The Morality of a Speed Bump. Latour.


Introducing Bruno Latour. Over the past 20+ years Latour has been carefully and thrillingly re-designing the entire landscape of our lives, and increasingly people are noticing what he's been up to.

It really is no exaggeration to say that the world as Latour sees it is remarkable, and very little of the ways we commonly understand things survives unscathed. Not that he in any way imposes a new order on things, or concocts vast fantastic scifi-type fantasies. And he doesn't have a critical bone in his body, so he's not out there debunking things either - he sees critique as a tired, misguided activity. On the contrary his genius (and this is probably what defines all genius) is to show us what we're already doing but don't even notice. 

Rather than attempt some encyclopaedic biography and bibliography, I'll first list probably his most fundamental changes to the way we think about things, and then use one example to show a bit of the flavour of his work. As background Latour is a philosopher by training, but works most of the time as a sociologist, although no label captures him in any sort of accurate way. Most of his work has been focused upon understanding science and technology. Because we are in essence a scientific and technological age, it's not surprising that if you change the way we understand those things, you change the way we understand pretty much everything.

Here are some of the sacred cows Latour skewers, always entertainingly.

1. The world has pre-existing objective truths which it's the role of science to 'discover'.
2. Scientific experiments give scientists access to these pre-existing truths.
3. Technologies are just tools.
4. Technology is de-humanising, objective, and 'technical'.
5. Humans add meaning to the world, it has none of its own.
6. To be abstract is to be in some way removed from the everyday.
7. Morality is a human activity.
8. There are things called nature and society. 
9. Robots are 'robotic'.

Now you may be thinking at this point that Latour is some sort of post-modernist Frenchie, madly deconstructing truth and common sense, trying to show that all truth and objectivity is 'socially constructed', playing language games, debunking science and saying everything is just relative etc. etc. Alas there is little Latour detests more than post-modernism in any disguise. He even wrote a book called "We Have Never Been Modern" to stress that he's not only not post-modern, he finds the whole idea of modernity (and being post, pre or anti it) ridiculous. 

Before getting to the example, it might be useful to try to summarise his most essential insight, and why what he does so fundamentally changes the way you can understand the world. In a nutshell Latour argues that we need to be rid of the completely artificial divide between humans and non humans. Where non humans are not just animals and other organisms, but also inorganic things like rocks, chemicals, technologies and scientific facts. Latour traces some of the history of this (again, totally artificial) separation, and shows that not only are non humans not, well, non human at all in the sense of them having no agency or meaning or ability to create things, but also at the same time everything we like to paint as humanity or human-ness is completely entangled with and indistinguishable from non humans. Not in some cyborg way (although the cyborg idea has some interesting aspects), it's a lot more simple than that. And thus to the example, a fleshing out of number 7 above. 

Everyone has seen speed bumps on a road. Often just extended humps of asphalt running across the road, which force you to slow down or else do damage to your car and possibly the people in it. Is a speed bump human or non human? A no-brainer, surely? It doesn't breathe or see or hear or eat, it's just a lump of asphalt. Thus non human. But hang on, it can't exist without humans, there are no 'naturally occurring' speed bumps. Right, so it's non human, but made by humans. 

But what does it do, why did somebody put it there? Well, it slows people down. Anybody who's watched how this sort of thing pans out will have noticed that normally there's a fun sequence leading up to the building of the bump. First there may be a rule of thumb amongst users about the safe speed to negotiate the road. But then some recalcitrants or visitors ignore or are unaware of these, so the next step is often a sign. "Slow down", or "Speed Kills". It doesn't work either. So we progress to a speed 'limit', so that the sign now carries a number (the limit), and more importantly this number is itself tied to a law of the land, so that if you break the limit the consequences can be extensive, including fines and incarceration. This doesn't work either. So finally we get the speed bump.

When you look at how that sequence unfolds, you realise that this humble bump now embodies or has delegated to it an enormous range of what we would normally only think of as 'social' or human roles. All of those laws and rules which the bump now 'performs' are thoroughly human in our usual way of looking at this. So it's very much acting in the human world, it's not just a lump of tar. In fact it even gets to take part in the morality of the situation, because in simple terms morality is about what ought to be (people should slow down to prevent injury and death), normally contrasted with what is (people don't slow down). The bump beautifully manages to make what is and what ought to be identical - so much for the 'fact-value distinction'.

Latour of course is not saying, as some of his feeble-minded and desperately unfunny critics have suggested, that speed bumps and other technologies therefore need voting rights and heath care. He's not just switching the dualism back over the other way, so that everything that was previously non human is now human. He's saying that the dualism never made sense in the first place, because humans have always exchanged properties with the things they make. And in fact a large proportion of the traits we usually use to define the essence of humanity would be impossible without the weaving of non humans into our societies. They're not passive tools, nor are they some dominating force that needs to be controlled. They're us, they're part of what makes us who we are. Writers know this with language as the artifact, how language and concepts and terms don't just describe things, they shape how we actually think and perceive. But every artifact, every technology, does the same. 

I'll explore all of this a lot more in future posts, because the implications are so wide-ranging and interesting. But in the meantime you can gain some new respect for traffic engineers, who need to design roads and signs and rules in ways that will be complied with by the vast majority of people in our society, most of the time. Anybody who's had to try and devise and enforce rules in a small company or even a family will realise just how huge and almost impossible a job this is. When you're dealing with roads you're dealing with every type of loon, saint and psycho that walks the face of the Earth. Because we all pretty much use roads. 




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