Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Spinuzzi on Symmetry (and elevators and hipsters and police horses)

In a couple recent blog posts (here's one; here's the other), Clay Spinuzzi clears up an issue that's been nagging me ever since I was first introduced to Actor-Network Theory (via Bruno Latour's Reassembling the Social).  My nagging issue was with the ANT concept of radical symmetry, which posits that human and non-humans act with an equal degree of intentionality to create and maintain networks.  Soon after reading Latour, I was introduced to Bonnie Nardi and Victor Kaptelinin's Activity Theory argument (in Acting With Technology) that while non-human actants are capable of radically shaping activity, it is only human actors who can act with intention.

Duh, I thought.

Spinuzzi explicates this "Duh" moment succinctly (and in the second person, no less):
Symmetry seems ridiculous to you. What's the point of pretending that genes, stars, and rat kidneys are actors in the sense that people are? Why apply the same language to both? Maybe this is one of those "critical theory" moves you've heard people talking about. To you, it seems more like attention-seeking. Latour likes to say that symmetrical language is not metaphorical but that he isn't engaging in anthropomorphism either. Obviously he's trying to have it both ways.
Yeah.  That sounds like me alright.

But the "you" whose mind Spinuzzi reads here eventually warms to the notion of symmetry through thinking about how many Segway-riding tourists, horses, cops, hipsters, and pieces of stereo equipment could fit on an elevator.  Similarly, in the second blog post, Spinuzzi conducts a thought experiment about dropping humans and non-humans from the University of Texas tower to test Galileo's Leaning Tower of Pisa experiment.  Ultimately, Spinuzzi argues that the differences between humans and non-humans need not be emphasized when it comes to replicating Galileo's experiment; dropping a 155 lb weight from a clock tower is the same as dropping a 155 lb person (except, of course, that one is legally defined as littering and the other is murder).  And the differences don't really matter when it comes to filling an elevator to its maximum capacity; 2000 lbs of stereo equipment = 2000 lbs of Segway-riding tourists = 2000 lbs of horses = 2000 lbs of hipsters.  Radical symmetry is a methodological move (as the titles of Spinuzzi's posts suggest) that depends on your methodological aims.

I wholly recommend taking a look at these two posts.  Even if you're not particularly into ANT, they're just fun, sharp, clever little explanations of a cool concept.  If you're not into ANT, maybe this will spark your interest.

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