Actor network theory (ANT) has provided a radical way of conceptualising and studying technology and technological objects and artefacts. While in some literatures, such as the Social Studies of Finance, that share a certain amount of common ground with ANT there has been a greater engagement with ICTs, there is little in the central ANT texts that relates explicitly to digital electronic information and communication technologies (ICTs) and their involvement in the dramatic changes in many kinds of interaction that have taken place over the past three decades.
While a number of information systems scholars have sought to use actor network approaches in a variety of ways to study ICTs, [1, 2, 4, 5, 10, 11, 12], in the writing of Latour, ICTs are seen primarily as part of the broader mobilisation of the world through inscriptions, as the following passage from “Science in Action” shows:
"If inventions are made that transform numbers, images, and texts from all over the world into the same binary code inside computers, then indeed, the handling, the combination, the mobility, the conservation and the display of the traces will all be fantastically facilitated."
In “Pandora’s Hope”, in the chapter on the “Circulating Reference” that follows the work of soil scientists in the Amazonian forest of Brazil, Latour again discusses the mobilisation of the world in some detail, as the data gathering of the scientists gradually transforms things into signs and their work moves from the concrete to the abstract. Again a form of ICTs, in this case the fax, is seen as implicated in the increased mobilisation that this move from things to signs makes possible:
"As abstract as the pedocomparator [soil sampling instrument] is, it remains an object. It is lighter than the forest, yet heavier than the paper [on which a diagram of the forest is drawn]; it is less corruptible than the vibrant earth, but more corruptible than geometry; it is more mobile than the savanna, but less mobile than the diagram that I could send by telephone if Boa Vista had a fax machine."
That ANT does not have a specific conceptualisation of ICTs should not come as a big surprise. At the centre of actor network theory is a requirement to avoid the use of arbitrary categories and prefabricated conceptualisations in studying a research setting and an insistence on understanding how categories, concepts, and objects are assembled out of human and non-human elements. Latour makes this point himself when he writes about using ANT for studying information systems in a fictitious dialogue with an imaginary student of information systems:
"The best [ANT] can do for you is to say something like: ‘When your informants mix up organization and hardware and psychology and politics in one sentence, don’t break it down first into neat little pots; try to follow the link they make among those elements that would have looked completely incommensurable if you had followed normal academic categories’. That’s all. ANT can’t tell you positively what the link is. … I would say that this computer here on this desk, this screen, this keyboard, as objects, this school are made of multiple layers, exactly as much as you, sitting here, are: your body, your language, your questions."
Is Latour really telling this fictitious student of information systems to forget about the elusive "IT artefact" that IS students are challenged to point at in their research and IS as a discipline in order to really understand what is going on with ICTs? If so, what are the implications of this for IS and how do all those who see themselves as part of this discipline respond to this challenge?
In a recent talk at the London School of Economics and Political Science with the title Another European Tradition: traceability of the social and the vindication of Gabriel Tarde, Latour, in an exchange with Nikolas Rose regarding the continuing relevance of 'society' as an agregate, provided some clues as to where to look for answers to these questions when he accepted — in relation to sociology — that, as a black box 'society' might be useful in terms of performing, but not in terms of knowing or understanding, the social.
To try and follow the clues given by Latour, its is important to consider in more detail some of the fundamental notions of ANT such as mobilisation, translation, immutable mobiles, and black boxes, but also what Latour calls "double-click information".