Medialab stories: how to align ANT and digital methods?
Dominique Boullier, Digital Humanities Institute, EPFL
(Translation -slightly revised- from the previous post in French)
Note: This is a blog post and not a paper. Please accept the flaws in this draft of a potential paper (translation included!)
The time for reviews has apparently come for medialab (cf. Venturini et al. 2017), I will do my part, because there are indeed many lessons to be learned from this experience. My point of view will differ quite clearly from the article mentioned above, which notes first and foremost the work of constructing digital methods carried out with medialab, because I always situate digital methods within the conceptual framework that they put in place, sometimes without saying or knowing it. To better understand what is happening to us collectively, as social sciences, with the digital world, is indeed a task to which I have been devoting myself for the last 5 years. And the support of STS traditions is essential in this regard. The historical dimension is essential to understand the very special “assemblage” of medialab from 2009 to 2017. I would like to show here how a very particular alliance was formed between ANT (Actor Network Theory) in its Latourian version on the one hand and the numerical methods in their UTC version (University of Technology of Compiegne), i. e. web topology, on the other hand. This will recognize the limitations of the experiment, but it will also teach us a great deal about what is at stake, including the place of ANT in all social science approaches, how it has been used and how it could still be used. This will involve revisiting some of the beliefs spread around what the medialab and ANT were doing at the same time. Thus, it seems to me quite wrong to characterize the relationship ANT/digital by the “carbon copy” effect (the web duplicates the social), by qualiquantitative methods, or by the gains of knowledge allowed by a supposed zoom (exploration of the social by change of scale). To put all these points in their proper place, it is necessary to put the entire ANT in historical perspective and to give an account of the technical methods and devices that have enabled it to exist, as has always been the case with the STS, and ANT has became a reference framework for them. Keeping in mind the digital approach, I will therefore first give a brief historical overview of ANT and its specificities before turning to digital methods in detail. I would like to make it clear that all the points of view I am going to develop were born within this setting provided by the medialab, of which I was scientific coordinator with Bruno Latour until 2015. They resume debates that have been sketched out within the team itself, notably for the writing of the article “The whole is smaller than its parts”. In this article, I use references to the work I’ve been doing on this third generation social science blog, and I test the hypotheses I’ve been working on for almost five years on the era of quantification that we live in today.