3 Big Questions: Latour and ‘connected cars’

In Three Big Questions, we ask experts to reveal what their favourite philosopher can teach us about the future of tech.

Today we talk to Professor Gerard Goggin, eminent scholar of social media and digital culture, about how Bruno Latour (the not-dead French philosopher) can help us appreciate great tech failures and keep in mind that every technology is a contingent and unfinished thing.

  1. Tell us about a philosopher that has particularly inspired you in your work or thinking?

The French philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour has been a major influence in thinking about technology and science for the last few decades. He is especially well-known for actor-network-theory, a contribution to social theory devised with various collaborators. His more recent work has focused on publics and democracy, emergence of modern science, nature, and climate change regimes.

When I was beginning to write about the emergence of mobile communication I was particularly struck by his 1992 book on technology – Aramis, or the Love of Technology. This is a brilliant, witty, and novel-like account of the development of a high tech automated subway in France in the 1980s – and how it failed, and why.

Public discourse about technology often focuses on the great successes, but the failures are just as important.

It turns out, not surprisingly, that technologies have much more complex, rich, ambiguous, and confusing ‘careers’ and histories, than we realize!

  1. What about his life and ideas do you think is particularly relevant for us today?

What is very helpful and extremely relevant for us today in Latour’s early work – as well as his later work, still in progress – is its emphasis on the ways that technology is unfinished. Technology will assume particular forms and shapes, that we take for granted, and rely on – as a matter of life and death. Also technology will be woven into our social relationships, political arrangements, and culture.

However, technology is also very dynamic and contingent. It needs a lot of support and resources, and marshalling of people and things to make it work, as well as accidents and good fortunes.

So we need to look carefully to understand how technologies and society are being ‘assembled together’ – and how we can influence their shape (or not).

  1. What kind of advice do you think he’d give us about digital technology today?

Unlike many other famous philosophers, Latour has thought extensively about the digital – and especially via his work on digital methods & their implications for thinking about and doing the social (for instance, his work on digital humanities).

In relation to some of the technologies prominent at present, I would think his work points us to the importance of studying closely the actual arrangements, systems, and materialities of things such as AI, social media, Big data, and, returning to the French automated transportation experiments of the 1980s, ‘connected cars’.

Many of us are interested now in these emerging technologies – and we have a very good opportunity to be able to critically and usefully intervene into and shape how these systems turn out (and also to point out what kinds of things we may not be able to influence!).

Special thanks to Gerard Goggin, PhD, Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and Professor of Media and Communications at The University of Sydney.  Gerard has has been described as a “central scholar in the mobile communication research community” and has produced award-winning research in disability and media policy.  He has published 20 books and over 170 journal articles on the social, cultural, and political aspects of digital technologies, especially the Internet, mobile media, disability and accessibility.

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