Thursday, October 28, 2010

Loci of desire

I haven't yet read Kevin Kelly's new book What Technology Wants. I suspect I'll find it mostly annoying -- he has a habit of addressing issues I care and think about, in ways that are sort of like my own opinions, but taken too far or off in some quasi-theological direction that I find grating (OK, and the fact that he reaches orders of magnitude more readers than I do might also contribute to my annoyance). But I did pick it up in the bookstore and look in the index to find no mention of Bruno Latour, which was slightly surprising, since Latour has been talking about investing agency into non-humans for decades.

But then it occurred to me that there is something fundamentally different about Kelly's view and Latour's (disclaimer: I actually have no idea what Kelly's view is, I'm judging the book by its title which may not be fair). Latour grants agency to things, but I very much doubt he would ever imbue technology as a whole with desires, as Kelly does. Latour is interested in the politics of things and the networks that connect things and people; their alliances, their conflicts, their failures and triumphs. His project is to tease out and describe these networks -- for instance, how a mass spectrograph connects the researchers and engineers who developed it, the manufacturer, its purchasers and users, the inscriptions it generates, the actual sample being measured, and the theory it will hopefully support. Under the Latourian view humans and non-humans have ontologically equal status and are connected in networks as equals.

That is an intriguing if difficult idea, but it's very different from Kelly's, which posits some sort of overarching teleology. In Latour's world model, everything (technology included) is radically distributed and radically democratic. In Kelly's, technology is some external, autonomous, and presumably unstoppable force of nature rolling over humanity like a tidal wave of disruption.

I can actually see merits to both views; they can both be useful perspectives. But I think Latour's is subtler, richer, and ultimately more humanistic since it is all about how the desires of humans and technologies are connected.

Damn, now I guess I'll have to read Kelly's book to see if I'm being unfair to it.

The broader issue is one that has obsessed me for some time -- the fact that in the modern era nobody really knows what wants are or where they come from. A whole constellation of forces, from the Freudian unconscious and the Darwinian roots of behavior through the modern-day manipulation of the mass media -- all conspire to make it glaringly obvious that desire is never a simple act of an atomic self. So what is it, and how do we talk about it intelligently?

Here's another critique of Kelly's book, also unfair since it came out more than 30 years before he wrote his.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The notion that 'agency' - i.e., the capacity for action - can be attributed to inanimate objects or abstractions is rather hard to swallow. The notion that they can have 'desires' is somewhat harder to swallow.

It appears these thinkers are trying to say that technology follows a complex and uncontrollable trajectory once it gets out of the hands of its creators. It can then be influenced by the use or misuse of others, often with perverse results.

Spengler made this point in "Man and Technics," especially in his argument that technologies could escape the West and be used against it by hostile races. In his time he had only such examples as the use of rockets against the British by Hyder Ali and Tippoo Sahib, or of repeating rifles against the U.S. cavalry by red Indians. Today his observation is even more apparent; Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has - or shortly will have - the atom bomb. Indeed, as Spengler observed, "optimism is cowardice."