate with, a panoply of nonhuman natures.”

I have learned a lot about myself in this class; particularly that I have a lot in common with a certain Frenchman. As a final note to self, I want to restate that there ARE NO DICHOTOMIES. There is no nature vs. technology. Technology is nature. There is no natural vs. supernatural. If something “supernatural” occurs, it is natural. There is not master vs. slave. We try to master our environment, with industry and civilization, but this only increases the havoc it wreaks against us. Nothing is as simple as it seems. Answers only yield more questions. So tell me, is it even worth asking? I think it is. What do you think?

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The Interweb or the Outerweb?

Callon and Latour define an actor as “Any element which bends space and time around itself, makes other elements dependent upon itself and translates their will into a language of its own” (118). By this definition, Facebook is certainly an actor. It changes the way people live, leaving those of all generations hunched over their computers or scrolling through their newsfeeds in line at Walmart. It makes us dependent upon it. Many of us use its messaging system as a primary means of rapid communication, interchangeable with text messages or e-mails. We delegate the sending of messages, articles and photos, among other things, to this platform. Lastly, it translates the will of other elements into a language of its own. It takes companies advertisements, and prescribes them with a certain appearance and context. It takes our personal statuses and photos and translates them into marketable data. In Latour’s Actor Network Theory, Facebook is an actor, and it currently possesses enormous amounts of agency all over the world.

However, Facebook is not just an actor, it is a assemblage of actors within itself. It is the “Social Network” — a web of ever-changing, contingent relationships between humans, companies, countries, armies, cars, websites, and all varieties of actors. When a user “friends” an acquaintance, a connection is made. When a user “unfriends” another, a connection (and often a real-life relationship) is lost. The change of Facebook is in constant flux. It is neither an autonomous entity, nor a passive reflection of all of the cultural information inserted into it on a daily basis. It is some combination of the two.

We have created Facebook, and continue to mould it to meet our needs, but at the same time, Facebook prescribes the ways in which we can interact with it, and consequently, each other. But contrary to technological determinism, Facebook itself is not an entity holding the power to shape society. It is the people, the cultural forces, the articulations of our society that shape Facebook, and permit it to do so.

“Assemblages are ‘constellations of singularities and traits deducted from the flow — selected, organized, stratified — in such a way to converge..artificially and naturally’” (129). Facebook brings together humans and non-human entities, representing their traits, organizing  and bringing them closer of further away from each other with its algorithms and formulas.

A hammer is an assemblage of its need, the parts and materials that it consists of, the centuries of technology that led up to its production, the person who holds it and so on. In my mind, this assemblage must be somewhat finite, limited and not necessarily interconnected with every other assemblage in the world, perhaps connected only by single threads to many others. Facebook, however, must be one of the most interconnected, reinforced networks in the world. With over 1 Billion active monthly users, it reaches into the depths of history and into the darkest corners of the world. Do you think that an assemblage this strong, or any assemblage for that matter, can ever morph and mutate to the point that it weakens and breaks? Do connections ever die, not to be replaced? And is there any worldly assemblage that cannot be somehow connected to any other assemblage in the world (think seven levels of separation) among humans)?

— In my opinion, this blog post, like Facebook, is a distributed network.

Our Omniscient, Omnisciency Machine

It is currently 4:27 PM, EST. I have been awake for 6 hours and 57 minutes. Of this 6 hours and 57 minutes, 2 hours and 20 minutes have been spent on one website: Facebook.com. Today I did something that I have been meaning to do for a while; I timed my Facebook usage (at least for the initial part of my day). Between time spent communicating with friends, business partners and scrolling idly through an ever-refreshing feed of posts, I have spent just over one-third of my waking time on this ubiquitous blue website.

Like for most members of my generation, Facebook has become a place that I go to connect. It serves myriad purposes, allowing me to connect with out-of-town friends, plan surprise-parties and meetings, laugh at new memes on my newsfeed, and share files and information with the other students working on my startup. In short, it promises an easy, one-stop fix for many of my social, professional and educational needs. Facebook places a daily treasure-trove of information within reach, but not without its fair share of drawbacks.

When such convenience is achieved, new burdens tend to fall into place, quickly recapturing the time and effort liberated by the innovation. Like the household appliances described in Slack and Wise’s Culture and Technology, “the network of connections that constitute this technological system  [Facebook] do not, in the end, reduce labor and save time; instead, the network of connections is part of a shifting burden in which the demands to collapse time and space become, in a sense, an inconvenience” (35).

This phenomenon is clearly illustrated when a Facebook user “adds” a long distance friend. In the past, communications between overseas friends were mostly limited to letters, or even well-thought-out e-mails that arrived every couple of months or-so. Using Facebook, one is instead flooded on a daily basis with information concerning the far-off friend’s daily life and activities.  While this makes it technically “easier” to share information, it is often less meaningful.  This weak and impersonal, but at the same time hyper-personal stream of information can placate desires to communicate directly, deliberately and thoughtfully. On the other hand, because it is so easy now to communicate, Facebook often sets an unreasonably high standard for frequency of communication. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense for long-distance friends to speak daily, as there often just isn’t enough to talk about. But Facebook shoves the information in your face whether you want it or not, and if you aren’t responsive, that must mean you don’t care enough about your friends, right? Not at all!

But is it this machine of overwhelming omnisciency that seduces us, or is it our natural blend of exhibitionism and voyeurism that has created it? Or neither? Like the gun, Facebook was created to fill a need — the need to communicate quickly, efficiently, and conveniently. But the solution has created a revenge effect: a generation of youths with more difficulty in interpersonal connection without this and similar devices.

So I ask, in the relationship between Facebook and its users, who is the slave and who is the master? We use Facebook to gather instantaneous information about our worldly surroundings. WE choose what information we place within it’s grasp. By doing so, we have created a database of unimaginable quantities of our knowledge and personal information. In doing so, we lose control of our monster. “The quest for absolute mastery is therefore self-defeating, since the Master is now dependent on the Slave and lacks the Slave’s knowledge of the world and self-identity” (62). By attempting to master easy communication through this willing receptacle of information, we have created the “smartest,” best-equipped slave to ever live. So are we still the master?

Rearticulated

In both Aramis and Culture and Technology, the authors send messages about the subjectivity of stories. “Who’s saying it? About whom? To whom? When? Referring to what Period?” (Latour 164) While true events must in nature be objective, to extract the truth, a listener must wade through a jungle of subjectivity and contextual bias. Unfortunately, it is impossible to be sure whether or not one has or will ever arrive at the objective truth.

As Slack and Wise explain in Culture and Technology, “History, like any story, is always told by someone to someone else for a particular purpose” (18). I experienced this first hand while studying abroad in France; my professeur engaged in a long rant aimed at the trois étudiants americains in the class involving how we always view our countrymen as the heroes of WWII, when it was really an aggregation of world efforts and events that lead to the end of the Nazi occupation. I can imagine similar contrast with students living in the north and parts of the deep south and learning about the civil war.

History is an aggregate of semi-truths bundled together for consumption by a specific audience. Those who compile them are given a power to bend and shape the perceptions and outlooks of generations. But the stories that make up history, and our daily lives — through personal interactions, media, culture and the arts — are simply  manipulations on a smaller scale. As we create our own stories, we become the writers of history. As Earnest Hemingway said:

“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.”

And many of us are good writers. Politicians, professors, engineers; we all attempt frame events in ways that can benefit our intentions. But these rearticulations of events are not always tinged with malice, as I may have insinuated, but instead represent natural instincts to survive. Naturally, an inventor wants to sell her invention, a politician wants to get re-elected, an artist wants to paint a compelling scene and an author a gripping novel.

When all of these actors seek personal progress, does their aggregate story become neutral? Does the truth really come out in the “total novel” (Latour 15), as Norbert says, or is it muddled? Or is this complex scripture, tied up in emotion and bias, in fact present a clearer picture of the happenings which the actors relate?

Tunnel Vision

Every day, nearly 5 million people travel from the suburbs of Paris to work within the city limits. They cram into metro cars like a pack of gazelles trying to squeeze into a jacuzzi. People spew mucus all over total strangers, one-armed beggars sing karaoke in languages obviously unknown to them, and elegantly dressed old ladies will inevitably pile on top of each other like dominoes when the creaky trains go shrieking around hairpin bends. For six months, this was a daily part of my life. Living in Paris for a semester, I became familiar with miles and miles of these underground tunnels, but when the summer came and I took my leave, I still felt like I hadn’t scratched the surface of their complexity.

I grew to love the crazy system and marvel at its seemingly haphazard efficiency, but often sat back and acknowledged how ridiculous the whole situation was. Much as I often feel on planes — when I suddenly look around and realize that I am traveling 700 mph in a metal cylinder 35,000 miles in the air — from time to time I would ask myself, “who was the crazy guy that first thought this would be a feasible idea? To transport an entire city’s population hundreds of feet below ground in a network of trains which would cross under riverbeds and burrow under mountains?”

Reading Latour’s “Aramis” brings to mind a new question: why are we still using it?  In the 1970s, engineers imagined that we would be buzzing around in chains of computer-guided personal transport pods; the old ladies wouldn’t have to bump elbows with the armless beggars and the politicians wouldn’t have to exchange back-sweat with the people who build their office buildings. Latour highlights a potential reason that we are still using these rusty old trains today; a disconnect between the dreams of innovators and the readiness of the people and the markets for their innovations.

Engineering is rooted in right-brained thinking. Step-by-step processes lead to the assembly of new technologies and solutions to the world’s inefficiencies. Such one-track mindedness (train pun intended), however, can lead to a disturbance in the chain of translation between an idea and a market. It is essential when building an urban transport-system to realize that there is a city beyond the rails.  When an engineer sets to work on the creation of a product without first testing whether the concept is financially, politically and socially viable — case in point, the “Segway” — the work is likely to go to waste. In entrepreneurship, we are taught never to put our heads down and begin hacking away at the object of our “affection.” First, one must look around and realize his or her surroundings.

In the case of PRT, many companies took the unwise “product” orientation. “All the major manufacturers plunged into PRTs: Boeing, Otis, we did the same thing at Matra. There were at least ten different systems. None of them worked” (15).

This leap-of-faith — to trust that what seems an outstanding innovation will also lead to great social benefit — is similar to the one taken by Victor Frankenstein. Taking a similar mentality to the engineers described by Latour, he absorbs himself in his vision of the product, not stopping to contemplate it’s future acceptance into society.

Arriving in Paris as an American, it takes time to acclimate not only to the difference in language but the difference in social culture. Similar is the disconnect in translation between an inspired engineer and his or her user. What important social conditions do you think the Aramis engineers may have neglected to address when planning their project?

 

Shelley’s Archaic Dichotomy

As noted in several previous blog-posts, one of the many dichotomies consistent throughout “Frankenstein” is that of Nature vs. Science. Shelley makes it clear which to her is superior; she condemns Frankenstein to a miserable fate as punishment for his pursuit of scientific progress, while Clerval stands as a shining beacon of happiness through his appreciation of all things “natural.” Throughout his wretched wanderings, Frankenstein continually ventures to places of magnificent natural beauty — alpine lakes and winding rivers — in search of temporary solace from his all-consuming anguish.

Throughout the reading, this theme becomes clearer and clearer. Throughout the reading, I found myself more and more displeased with her message, and the existence of this dichotomy in the first place. Science is not something unnatural, not some brand of sorcery, but simply the systematic study and application of nature itself. When a monkey uses a stick to catch bugs, or an otter a rock to crack sea urchins, it is not unnatural. Just so, neither are more complex human innovations. In creating life, Frankenstein did not disrupt nature, but instead explored one of its many previously unexplored capabilities.

To defy nature is, in fact, impossible; anything that takes place in the natural world must be inherently natural. The dichotomy presented supports a purely dogmatic worldview — that certain actions are locked within the realm of the “supernatural,” and for a mortal to attempt and succeed at taking part is the ultimate sin, bound to inflict irreparable damage and suffering on the human-race. Using the monster as her mouthpiece, Shelley urges her audience to “seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries” (208).

Her lesson is to squelch the desire to overstep the boundaries which contain men and impede greater understanding. Had Frankenstein not pursued such a lofty innovation, he would have spent his days cradled in his family’s warm embrace, instead doomed to perish among strangers in a frozen wasteland.

In breaking apart Shelley’s dichotomy, however, I do not wish to establish an inverted one of my own. Just as “disruptive” human innovation is not evil, nor is it intrinsically positive in consequence. Scientific progress itself is neutral, and must be judged based on its application. When Einstein helped invent the atomic bomb, he created an instrument capable of destructive power previously reserved to the gods — and destroy it did. However, most would posit that its use caused less destruction than had it not been created.

By refusing the genesis of a second monster, Frankenstein turned away from building his own atomic bomb — a scientific creation that could have either put an end to impending suffering, or multiplied it tenfold. “I did right in refusing, to create a companion for the first creature” (207), he declares on his death bed. In the end, he is content with his decision to cease playing-god, and Shelley places an exclamation point on her case against “gambling” with nature.

While Frankenstein should have been more comprehensive in his foresight, I think that Shelley goes too far in her condemnation of his actions. Do you think that, as stated in Connected, “growth for growth’s sake is cancer,” or is this a mischaracterization?

Disclaimer — I would  like to admit a personal bias: I am an entrepreneur, always trying to think up better, more innovative ways of doing things. Even if it “ain’t broke,” I still want to fix it. In my circles, “disruption” is a golden word, and, like Frankenstein, I know I’m not the most responsible of innovators, usually preferring to take the “jump-right-in” approach, rather than cautiously testing the waters. Don’t worry though, my “little monsters” aren’t going to be eating you anytime soon…hopefully. I just wanted to better frame the post with regards to it’s author.