Actor-network theory – ANT. Wow.

I think I’m going to need a while to sit and consider Bruno Latour’s ANT concept, and then revisit it time and time again to gain a more comprehensive understanding. However, after some academic research and the help of some handy Youtube tutorials ‘in plain English‘, here’s what I’ve come to ingest thus far.

ANT is commonly misunderstood (something of which I’m not surprised given its complexity). It is a theory (though not concerned with ‘why’ or ‘how’) based on free association between actors – or actants – who can be human, non-human, and/or non-individual entities.

Technological determinism assumes technical changes occur as through technical elements of a technical network. In parallel, social determinism favours social categories as instigators of change. ANT disregards both determinisms, seeing them as flawed.

Latour says ANT ‘wishes to build social theory out of networks’ and asserts a socio-technical approach where most things considered ‘technical’ are also socially-informed in the same way social networks are being technically-influenced.

In ANT, an actor ‘is something that acts or to which activity is granted by others [and] can be anything provided it is granted to be the source of an action’. All actants are equal and cannot be considered purely technical nor social. Furthermore, each actant is in themselves a network, consisting of various elements.

‘ANT makes use of some of the simplest properties of nets and then add to it an actor that does some work; the addition of such an ontological ingredient deeply modifies it.’

ANT lets go of the following oppositions:

  • Far/close: networks rid us of ‘the tyranny of distance’ or proximity. For example, you can be sitting next to someone on Platform One waiting for your next train to Hurstbridge and be on the phone to your housemate at home. Physically, you are in closer proximity to the person by your side yet network theory positions you as being more closely connected to your friend, a number of kilometres away, at home.
  • Small scale/large scale: Latour says no network is bigger than another, they are simply longer or more intensely connected. This point is something I’ll have to consider at greater length as to me, at this present time, it questions many of my assumptions (inherently influenced by media and the like) that networks can be big or small.
  • Inside/outside: Latour also states ‘a network is a positive notion which does not need negativity to be understood’ as it is ‘all boundary’ where the only question can be whether a connection exists between two elements.
  • And, priori order relation: this somewhat contradicts my preceding simplistic, superficial understandings regarding social networks (the connotations of which Latour notes and seeks to dislodge). However, I understand that while nodes are of differing sizes, networks aren’t simple structures of hierarchy. They are of changeable scales, where their type, number and topography of connections can grow, shrink and evolve throughout time.

ANT seems to be pretty democratic. It is fair and refrains from privileging any actant over another. Actors are conceived as ‘flows’, circulating objects whose continuity must be obtained by other actions and trials. They are ‘infinite[ly] pliab[le]’ and ‘absolute[ly] free’.

To further complicate things, Latour says the only explanation for ANT comes from networks’ essential property of ‘become[ing] more explainable as [the networks] go and depending on what they do to one another’.

‘Each network by growing in ‘binds’ so to speak the explanatory resources around it and there is no way they can be detached from its growth… Every network surround[s] itself with its own frame of reference, its own definition of growth, of referring, of framing, of explaining.’

In conclusion, ANT focuses on adding, connecting, and travelling, and mapping relations between what is material and what is conceptual.

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Nine thirty on a Wednesday morning. The city bustles with trains, trams and pedestrians commuting to work, school or study. The sun shines down on Melbourne town and offers up the fresh possibilities of a new day.

The students trickle in; 9.27, 9.29, 9.35, and so on. Slowly, slowly, the little classroom on level two fills as seats are taken around two tables pushed together, forming a square in the centre of the room.

Not all symposium leaders are present, but the discussion begins nonetheless. The cohort are distinctly quiet this day. Are the readings too complex? Are they too far removed from our ways of thinking? Or are we simply just too damn tired to raise our voices?

Eyes are held awake – literally, by the strength of a thumb and pointer finger. Stretch, skin, keep those eyelids concertinaed, stuck near their eyebrow friends.

Someone speaks of Deleuze. My notes say he doesn’t like the way language has developed. He moves towards factoring option into language.

Another one speaks. Understanding seems profound, yet upon later consultation, its instigator admits to only a partial grasp of the concepts buried within.

We move to Manovich – digital media theorist and artist. A theory and practice, coinciding quite strongly.

And then Elliot suggests: narratives can only be recognised internally, cognitively.

Really?

It’s certainly something to consider. Are stories prewritten, there for consumption? Or are we all actors in their creation as our open eyes scan pages, ears listen, brain and mind comprehend?

We proceed to games. Modern games primarily present a diegetic environment, sometimes with a narrative emerging. Is this like the Sims?, I wonder.

Linear games have a highly systematised narrative and the game becomes about the narrative itself. We discuss EVE Online:

‘a Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMORPG) that takes place approximately 20,000 years after our times in a galaxy on the far end of the universe…EVE is a single “shard” world [meaning] everyone who joins EVE becomes a part of the same world and the same community…In EVE you are free to choose your own destiny, [free from restrictions of] predefined character classes or professions.’

So EVE presents us with a second life as similar or far from our own as we please. In EVE, players may find a new sense of agency, or purpose. We are free to construct a narrative internally, and execute it within the ‘confines’ of the virtual world.

Conversation peaks and wavers again. Ten fifteen, more bodies in the room. By 10:30, symposium done, group work begun.

And we consider another future where, much like in Her, computers are intelligent, and we learn from one another. Our relationship becomes reciprocal. Just how far off this world is, only time will tell.

Nearing the pointy end of the course I suppose it’s only to be expected that the readings begin to tackle more complex aspects of networked media. This half-week’s readings by Lev Manovich and Bill Seaman taken from a 2007 text on Database Aesthetics, approach databases in ways I’d probably never have considered without their prompting.

Manovich’s ‘Database As A Symbolic Form’ discusses the place of databases in new media, in juxtaposition with the role of narrative in cinema. Manovich writes that the user’s experience of new media databases is basic:

‘a collection of items on which the user can perform various operations: view navigate, and search’ p. 39

New media objects are a collection of individual items (or terms) of equal significance. Examples of database presentations in new media may take the form of multimedia encyclopaedias, collections of recipes, photos or quotes, or multimedia works of cultural content such as virtual museums where the user can access, browse and click through items under different categories such as works by a particular artist, from a designated country, or perhaps chronologically.

I found a pleasing link between this illustration of databases in new media, and the Pinterest niki project we’ve just completed. Pinterest is, in my understanding, a near perfect depiction of the new media database phenomenon. Choose a category, scroll through selected pins and re-pin those you choose into self-designated groups or themes.

Manovich confirms the database structure as being central to new media and the internet age:

‘As defined by original HTML, a Web page is a sequential list of separate elements: text blocks, images, digital video clips and links to other pages.’ p. 41

Fundamentally, what the database form presents the user with is choice. Websites are ever-growing, are continually open for editing with additions possible at any stage of its existence. Consider Wikipedia, for example. Even disregarding that it’s primary function is that of an encyclopaedia, it is one of the most accurate, up to date sources of factual information because it is so alive. As soon as one of its entrants is pronounced dead, Wikipedia will have it covered. Any major world event will be documented, checked, corrected and updated all in realtime. Manovich says this contributes to the ‘anti narrative logic of the Web’ (p. 41), because

‘If new elements are being added over time, the result is a collection, not a story.’ p. 41

Subsequently, new media generally don’t present with the narrative arc so central to more traditional media. Databases are disorderly, fragmented by design. In contrast, narratives are linear and have a cause and effect trajectory.

To extrapolate on this binary, consider the design of any website.

After typing in a URL or obtaining the address via the most basic database structure, a search engine, you arrive at a home page. Presented with categorical choices, you click on the link most likely to direct you to the content you seek. Alternately, if the website’s creator thinks their database is suitably large, you may have the option of conducting an internal search of the site, to locate your information without sifting through a plethora of categories with multiple branches, and sub-branches within. This function acts as an index does, essentially providing you with a ‘page number’ on which you’ll find the desired result.

I suspect the ways in which this functions differently to a traditional narrative structure requires no further explanation.

However, Manovich notes that ‘not all new media objects are explicitly databases’ (p. 41). Computer games are experienced as narratives, with cause and effect rhythms and usually a conclusive end point. Yet the way the game is designed is around ‘hidden logic[s]’ (p. 41) – algorithms – which the player then executes to win the game. Consequently, each decision the player makes opens up the subsequent layer of relative choices, and the next and the next, which suggests a database structure rather than that of a pre-constructed narrative.

Considering websites as databases enabled me to connect this half-week’s content to prior class symposiums and readings on hypertexts and networked science. Each idea reinforces we are all a sum of our parts and it is the ways in which we link these separates together that equips us to function as we are.

Facebook is celebrating its 10th birthday today amidst speculation of an impending decline. But the behemoth of social networks is showing no signs of flailing just yet.

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Facebook is one of the first things we check in the mornings and the last, before we go to sleep.

Whether its FOMO, addition or just habit, Facebook has become a stalwart pal for about one sixth of the world’s population, a staggering ‘citizenship’ which could surpass the number of people living in China, the world’s most populous nation, within the next year.

It seems the way people use Facebook is dependent on whether (or not) they grew up with the network. As Seth Fiegerman writes, ‘Facebook’s users seem to be divided into two groups: younger users who are forever connected to people from the past, and older users who are given a powerful tool to reconnect with those they’ve long since lost touch with’.

Having signed up to Facebook at the beginning of 2008, I wasn’t one of the first to jump on the bandwagon. But I did have an account before many of my friends, albeit one I saw as the inferior little sister to my, at the time, beloved Myspace. I actually got a Facebook account to keep in touch with new friends from interstate. Either myself or members of the Sydney clan had to make a move to the dark side (Facebook and Myspace, respectively), and I ended up caving to what I thought was the short straw. About a year later, Myspace became effectively defunct and I found myself pretty proud of my already established Facebook backlog and network.

Nevertheless, I still latched onto Facebook as a way of remaining connected, rather than reigniting long lost friendships from my single digit days. Simultaneously, my peers began to use Facebook as their primary social network, to the point where I’m now connected to hundreds and hundreds of ‘friends’ some of which I’ve either met only once, or haven’t spoken to directly in years. However, every now and then someone I might classify as ‘random’ (a word my mum thinks is ‘soooo Gen Y’) pops up on my newsfeed and I’m kindly reminded of their existence in the world, if not in my life as such.

At the moment, I’m still pretty dependent on Facebook to do what it does best and give me updates and a realtime tracker of what my friends and ‘friends’ are doing with their lives. Ironically, Facebook really shows just how much we’re not doing because we’re too busy updating our online presence through status’, photos and ‘checking in’ to places where we want to be (virtually) seen.

I am not out to diss Facebook. As I said, I’m still thoroughly engaged with, and through, the network to people I’d otherwise have lost contact with. Despite only being a few years out of school, there are so many people I’d have called close friends that I now, rarely see or even speak to. Facebook provides me with that virtual and emotional link to classmates with whom I spent weeks and years, side by side. Someone’s got a new boyfriend, someone else is on exchange, one girl is living abroad and another just qualified as a professional nurse and has already landed the job of her dreams.

When people announce exciting (or even terribly tragic) events on Facebook, there is an almost resurgence and instantaneous spill of camaraderie for those involved. It’s pretty amazing how quickly people come together for someone in need, or to celebrate and congratulate a new couple, job or marriage.

But Facebook also perpetuates a continuous disease of comparison between both strangers and friends. If the aforementioned friend got ‘the’ job while you lucked out, you might feel down. You see a group of old friends catching up without you and checking in somewhere for drinks, and now not only you know you’ve been sidelined, but everybody else in their network does, too.

And social networking is, ironically, incredibly self-centred. While each network proclaims to be about connecting people, they’re all centred around individual users creating a ‘profile’ through which they will portray themselves to the world. Yet whether by intuition, self-protection or devious scheming, what and how we choose to display ourselves online is overwhelmingly self-selected – and if it’s not, you can untag yourself or remove yourself from the group with the click of a button.

So people are choosing profile pictures where they’re pleased with their appearance. They’re checking in only at the places/with people with whom they want to be seen. They’re selectively creating a virtual profile of themselves filled with all the good bits, and only minimal (if any at all) aspects of their vulnerabilities. And as Brené Brown teaches us, there is so much power in vulnerability.

But with over 1.23 billion users worldwide, Facebook is clearly doing something right. The network also hosts thousands of support groups, allows for easy sharing of digital content, and makes inviting friends to your birthday soiree so much easier. Of course, sometimes you’re drowning in events from promoters or can’t see anything on your newsfeed other than bloody memes or videos of friends nek nominating each other, but being so privy at least means you’re kept in the loop… at all times… whether you like it or not.

I suppose what it all comes down to is the power of social networking in creating, building and maintaining relationships between individuals and groups across the globe. In the words of TheFacebook’s multibillionaire founder, Mark Zuckerberg, ‘It’s been amazing to see how people have used Facebook to build a real community and help each other in so many ways’.

Only time will tell if the network survives its terrible teens. Always reinventing itself, Facebook continues to keep up with if not, lead, the Joneses so if it continues to dominate global connectivity into the 2020s, here’s hoping we’re all still interested in those self-appointed popular girls from high school because, who knows? Maybe we’ll even see them settle down some day.

In today’s Networked Media class, we had the opportunity to share our ‘niki’ entries, and read and provide feedback to other groups on their entries.

Nearing the end of the summer course, today marked the conclusion of the work on our second niki, for which my group (with Bryan and Venessa) focused on Pinterest.

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I’ve posted vaguely about Pinterest in the past, but if you’re ever looking for a mind-soothing relaxant without wanting to pop a pill, make the effort to take a bath or heat up some milk, Pinterest is your go to remedy.

Pinterest is essentially a virtual pin board and an avenue for exploring the world through collecting visual stimuli that take your fancy. Pinterest is kind of like Instagram in that its primary media is photographs, but Pinterest offers a greater scope for personal expression. For instance, I have six Pinboards on my profile, which I add to irregularly and usually in blocks. Unlike other social networks, I tend to use Pinterest only a couple of times a week – when I’m in need of said, quick brain-cure. It’s like flicking through your favourite magazine yet one that you can actually tailor specifically to your interests. A la other social networks, you choose who you follow, or even which boards you follow, and voila, hello Pinspiration!

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In another life, I was/will be an interior designer. For years and years I’ve adored trawling the web for oh-so-desirable interiors, and looking through (sadly buying few) ridiculously pricey coffee table books on home design and spatial erotica. ‘Interior porn’ is rampant online and I eat that shit up like there’s no tomorrow. Perhaps it stems from being dragged – weekly – to auctions as a child, along with house inspections and open gardens for the pure visual spectacle. But however it began, I’m so glad to have a simple pleasure in which I can indulge with just the click of a button or a trip to the bookshop, (except maybe when I’m Procrastipinning, something so hard to cease once you’ve found yourself in a New York loft or by the sea in Postiano, Italy).

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For our niki, my group decided to focus on a different aspect of the ever-growing social network; the business end. We came up with a speculative panel discussion between the business team behind Pinterest and retailers interested in utilising the platform to market their products.

Pinterest is actually such an intuitive marketing platform that almost inherently has Pinners become a part of the brand’s marketing team by liking and repining the retailers pins. If you’re interested in our speculative responses and more reasons to get pinning, check out our Pinterest niki page.

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On Thursday evening I attended a discussion hosted by Melbourne Conversations – the City of Melbourne – on what the future holds for Melbourne art, design and architecture and the fields’ practitioners. Talking about Art and Change was compered by writer and broadcaster, Peter Mares and included five panelists:

  • Ian McDougall – Founding Director ARM Architecture
  • Fleur Watson – Curator, Design Hub RMIT Univeristy, Guest curator ‘Sampling the City’, Melbourne Now
  • Rob Adams AM – Architect/Urban Designer, Director City Design (City of Melbourne)
  • Tony Ellwood – Director National Gallery of Victoria (NGV)
  • Emily Floyd – Visual artist

In 90 minutes, the panel drew (pardon the pun) many hypothetical plans for the future of the city, and highlighted the importance of recognising the similarities between art, architecture and design, which are perhaps too commonly seen as distinctly separate disciplines.

As well as attending the forum for personal interest, I covered the panel discussion for artsHub. You can see my piece ‘Melbourne’s changing landscape has artists in its sight‘ in the Design section of the artsHub website.

 

In the developed world, we’re hyperaware of the prominent role technology plays in our lives.

The term ‘technology’ is complex and Murphie and Potts (2003) suggest it has now been generalised to the point of abstraction, as ‘an overarching system that we inhabit’ (p. 4). In any case, technology is dynamic, as is culture. Culture – another term with many intricacies and social attachments – might be seen as a reflection of a society’s views, values and ideas. Yet as Murphie and Potts note, ‘the internet is at once a technological, a cultural, a political and an economic phenomenon’ (p. 9).

This is because technology and culture are interdependent and two major schools of thought have emerged out of the many discussions and theories on their relationship.

Technological determinism

‘…treats technologies in isolation, as if they come into existence of their own accord and proceed to mould societies in their image’ (Murphie & Potts, 2003, p. 17).

Commonly known as the view of Marshall McLuhan, technological determinism is both a popular attitude and theoretical position in which technology is seen as the agent of change. Coined by social scientist Thorstein Veblen in the 1920s, technological determinism sees technology as an independent factor with its own properties, course of development and consequences, and technological change as autonomous and removed from social pressures. Furthermore, technological determinism suggests the successful implementation of technical innovation can generate a whole new type of society.

Thought of as a prophet of digital networking, McLuhan’s basic premise is that all technologies are extensions of human capacities. His infamous statement ‘the medium is the message’ suggests the cultural significance of media lies not in their content, but in the way they alter our perception of the world. While still defining history by technological change, Josh Myrowitz added that the key to a medium’s cultural effect is in the way it conveys information. He suggests that the Victorian era culture – print culture – was a time of secrets, which now has become a culture of exposure where society is perhaps more excited by the act of exposure than the secrets actually exposed. This, of course, has been perpetuated by digital networking and technological change.

Cultural materialism

Alternatively, cultural materialism situates technologies in their social and culture context. A pioneer in this school of thought is Raymond Williams, who suggests McLuhan’s ‘reductionist’ version of cultural history is ‘an attempted cancellation of all other questions about it [technology] and its uses’ (cited in Murphie and Potts, 2003, p. 18).

Williams looks for the particular circumstances into which technologies are introduced and at the political and economic decision-making behind new technologies.

MacKenzie and Wajcman (1988) agree, saying ‘a new device merely opens a door; it does not compel one to enter’ (cited in Murphie and Potts, 2003, p. 20). They identify the relationship between technology and society as not simply cause and effect, but rather an ‘intertwining’ of the two.

Personally, I quite identify with Stephen Hill, who in his 1989 publication The Tragedy of Technology writes:

‘Technological change… is not, by itself, productive of social change. Instead, the direction of change is a product of the particular alignment between the technological possibilities and the society and culture that exists.’

The preexisting culture would take into account patterns of ownership, class relations, gender relations, the role of advertising and public relations, and the flux of social attitudes and beliefs, each contributing to the way in which technologies are developed, introduced, used and even resisted.

Murphie and Potts (2003) also make reference to ‘technophobia’, an anxiety towards new technologies which Mark Bosnan estimates affects up to a third of the industrialised world. I think this is a critical point as the extent to which and ways technologies are welcomed by different groups and individuals is inherently related to the age, stage of life and state of mind one is in when new technologies are introduced.

The other critical point within the first chapter of the Murphie and Potts publication is the question of whether technology in itself, is neutral.

They note ‘Technologies operate and are operated upon, in a complex social field’ (p. 22), each bringing great possibilities for both destruction, and innovation and progress. However, to further question technology’s neutrality, the authors propose the example of gun control.

The conservative argument that ‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people’, is a political position proposing that gun technology itself is neutral; that it is the way it is used – either responsibly or irresponsibly – that counts. The counterargument is that the gun’s very presence alters (and I’d add, escalates) a situation.

Finally, Murphie and Potts consider ‘machinic’ thought as a certain technological ‘flow’ we become a part of.

Technologies are as much relations between cultural and physical forces as they are objects [which] means that technologies can be studied not only in terms of their specific form, but also in terms of their function and their various contexts (p. 31).

‘Flows’ have emerged and sustained themselves throughout history in accordance with new technologies. But Murphie and Potts say that it is in our contemporary world that ‘our thought and culture have finally aligned themselves with flow… that which technology does best’ (p. 32).

While this is just the bare bones of theoretical understandings of technology and its relationship to culture, I’m certain each school of thought has its own merits and downfalls, as do individual technologies. However, I’d suggest one only has to travel – perhaps not as far as you’d think – to experience the difference living in a culture less-goverened by technology, has upon one’s way of life.