Friday, December 3, 2010


This week's presentation on Actor Network Theory really helped clarify the concepts from the reading, as well as the way I think about ANT. In round two with ANT, I feel I already have a better understanding of it and I think it is an interesting approach to social-technological interactions. There always seems to be a debate surrounding social determinism VS technological determinism - which one is right, which one is stronger, which is leading which, etc.

I like how ANT accounts for a new way of thinking about this dichotomy. It describes how humans and non humans can function as eqauls in networks, working toward a particular goal. In my opinion, this is pretty much how product development goes today. So much of what we do everyday is equally bound in social/techno practices. The demonstration in class of songsmith, just shows how AI is being used efficiently more and more - also, it's used in a lot of manufacturing processes and data collection. We wouldn`t be where we are today socially, without the technology; likewise, the technology wouldn`t exist if we weren`t coming up with new ways to use it and develop it as a result of our social nature. When I think back to the history of communication technologies, this social-technological relationship becomes really clear. For instance, the telephone was a piece of technology, adapted from preceding ideas such as the telegraph and originally it was used by the Bell company for business purposes only. Women at home and families turned the telephone into what it is today because of the way they transformed its use for social purposes. Examples like this might not occur as often today, but it is undoubtedly true that without a social interaction, technology would not exist as it does today, and vice versa for society.

The article describes this relationship as "mutually constitutive". This perspective helps take our focus away from a simply technological or social determinist view on the world. I enjoyed thinking about ANT because it helps bring to light the complex relationship between the two factors. Since I've been introduced to ANT in this course, I think it applies to socio-technological development much more appropriately than tech determinism (a perspective that a lot of young MIT students have). ANT is a more accurate reflections of the realities of our interactions with technology every day.

The other article for this week, "Resisting Surveillance: Identity and Implantable Microchips" by Nisbet, also challenges common perspectives on technology, RFID in particular. I thought Nisbet's museum intallment was very clever to create awareness in people about RFID technology and what it is capable of in social contexts. The focus on how to subvert this technology was key, and goes back to ANT because Nisbet is changing the network created by the interactions between actors, humans and RFID. Nisbet implanted two chips in her hand instead of one. This messes up the network because for tracking data to be meaingful, the RFID must only be associated to one particular thing. In this case, Nisbet is adding a new actor to the context, and in doing so she disrupts the meaning of data as two data flows are created for her singular physical identity. However, she's still being tracked so even though she's distorting the information - she's still contributing to it.

On the positive side, RFID technology can undoubtedly be useful in a lot of ways. I love the idea of having some of my important personal belonging (keys, cell phone, etc) being chipped so I can find them when they're lost. I also like the idea if chipping luggage in airports so it can be continuously tracked and never lost. Nevertheless, when a technology like this has useful pusposes, it is easier to accept its use - and it seems that this will make it easier to implement it in more invasive ways. I can see companies/government attempting to justify tracking humans for some type of supposed benefit, convenience, or safety measure - and because people are familiar with the technology in harmless contexts, I think they would be less likely to protest the use of the same technology on themselves.