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Mar 17, 2008 4:03am

blog all dog-eared pages: aramis, or the love of technology

Bruno Latour's investigation of the stillborn French transit system Aramis was recommended to me by Mike Frumin after another recent book post. Latour dissects the abandonment of Aramis in the form of an academic mystery novel, featuring a cranky sociology researcher/investigator and his young, upstart graduate intern ploughing through two collected decades of first-hand accounts from technologists and bureaucrats. The Aramis PRT occasionally speaks up for itself in the voice of a temporally transposed Frankenstein's Monster.

Latour builds on his translation model from Science In Action and shows how a successful technology project changes in response to its environment, taking on new features and satisfying new needs as it navigates the landscape of human and non-human actors from conception to delivery. No change, no project. Stasis.

Aramis in particular is an example of a late-1960's fad in public transportation that sought to marry the convenience and flexibility of the automobile to the high volumes and socialized costs of mass transit. PRT's never really panned out despite multiple attempts, though in some ways the current crop of car-sharing services is fulfilling this dream from the opposite direction. In this particular case, Latour shows how Aramis was never moved past the "technically sweet" stage: always an engineer's dream, worked on by idealists with little interest in taking its revolutionary technological concepts and adapting them to the physical, financial, and political realities of Paris in the 1970's and 80's.

I marked a lot of pages here, and this is a long post. Normally I'd try to summarize everything but Latour is a lucid, enjoyable writer and his prose is a joy, so this small bit of background should be enough.

Page 24, on state:

The observer of technologies has to be very careful not to differentiate too hastily between signs and things, between projects and objects, between fiction and reality, between a novel about feelings and what is inscribed in the nature of things. In fact, the engineers the observer is studying pass progressively from one of these sets to another. The R-312 was a text; now it's a thing. Once a carcass, it will eventually revert to the carcass state. Aramis was a text; it came close to becoming, nearly became, it might have become, an object, an institution, a means of transportation in Paris. In the archives, it turns back into a text, a technological fiction.

Page 45, on variability, solidity, and resilience:

Mr. Legardere may vary in size, the ministry will change hands ten times - it would be unwise to count on stability there; but the signatures and stamps remain, offering the alliances a relative durability. Scripta manent. That will never be enough, for signed documents can turn back into scraps of paper. Yet if, at the same time, the interlocking of interests is actively maintained, the law offers, as it were, a recall effect. After it is signed, a project becomes weightier, like a little sailboat whose hull has been ballasted with some heavy metal. It can still be overturned, but one would have to work a little harder to prevent it from righting itself, from returning to its former position. In the area of technologies, you cannot ask for more.

Page 59, on metaphor:

"It's a confusion of genres," I said, forgetting my place. "Chips don't talk any more than Chanticleer's hens do. People make them talk - we do, we're the real engineers. They're just puppets. Just ordinary things in our hands." "Then you've never talked to a puppeteers. Here, read this and you'll see that I'm not the one getting carried away with metaphors. Anyway, do you know what 'metaphor' means? Transportation. Moving. The word metaphoros, my friend, is written on all the moving vans in Greece."

Page 67, on the moveable frontier:

The frontier between "the bulk of the work" and "fine-tuning the details" remains in flux for a long time; its position is the object of intense negotiation. To simplify its task, every group tends to think that its own role is most important, and that the next group in the chain just needs to concern itself with the technical details, or to apply the principles that the first group has defined. Moreover, this way of looking at things is integrated into project management.

Page 72, defining "innovation":

Here is the difference between a project that is not very innovative and one that is highly innovative. A project is called innovative if the number of actors that have to be taken into account is not a given from the outset. If that number is known in advance, in contrast, the project can follow quite orderly, hierarchical phases; it can go from office to office, and every office will add the concerns of the actors for which it is responsible. As you proceed along the corridor, the size or degree of reality grows by regular increments. Research projects, on the other hand, do not have such an elegant order: the crowds that were thought to be behind the project disappear without a word; or, conversely, unexpected allies turn up and demand to be taken into account.

Page 88, time is what is counted:

The time frame for innovations depends on the geometry of the actors, not on the calendar. ... Is VAL's time the same as Aramis'? No, even though 1975, 1976, 1977, 1979, and 1980 are critical years for both. It's no good taking out a chronometer or a diary so you can measure the passage of time and blame the first project for going too quickly and the second one for going too slowly. The time of the first depends on local sites, on Notebart's role as engine, on Ferbeck, and on Matra, just as the time of the second depends on the absence of sites, on hesitation over components, on the motor's fits and starts. All you have to do is reconstruct the chain of permissions and refusals, alliances and losses, to understand that a project may not budge for a hundred years or that it may transform itself completely in four minutes flat. The obsession with calendar time makes historians sprinkle technologies with agricultural metaphors referring to maturation, slowness, obsolescence or germination, or else mechanical metaphors having to do with acceleration or braking. In fact, time does not count. Time is what is counted. It is not an explanatory variable; it is a dependent variable that needs to be explained.

Pages 109-110, on tinkering and engineering:

"But wait a minute," I exclaimed, indignant at so much bad faith and because, by chance, I had read Levi-Strauss for my exams. "Levi-Strauss contrasts modern engineers with mythical tinkerers. We engineers don't tinker, he says. We rethink all programs in terms of projects. We don't think like savages." "Hah!" Norbert muttered ironically. "That's because Levi-Strauss did his field work in the Amazon rain forests, not in the jungle of the Paris metro. What he says about tinkerers fits engineers to a T, his ethnologist's bias notwithstanding. ...when everything is going along swimmingly; of course, then it's as if there were 'experts' quite unlike tinkerers and negotiators. But at the end, only at the end. And since Aramis wasn't lucky enough to have such an end ... No, believe me, you don't have those who tinker on one side, and those who calculate on the other."

Page 118, Matra's M. Freque on arguing:

"The arguments sometimes got pretty lively. You heard everything: 'Greedy industrialist!' 'Profiteers!' 'Assholes!' But in the long run we reached an agreement. The problem with Aramis is that not enough people yelled at each other. Below a certain level, that's not good. You see, sometimes my ideas got rejected, other times I came out the winner; sometimes things got simplified, other times they got complicated. That proves it was a real debate, a real negotiation."

Pages 126-127, on mobilization:

As a project takes shape, there is an increase in the number, quality, and stature - always relative and changing - of the actors to be mobilized. Petit was just one highly placed official. Now ministers and presidents are involved. By moving from conceptual phases to production phases, you move from saints to the God they serve. Since the project is becoming more and more costly, since it is agitating more and more people, since it is mobilizing more and more factories, since the nonhumans it has to line up are numbered in the thousands, since it is a matter no longer of plowing up a beet field but of tearing up parts of southern Paris, actors capable of providing resources adequate to the new scale must henceforth be reckoned with. Ten times as many actors are now needed for the project, and they cannot be recruited one by one - one pipe smoker after another, one iron bar at a time. We have to move from those who represent small numbers to those who represent large numbers.

Page 157, Aramis speaks for itself:

Why reject me? Have I not been good? Was I not born well-endowed with virtues, unlike my brother VAL? Have I not been the dream, the ideal? What pains were not taken for my conception! Why recoil in horror today? Did not all the fairies hover over my cradle? Oh, my progenitors, why did you turn your heads away, why do you confess today that you did not love me, that you did not want me, that you had no intention of creating me? ... Of all the sins, unconsummated love is the most inexpiable. Burdened with my prostheses, hated, abandoned, innocent, accused, a filthy beast, a thing full of men, men full of things, I lie before you. Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani.

Pages 159-160, on private doubt:

"To account for this survival, this delay, we have two elements: up above, in the higher spheres, everyone is now in favor of Aramis, unanimously. Although everybody has private doubts about the project, they give it their own backing, however half-heartedly, because they see all the others supporting it enthusiastically. Down below, with the technicians, everybody is skeptical..." "At least that's what they're saying now. At the time, no one noticed the skepticism..." "Exactly. Everybody was skeptical, but only in private. That's the whole problem: half-doubts are all scattered, isolated, buried in notes that we are often the first to see, in any case the first to bring together as a whole."

Page 174, on smoothness:

Let's calculate the sum of forces - using this expression to designate both the work all the actors do to sum up and the diversity of the ontological models they use. Let's add the thrusts of human labor, the fall of ballistic missiles, the responsibility of promises, amorous seduction, the shame of more killing, vanity, business - everything that makes Aramis impossible to suspend. Yes, it's definitely a strange monster, a strange physics. It's the Minotaur, plus the labyrinth, plus Ariadne and her thread, plus Daedalus, who is condemned to die in it and who dreams of escaping. They're really fun, those people who write books in which they think they're castigating technology with adjectives like smooth, cold, profitable, efficient, inhuman, irreversible, autonomous! These insults are qualities with which the engineers would be delighted indeed to endow their hybrid beings. They rarely succeed in doing so.

Page 180, on bureaucracy:

To make fun of the files of the bureaucrats, to make fun of the two-page notes of synthesis and the thousand-page appendixes, is to forget the work of stabilization necessary to the interdefinition of the actors. It is to forget that the actors, large or small, are as lost in the action as the investigator is. The human sciences do not show up as the curtain falls, in order to interpret the phenomenon. They constitute the phenomenon. And the most important human sciences, always overlooked, include accounting, management, economics, the "cameral sciences" (bureau-graphy), and statistics.

Page 199, on common sense:

"Everything happens in defiance of common sense, but there is no common sense for innovations, since they happen, they begin, they invent common sense, the right direction, the correct procedure."

Page 213, on figure-ground reversal:

Where is this thing, the microprocessor, to be situated? On the side of human beings? No, since humans have delegated, transcribed, inscribed their qualities into nonhumans. On the side of nonhumans, then? Not there either. If the object were lying among nonhumans alone, it would immediately become a bag of parts, a heap of pins, a pile of silicon, an old-fashioned object. Thus, the object, the real thing, the thing that acts, exists only provided that it holds humans and nonhumans together, continuously. ... On the one hand, it can be said to hold people together, but on the other hand it is people who hold it together.

Page 280, on stasis:

The report presented the 1987 Aramis, word for word, as identical to Petit and Bardet's 1970 Aramis. I found myself twenty-one interpretations, but the technological documents remained mute about this dispersion. Aramis had not incorporated any of the transformations of its environment. It had remained purely an object, a pure object. Remote from the social arena, remote from history; intact. This was surely it, the hidden staircase Norbert had been looking for. Its soul and its body, as he would say, never merged.

Page 292, on Aramis unloved:

"Yet in spite of its fragility, its sensitivity, how have we treated it? Like an uncomplicated development project that could unfold in successive phases from the drawing boards to a metro system that would run with 14,000 passengers an hour in the south Paris region every day; twenty-four hours a day. Here is our mistake, one we all made, the only one we made. You had a hypersensitive project, and you treated it as if you could get it through under its own steam. ... You believed in the autonomy of technology."

Page 295, Aramis speaks again:

Of what ends am I the means? Tell me! you hid from one another in order not to admit that you didn't want me. You built the CET the way human couples produce one child after another when they're about to divorce, trying to patch things up. What horrible hypocrisy, entrusting to the whimperings of the most fragile of beings the responsibility for keeping together creatures that are much stronger than itself.
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