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Re: [xmca] Mike Cole on Instrumentalist understanding of mediation

As Mike mentioned earlier, it was me who sent around the Latour article, so I feel a certainly responsibility to also respond to Andy's question about avoiding a reduction to instrumentalism. Here goes... 

Latour's article was published in a special issue of Theory, Culture & Society on the topic of "the status of the object" - that is, the ontological character of the material world - the "co-performance of sociality/materiality." In his contribution, Latour is keen to break away from the means-ends instrumentalism in which humans are said to form 'ends' - goals and purposes - and objects then serve as the 'means' to satisfy or procure these ends. Part of his argument is based on the phylogenesis of tool use, part is based on an ontological analysis of tools. 

Starting with the first, Latour points out that it's becoming increasingly clear that homo sapiens evolved from earlier species that were already using tools. I just showed my students the wonderful YouTube excerpt from a BBC documentary on capuchin monkeys:


As Latour puts it, biologically modern humans "appeared within a nest or a niche already inhabited by abilities, by know-how and technological objects." One consequence of this is that we will not be able to draw a line between being human and using technology. We grew from technology, not the other way around. As Latour puts it, "A being that was artificially torn away from such a dwelling, from this technical cradle, could in no way be a moral being, since it would have ceased to be human." 

So, any model that puts humans first and then posits us taking charge of the material objects we encounter in the world around us has things back to front: "the image of a human being at the helm manipulating inert objects to achieve ends through the intermediary of ‘efficient action on matter’ appears increasingly muddled." We are, in fact, children of technology (really technolog*ies* plural); tool use was the cradle of humankind. Our human ends are not prior to or independent of the tools we grow up with, the objects that we inherit.

Next, the ontological analysis. Latour picks up a hammer (he's read his Being & Time) and argues that it "folds" various temporalities - that of the ore from which the metal was abstracted, that of the wood of the handle, that of its production for the market. It also folds various spatialities: of forest, mine, factory, and store. These connections have become invisible, and they are especially invisible when we simply heft the hammer and use it, but they are nonetheless operative, and they can be traced and unfolded. 

Furthermore, the modern hammer "has inherited" the variety of forms of its ancestral tools - so when a human uses a tool we should think not just about the origins and evolution of the human, but also the phylogeny of the hammer.

Contra any proposal that a tool, or an artifact, such as a cup, perhaps, comes with some kind of specific practice somehow built in to it, Latour points out that any tool "overflows the strict limits" of every attempt to define a specific function for it. The hammer has many affordances, all of them both "permission and promise," and so it can be used to a wide variety, perhaps an infinity, of ways. 

Equally important, if not more so, is the fact that a person becomes changed by using a tool such as a hammer. This is why any notion that a tool is simply an extension of a limb (or even an extension of the whole person) doesn't make sense: the person is *transformed* by the tool. Recalling the moment in Kubrick's movie 2001 when the bone, flung high into the air, to the fascination of the early hominids, becomes the slowly rotating space station, Latour suggests that "all technologies incite around them that whirlwind of new worlds." Kubrick grasped something central to human existence.

Things are mediators "precisely because they are not simple *intermediaries* which fulfill a function." Technological systems proliferate and they become opaque, and this makes it clear that a simple transparent means-ends rationality is not what they involve. But their invisibility makes as think that this *is* what they amount to. In fact, though, tool use  is not a matter of "mastering" technology as means to our ends. Using a technology inevitably transforms, displaces, and modifies our original intention, our plan, our end. We must "detour" through the technology, and we are transformed in the process. We become more god-like, in the cunning of mediation (if I may smuggle in a little Hegel), and we also become more entangled with and dependent upon other people.

And it is all this that makes human beings what we are. Without technologies we would be "contemporaneous with our actions, limited solely to proximal interactions." Our existence would simply be like that of primates, "a passionate, intense existence"  but one that we would not call truly human. 

Latour then goes on to provide a third argument against the means-ends instrumental account of tools and technology: namely that there is a morality in our apparatuses. The standard story, of course, is that morality is about the choices among ends, so that it is all about human beings, and tools and their means are outside moral consideration. Latour argues that on the contrary, there is a morality in technology. 

Consider a simple example: Latour has one of those desks where to open one drawer one must close the others. He is bound by this constraint, designed into the device itself. Not a super-ego, but an "under-ego." Morality, Latour proposes, is based not on obligation (because we find obligation in other domains as well, such as law and economy), but on the uncertainty about the relation between means and ends that is inherent in any technical apparatus. The electricity we use is generated by nuclear reactors, whose possibilities, whose consequences, we can only guess at. The guessing is a moral matter. We shouldn't assume, then, that technologies are neutral, to be put to good or bad uses by good or bad people. But nor should we assume that technology is inherently evil. Technology engenders new worlds, new dispositions. In doing so, it pulls everyone and everything together into a common fate. We humans can face up to and acknowledge the concerns that this fate gives rise to, or we can ignore them, but they are there nevertheless. Morality deals with the same materials as technology, but from a different viewpoint, with a different concern. Morality is about *how* we live with the things of this world.

Latour, B. (2002). Morality and technology: The end of the means. Theory, Culture & Society, 19(5-6), 247-260. doi:10.1177/026327602761899246__________________________________________
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