Bruno Latour’s “Aramis or the love of technology” – Critical commentary

By Javier de Rivera

In this book, Latour addresses the social and political factors implicated in the development of technological projects. To such and end, he uses the case study of a failed technological project: Aramis, an innovative public transportation system developed in France between 1972 and 1987 that, despite its apparent technological interest and all the efforts invested in it, finally failed to see the light. [Download Aramis in PDF]

The style of the book is very innovative. It takes the form of a detective’s novel, with two researchers trying to solve the mystery of “Who killed Aramis?” – or Was it killed in the first place?. However, this “novel” is not pure fiction, it is based on Latour’s own research on the Aramis project, though everything is presented in a dramatical (fictional) way that allows him the narrative freedom to expose his own theories about society and technology. Specially, Latour uses the the relation between the two researchers, a sociology professor and a young engineer, to articulate his “preconceptions” about social sciences and the study of technology.

Even though this way of introducing his ideas can be attractive and appealing, it makes more difficult to criticize them, as they are all covered by rhetorical tropes. On the contrary, it seems fairer to write theoretical issues and research reports in a clear straightforward way, to facilitate and stimulate the further discussion of ideas. This way (the fictional) it looks like the author’s ideas are not open to discussion.

However, behind this rhetorical style the main features of Latour’s thought can be easily discovered. His central idea of the non-human subjects, the consideration of machines as “actants” (subjects) in the network is present throughout the book, using the most incredible rhetorical resources to convince the reader: references to Frankenstein as “something” independent created by human, fictional verbatims of what “Aramis” would think or say, imaginative descriptions of how the automated-cars think, analogies between the independence of the apprentice and the independence of machines, etc.

His thought is so embedded in the narrative that we can even find the “quasi-objects” when the microprocessors enter the scene. We can even find the mention of Leibniz’s monads – a key element in Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory – that are the fundamental idea behind the concept of subject or actant in ANT. It appears in a casual passage when the researchers are discussing the automatic functions of Aramis, so the metaphysical regression can be made without modesty1.

For my part, I’d prefer a system more in conformity with that of Mr. Leibniz, one in which God’s creatures would contain the complete recapitulation of all possible actions. It would suffice to enter all predicates in the software. (page 63)

The fragment refers to the possibility of programming the behavior of the automatic car, so it can function with autonomy, which makes it a “subject” (monad, actant) in the network, at the same level as a human, making a perfect analogy between God-humans and Humans-machines. So, in his view we are created by God in the the same way we create automated machines: introducing all the possibilities in the software. In this aspect, the technological fantasies of Latour are the opposite of the typical science-fiction narratives, where the Machines become aware of themselves and similar to “humans.” In his description, it is the humans that become predefined “machines” (or monads)2.

The second relevant aspect in which his thought can be easily perceived is the way Sociology, and social science in general, is caricatured as a non-logical discipline, with unreliable methods of research and weak theoretical foundations. On the other side, the engineers mind is stronger and is better prepared to understand the complexities of technology. In other words, real sociology is an obstacle in Latour’s desire to mystify technology as an independent realm of existence, instead of an aspect of culture and society.

In the process of mocking sociological research, Latour made up a new brand of Sociology called relativistic or relationist, which main characteristic is to stick in the boundaries proposed by the informants:

How to frame a technological investigation? By sticking to the frame work and the li mits indicated by the interviewees themselves. (page 18)

Since every study has to limit its scope, why not encompass it within the boundaries proposed by the interviewees themselves? (page 19)

The methodological implications of this sociology-fiction method of research are disastrous: the limits of a social research only can be defined by the research question. Unfortunately, here the main research question (who killed a something that cannot be alive) is so biased, that any frame proposed by the informants is highly useful.

In order to be “sociological,” a research has to take account of the social context and the social structure, the background and the whole picture is necessary to do sociology. Society is the real object of study beneath any social research, and the particular aims of a research only can make sense in relation with that whole picture. The actors, subjects or informants usually cannot see this bigger picture, because they are situated in an specific point of view, though their reflexivity (narrative competence) and their interpretations are always insightful and useful.

The use of a sociological framework to interpret and make sense of the information obtained is not, necessarily, a bias. It is a necessary pre-knowledge to make sense of what is observed. As the knowledge of grammatical rules and vocabulary allows us to read, the knowledge of social dynamics allows us to interpret social phenomena.

Relativist sociology has no fixed reference frames, and consequently no metalanguage. It expects the actors to understand what they are and what it is. It does not know what society is composed of, and that is why it goes off to learn from others, from those who are constructing society. (page 200)

However, it seems like this “let the informants do the sociology for us” is specially adequate when we are talking about technological studies, and the interviewees are mainly high qualified engineers. Probably Latour or his characters would not dare to say the same when studying less educated populations. This attitude reflects a hidden elitism, that mixed with the rampant technophilia, helps him to project his technological fantasies. The picture drawn in this process is aesthetically akin to Ayn Rand’s idealization3 of the industrial entrepreneur, always driving the train of technological innovation.

In opposition to this, from a sociological perspective the study of Aramis is relevant because it is the most successful of the Personal Rapid Transportations systems that “interested everybody in the late sixties,” therefore it represents the social conflicts and tensions beneath this event. Case studies are used as a way to represent general phenomena and learn more about our societies, not (only) for the shake of knowing a particular fact.

According to Latour’s methodology, the PRTs are out of question because the actors do not discuss them as a social event. Fortunately, the book offers interview scripts and documents that help us reach our own conclusions. So we know from a Canadian document (page 135) that the general interest in the PRT systems appears as a way to relocate the research investments of the tech-companies after the space programs slowed down. And from multiple verbatims we also get to know the confusion that an hybrid of public-private transportation rise:

Senator Wallace: “What if instead of finding her ‘cronies, ‘ as you put it, in this closed car with no driver, your housewife runs into a couple of thugs? (I didn ‘t say ‘blacks ‘-be sure to get that straight.) ” (page 21)

The main social repercussion of the PRTs is the improvement of the conditions of transportation (and of life) for the public, it represented the socialization of the technological advances, giving a public car to the working classes (South Paris Suburbs), and making the expensive private cars less valuable. The tension between public and private, and the social class reading of the project is obvious from a sociological perspective, but for Latour it is just “noise” that aparts us from the understanding of technology (Aramis).

Then, What is the answer that we find at the end of the book about who killed Aramis? What is the brilliant solution that Detective Latour offers to justify the whole research?

We lack of love for technology.

As if technology were a subject we could love or hate (Frankenstein analogy is mandatory here). As if it were not obvious that technology is just a projection of human creativity and social productivity. We only can love (a particular application of) technology for what it does or can do, or for the meanings embedded in it as a cultural artifact, or for the power or social status we can get through it. Technology is not a realm or a thing in itself, is (a central) feature of culture.

The lack of political interest in explicitly pursuing the research necessary for the development of Aramis, or any other PRT, is due to the particular signification of PRTs in the socio-economical and political context. Love for Technology is abundant when it is about launching a rocket to the moon or developing sophisticated weaponry, but it lacks when it is about revolutionizing public transportation. Why? Because the social structure (the network of social interests) do not support research in that area, although for some time it did: to relocate investments, for patriotism (French technology), etc. Technically, Latour does not offer us any real answer, but an abstract idealization and mystification of technology, which is misleading and apart us from the possibility of a sociological understanding of technology.

To finish, the epilogue subtly addresses again the tension between public and private in transportation systems, when “the young engineer” reads an article and thinks that maybe Aramis (PRTs) could be developed backwards: transforming private cars in a public transportation system. It looks like a funny wink to end the book, but it is very significant because addresses the real question beneath the case: Who is really interested in Aramis or PRT? Or more generally, What are (human or social) agencies behind this technological project?

– Needless to say that non-living things do not have agency, as the “living” condition is necessarily included in the “agency” property –

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1The only way to introduce metaphysics in a research report is to put them in other’s voice, because typically it would take out all the scientific authority from the researcher.

2Ina philosophical or metaphysical discussion we would bring up Spinoza’s account of the Being (also known as God) and the subjects, to counterargument against Leibniz’s metaphysics… but in a sociological text we might stay out of metaphysics and stick to what is observable; namely, the Durkheimian account of what is a social fact.

3See Atlas Shrugged or The Fountain.

 

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