Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Symmetry as a methodological move, Part II

We've been discussing the oft-misunderstood principle of symmetry in actor-network theory. Last time I emphasized that symmetry is a methodological stance meant to get at certain things and not others–not wholesale anthropomorphization. Let's pursue that line further by performing a thought experiment. I emphasize that this is just a thought experiment for reasons that will become clear below.

Aristotle believed and taught that heavy objects fall faster than light ones, in direct proportion to their weight. Galileo disagreed, and described a classic experiment in which he stood at the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa with two balls, dropped them, and they hit the ground at about the same time. (It's unclear whether Galileo actually performed the experiment.)

Suppose you want to perform a similar experiment. Since I'm at the University of Texas campus, let's imagine that you ascend UT's Tower to the observation deck. You bring a one-pound weight and a ten-pound weight.

Photo © 1980 Larry D. Moore (CC-BY-SA), available  at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Uttower1.jpg
(NOTE: You can only do this as a thought experiment. The observation deck is inaccessible except during guided tours due to a tragic incident. Also, dropping weights from the observation deck is a misdemeanor. Obviously, I do not endorse actually performing this experiment.)

Leaning over the railing, you drop the two weights at the same time. Not surprisingly, you discover that Galileo was right and Aristotle was wrong. The ten-pound weight does not fall ten times faster than the one-pound weight; they hit the ground at roughly the same time.

Interesting, you think. And then you decide to try a second variation of the experiment. You ascend the tower again, this time with a one-pound weight, a ten-pound weight, and a 150-pound hipster.

(NOTE: Again, you can only do this as a thought experiment for obvious legal, moral, and ethical reasons.)

When you reach the observation deck, you repeat the experiment, this time dropping all three objects at the same time. It turns out that no matter how ironically the hipster falls, in terms of gravity, he behaves exactly as the other weights do. For the purposes of the experiment, the hipster is exactly the same as the other two weights; you treat them symmetrically, and so does gravity.

But when you descend the elevator to the bottom of the tower, you discover that what is treated as symmetrical in one network of meaning is not treated as symmetrical in other networks. Dropping the weights is a misdemeanor. Dropping the hipster is a felony. The law of gravity treats them as symmetrical, but state and federal law do not.

When Latour describes humans and nonhumans as symmetrical, he means that differences among actants (both human and nonhuman) are generated within a given actor-network rather than preexisting them; we can't presuppose those differences. Consider Galileo's experiment as well as the previous illustration of elevator capacity: in these narrowly defined situations, humans and nonhumans act in exactly the same way. (If the tower experiment were a physics problem, you wouldn't even specify the materials, you'd just plug in the weight values.) But of course these networks of meaning are always entangled with other networks, as they should be. There are many good reasons why you would never actually perform this experiment, and they go beyond trouble with the law to basic questions of empathy and morality, questions that apply to all people,  few if any artifacts, and to some extent to nonhuman animals. 

But Latour talks about situations in which people are actually interacting: scientists, technologists, the public. Aren't these social rather than technical? And in social situations, don't we have to treat humans and nonhumans differently? 

The answer is: it depends on your methodological aims. Even in terms that we consider very human–cognition and persuasion–it sometimes makes sense to take a symmetrical viewpoint in one's methods. We'll see an example in the next post in this series.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Symmetry as a methodological move, part I

"This circulating gene entangles patients and researchers as it goes along. ... we see that the gene is domesticated, tamed, and integrated into a collective that holds it and is held by it. It is a civilized and civilizing gene, performing the collective and performed by it. And this integration into the society of the gene, or insertion into the genetics of society, would have been impossible without a starting point: the parity, the symmetry, between the complementary forms of knowledge that constitutes the foundations of this collective." (Callon & Rabeharisoa 2003, p.201)
This quote from a recent class echoes through your head as you walk down Austin's 6th Street on a beautiful spring day. Callon & Rabeharisoa are talking about a collaboration between research scientists and the French Muscular Dystrophy Association, which was clear enough, but in the latter half of the paper they make this assertion, consistent with the principle of symmetry that actor-network theory embraces.

Symmetry seems ridiculous to you. What's the point of pretending that genes, stars, and rat kidneys are actors in the sense that people are? Why apply the same language to both? Maybe this is one of those "critical theory" moves you've heard people talking about. To you, it seems more like attention-seeking. Latour likes to say that symmetrical language is not metaphorical but that he isn't engaging in anthropomorphism either. Obviously he's trying to have it both ways.

Enough. It's spring break. South by Southwest Interactive is winding down, but South by Southwest Music is just ramping up. You walk past the back of a club, where roadies are struggling to move a ton of sound equipment. It's going to be an exclusive show, evidently, because fourteen undernourished hipsters have already lined up at the front of the club; they're thumbing their iPhones and checking out each others' ironic t-shirts. A little farther on, seven well-nourished tourists on Segways ride along the sidewalk in a neat line, like ducks. And as you pass Jim-Jim's Water Ice, you see a mounted policeman on one horse, holding another horse's reins. The other policeman is in line getting a snow cone. Ah, Austin.

But you don't have time to enjoy the scenes. You hurry on toward the Driskill Hotel, where a temporary job awaits you. When you get there, you find out that the job is pretty easy.

"See this elevator?" your supervisor asks. "It's old. It has a maximum capacity of 2000 pounds. Max. But people try to overload it all the time. Your job is to make sure they don't." He turns on his heel and walks away.

Easy, you think. But then you wonder: about how much is 2000 pounds?

Let's see, you reason to yourself. Two thousand pounds is a ton. Like a ton of stereo equipment, you think whimsically, remembering your walk.

But how many people? Maybe thirteen or fourteen people - like those fourteen undernourished hipsters in front of the club. Or seven well-fed tourists on Segways, you think, imagining the line riding into the elevator. Or two horses and a police officer. Any of these combinations would come out to about 2000 pounds. You resolve that whatever combination of humans and nonhumans might come through the door, if they are above 2000 pounds, they can't ride together.

Humans and nonhumans? You laugh a little, thinking back to the notion of symmetry. What if the hipsters argued: "But we're not horses! Hello? Do horses have an encyclopedic knowledge of craft brews? Did horses listen to Mumford and Sons long before they were cool? Do horses have iPhones? Of course not! Horses don't even have thumbs!"And you imagine yourself retorting: "Maybe that matters if you're trying to get backstage. But not here. All that matters is how much you weigh."

You don't believe for a minute that hipsters are the "same" as horses, that stereo equipment is the same as overfed tourists, or that policemen are the same as Segways. But for the purposes of your job, they are judged by exactly the same criteria. Four hours later, it occurs to you that you are indeed performing a kind of symmetric analysis.

More than that: If you don't, the elevator will.