Sunday, February 5, 2012

From My Cold, Dead Hands!

Do guns kill people or do people kill people? A famous NRA spokesperson might say that a gun is just one of many tools a killer could use--the problem is not guns, but people. Educate people, and you'll solve the problem. Gun control supporters, on the other hand, argue that putting a gun into someone's hands changes them. It makes them do things they wouldn't do otherwise. If you remove access to guns, you'll remove the main cause of violent death.

Whether or not you are politically inclined, you've probably had a similar discussion that centered around a technology like firearms. For example, are hackers social deviants who just happen to create malware and viruses? Or does the internet and the availability of free software tools create malevolent coders? Similarly, do smartphones make people terrible bores at social events, or do they provide anti-social people an excuse to opt out?  Finally, and in a more positive vein, are people smarter today, or do we just have better technologies, like Wikipedia?

These questions come down to the same thing: What is the cause of an action? Is it the technology that is a means to the action (this might be called the materialist explanation)? Or is it a person's intentions or ability to do something (this might be called the sociological explanation)? Should we blame things or people?

Maybe these questions are not framed quite right. Sociologist Bruno Latour helps us break out of these nature/nurture debates with what is called Actor-Network Theory. According to Latour, both a gun and a person are actors or causes. (Since it seems strange to call an object an actor, he uses the word 'actant.') A gun + a person is a new actor. A person doesn't simply use a gun, nor does the gun simply alter a person. The technology creates new possibilities for a person, but a person creates new possibilities for a gun.

Of course, all advanced technologies involve a chain or network of actants. In the case of guns, this might include political states ordering guns and determining who has access to them, factory workers manufacturing guns, and users of guns, such as armies. Without a network like this, guns could not make sense. Latour says, "747's don't fly--airlines do." That is, a 747 would be worthless without a network of thousands of people, concepts, and things.

Furthermore, any component of a technological device (including the device itself as a whole) can be treated either as a black box or as an almost infinite chain or network of actants. For instance, computers involve software, wetware, and hardware. Hardware involves hardware components like hard drives. Hard drives involve other components, like magnetic tape. Magnetic tape implicates the historical development of manufacturing processes, the logical abstractions of information theory, and the decisions of many decentralized people, including programmers, users, and business people. When talking about the technology of a speed bump, Latour says that it's "ultimately not made of matter; it is full of engineers and chancellors and lawmakers, commingling their wills and their story lines with those of gravel, concrete, paint, and standard calculations."

The meaning 'obey the speed limit' is translated into 'protect your car's suspension' by the technology of the speed bump

So, what is to blame? People or guns? Latour's answer is: the entire network of actants (guns, gun owners, engineers, and manufacturers), which are themselves products of years of experimentation and learning. Unfortunately, this answer is probably not very satisfying to political junkies. It cautions us to be careful about what we develop, but what about what has already been developed? It is much harder to change an existing network than the two proposed solutions: education or the banning of guns.


  1. Really nice. I like the contrast between materialist and sociological modes of explanation. The materialist hypothesis is tempting because the distribution of objects is more or less easy to control. The sociological hypothesis (I would be tempted to call this the "subjectivist" hypothesis) is tempting because of the appeal to human will and free choice. This dichotomy appeals particularly to us because it frames the debate in terms of freedom and control: *the* fundamental concepts of the contemporary political scene.

    The idea of networks is hard to grasp because we can't frame the problem or the solution as one of freedom or control--we can't trace it back to a matter of rights or decisions. Instead, we have to frame problems and solutions in terms of differential *concrete effects of experimental tweaks,* which does not resonate as politics at all: Justice? Freedom? Rights? Authority? All of these key concepts fall out of the conversation.

    Anyways, this was a very good, clear post.

  2. Just what I wanted to say, only more concise! I don't think anyone has a very good handle on how to talk about technology. Unfortunately, and for that reason, those best served by technologies are often the ones running the show. People often point to the value of large corporations, war research, and NASA because they are the source of many new technologies. But are they the right ones?


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