Thursday, June 26, 2003

Reading:: Ecologies of Knowledge

Originally posted: Thu, 26 Jun 2003 21:06:53

Ecologies of Knowledge: Work and Politics in Science and Technology
by Susan Leigh Star (Editor)

Well, what a difference being well read makes. It turns out that two of the better essays in this collection -- by Latour and by Callon & Law -- are versions of essays in the Bijker and Law collection reviewed below. Nevertheless, this collection had some nice stimulative work in it. Susan Leigh Star's introduction, for instance, does some nice work on explaining the ecological metaphor as opposed to the network metaphor, although the explanation is unconvincing to me. (She sees the network metaphor as lacking because it implies that empty or blank spaces exist -- which is what I thought was the whole point of that metaphor.) Star also links ANT with pragmatism, discusses activity theory within this framework, deals with the question of how to interpret the notion of symmetry (i.e., it's not pantheism), and does quite a bit more. A great essay until the end, where she treats us to some of her own poetry. Brr.

Star also has a second essay on the politics of formal representations. I drew on this essay and Star's similar work when writing my book, so I'm already a big fan. Interestingly, I didn't get nearly as much out of it this time around. Perhaps that's because I know the territory so well now. Still, a strong essay.

Steve Woolgar's essay on integrating psychology and sociology is similarly interesting. I realized recently that psychology, sociology, and many of the other humanistic disciplines have taken up pieces of the programme originally taken up by rhetoric, so I feel less guilty about spending so much time reading their texts. Inevitably, these pieces of the programme have drifted away from each other, and Woolgar asks if they can be put back together again. He's pessimistic. I'm more optimistic; I suppose that's because activity theory is attempting to do exactly that. My favorite quote: "We need to recognize, instead, that 'cognitive' is an essentially odd notion" (p.174). Explanations of human activity in terms of cognition are, Woolgar maintains, premature at best.

Finally, Joan Fujimura's essay on cancer and biology was interesting in that she attempts an ANT-type analysis but attempts to replace the typically aggressive, warlike, competitive vocabulary with a more cooperative one, a vocabulary that she maintains does a better job of exploring distributed centers of authority. A worthwhile aim, although I found myself skimming the essay itself.

Blogged with Flock

Wednesday, June 25, 2003

(Reading Roundup: Latour Reviews Hutchins)

Originally posted: Wed, 25 Jun 2003 10:43:47

Reading Roundup. Still working on Star's Ecologies of Knowledge, but I got sidetracked when I discovered that UT has an online subscription to Social Studies of Science and some similar journals. I printed almost a ream of articles by Latour, Bowker, and similar folks and have almost finished reading them. In the mix: Latour's review of Hutchins' Cognition in the Wild from Mind, Culture, and Activity (a great journal that I didn't know UT even had a subscription to).

The latter was highly interesting because it begins to help me piece together something I began thinking about early in the blog: the relationship between actor-network theory and distributed cognition. Both take radically symmetrical (or I should say, symmetrical and therefore radical) views of the relationships between humans and nonhumans. Both attempt to eschew a micro-macro distinction. Both are pragmatic, broadly speaking (in passing, I note that Star draws the same connection between ANT and American pragmatism that I speculatively drew earlier in this blog.) But ANT comes out of sociology while DC comes from cognitive anthropology (if such a thing still exists). ANT avoids cognitive explanations while DC incorporates them by narrowly defining cognition and moving it primarily outside the head.

Other little differences begin to add up. Latour declares the macro-micro distinction dead, but I can think of few examples of his work that examine the fine details of human activity -- and even these fine details are described in general terms, along the lines of "then the lab tech cuts off one of the rat's toes." Hutchins similarly avoids a macro-micro distinction, but he uses cameras and coding schemes to dissect minute practices in ways that I can only describe as microanalytical. Latour focuses on chains of translation and displacement, while Hutchins describes chains of transformation through computations. Latour wants to make nonhumans actants, so he describes them in terms we normally reserve for humans (allies, traitors, compliant, recalcitrant, etc.) -- one envisions Latour living in a Disney cartoon where teapots sing and doors grumble, although Star cautions us against reading Latour through the lens of pantheism. Hutchins wants to stretch cognition across artifacts, so he describes it computationally and calls people a special kind of media, which on its face appears to be the opposite of Latour's tactic, creating a symmetric vocabulary by describing humans in terms reserved for nonhumans. (Of course, there's a long tradition of this in cognitive science and in Taylorism for that matter.)

I think the underlying difference between ANT and DC is that they're working on different problems. ANT isn't trying to unify the social and the cognitive -- Latour and Woolgar, in fact, decared a "moratorium" on the cognitive, believing it to be empty. On the other hand, I think that in some important way DC *is* trying to unify the two, just as activity theory is. So I'll have to investigate.

I'll also have to reread Geoff Bowker's book Science on the Run pretty soon. I just reread another one of his Schlumberger pieces and can see some resonances with my current project. More on that later.

Blogged with Flock

Monday, June 23, 2003

Reading:: Shaping Technology / Building Society

Originally posted: Mon, 23 Jun 2003 02:26:44

Shaping Technology / Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change
by Wiebe Bijker (Editor), John Law (Editor)

I keep intending to read something by Wiebe Bijker, who gets mentioned a lot whenever people talk about the sociology of technology, the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT), the rhetoric of science and technology, etc. So when I noticed that he edited this frequently cited volume with John Law, I decided I had to pick it up.

Honestly, I have mixed feelings about this collection. Some of the essays are very good, and I'll doubtless end up photocopying them and citing them. In particular, standouts include the essay on the TRS-2 aircraft by Callon and Law (better than the later book project, reviewed below); Geoff Bowker's study of Schlumberger, a company with which I interned in 1997 and 1998 (Bowker's study also turned into a book project); and a couple of really strong linked essays by Madeleine Akrich and Bruno Latour. The latter essays come with a coauthored glossary with an inordinate number of words based on "script." Akrich and Latour's separate essays have a lot to say about user-centered design and the relationship between designers and users, and in fact I wish I had read them as I was revising my book manuscript -- but no matter, I can use them later.

(I think that Latour's essay is either a previous or a later draft of the one that shows up in Ecologies of Knowledge, ed. Susan Leigh Star. Since I'm reading that book now, I'll check and report back.)

So lots of these essays are good. Why should I feel ambivalent about the collection as a whole? Mostly, I think, because I feel like I'm reading the same story over and over. We approach an established technology (fluorescent light, steel, a patent) and as we investigate the historical record, behold! It turns out that politics, society, alliances, etc. were even more important than technological superiority when it came to establishing the dominant technology. Some of the essays go a bit farther than that, of course, such as Akrich, but the basic plot seemed to hold with nearly every one of the essays. It's like reading the collected works of Piers Anthony, only without the retarded sexuality.

As a historical document, though, the collection is very interesting in that it illustrates some of the later critiques of the sociology of science and technology that are made by Latour, Law, etc. The editors and many of the authors explicitly argue that we must balance the work of technology AND sociology; the book's motto might as well be "don't forget the social dimension." And in that sense it's a breath of fresh air to read the Akrich and Latour pieces, which take the "radical" (according to the editors) position of symmetry. Latour does this most explicitly, but Akrich demonstrates it more systematically from empirical data. Forget this business about society and technology, they argue, and recognize that there is no separating the two -- each is implicated in the other, not in the crude sense of Marx's "dead labor," but in a more complex, interactive, and dynamic way.

Blogged with Flock

(Reading roundup)

Originally posted: Mon, 23 Jun 2003 02:23:54

Reading roundup. So I've slowed down lately, which I imagine has displeased my legion of readers. I've been reading miscellaneous articles and proceedings papers rather than books. I won't summarize them here, but yes, most of them have to do with actor-network theory and related items. And most have been readings that I've skimmed through before, not completely gotten, and am suddenly starting to really appreciate now that I've done the requisite background reading. In particular, Reijo Miettinen's "The riddle of things: Activity theory and actor-network theory as approaches to studying innovations" (Mind, Culture, and Activity, 6(3)) is an insightful critique and comparison of the two approaches -- really nice work. In another vein, I've been reading Jenny From the Blog, where I recently got a shout out. I've also been spending evenings with my wife playing Perfect Dark on the N64. That's right, going old skool.

Blogged with Flock