A Journey More Important than its Destination
Like Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine, French sociologist Bruno Latour’s Aramis, or the Love of Technology is a literary hybrid: a non-fiction case study that uses fictional devices to show how a technological invention is brought to life. Where Kidder focused on the designers of a new Data General computer, Latour examines the various parties trying to build an automated train system in France.
Latour does not pursue this literary form to be fashionably avant-garde. He, unlike Kidder, is describing an invention that ostensibly failed despite an R&D phase that lasted nearly 20 years, from 1969 to 1987. To understand why this occurred, Latour includes the broadest spectrum of voices, including that of the train itself, which is called Aramis.
With the voices intentionally interrupting one another, the story sometimes might be difficult to follow, especially for the reader who enjoys conventionally linear tales. Just when the reader believes he or she is beginning to see why the complex computer system guiding the cars might work in real-world situations, a politician interrupts to explain why the transportation unions would never accept this “driverless” system. When Aramis occasionally pipes up with its own ideas about its identity, it sounds like a Greek chorus from another planet. Midway through the book, Aramis, whose words are italicized throughout (Latour uses various fonts to help readers track the voices in his tale), poignantly confronts its makers, “If I have been badly conceived, why not conceive me again… . Why do you turn your heads away?”
The story unfolds through the interplay of the book’s two fictional characters, a sociology professor and a young engineering graduate student. As they interview the major players, the two joust over sociological theories that purport to explain the project’s failure-and undergo dramatic personal turnabouts in the process. For example, the student initially wants and needs to believe that real-world technologies grow naturally out of scientifically sound principles. The professor, Norbert, who is portrayed as much a poet as a sociologist, knows, however, that “no technological project is technological first and foremost.” Midway through his research, Norbert remarks, for example, that the various parties involved had engendered at least 15 different and competing definitions of Aramis. Transportation engineers began with one concept. Politicians imposed modifications. Finance ministers imposed design compromises based upon funding. And on and on. Even after the French government finally killed the project in 1987, various parties were still envisioning alternative transportation systems out of dismembered parts of Aramis.
In a sense, Norbert is a “talking head” for the book’s author, who has spent his life clarifying how science and technology translate into real-world applications. Books like Laboratory Life (1986), cowritten by Steve Woolgar, and Science in Action (1987) carefully elucidate the impact of social contexts on scientific research. Through historical analysis, The Pasteurization of France (1988) showed how the technique’s eventual success owed much to outside forces. Interviews with Michel Serres on Science, Culture, and Time (1990) found Latour rigorously interrogating the philosopher of science known for provocatively blurring boundaries be-tween the sciences and humanities, a central characteristic of Latour’s books. These earlier works set the stage for Aramis and its constantly shifting network of voices.
By framing the sociology of Aramis within a literary form, Latour has done more than create an entertaining “read” about technological endeavors. He has compelled his readers to shift perspective constantly so that they gain an appreciation of the complexity of forces at play behind technological inventions. “Look at that plot, my young friend,” remarks Norbert to his student. “If it were a play by Corneille, people would call it a miracle; they’d admire the violence of the passions, the intensity of the reversals. Yet we’re dealing with automated subway systems and technocrats. This is the real literature of our day.”
After the student and his professor understand why Aramis never fulfilled its initial promise-and I won’t spoil the fun by giving away their conclusion-the professor declares that he will write a book about Aramis. His student shrugs and asks what the point would be. “Well,” Norbert responds, “it would be good for training people like you. And it would be good for educating the public, for getting people to understand, getting them to love technologies. I’d like to turn the failure of Aramis into a success so it won’t have died in vain.”
If the word “love” seems a bit romantic when dissecting the fate of a public transportation system, part of Latour’s genius is to make you care about the train as much as any person involved. The book’s title hits home when the reader realizes that to love technology is to fall under the spell of all the human and nonhuman actors who create it.
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