A wet & soggy account of ANT

Wits has decided that if they are going to prepare students for a 21st century world, then they will have to equip their students with connected digital devices that enable 21st century thinking and work. Accordingly, they have embarked on a number of projects to wirelessly connect the campus and improve the ratio of students who have access to computing devices. In understanding how this project is going to play out, I propose that I use ANT as a lens to understand the process, identify the actors that play a role in ICT diffusion at Wits and investigate the relationship between them.

Two weeks of dipping in and out of Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT) has left my mind drenched with a new thought framework. Instead of looking for another article, I’ve decided to articulate what I have (and haven’t) grasped about material-semiotics. By straining my synapses through a textual sieve, I’m going to attempt to apply ANT to my area of study, and see what I’ve absorbed and what I need to clarify.

ANT is a reasonably established theory that has been used for understanding information systems. It avoids some of the common technology cliches; “ICT as an enabler” or “bridging the digital divide” . It supports thinking about the sociotechnical networks that incorporate people, computers, institutions, policies etc into ICT.

What is ANT
A repeated theme in the literature is that ANT refuses to be labeled as a theory or a methodology. ANT asks that the person to look at all “actants” (be they people or objects) and describe what they see. In this project at Wits, there are a range of different actants. Do I need to list all of them? Is it possible to list them all? No. I anticipate that what will emerge will be complicated, complex or chaotic. But the ANT lens says that we should resist the temptation to reduce what we see into natural, social, or discursive categories. Rather than reduce the various entities or see them as separate objects that can be manipulated, ANT asks the observer to note the actants and their relationship to each other.

How does ANT work?
The relationship between the heterogeneous actants interests is called a network. The formation of this network occurs by translation, not transmission. The stability of the network depends on the ability of the different actants to translate that is, re-interpret, re-present or appropriate, others’ interests to one’s own. There are four moments in translation; Problematisation, Intressement, Enrolment, Mobilisation of allies. In order to bring clarity – the focus on the process of translation is usually taken from the point of view of a single actor

What will the ANT framework accomplish?
Who shapes, enables and constrains change in an organisation? People or technology? The debate as to has agency swings between technology and society. ANT would argue that the relationship between technology and humans are interwoven. Although technology is changing rapidly, technology does not drive the development of an organizations’s values. But neither can an organization behaviors be entirely explained by social interactions and constructs. Rather, ANT argues that human and non human actors have agency and create a network that influences how things get done. ANT ask that we acknowledge the reciprocal and dynamic interaction between technology and humans.
This is by no means intended as accurate or authoritative account of ANT. It’s me squeezing my brain against words (much like a sponge against the palm of my hand), waiting to see if anything useful emerges. Please feel free to comment. Hopefully my mind will feel less soggy soon.