Where are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts

Bruno Latour. 1992. Where are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts. In Shaping Technology-Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change, Wiebe Bijker and John Law (editors), MIT Press, Cambridge Mass. pp. 225-259, 1992 [new expanded and revised version of article (35). Republication in the reader Johnson, Deborah J., and Jameson M Wetmore, eds. Technology and Society, Building Our Sociotechnical Future. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2008 pp. 151-180]

Latour begins by positing the actor network approach as a means of solving the technological determinism vs. social constructivism debates. "Those advocating the actor network approach agree with the social constructivist claim that sociotechnical systems are developed through negotiations between people, institutions, and organizations. But they make the additional interesting argument that artifacts are part of these negotiations as well" (pg. 151). The design of the material world facilitates pushing back on human behaviors. People can determine the meaning of an artifact, but they cannot alter its properties beyond its limitations out of sheer will. Latour explores how artifacts can replace, shape, and limit human actions. Latour believes technologies are so central to human life that we cannot understand how societies work without understanding the role of technologies. Of course, those technologies also carry with them certain values and intentions and goals.

He starts with an anecdotal analysis of how cars are designed in such a way to encourage humans to wear a seatbelt, to the point it becomes difficult to defy the design of the car. He questions, too, where the morality of obeying the law and wearing the seatbelt comes from - is it the human, if they put the seatbelt on automatically, without prompting? Is it the car, if the human does not obey the law, and so it beeps incessently until they do? Is there a middle road, where a person disengages the seatbelt alarm in the car and can make their own decision? What about when cars are designed in such a way that there is no way to break the law by not wearing a seatbelt anymore? In the final case, Latour writes that any middle ground has disappeared; "the program of action1 ‘IF a car is moving, THEN the driver has a seat belt’ is enforced" (pg. 152). There is both a logical and sociological rule. A large network - from the car, to policymakers, to Latour, to everyone else on the road and their cars, and the police - are enforcing the law of the seatbelt.

He then moves on to discuss the invention of the door, in particular, its design to keep unwanted beings out, and letting wanted beings in, being predicated on a variety of human actors and social needs. He discusses how the door, when opened, must be closed or else other things, like the cold, could get inside. However, not everyone closes the door. He writes that "this is where the age-old Mumfordian choice" comes in, to either discipline the people or substitute unrealiable people with another human whose focus is to open and close the door (a doorman) (pg. 156). A doorman would make up for all the other unreliable humans; a system of door hinge and doorman. Of course, the doorman would also have to be "disciplined" into the role, and economic barriers might prevent hiring one in the first place. "A simple task—forcing people to close the door—is now performed at an incredible cost; the minimum effect is obtained with maximum spending and discipline" (pg. 156). He offers a new choice: delegate the task to a human doorman or delegate it to a nonhuman actor. The nonhuman will take care of the door without pay, without erratic behavior, and without calling out. This results in the loss of jobs for doormen, and of course, nonhuman mechanisms do not contain human interactions and as such, as Latour puts it, they can seem "rude." Slamming the door in your face due to a heavy spring, for example.

Latour argues that we have not solely delegated tasks to our technologies, but morals, values, duties, ethics. He calls the behavior imposed from machine back onto human a "prescription." Certain prescriptions may be discriminatory, in that certain people cannot properly engage them. Latour gives the example of hydraulic doors, which are difficult for children and elderly people with less strength to use.

Latour defines anthropomorphic in terms of the French etymology, which means to have human shape or give shape to humans. He argues that all technologies are inherently anthropomorphic, in three ways: (1) they are made by humans; (2) they substitute the actions of people and therefore occupy the position of human; (3) they shape human action through prescription. Further, the differences between humans and non-humans is beside the point in Latour's actor network approach. "The distinctions between humans and nonhumans, embodied or disembodied skills, impersonation or ‘‘machination,’’ are less interesting that the complete chain along which competences and actions are distributed" (pg. 165). Humans and technology are not separate; instead, we are "faced with programs of action, sections of which are endowed to parts of humans, while other sections are entrusted to parts of nonhumans" (pg. 174).