Friday, 23 May 2008

Bruno Latour's Keynote at Reclaiming the World: the Future of Objectivity

I just attended Bruno Latour's keynote address at “Reclaiming the World: the Future of Objectivity”.

It was a packed house at the U of T's Bahen Centre, and they will be putting a video recording of the event on-line shortly.

They said there was no problem if I made an audio recording, so I've attached my handheld audio recording to this blog post in case anyone can't wait for the official video copy. It's a Latour bootleg! If they ask me to take it down for any reason, I will... But they gave me the green light in person, so here it is (see the attached 1 hour itunes/QuickTime M4a clip; it's about 22 MBs -- I hope the sampling frequency is audible and the file size isn't too large for folks):

* Bruno Latour Keynote

If you're up to date with Latour's work, there wasn't much new in his talk on political epistemologies. He mostly developed ideas from his two recent works Reassembling the Social and Making Things Public for a North American audience. He also provided numerous examples of new data visualization tools and projects such as:


Perhaps the most interesting part of the talk for Latour fans were the reactions to it. For example, Ian Hacking critiqued Latour's work as being an "insane phenomenology" with too many examples and not enough of a through line. Others from the more traditional and perhaps not so cutting edge U of T crowd similarly critiqued Latour’s work for not going into enough depth to develop a sense of how new data visualization projects are in fact “new” or leading to a redesign of society that is different from classical epistemologies. Also, many did not understand how networked technologies provided any resistance to dominant epistemologies.

My thoughts on the topic would be that if people are not seeing in Latour's work that new data visualization tools are "new", then they should stop using them and see what happens to their research. I believe other network theorists, like Yochai Benkler for example, would definitely support Latour’s analysis. Google, the military, and other big industries are banking on these “new” visualization tools, so there must be some reason behind it. To spell it out explicitly, beyond Latour's justifications which you can hear in the audio recording or find in his works, I would say that “new” data visualizations are "new" because of:

1) Massive Public Data Interaction: Open data access allow individuals to interact with massive networks that were not publicly available and at scales that have never before been studied, at such an instant speed of investigation (e.g. Just watch CNN's coverage of the Presidential race).

2) Automated Political-Technological Agents: The amount of technological penetration in Western society also increasingly has technology making decisions for us in our research as politically invested agents with their own in-built epistemologies that reflect particular dominant political groups. These epistemologies must be questioned and understood, especially when they do not fit into traditional epistemologies or ways of knowing.

3) On-line Discourse Domination: Decision making processes are moving on-line, and if different cultures want to be invested in science and technological decisions of "objectivity", then they have to become a part of this game, which is increasingly exclusionary.

That's my quick take on the topic. I'll write more as debate arises or time allows me to offer up more insights.

Overall, I was happy to finally hear the work of someone I have been studying for the past five years in person, and his slideshow was definitely very impressive. One of the main things that will stick with me from the talk is how the Maps of Science group and other scientometric tracking projects are demonstrating that globally there are about 12 major research clusters in the new knowledge economy of any discipline. That’s a fairly powerful data visualization of the realignment of social agents.

Okay, that's my final word, for now...