By Ben Collier (Contributor)
“Things aren’t different. Things are things.”
- William Gibson, Neuromancer
Having spent the past several months writing up a Master’s dissertation on Actor-Network Theory and its potential for expanding and developing the field of cybercrime research, I have had the eternal social science student experience of watching as an exciting, newly devoured work of social theory worms its way throughout my consciousness. At my early stage in studying the social sciences, it seems that progress in theoretical study involves careful navigation between the Scylla of summary rejection and the Charybdis of uncritical adoption, with Actor-Network Theory posing for me the problem of a theoretical approach which can too easily seem to hold all the answers, to apply to every field and to provide the chilling totality of a sociological “Theory of Everything”. I feel, despite no longer being a fanatical supporter, that I ought to make a critical defense of Actor-Network Theory in the hope of savaging some of its radical, exciting contributions to sociology (while falling short of endorsing some of its grander claims). Actor-network theory (ANT), originating in the Sociology of Science, and made most famous by the work of Bruno Latour, provides an alternative way of viewing space, agency and action which attacks the subject/object binary, liberating objects from meek inaction into a continuum of different types and degrees of agency. ANT describes objects, non-humans and humans alike, as “actants” - individual nodes whose agency must be thought of primarily in terms of the network of associations (or “Actor-Network”) which they form with one another. Sociological study, then, becomes a process of slowly and methodically tracing these associations in a framework where the idea of “social forces” is problematised; Latour does not deny that social forces exist, rather he contends that in order to have an effect they must be passed through these networks, with every human and non-human along the way being able to distort and change them through their own personal experiences, motivations and properties.
As an explicitly “technosocial” theory, which aims to study (and blur some of the demarcations between) humans and technology, Actor-Network Theory would appear to be well-suited to provide critical insight into the sociology of cybercrime. More broadly, it has the potential to illuminate the sociological study of the emerging networks of information and communications technology in general. In the last hundred years, these networks have spread across the world, transforming social relations and creating new spaces and sites for interaction to such an extent that in modern, Western society a vast amount of our culture and society is lived out online. In many regards, however, research and writing which aims to characterise the integration of these technologies into society often seems less-than-apt, failing to capture the lived experience (or, for that matter, the technological reality) of these new spaces for interaction. Here, Actor-Network Theory, with its heterogeneous networks of hybrids can help to avoid oversimplifications and sweeping generalisations and to begin the work of building, slowly, a more accurate picture of the ever-closer cohabitation of humans and non-humans. This picture is built up by the careful cataloguing of associations to form a description of an Actor-Network - for example, a conversation between two individuals across an Instant Messaging service would enrol the two humans involved, their internet-capable phones and their stored software and hardware and the major stages of communications infrastructure involved in the transmission of the message as a basic network (which, depending on the particular context or reference frame, could be expanded ad-infinitum as far as is relevant). This laborious process may seem needlessly obtuse or pedantic but it quickly becomes relevant if, for example, there is a point in the chain which is vulnerable to state intelligence agency snooping or if, in a more nuanced way, the particular kinks and idiosyncrasies of the technology used by the individuals leads to changes in the experience or the meaning of the interaction. It is exactly this ability of objects and technologies to mediate and subtly change the associations and interactions of humans with which Actor-Network Theory is concerned.
Describing the social world as deeply integrated in and stabilised by the technical (and denying that a clear dividing line exists between the two), Actor-Network Theory’s heterogeneous networks invoke their own topology which proves useful in rethinking the idea of “cyberspace”. Common to many accounts of “cyberspace”, both in pop-culture and in some academic writing, is the somewhat deterministic concept of the “impact” of Information Technology on society. As described by Stephen Graham in “The End of Geography or the Explosion of Place? Conceptualising Space, Place and Information Technology”, this way of describing technology in society views technological progress as somehow separate from the lived, messy relationships which make up society, affecting it in a “predictable, universal, revolutionary wave of change”. (Graham, 1998). These narratives characterise the rise of high-speed communications technology as “liberating” or “substituting” physical space with a new virtual world, describing the collapse of social space as all communication becomes instant and information is universally available. In the nineties, this led people to predict the demise of the city as a primary mode of human habitation - people would work from home, working in virtual offices and socialise in virtual worlds of their construction. As such the immense concentration of people which the city provided would no longer be necessary. These accounts inevitably tend to predict utopian or dystopian futures, with technology (and particularly the internet) being inherently democratising or de-democratising as set out by Hand in “E-Topia as Cosmopolis or Citadel?”. Whether the internet is cast as inherently facilitating collective organisation and progress towards a liberated, democratic world society or, conversely, inevitably leading to greater and greater encroachment of the market and state surveillance and control into all aspects of human life, technological determinism sees wide-scale sociological changes as contingent on technological development.
Critical rejections of this tend to come from a social constructionist critique, which aims to capture the “richness and embeddedness of human life within space and place” (Graham, 1998). This acknowledges the links between physical space and the virtual environment, with virtual spaces and places being anchored in real spaces. Graham and Bingham argue that this constitutes a “Co-evolutionary” perspective in which real locations (be they cities, houses, institutions or countries) and their virtual analogues coevolve and mutually affect one another. The ways in which different social groups use the internet (or are denied access to it) to communicate may be very different, and the “collapse of space” is far from total - real-world social networks and connections are hugely important in structuring and determining the networks formed online. In this conceptualisation, the spread of technologies, their social meanings and the ways in which they are used are determined by societal forces and as such, this allows for a far more complex, politically aware and sociologically interesting description of the spread of communications technology throughout the world.
The key development which Actor-Network Theory makes in this regard is in the rejection of both the deterministic “substitutionist” picture of cyberspace and of the social constructionist critique of it as making too readily a clear distinction between the technological and the social. As described by Madeline Akrich, these viewpoints either make social development contingent upon technological development or argue that the spread of technology is socially determined, with its properties and relations expressed only as manifestations of social processes. Latour explicitly rejects these two approaches, arguing that a hybrid approach which allows for both the social and technical to possess agency allows for a truer description of the world, avoiding “black-boxing” either humans or non-humans. This discards the notions of “virtual” and “real” space as separate realms and instead provides a description of space as being contingent, heterogeneous and made up of “actants” and their associations. Describing a “vast skein of networks” constituted of a myriad of cyber-spaces made up individually by their human, social and technological components, this approach allows the social scientist to trace complex maps of the individual technological networks in which social interactions occur throughout the world. (Graham,1998). Although this (as Latour himself admits) may appear tiresome and laborious, it allows for a nuanced understanding of the increasingly complex systems which mediate human interaction.
While there are many valid criticisms to be made of Actor-Network Theory - it tends towards managerialism and apoliticism in its explanations, is suspicious of “social forces” and inherently relativistic - I feel that there are some of its contributions which are well worth defending. A better understanding of the spaces and places which we and our new technologies are creating is only one of these, but it is in my opinion one of the most important, and the most needed.
Akrich, M., “The De-scription of Technical Objects”, Shaping Technology/Building Society, 1992, pp. 205-224
Bingham, N., “Object-ions: From Technological Determinism Towards Geographies of Relations”, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 1996; 14 pp. 635-657
Graham, S., “The End of Geography or the Explosion of place? Conceptualising Space, Place and Information Technology”, Progress in Human Geography, 1998; 22,2 pp.165-185
Hand, M. “E-Topia as Cosmopolis or Citadel: On the Democratising and De-Democratising Logics of the Internet, or, Towards a Critique of the New Technological Fetishism”, Theory, Culture and Society, 2002, 19:197
Latour, B. “Reassembling the Social”, Oxford University Press, 2003, UK