Sunday, June 08, 2003

Reading:: Science in Action

Originally posted: Sun, 08 Jun 2003 09:02:53

Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society
by Bruno Latour

Well, of course this book is a classic. I had forgotten how good it was. A few things that struck me on this reading:

First, Latour's unique and remarkable writing style has begun to emerge here. It was present in the earlier Latour and Woolgar, but very subdued. It gets stronger here and is in full flower in Pandora's Hope and We Have Never Been Modern. Yes, I think this is very important. As Latour points out in this book, most academic articles go unread or at most glanced at; it is as if they never existed. His style helps his work to be noticed and read, although of course there's much more to his work than his style (see below). Compare it to another book I'm currently reading, Sellen and Harper's The Myth of the Paperless Office (review coming soon) and you'll see what I mean -- it's not that Sellen and Harper's insights are shallower or less useful, it's just that their mild academic style, endless taxonomies, and run-of-the-mill examples make their text a bit hard to get through. I'm not racing through that book or feeling inspired as I do with Latour's works. So I'm very interested in Latour's style and particularly in learning how to make my own style more interesting.

Second, Latour has some interesting thoughts about rhetoric and its importance. Rhetoric is not simply assembling a large number of allies, but allies in the most advantageous way and in transformative ways. Even here in his earlier work he's connecting rhetoric and democracy in smart ways. Pandora's Hope develops this thought further. (Another thought: In PH, I think Callon stands in for the figure of Machiavelli and turns out to be a nice way for Latour to defend himself against the charges of Machiavellism that are sometimes leveled against him. Some of those charges came from hasty readings of Science in Action. Reading the two books in reverse chronological order makes it easier to evaluate those charges.)

Third, and probably the most interesting to me at this point, Latour proposes a "moratorium on cognitive explanations of science and technology" -- a rejection of the idea that special cognitive abilities are a necessary explanation for how technoscience works. Well, there it is. Distributed cognition takes a similar tack, of course. But I wonder if perhaps this point has something to do with why Latour is so blithe about the macro-micro distinction. If he abandons the cognitive as a useful and meaningful explanation, it's much more interesting to watch texts and artifacts change hands than to scrutinize micro-level interactions! Compare that with Hutchins (1995), where he agrees that special cognitive abilities aren't needed but still thinks the cognitive is vitally important. Hutchins examines macro and micro levels with appropriate methods and tries to integrate them; Latour really doesn't, I think.

Anyway, a great book.

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