Actor-Network Theory // Society as Designed Envelope
When considering how design and technology have impacted and shaped human societies, many theories, such as design determinism or the theory of social shaping, suppose a unilateral relationship, in which design directly impacts and determines society or vise versa. In contrast to these contrived models of society, for which contradictory theories and counterarguments are abundant, actor-network theory (ANT) conceives a society in which every “thing” plays the role of an actor, interacting with countless other actors in a vast, interconnected network. Rather than provide counterarguments to other models of the relationships between design and society, ANT allows other theories to fit within its own structure, incorporating elements of both determinism as well as social shaping and social construction. In ANT, human, natural, and human constructed elements are all united under the classification of “actor”, allowing disparate events to be compared in the similar context of the interaction between actors. ANT presents a more cohesive view of how design and technology interact with society, allowing the effects of specific designs, societal practices, or ecosystem supports to be made clear, furthermore implying that a designed world, in which each actor and its relationships are considered with the utmost concern, could allow for a more just balance between the sub-networks of the society, economy, and ecosystem.
The fundamental tenant of ANT is the concept of an “actor”. Quite uniquely, ANT holds no limits to what can be considered an “actor”, allowing a range of human, non-human, natural, and constructed objects to be anthropomorphized and fulfill actions characteristic of humans (Yaneva, 151, 160). Consider, as an example, the network of actors involved in the act of ordering a hamburger at a drive-through diner. The process of producing the ingredients used in making a hamburger involves a vast diversity of actors, from the head of the FDA to the syringe used to inject the cow with growth hormones, even the microorganisms in the soil which nurtured the alfalfa consumed by the cow fill the role of a key actor in the network supporting and determining the production of hamburgers (Yaneva, 152, 154). Beyond the actors which have direct interaction in the production of the burger, elements of American society, such as our interstate highway system and a conditioned need for instant gratification, although conceptual, further interact as actors within the sub-network of hamburger production. While each actor in such a sub-network can be considered individually, and examined for their properties as actors, ANT emphasizes the relationships between actors as the key drivers of change and determinants of the daily actions and interactions in human society (Yaneva, 165). Consider a key, as a lone actor a key is no more than an ornamental hunk of metal, however, it becomes an integral part of a human interaction, deciding who should be allowed to enter, when paired with a lock (Yaneva, 174). According to ANT, the fabric and texture of human society is constructed by the unique interactions between actors, forming a systematic network which emerges through the vast interconnections between seemingly disparate events.
As the process of design and manufacturing lends human agency to non-human objects, design plays an essential role in the construction of ANT (Latour, 2). Beyond creating objects of function, such as a screwdriver, which is endowed with the agency to remove or embed screws, through the lens of ANT, design adds specific meaning and social implications to objects (Latour, 4). Here at RISD, student ID cards create a distinctive divide between those who belong in the network of RISD and those who are foreign. Beyond allowing access to RISD buildings, student ID cards create a literal hierarchy of actors, proudly dividing the haves and the have-nots. From clothing to spoken accents to high-tech gadgets, so many non-human actors signify important yet constructed cultural meanings. Given the ability of design to endow non-human actors with agency, ANT naturally supposes that modern human society is entirely constructed, functioning as both a support system as well as a barrier to the outside, an envelope in which humanity can live protected from the “other” (Latour, 8). Although, in the process of designing non-human actors, designers hold an ethical responsibility for the impacts of their work, due to the chaotic nature of the network, designed, non-human actors gain agency not only from the designer, whose intentions might be readily dismissed, but also from the host of other actors which interact with and thus determine the societal function of the designed actor (Latour, 6). Through the process of “collaborative” design, in which many other actors beyond the designer, manufacturer, and those directly involved in the design process, play a part in lending an actor agency and meaning, emerges the crucial complexity of ANT, the full diversity of effects and interactions which shape each actor within the network. By lending objects agency and meaning through the process of collaborative design, design and design research can play a vital role, not only in shaping the texture of the networks of society, economy, and ecology, but also in understanding and visualizing the complex relationships which shape the roles and meanings of designed actors within the network.
While in comparison to other theories of how design impacts society ANT may seem overly complex, however, when applied to networks with very specific boundaries it can be incredibly useful in determining how best to adapt a design to improve the efficiency of its function, to solve problems without creating them. Examining the history of the last 100 years of design, many designed, non-human actors stick out as having taken on agency far-beyond what was originally intended. The automobile, for example, could be targeted as the essential factor which, through it’s spewing of toxic and insulating chemicals into the atmosphere, has spelled the end of humanity. Certainly not a function any automotive designer intended. On a less drastic level, the development of car culture, a conceptual actor, emerged through the interaction of other actors and now plays the role of an unwelcomed, collaborative designer in so many elements of American society. Just as ecologists tally, analyze, and map the actors in an ecosystem, by thoroughly dissecting the relationships and actors of a specific sub-network, designers can avoid many of the unintended impacts, particularly environmental, seen in the history of design (Latour, 9, 11). Consider the act of recycling, the interaction between a human and non-human actor, from the view of a municipal environmental task force. By analyzing the actors and interactions involved in the sub-network of recycling within a specific neighborhood, through the lens of ANT, the task force could discover unique insights into why the network exists in its current state, and how best to intervene, adjusting the agency of an actor or system of interaction in order for the network to reach a more favorable state. Through design research, analyzing and understanding the complexity of the network, and cautious, diligent design, designers can play an essential role in shaping human society, examining the complex networks which form the envelopes surrounding and systems supporting human life and carefully intervening to create a better balance between and within networks. The process of network examination and intervention is becoming increasingly important as the sub-networks of human society and economy continue to exist at odds with the ecosystem and biosphere, the networks which house all other sub-networks.
Actor-network theory imagines a world composed of actors, interacting to form sub-networks, which coalesce into overarching networks that drive human existence. Design performs a crucial role in ANT by providing agency and meaning to non-human actors, anthropomorphizing objects to encourage a form of specific human action, to be heeded, misunderstood, or ignored. Regardless of how accurately ANT models human society, seriously considering its application leads to an essential lesson which is most often ignored. While, to the politician, the public, and the CEO, the society and economy may seem like the vastest, most essential networks to human existence, they are nothing more than envelopes, enveloping and cushioning fragile humanity from outside forces. ANT begs for the consideration of the ecosystem and planetary biosphere as the only essential network. While nearly all interactions within society and economy are scripted and designed, interactions beyond the human envelope, although often interpreted with human characteristics, have developed into a network only under the system conditions of physics. ANT begs that the chaos outside the envelope be respected as equal to any form of designed cleverness existing within.
"Design performs a crucial role in ANT by providing agency and meaning to non-human actors, anthropomorphizing objects to encourage a form of specific human action, to be heeded, misunderstood, or ignored."
Latour, Bruno. "A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward A Philosophy Of Design." (n.d.): OAIster. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.
Yaneva, Albena. "Making The Social Hold: Towards An Actor-Network Theory Of Design." Design And Culture 1.3 (2009): 273. Supplemental Index. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.
Bijker, Wiebe E., and John Law. Shaping Technology/Building Society : Studies In Sociotechnical Change / Edited By Wiebe E. Bijker And John Law. n.p.: Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1994, c1992., 1994. Harvard Library Bibliographic Dataset. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.