- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Harvard University Press (April 1, 1996)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0674043235
- ISBN-13: 978-0674043237
- Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 6 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #904,584 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Aramis, or the Love of Technology
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Packet switching works well for moving data -- why not use it for moving humans? In a nutshell, the French Aramis transit project proposed packet switching as a solution to human transport problems (though, so far as I can tell, neither the author nor any reviews I have yet read have made this connection).
With all the brouhaha about moving bytes around on the information superhighways, moving people around real cities has become less glamorous -- after all, the current mythology is that telecommuting will render the automobile obsolete, right? With the prevailing American tendency to think in terms of technological manifest destiny, stories about superior technologies failing miserably are usually glossed over in an obsession with teleology (history is an inevitable march toward greater perfection).
In contrast, this book describes an extraordinarily well-designed and highly superior semi-personal robotic transit system developed by the French government -- and then squashed by the French government. It is written in a style that only a Gallic scientist could conceive (for example, in a passage about project complexity, Latour writes: ...The monkey is readily identified as a creature of desire...). Because of such stylistic excrescences, I personally I found this book somewhat difficult to read at times, but I recommend it very highly to anyone interested in the history of technology, cross-cultural studies, telecommunications -- or the burgeoning application of packet switching principles to mass transit.
It is [the] world of machines that Latour sets out to rehabilitate in his clever new work...an eminently readable book--even on occasions a ripping good yarn. This time round, the author of such seminal sociology of science texts as We Have Never Been Modern has set out to do something daring: create a new genre, what he calls 'scientifiction'...The result is a hypertext, weaving real and fictional characters together against the backdrop of an actual project carried out by RATP, the public transport authority for Paris...[A] feisty sociotechnological whodunit. (Margaret Wertheim New Scientist)
Relationalists have to insist that made-found is as dubious as the value-fact and subject-object distinctions. This claim is not easy to make plausible, but Latour is very good at doing so. He is perhaps the best contemporary exponent of the philosophy of interchanges, of continuous passages across traditional dualisms and traditional disciplinary borders. This is because he combines philosophical sophistication with genuine delight in empirical fieldwork, a fluent and flexible style, an amazingly wide range of reference, and wit. Aramis is often hilarious. In Catherine Porter's splendidly vigorous and idiomatic translation, it is a good read, a well-paced narrative of instructive events. Any policy maker who contemplates spending public money on technological innovation should read it before signing his or her first contractual agreement. It should also be read by anybody looking for some genuinely fresh philosophical ideas. (Richard Rorty Voice Literary Supplement)
Mr. Latour, a French sociologist of science, is quite serious...about what he is creating--a new genre of fiction and reality that tells a larger truth...[The Aramis project] may have been a wild goose chase, but some honkers end up in the oven. Aramis, or the Love of Technology, in this translation by Catherine Porter, comes out the way a game bird should, au point, juicy and delicious. (M. R. Montgomery New York Times Book Review)
Aramis shows with wonderful clarity the many different stories which were told about all aspects of Aramis. (David Edgerton Times Literary Supplement)
On the basis of a detailed empirical study, [Latour] has written three books in one: a detective novel, in which a young sociology professor and a young engineer play the parts of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson; a scholarly treatise introducing the modern sociology of technology; and a reproduction of original archival documents...Latour's book...offer[s] important insights into the sociotechnical domain and engineering practices that transcend the Aramis case. It also provides, mainly in the form of methodological discussions, the groundwork for a theory of technology and society...I think [this] is Latour's best book so far. (Wiebe E. Bijker Nature)
Aramis...uncovers the limits of sociology in its failure to recognize our essentially social relationship with technical artifacts. Its critical force comes from using ethnography to enable technology to speak, or rather, by allowing us to hear the voice of technology speaking indirectly through administrative documents, political rhetoric, engineering specifications, business plans, fiction, and philosophy. (Peter Lyman Contemporary Sociology)
Aramis is a case study, a sociological investigation, and, yes, a detective novel unlike any ever written--a carefully constructed, non-fictional narrative of the negotiated fictions that underwrite our mechanical inventions. Latour, one of the most supple and rewarding practitioners of any science, shows that the construction of technological society is at base a human drama and must be told in a commensurate manner. Here at last is science studies that avoids self-exemption and partakes, with humor and emotion, of the very processes it depicts. Aramis is a strange but deep book that comes to counterintuitive, urgent conclusions, pleading for more successful parlay between technology and humanism, animate and inanimate, body and soul. This story has much to say about the world we want to build, the world we think we are building, and the worlds we have failed to pull off. (Richard Powers, author of Galatea 2.2)
Immediately after the project ended, Bruno Latour was asked by the RATP to investigate what went wrong. On the basis of a detailed empirical study, he has written three books in one: a detective novel, in which a sociology professor and a young engineer play the parts of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson; a scholarly treatise introducing the modern sociology of technology; and a reproduction of original archival documents. As the book develops, we hear the voice of technology itself, with Frankenstein's "humachine" and Aramis himself as spokespersons Latour's book does offer important insights into the sociotechnical domain and engineering practices that transcend the Aramis case. It also provides, mainly in the form of methodological discussions, the groundwork for a theory of technology and society. This important asset, of what I think is Latour's best book so far. (Wiebe E. Bijker Nature)
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transportation project. The story is told not only from the viewpoint
of reports on the failure of the project, but also from the viewpoint
of Aramis itself, also mixing in expositions on the nature of
technology, and interviews with the main actors in what appears to be
a really complicated affair. The conundrum the author is after: Why
did such a promising project, into which millions of francs were
invested in 13 years, and positive reports of progress were written in
regular intervals, suddenly get cancelled without getting deployed
The answer lies, according to Latour, in te nature of high-tech
innovation. Before they become "objects" that are out there and used
by people, technological visions are vaguely overlapping fields of
interest through which different groups aim to achieve different
things. As the subject of the project becomes 'objectified' more and
more, these fields converge through compromises and realignments. In
the case of Aramis, the RER, RATP, ministry of transport and the
realizing company each had different interests, but assumed that the
technology created would carry the project forward, giving it a reason
to exist and a momentum. What they forgot, or didn't care about,
according to Latour, was the fact that before becoming objects,
technological entities need love and caring from their
creators. Specifically, they have to be argued for, represented, taken
sides with etc. Latour makes this point regarding the love affair
between a technological creation and its creator through comparisons
with Frankenstein, the prototypical creator vs. creation story.
Latour tries to depict what he calls 'the mush of innovation' through
the use of multiple voices and perspectives, including the narrative
voice of the reporters, excerpts from interviews, heartfelt complaints
from Aramis itself, and dialogues between Dr. Frankenstein and his
creation. Because of this varied mixture, and the frequent change of
voices, in the end, the book becomes a mush itself, with the reader
losing sight of what she is reading now, and what purpose it serves in
understanding innovative technological research. What I found
particularly annoying were the romantic passages from the voice of
Aramis and Frankenstein's monster. Interspersed between the earthly
engineering discussions and pragmatic business calculations, these
monologues were a huge distraction.
Thanks to Latour's observational acumen and sociological insights,
however, the book is full of interesting points on the nature of
innovation and research. Regarding big and complicated projects,
Latour points out that these are impossible to separate into neat
stages that can be completed one after the other, because the outcome
is a matter of negotiation itself. Because of this, the project is
always in that narrow strait between dead and close to completion. It
is very difficult to gauge whether what has been established is just
the basics, or the grunt of the work, leaving only the details. This
is very similar to the software developers' mantra ""The first 90
percent of the code accounts for the first 90 percent of the
development time; the remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for
the other 90 percent of the development time". Another interesting
point concerns the relationship between common sense and
innovation. Once they are produced, innovative objects are 'perfect':
Their initial conception or an imperfect copy is what you hold in your
hand, and it had to be this way if you look at the function of the
object in a sensible light, or so the story goes. This is far from the
truth when one pays attention to how they are brought to being.
Innovations create common sense, building it along the way. An
innovation that doesn't invent common sense is an oxymoron.
All in all, Aramis, or the Love of Technology is a very valuable read
for anyone who builds technological objects, even though it's a bit
difficult to follow and 'novelistic' for its own good.