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September 6, 2008

Actor Network Theory and the jungle of design research

Having made the trip to Cornwall to attend the DHS' Networks of Design conference last week, and since a post about my own panel is preempted (Marie Neurath's isotype books have made their appearance here already), I can write about the theme of the conference. The 'networks' of the title refers the work of the keynote speaker, Bruno Latour, eminent writer on the philosophy and anthropology of science and central proponent of Actor Network Theory (ANT). I didn't know anything about Latour's work before the conference, but his keynote and frequent subsequent references in other panels certainly gave me a few pointers!

I'm interested in how ANT is born in a reflection on science and technology, but that it is being applied in various ways to design studies, and even to practical design education. Latour's work seems to be interpreted in a myriad different ways by different researchers; Alice confirms that some of the issues I raise in this post have been taken up over and over again in science studies and elsewhere.

Although Latour gave an excellent lecture on the nature of design as he sees it, other researchers re-purposing this stuff are reinterpreting as well. How does Latour think design theorists are doing? The title of this post is inspired by his closing remarks, in which he lauded the work of Otto Neurath and called for a new, non-modern equivalent of the Isotype approach to design. He referred to us (his audience), in contrast, as 'a jungle of monsters'.

What is ANT all about? Science communication readers will know enough to skip the next paragraph, no doubt. The idea is that actors (people, things, signs) form networks through forces involving their use value and the actions they may produce in others. Networks arise and can presumably shift with different patterns of interaction of people/things/signs. I am keen on the emphases on material and communicative aspects of the world. In my own (recently completed) PhD research, I argued for a two-pronged view of book history that takes into account the material dimensions of the book object as well as the linguistic nature of the book as a form of mass communication. ANT also reminds me of Lev Vygotsky's account of how language acts as a bridge between biological and social development in humans -- this involves a dialectical view of how thought develops in tandem with the tools we build etc. ANT seems to be another kind of dialogical account of the stuff that surrounds us, if I'm getting it right.

Speakers discussing ANT left me somewhat suspicious, however, with anthropocentric claims that 'non-human actors' are just as important as 'human actors' in the webs of the world. Of course they are; why even draw a this distinction? Maybe that's just me reading too much emergence theory… To be fair, claiming that objects around us are implicated and may even be seen to have some sort of 'agency' is probably less palatable in fields of study that traditionally prioritise human relationships.

Anyway, back to ANT's application to design. I left feeling that it needed more work in order to apply more appropriately to design practice, or to design research, for two reasons. One is its top-down analytical view. Another is a lack of sensitivity to fact that 'products' of visual communication differ in important ways to objects/tools/things/buildings.

The main issue that needs resolving is that ANT needs to be recast in light of the realities of producers. In the panel entitled 'Actor network theory: reassessing notions of materiality', the first speaker, Dr Kjetil Fallan of the Norwegian University of Science & Technology, claimed that designers 'impel action upon non-human actors' [e.g. the things they design]. This seems naive, considering that the stuff we churn out is very largely manufactured, rather than 'designed'. Just as books are manufactured rather than 'written', objects are not designed -- rather their creation occurs within a complex of economic and social factors.

The assumption of the 'agency of the designer' is a fiction, save for those elitist areas of design that fail to reach audiences of any consequence. Does this effect the agency of the object, within ANT? I would argue that it is actors, rather than producers, that impel actions on others. How often has a telephone directory become a doorstop? or a wine bottle become a candle holder? (Who is that who said that we are merely the impressions we make upon other people -- could this dictum not apply to all objects? It seems to me rational that objects work at the disposal of others.)

A second difficulty in applying ANT to design research is its unrelentingly reflectivity. It appears to account for the materiality of bottom-up design from a top-down theoretical perspective. This situation might be rectified with a new 'bottom-up' theoretical perspective -- e.g. all theorists in the area of design could be trained in practice and work in the industry for a few years, to see why things turn out the way they do, incidental, accidental, inefficient parts and all. ANT's theoretical bent may account for the way that the 'materiality' panel's last speaker, Alex Wilkie of Goldsmiths College, applies ANT as a heuristic device in design studio classes, to instigate a kind of critical thought shift in students. This certainly seems effective, though it could be that a more solid grounding in anthropology and semiotics might be enough to do it…

An additional thought I had is that graphic communication is perhaps not 'design' at all according to the terms with which it was discussed by Latour and many speakers I heard, who deal mainly in products, interiors, or architecture. Graphic, interface and interaction design are perhaps more about communication than about the 'thing'. Designers in this setting are producing semiotic rather than material actors in ANT webs. In this sense, if ANT is to form a part of a critical theory for design, it must be developed to take these real and pervasive differences into account.

The theoretical hyper-awareness of some speakers discussing ANT with regard to 'designed objects' could be promising, however, especially if the myth of sole authorship and related extrapolations could be dropped. A renewed kind of 'bottom-up' critical view could then be used in practical design education as more than a broad heuristic tool.