From Digital Methods to Digital Ontologies: Bruno Latour and Richard Rogers at CSISP

It was a completely full house last week (7 March) in the Ian Gulland Lecture Theatre for Richard Rogers’ and Bruno Latour’s joint presentation as part of The New in Social Research – with students and lecturers lining the steps and craning their necks from the upper deck.

Both speakers were gracious co-hosts: Rogers referring to himself as “the appetiser for the main course”, while Latour framed his talk as “a footnote” to Rogers’. But the two lectures, which addressed “digital methods” and “digital ontology” respectively, were more closely entwined: Rogers’ cutting edge mapping and internet research techniques provided “an occasion” for Latour to vindicate the theories of Gabriel Tarde, while Latour’s Tardian ontology provided validation and grounding for Roger’s methodologies.

Rogers, who runs the Digital Methods Initiative in Amsterdam, began with brief history of internet research. In the late 90s, the hyperbolic pronouncements of the “cyberspace” era gave way to more sociological studies which situated the online in the offline world (following Miller and Slater 2000). But Rogers argued that we have now entered a new phase in which internet activity need not be studied as something categorically separate from “the real”. The online, rather than the real, is now “the baseline”.

He gave the example of Google Flu Trends, which uses keyword searches of “flu like symptoms” to locate the spread of the flu (and other diseases) geographically – much faster than traditional epidemiological techniques. He contrasted these new ways of using Google as a research tool – such as mapping regional differences in language (“soda” versus “pop”) or Thanksgiving eating habits (“sweet potato pie” versus “yams”) – with the traditional equivalents: where sociologists physically drove around the country in “word wagons” collecting data on local language practices. Rogers posed the question what characteristics does internet data contain (such as time stamps) which distinguish it from from these inherited forms of data ike surveys.

He also addressed the ubiquity of Google and how it has transformed the search engine into a mass media resource. But ironically, even from the early days, it was always thought of as a research tool – as stated in Google’s patent application. Rogers explained how to turn off various settings to convert google into your own research engine.

Many of the DMI’s recent works were also on display. Rogers used the Issue Dramaturg tool to reveal a rare incident of a website (a 9/11 conspiracy blog) temporarily disappearing from the Google listings. He examined differences in the language versions of articles in Wikipedia which spoke volumes about how countries represent historical conflicts differently (different death tolls or more provocative photos). We also saw how the health of national internets (as defined by IP address or WhoisGuard) could tell us about what was happening on the ground in conflict zones. But Rogers also stressed caution in applying these approaches uncritically: discussing throughout his talk the messiness and limitations of internet data sets, as well as the politics behind them.

While Rogers explored what was exciting and new about internet research, Latour stressed continuity by relating this new kind of data back to the work of Durkheim’s contemporary Gabriel Tarde. While Durkheim assumed that there was an aggregate called “society”, arising “ex abrupto” out of aggregated individuals, Tarde saw “scale”, in this sense, as a sociological invention. Latour described scale in Tarde’s vocabulary as a function of connectedness between “monads” which are defined by their relations to other monads through a kind of reciprocal possession. Thus for Tarde, the whole is always smaller than its parts – in the sense that a grouping of people is not a container for individuals nor a baseline of shared characteristics, but a few select features within each member.

Some authors have already speculated about the potential application of Latour’s reading of Tarde for the internet (Kulenberg and Palmås 2009) but here and in a forthcoming paper (Latour et al 2012) Latour made this connection explicit. He explained how the internet finally allows us to do sociology in a Tardian way, offering online profiles or CVs as an approximation of a monad in the way they represent internalizations of relations. With the advent of digital methods we now have the ability to see both this individual data and aggregates simultaneously on the same screen with a few clicks. So what has changed is not the basic format of data but the speed at which it can be accessed and zoomed in and out. It was the slowness of surveys and stats that kept collectives and individuals at arms length in the past. Latour also related these techniques to past studies of scientific journals and “paradigms” where this level of individual data has been available for some time.

The momentum continued in the then muggy theatre with a lively question and answer session. Rogers was asked how he triangulated his findings, to which he replied that his team was still nervous about the data but were currently working on triangulating it with other online data. Moderator Noortje Marres similarly wondered if there wasn’t a danger in “going native” – that the methods themselves could format the data – leaving blind spots for the researcher.

An audience member at the end wondered if perhaps this Durkheimian brand of macro-sociology Latour was railing against wasn’t something of a straw man, and that most practitioners of anthropology or social science, at least those in the room, never suffered from these theoretic deficiencies in the first place. Latour agreed that this was not directed at the audience but that there were practitioners (economists?) who very much rely on collectives as objects. As usual, Latour defused tensions with his self-deprecating humour and precise comic timing. When asked by one audience member if there were any special properties of “social” monads which made them distinct from say, bacteria, he pretended to think for a second before tentatively approaching the microphone to bark “non!” to a big laugh.

The general atmosphere seemed to be positive and receptive but not without some healthy skepticism towards the newness of Roger’s techniques or the practicalities of Latour’s “flat ontology”. But as we learned, neither the methods nor the ontology are categorically “new”, merely amplifications of old techniques and a reignition of old concerns. The point where Tarde’s brand of Sociology finally becomes realised through new technology on the internet is still a latent potential, but it’s a tantalizing one.

– David Moats

Photos by Jorge Castillo

References:
Kullenberg, C. and Palmås, K. (2009) “Tarde’s contagiontology: From ant hills to panspectric surveillance technologies” Eurozine http://www.eurozine.com/pdf/2009-03-09-kullenberg-en.pdf

Latour, B. et al 2012 “The Whole is Always Smaller Than It’s Parts A Digital Test of Gabriel Tarde’s Monads” British Journal of Sociology (forthcoming)http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/123-WHOLE-PART-FINAL.pdf

Miller, D. and Slater, D. (2000) The internet: an ethnographic approach. Berg, Oxford & New York

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CSISP Salon One 2011/12: On Scale

The CSISP Salon is an ongoing forum for discussion that seeks to provoke dialogue between (un)complimentary objects. Our theme in the 2011/12 season is scale. Subject matters such as climate change, electronic waste, brands and branding, disasters, or life science data manifest themselves on and in multiple scales (the home, the nucleotide sequence, the environment, the United Nations, the T-Shirt). For the sociologically inclined enquirer, such scales occasion many vexing questions: What to analyse? Where and what to observe? How to integrate different scales? Seeking to grapple with matters and materials of different sizes, visibilities, durations and complexities, we explore the practical and ethical implications of doing and accomplishing scale.

The first Salon of the season met on 26th October. Here, the first three chapters of Jean Ricardou’s late 1960s novel encountered an STS informed provocation piece, written by the organizers of the Scalography event that took place in Oxford in 2009. What follows is a retelling and reshaping of the session, co-organised by Tahani Nadim and Joe Deville.

CSISP Salon poster

CSISP Salon 2011/12 poster

Provocations on ants and scale Tahani Nadim

In their conclusion Woolgar and others suggest to look at the “natural sciences” to escape the conventions of scale and learn about how to do scale somewhat differently. In this Salon, literature, or more specifically, Jean Ricardou’s Place Names (1968[2007]), shows us some interesting even inventive but certainly different routes into the lands of scale.

Jean Ricardou, born 1932, is an author of both fiction and theory. He is one of the key figures in the nouveau roman, a literary genre or rather movement that emerged in the 1950s in France. The new novel rejects – in some cases spectacularly ejects – such things as linear chronology, discernible plot and coherent characters. Readers learn very little about inner motives or the psychology of protagonists and so the nouveau roman collapses the panorama of the novel. There is no evident order, no rational space-time context or other intelligible frame of relations. It is thoroughly disorienting, for readers and characters alike, hence it is particularly apt that this book should offer itself as a guide book.

A guide book is of course a scalar device that allows acting at a distance and makes problems doable: a vast region, too big to take in, becomes neatly ordered for us to peruse. In our case however perusal quickly turns into fluster as this guide book offers little if anything in matters of direction and location. And the meagre bones it does throw quickly disintegrate without leaving even a spot of dust for triangulation. Rather than mapping a region and its sites and sights, Place Names unfolds strange worlds – in pictures, recollections, parks and antique shops – which it is only too happy to collapse at a moments’ notice. The valley’s chequerboard landscape introduced in the beginning pages, is reminiscent of another equally confounding chequerboard – the one encountered by Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Like her, we oftentimes feel as if we’re peering through a looking-glass, we’re not really granted the proper, proportional, proportioned vista. This is not necessarily detrimental to our travels: discrete things such as ants, white flags, mirrors, the crusades, red cars and slightly crazy park wardens enter into fanciful associations and demand of the reader too to entertain curious entanglements.

By denying us a congruous panorama, Place Names and the nouveau roman in general, constitute a provocation. So here we arrive at one possible intersection for Ricardou, Woolgar and others: They can all be considered as provocations. They provoke by confounding our expectation and experiences of scale. Scale requires a vantage point from where to put things in perspective and establish an order, a vantage point that Place Names denies us. Similarly, Woolgar and others provoke on multiple fronts, demanding, among other things, an end to imprudent use of adjectives of scale and an investigation, preferable ethnographic, of scale as an effect of scalar practices. Also, their provocation piece is written, as so many provocations (from Luther to Wittgenstein) were, as a number of theses. Scale is often associated with comfort: objects, relations and ratios of relations are scaled in such a way as to fit our bodies, please our senses and spare our minds. In both texts, scaling or the practices of doing scale perturb some convenient positions.

The second junction I’d like to suggest for the texts relates to their respective or mutual topography: The novel precipitates between two seemingly opposite poles, projecting a “garden of opposition”: On one hand, the belief that things emerge from words, that discourse is generative of reality, that the name precedes the object. On the other hand, the contrary: It is words that name things, and language is but a translation of a prior real reality. Ricardou’s book itself is a product of this very struggle, continuously changing from guide book to novel and back. Woolgar and others too begin by presenting an opposition. Here, this “fundamental split” is between those social scientists that study the macro and those who observe the micro. More fundamentally, this is perhaps the tragedy of scale, locked into a matrix that by default distributes value, worth and relevance unevenly.

Between the two camps, there is not much common ground but there are ants. Lots of them. We encounter them throughout the book. They’re usually in peril: encircled by raging, furious waters, encased in cellophane glued to a plane tree, or subjected to microscopic flamethrowers, they struggle and they perish. Yet they steadily re-appear, sometimes as non-ants as in the figure of the woman in the red car named Atta, a name which also describes leaf-cutter ants. Or the protagonist Olivier Lasius, Lasius referring to a genus of boreal formicine ants. The ants then represent not so much an intractable opposition of scales but point to the fictitious nature of the split between micro and macro. This is not to say that this split has no material consequence. But it suggests some relevant questions, not least of which concern the possibility of ethical practice in incommensurable and incongruous entanglements with words, ants, wars and reading groups.

Scalar frustrations Joe Deville

Ricardou’s traveller frowns at a painting, bending closer to get a better a look at a detail that has drawn his attention. In getting closer, what had seemed so important – a clue to the painting’s meaning perhaps? – changes. He wonders if it is an effect of his shadow. But he can’t be sure. He is left, Ricardou tells us, “disappointed”.

I don’t think it would be a surprise if, in trying to scrutinise our two objects, we too are left with a tinge of disappointment. One way of seeing Ricardou’s account (there are inevitably plenty of others) is as a meditation on the frustrations that accompany the search for clarity and closure. Ricardou toys with his traveller, resists satisfying him with answers, denying him the authority of events, places and history. Many of the things that might help ground his journey, that might provide him a place, a time to think from, to live from, are made to slip and slide around him. And then up pops the poor ant, similarly striving to keep his (six) feet on the ground, as the stone he is on threatens to be engulfed by a miniature flood. This ant is engaged in a very real life and death struggle, to whom the questions which so perplex Ricardou’s traveller seem wholly irrelevant.

Bringing this to this Salon’s themes, one question of the many in the Scalography team’s provocation piece, that perhaps speaks to this sense of frustration, is the following:

“How and why is it so difficult to think scale differently?”

On the one hand, such difficulties are unexpected – they speak to the challenges that often accompany attempts to pin down slippery concepts. On the other, as the provocation piece points towards, there are ways in which, as a social scientist, the frustrations of working with scale matter in some quite particular and important ways. It speaks to the extent to which the problems we explore can come loaded with forms of scalar awareness that shape and are shaped by well worn, stubborn, value-laden patterns of thought. There are also the pressures we might feel for, example, for our work to scale – in particular – up. To speak, for example, to ‘big’, ‘important’, ‘wider’, and ‘relevant’ issues. Or there are the frustrations that accompany the way in which our own work is scaled in particular, unwanted trajectories by others, in REF matrices, for instance.

Here are some areas where the politics of the scalar thinking – both our own and others’ – become apparent to us. These operate around the question of what matters and how this matters (and to whom) (on this, see Isabelle Stengers). Here we can return to Ricardou’s ant. Ricardou seems to pose the reader a question: what is more important: the life of a tiny ant, struggling for security, or the traveller’s struggle for security, manifest in his attempts to pin down the character of the world through which he moves. In these chapters Ricardou does not offer an answer. Instead, the question becomes more specific. Should a traveller, seeing the plight of the ant, extend it a leaf and transport it to safety? Or should he or she, as Ricardou puts it, “on the pretext of shortening the animal’s agony”, crush the ant, judging it as an irrelevance (to the human world anyway) and keep walking? In both cases, the choice is not without consequences. In the first, the ant threatens to “run hither and yon over the guidebook’s pages” – disrupting the attempt by the author to communicate to potential travellers a clear account of the world around them. In the second, the crushed ant’s unwitting revenge is the damp spot left on the traveller’s shoe. This will become a series of guilty footprints marking a trail back to the scene of the minute murder.

One likely lesson from Ricardou is that we shouldn’t look too closely for a meaning behind this apparently ethical allegory, that seems to ask us to compare the value of the small to the value of the big. Perhaps our attention should instead be focused on the value of the question – here brought to the ethical questions that surround the scaling of things: what does matter, to whom, and in what way? And how do things that are variously scaled as small and big interfere and disrupt one another – or not? It is the value of such questions that also cross cuts the Scalography team’s provocation piece. These questions include trying to interrogate how and why things are scaled – but at the same time being attentive to the ways that some things do not scale or are not scaled. This is what they refer to as the ‘uneven play of scalar ethics’ (I’m paraphrasing). It is this uneven play we are confronted by (and confront?) in our own research.

Discussion and questions
Entirely in the spirit of the texts and theme, the discussion conjured a panoply of entities, from bacteria to markets. How can and should we understanding the scaling practiced by different, non- human or more-than-human entities? For example, to what extent are scalar categories like ‘the individual’ appropriate in the case of an ant, or bacteria (see the work of Myra Hird). The issue of scale has received considerable attention from human geographers. Particularly, in circles that choose to follow the ostensibly very small in order to draw up detailed material geographies, like water voles or bacteria. The text “Of eagles and flies: orientations toward the site” by Woodward et al. was mentioned. In this and other works the emphasis is on the production of singularity, hence the problem is not one of scale but of kind. There remains however always the (methodological) question about how small to go? What do you, for example, decide to pursue and make representative for an issue such as “electronic waste”? To what extent do concepts, ideas, linguistic devices, hold together and continue to operate as they try to speak to entities operating with different types of scalar effects? Scalar transformation can also obfuscate certain purifications – tempting us into ignoring the messy work that accompanies the movement of entities up/down different scalar registers. Similarly, the “small” should not be fetishized by endowing it with some a priori privilege in accessing more ethical perspectives. Yet, how can this be productively attended to? Another line of enquiry focused, more self-reflexively, on our position vis-à-vis current political transformations. What are, for example, the scalar politics of the ‘big’ society? Are we seeing forms of political action being rescaled and thereby co-opted and at the same time marginalized? With reference to Annelise Riles‘ work on networks, we wondered how to account for the problem of scale as a “figure seen twice”: as both a circulating concept and a lived, experienced encounter.