I’ve been thinking about Actor-Network Theory in relation to both my teaching and research surrounding iTunes University (iTunes U being a recognizable starting point for the larger subjects of networked media pedagogy and new media rhetoric). In my Writing in Cyberspace class, we’ve been focusing so far on mobile technologies (via Rheingold’s Smart Mobs, which for being for being 5 years old remains amazingly current). While I don’t have plans to discuss ANT directly in the course, there’s clearly a lot to draw from it.
My overly generalized, outsider understanding of ANT goes something like this. Though there is a very strident protest that ANT is separate from postmodern/poststructural theory, particularly Derrida and Foucault, ANT also begins, as Latour says, as a negative theory, as a critique of sociology. In my view it begins with the deconstruction of several key binaries: nature/culture, scientific/social, and material/symbolic. Now I will admit to making "motivated" readings of Derrida and to not putting a whole lot of value on the literary studies deconstruction industry in the U.S. of the 80s onward. However, these strike me as central elements of Derrida’s project. Similarly there have been some bizarre readings of Foucault’s notion of power as this omnipresent, mystical force, as Latour notes. Finally, I can’t help but read ANT in the context of Deleuze and Guattari, but I’m not going there today.
Anyway, I’ve encountered multiple responses to iTunes U that might be well-understood as coming out of recognizable constructions of the relationship between society, technoscience, and individuals.
- socio-ideological determinism: iTunes U functions as what Latour terms an intermediary for the dominant ideological force (i.e. transnational capitalism or whatever you want to name it… the "social"). That is, iTunes U (again as a synecdoche for networked media) serves as a means to control in some fashion the critical/oppositional potential of the university. This would include for example that iTunes U serves as a mechanism that threatens faculty positions (eliminating the need for professors to repeat their lectures year after year), encourage certain consumer practices (buying iPods, using the iTMS), and perparing students to be networked workers. I won’t refute these are potential effects. Nor would I disagree that some might see these as desirable effects and pursue them while others see them as nightmares. The more limited point of ANT would simply suggest that it is an error to imagine that these technologies are simply intermediaries transmitting agency/causes that come from elsewhere (a spectral social or ideology for example).
- technoscientific determinism: I might also term this "pessimistic humanism." It is the belief that technology and/or scientific facts determine outcomes. I know that humanisits often believe that scientists view the world this way. And some likely do. What happens here is that people believe that technology is costing us our humanity, that technology and science threaten humanity. In terms of iTunes U, the common argument, often rehearsed by my students and others, is that when you are tuned into your iPod, you are tuned out of the world around you. The technology itself, and again this spectral "will to technology," determines outcomes. I would not refute that these technologies are redefining humanness and human relationships, just as the plow or the codex or the automobile did in the past. Nor would I refute that some technologies affect us more powerfully than others. However, it is another matter all together to imagine that technologies or scientific facts determine what will happen, as if they were not in themselves products of some larger context.
- good old-fashioned humanism: the flipside of #2 and the idea that human free will determine what happens. "Guns don’t kill people, etc." If you don’t like iTunes U, then don’t use it. Don’t like the iPod? Don’t buy one! ANT doesn’t even need to go here b/c this position has already been displaced in sociology by the power of "the social." However, I have to go here because this is where many of my students, and others with whom I interact, live. Typically what happens in academia is that we move students backward through these positions: from 3 to 2 to 1. I have free will. No my free will is threatened by technology. No, it’s not technology but the spectral force of ideology and/or the social that shapes "reality."
So that would make ANT position zero? I guess, whatever. In any case, my students are producing podcasts as I write this. We’ve been using iTunes U somewhat (in fact I should be producing some material right now instead of writing this), but we’ll begin in earnest with these productions. I really want to look into all the various "actors" that get involved in these productions. Clearly you can spin out across the culture to Apple and their engineers and so on and so forth, but I guess you have to choose to narrow your focus somehow if for no other reason that at some point you have to declare your research complete and say it’s time to write that article.
So what I’m saying is that I’m going to focus on the more proximate actors in these productions, obviously starting with the students and the technologies available to them, the support they receive, various institutional practices at the College, and then move on from there. The result is that I hope I can uncover some sense of how students actually use iTunes U and podcasting and from that move toward some positive assertions about what I might do next to build on it. That’s my research agenda.
On the teaching side, I’m hoping to move students away from some of these positions above. In doing so I don’t want to abandon the concerns or criticism they raise but rather do away with the built-in explanations that accompany those concerns. That’s what this is about.