In this section we will look at a set of related phenomena that I have grouped together under the heading “Science and Technology”. These phenomena are most often omitted from studies of social structures by traditional sociology; but they play such an important role in fashioning the society we live in today that I consider it essential to take them into account. The reason for this neglect is probably related to the problem that C. P. Snow identified as the breakdown of communication between the “two cultures” of modern society, the sciences and the humanities; it is a fact that engineers and social scientists do not usually work together . However this may be, the question of the relation between technical systems and the forms of social life is of such central importance in the emergence and historical development of specifically human forms of social life that the attempt must be made to address it. When we begin to get to grips with this question, we will find that there are two complementary aspects: on one hand, there is the structural influence of technical systems on the constitution of society; on the other hand, there is the question of a fine sociological analysis of the actual activities of engineers and scientists. In what follows, we shall be looking at both of these aspects – trying not to forget that they only really exist and make sense when they are put together, as in the spirit of figure 19. First, we will look at Technology as Anthropologically Constitutive; in The social construction of scientific facts, we will switch to a sociological analysis of scientific activity; in Cycles of accumulation, we will attempt to draw various threads together, by analysing how scientific activity (generally characterized as functioning on the basis of inscriptions, typically within scientific laboratories) articulates with what is actually going on in the realities of social life in the “outside world”.
Technology as anthropologically constitutive
In order to introduce this topic, we may illustrate the far-reaching effects of technical systems by noting that archaeologists, basing themselves solely on material remains and in particular on the remains of technical artefacts, are able to reconstitute to an astonishing degree the daily life of vanished civilisations. Another way of illustrating the importance of man-made artefacts is contained in Husserl's concept of Begeistete Objekte, i.e. “spirit-laden objects”. Public objects and their spatial disposition – for example roads, signposts, buildings, doors open or closed, uniforms, counters, tables, coins, seats, bells, and so on – already inform agents about the roles they occupy and what they should do, so that they can enter into interactions on the basis of shared common knowledge about the situation.
To begin at the beginning, the first anthropoid tools for which there is solid evidence are the well-known flint tools made by our hominid ancestors. There is a clear sequence in the fossil record, running from the first “choppers”, crudely made just by banging two pebbles against each other, to increasingly sophisticated and finely-chiselled bi-face tools. The pace of this pre-historical change over the period from 3 million years to about 100 thousand years was very slow, in tune with the pace of anatomical change and in particular the increase in brain-size. Leroi-Gourhan (1964[*]) has remarked that during all this time, “man secreted his tools almost as though they were nails or teeth”, by a process that was therefore largely continuous with biological evolution. There were then two crucial events in the process of hominisation which lead to mankind as we know it today.
The first event, which occurred around 100 thousand years ago, was not (as we fondly like to think) a sudden and dramatic increase in the size of the brain. After the shock of Darwin's suggestion that human beings had common ancestors with apes, the question arose as to the nature of the intermediate stages. Since we are so proud of our brains, the expectation was that this “missing link” would be a creature with a human head on an ape-like body. As Leroi-Gourhan said, “we were ready for anything but this: mankind began by the feet”. Thus Lucy, like other early Australopithecus fossil specimens, had a small head; the new distinctive feature occurred at the level of the legs and feet, which were adapted for standing upright with a biped means of locomotion. This new means of locomotion was remarkably efficient from a mechanical and energetic point of view; but what is even more important from the present point of view is that it freed the hands, thus creating an “anterior field” between head and hand which is a key prerequisite for making and using tools. In other words, we are into the theme of “technology as anthropologically constitutive”; what characterizes human beings compared to their animal relatives, right from the start, does indeed seem to have been an aptitude for dealing with technical artefacts.
The second event occurred around 50 thousand years ago; and it can be seen as marking a “break” in the rhythm between biological evolution, which occurs on a time-scale of millions of years, and human pre-history where the time-scale is measured in thousands of years (KY). Our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens, arose in Africa around 150 KY. The “event” at 50 KY marks an acceleration in the rate of cultural evolution which relegates any further biological evolution to relative insignificance. Symbolically, this event is marked by the disappearance of Neanderthal man, the last surviving species of our numerous biological cousins (the hominids Australopithecus, homo habilis, ergaster, erectus, neanderthalensis, etc.) so that are closest biological relatives are now the great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utan). Symbolically also, this is the period of the first cave art.
At the level of technical artefacts, which is our theme in this section, this “event” is characterized by a significant innovation in the making of stone tools. Before, the useful part of the tool was what was left behind by the chiselling process; the innovation consisted of using the chips that were broken off from the main body of the silex material. Thus we see the appearance of the exquisite polished arrow-heads of the Neolithic period. In terms of efficiency, the length of useful cutting-edge per kilogramme raw material (the brute flints were a relatively rare and precious resource) was increased by orders of magnitude. Now in order to produce useable chips, a long and elaborate process of preparing the flint is necessary, before the final blow knocks off the desired chip. From a cognitive point of view, this requires a strongly developed capacity for anticipation. Guille-Escuret (1994[*]) has put forward an intriguing hypothesis to account for this technical innovation. By 50 KY the making and using of tools was already established with its own history (and ethologists have claimed that all sorts of animals, not only apes but also crows and others, make and use tools); on the other hand, language was also developed, with its own history. But there is no evidence of any connexion between language and tool-use. As modern stone-nappers have found, talking is neither necessary nor sufficient when one is trying to make a primitive bi-face. It is plausible to suppose that language was used first of all in the context of personal social relations; and as is still true today, this leads to a run-away effect. As our social life becomes more complex, we need linguistic communication to cope with it; but ironically, one of the main effects of talking about our social life is... to make it even more complex! This independent appearance of tools on one hand and language on the other sets the stage for Guille-Escuret's hypothesis: the “event” at 50 KY could have been the meeting of these two strains, of using language to talk about technical artefacts (making, using and especially inventing them). Etymologically, this corresponds exactly to the birth of techno-logos, i.e. technology.
With this, the stage is set for a whole series of other technological innovations – the use of fire and pottery, weaving, the working of metal (leaving behind the “Stone Age”), then agriculture and the creation of towns. The whole quality of human life is radically transformed. In order to analyse how the introduction of tools and technical systems produced a qualitative change in the rhythm of change, pre-historical and then historical change, it will be useful here to enter into some theoretical considerations. With reference to the basic scheme of sensori-motor coupling between a biological organism and its environment, the crucial feature is the extension of this coupling to include its mediation by technical artefacts (see figure 20).
Figure 20. The basic scheme of sensory-motor coupling, extended to include mediation by technical artefacts.
This schematic figure illustrates the fact that what tools do is to increase the range of possible actions, and to increase the range of possible sensory returns. Thus, human beings live in a world that they themselves have constructed: not just in the sense that they modify their environment (buildings, streets, towns etc), important though this is; but because to the extent that their sensory-motor coupling with the environment is mediated by tools, what the enacted “world” becomes for human beings is largely constituted by these tools. This is, of course, more than ever true today.
Now in order to grasp the full import of the invention of tools, the key point is that a tool (unlike a biological sensory organ or motor organ) exists in two distinct modes, that we may call the “in-hand” mode and the “put-down” mode. When it is being used, the tool itself typically disappears from consciousness; attention is quite naturally focussed on the particular sort of “world” that is being brought about by the successful mediation of the tool. This is the “in-hand” mode. But tools, typically, can also be detached from the body and “put down”. It is in this second mode that they become themselves the focus of attention, and can be repaired, or made, and (most important of all in this context) invented. It is also because tools can exist in this “put-down” mode that they can be used by different individuals; and this also prepares the way for a social division of labour with respect to tool-making and tool-use. Tools, and technical systems more generally, thus have a “dual nature”; and the reason why they introduce an acceleration in the rhythm of change comes from the possibility of a constant back-and-forth between these two modes.
To put human tools in the context of evolution in general, animals do make some primitive tools; but there are at least three criteria which distinguish tool-making by humans and by animals (Lestel, 1998[*]). Firstly, chimpanzees do not make polylithes, i.e. objects which result from assembling several other objects. Secondly, no primate in a natural setting has been observed making a tool destined to be used for making other tools. Thirdly, as we just mentioned, human technology involves the co-operative making of artefacts, which is never observed in chimpanzees. These specific characteristics work together to free human technical invention from pre-established stereotypes. It follows on from this that man-made technical artefacts generate ever more artefacts, so that technical invention becomes a process with its own dynamics where “functional over-determination” brings into play characteristic “laws” of technical evolution (Stiegler, 1994)[*]. “As in a phylogenetic series, each stage of evolution contains within itself the structures and the schemas which form the principle of an evolution of forms. A technical being evolves by convergence and internal adaptation; it unifies itself internally according to a principle of internal resonance” (Simondon, 1989[*]). This “technical tendency” is there right from the start, but it becomes particularly pregnant at the stage of industrial production, and confers on technical artefacts a historicity of their own. It follows that it is not correct to speak of a technical object as a simple heap of inert matter that has been shaped purely from the outside, by an independent organising will (Stiegler, 1994)[*]. This concept of technical objects is thus quite different from the usual position, according to which technical objects are simple utilitarian instruments entirely subject to pre-defined goals. In this context, the concept of a clear and distinct “goal” formed by an isolated self-sufficient individual is a myth. On one hand, “goals” emerge from a social process which is distributed over all the actors and which no single individual can entirely master. On the other hand, technical objects systematically escape from preconceived aims. This is already the case because they have their own internal dynamics, as just explained; but added to this, there is the fact that social agents regularly create and seize opportunities for subverting and re-appropriating previously “standard” uses. The upshot of all this is that the purpose of a technical artefact barely exists in any definite form prior to its being made and used.
The social construction of scientific facts
We turn now to the question of science. It is clear, particularly in our contemporary society, that there is a strong mutual relationship between technology and science. At the same time it is not clear exactly what the nature of this relationship actually is. We will be looking a little later at the historical genesis of science as a social institution: the “birth” of modern science at the Renaissance, prefigured in an important sense by the “Greek miracle” that we have already alluded to in The domestication of the savage mind: the invention of writing. We have seen, in the previous section, that human beings were already invested in the invention of technical artefacts well before the advent of modern science, so science is not absolutely necessary for technological innovation which cannot be reduced simply to “applied science”. But in order to look more closely at the role that science plays in technological innovation – and it does play an important and indeed ever-increasing role – it will first be necessary to dispel some common illusions about the nature of scientific research. The most serious of these illusions is that since science is “simply” (!) about discovering true facts, “sociological factors” are merely anecdotal and do not concern the actual content of scientific knowledge. To dispel this illusion, we will mobilize sociology in the way indicated in Introduction, i.e. as a means for proceeding to a fine analysis of what actually goes on in scientific laboratories.
The “founding father” of the sociology of science is generally considered to be Merton (1942[*]), who examined the social norms which regulate scientific research. Thus, he studied questions such as scientific institutions, the structure of the scientific community, career structures, and the attribution of credit for scientific discoveries. However, he quite deliberately avoided discussion of the actual content of scientific theories, considering that that was the reserved domain of epistemology. A further step was taken when the sociology of science did start to investigate the way in which the content of scientific theories was built – but initially, such studies took as preferred objects of study theories which are nowadays considered to be false, such as the phlogiston theory in alchemy. One can understand the rationale behind this: since such theories are “false”, they cannot be explained as representations of an independent reality – for the simple reason that there is no corresponding reality; and so the field is indeed open for a “social constructivist” account of how they nevertheless came about. A decisive step forward came when Bloor (1976) called for a “strong programme” in the sociology of science, which would quite explicitly eschew this sort of asymmetrical approach, in favour of a “symmetrical” approach to theories that subsequently come to be considered as “true” or “false”. There is a fairly simple argument in favour of this position: at the time when the scientists are actively working on their theory, they do not know (nor does anyone else) whether the theory will turn out to be “true” or “false”; and so there is no sense in having a double standard which could only apply retrospectively. But this approach is anything but trivial, because it does of course open up the possibility of a radically constructivist approach – or, to put it in the terms of this book, to study the enaction of a certain sort of reality by means of scientific research.
We thus come to the question of the social construction of scientific facts – which is indeed exactly the subtitle of a classic study by Latour and Woolgar (1979[*]). This book is based on a series of observations made during a stay of two years in a biology laboratory; in the event, the laboratory of Roger Guillemin at the Salk Institute. The work carried out, for which Guillemin would later receive a Nobel Prize, was concerned with the identification of certain brain hormones. Latour and Woolgar describe their observations as “anthropological” in the sense that is fairly standard in ethnological observations, i.e. they take a deliberately “agnostic” attitude to the belief systems of the human subjects they observe. Here, they describe with great care the process by which a scientific hypothesis, at a certain critical moment in its development, undergoes a transformation and becomes a fact. In conventional epistemology, since Popper, it is clearly established that in principle all scientific theories have the status of hypotheses; what we will examine now is the psycho-social process by which some of these theories come to acquire the status of an “objective fact” which appears to be the faithful reflection of an independent reality.
The starting point for any scientific object, then, is its birth in the form of a hypothesis in the minds of the scientists in question. In a scientific laboratory, the majority of statements are indeed hypotheses: more or less vague, more or less speculative, more or less serious. The effect of scientific activity is to modify the status of these hypotheses, tending either to confirm them or on the contrary to invalidate them. But these modifications are neither definitive nor irreversible, so that each hypothesis follows a fluctuating trajectory. There is thus an essential continuity of the hypothesis over the course of these fluctuations.
Now if one invites a scientist to explain the status of a hypothesis at a given moment in time, he will retrace its history since its birth as a speculative idea up to the most recent modifications. In an account of this sort, the scientists themselves engage in a veritable “spontaneous sociology of science”, wherein various sorts of factors – cognitive, social, psychological... – are all indiscriminately mixed up together. Thus s/he will mention the social context and the subjective motivations which help to understand the birth of a hypothesis; going on to an explanation of its potential interest both for the field of “pure” research and for possible applications; and including a critical evaluation of the “reliability” of the experiments carried out by scientific peers and colleagues, and a comparison with possible alternative hypotheses and interpretations. During this phase, phrases stating the hypothesis are usually qualified by modal expressions such as “believes that...”, “fears that...”, “hopes that...”, “thinks that...” etc. Latour and Woolgar give a telling example from another domain: “X, who had not slept for three nights and who was exhausted, thought that he had seen an optic pulsar”. The allusion to psycho-social factors – here the circumstance that “X had not slept...” – is combined with the insistence on the fact that X thought that he had seen..., and together they strongly convey the feeling that the existence of optic pulsars is only a hypothesis.
The great majority of these hypotheses end up by dying. This death can be violent, if the hypothesis is eliminated by the results of an experiment which decisively refute it, so that it is never taken up again. More often it is a lingering death, by lack of sustenance; if no scientists are sufficiently interested and motivated by the hypothesis to carry out experiments designed to test it and hence to modify its status, it simply fades away into oblivion. As Lakatos (1970[*]) has seen with perspicacity, research scientists are generally pretty pragmatic, and they are less sensitive to the possible “truth” of a hypothesis than to its fruitfulness.
However, in a small minority of cases, a different fate awaits the hypothesis. Following an important experiment, or more often a whole series of experiments, that the scientists in question consider as “decisive”, the hypothesis crosses a threshold... and becomes a fact. Latour and Woolgar, with commendable analytical precision, note that the mechanism of this remarkable transformation comprises three distinct stages. The first stage consists of a splitting. The statement – the set of words (or mathematical formulae) which constitute a formulation of the hypothesis – continues to exist. But what happens, is that this statement of the hypothesis projects a “twin copy” of itself into the outside world; and this “twin copy” takes on an independent existence in the form of a “real object”. From this point on, there are two distinct entities: “the object” and “the statement about the object”. The importance of analytically identifying this initial stage is that at this point, the genealogical relation between the “hypothesis” and the “object” is absolutely clear: it is the hypothesis which is the ancestor of the object, not only because it was there right from the start, but also and above all because it is rigorously impossible to say anything about the object which is not a pure repetition (maybe masked by a paraphrase, but which changes essentially nothing) of the terms of the hypothesis.
It is crucially important to note this first stage, the “splitting”, because it is very rapidly followed by a second event, that Latour and Woolgar call “inversion”. What happens here is that the genealogical relation between statement and object is inverted. As we just noted, initially it was the statement which, by splitting, gave rise to the object. However, very soon, more and more “reality” becomes attached to the object, and less and less to the statement about the object. When this process of inversion has run its term, it is no longer the object which is a perfect reflection of the statement, but the statement which has become a reflection of the “real object”. We end up with that marvellous adequatio rei et intellecticus which has fascinated generations of philosophers... but which is so perfect that one should have been suspicious...
These two processes, the inversion preceded by the splitting, generally happen in such quick succession that it is difficult to detect the sleight-of-hand. The effects of the inversion are then consolidated by the third stage, which is neither more nor less than a re-writing of history. Now, if one asks a scientist to explain why one says that “X observed an optic pulsar”, it is because the pulsar really exists, and X has simply (!) seen it as it is. Concomitantly, all the modalities which qualified the expression of the hypothesis disappear to leave the pure statement of fact: “optic pulsars exist”. The reality of this fact is situated outside human space and time, so that the whole social and historical dimension of the construction of this fact – the local conditions of its initial formulation as a hypothesis, the years of work, the personalities of the scientists and laboratory technicians who contributed, the false leads of alternative interpretations, the controversies, even the precise time and place of the final transformation of the hypothesis into a fact – none of that is important any more. The truth has always been what it is, the real object has always existed, waiting patiently for scientists to come along and discover it.
The power of such a systematic re-writing of history is enormous, and it is practically impossible to resist it. One feels somewhat like Winston Smith in Orwell's novel 1984, correcting the unique copy of the newspaper The Times; Smith is reduced to murmuring under his breath “the only proof is in my own mind”. And yet... if we put everything out on the table, this sort of re-writing, discreetly described as “rational reconstruction”, does not stand up to critical examination, for two reasons. Firstly, the “object” only takes on substantial existence after the processes of splitting and inversion, and so (unless one abandons the idea that causes precede their effects) cannot be the cause of them. Secondly, and even more decisively, the history of science disqualifies this sort of rewritten history, because the transformation between “hypothesis” and “fact” is often reversible – which would be rigorously impossible if the objective facts were actually the cause of the splitting and inversion. This point is so important that it is worth taking a little time to illustrate it.
Those who are familiar with “laboratory life” know well that “scientific objects” are subject to marked fluctuations over relatively short periods. At the frontiers of research, the construction and deconstruction of a “real object” is almost a daily affair:
“Tuesday a peak was considered as the sign of a real substance. But on Wednesday the judgement was that this peak was the result of an unreliable physiograph. Thursday, the use of another extract gave another peak that was taken to be “the same”. At this point, the existence of a new object was solidifying, only to be redissolved the next day.” (Latour & Woolgar, 1979[*]).
Even major scientific facts are not immune from possible deconstruction. Latour and Woolgar cite the example of TRF, a brain hormone. In 1969, when Guillemin and Schally attributed it a definite molecular structure, TRF became a “real” object. But Latour, with great perspicacity, reminds us:
“It is quite possible that in the end TRF will turn out to be an artefact. For example, there is no convincing evidence that TRF actually exists in the body in the form Pyro-Glu-His-Pro-NH2 in ‘physiologically significant' quantities... Up until now, the negative results in this respect have been put down to the lack of sensitivity of the assays... However, a slight alteration in context could still lead to the conclusion ... that TRF is after all an artefact.”
This reversibility in the status of scientific theories is just as manifest on a longer time-scale. The history of science abounds with examples of theories which were long held to be true but which have subsequently turned out to be false; and conversely, theories which were once considered false but which are nowadays accepted as true. For example, at the time of the alchemists, it was thought that metals contained a substance, phlogiston, which they lost when they burned and disintegrated into powder. This theory was very widely accepted up until the advent of “modern chemistry”, when the metal and powder were carefully weighed and it was shown that the powder actually weighed more than the metal; hence, the hypothetical “phlogiston” would have a negative weight. For reasons that were as much if not more social and political than purely cognitive (Berman, 1981[*]), this argument was considered to be decisive; and nowadays, no-one thinks that phlogiston exists. Conversely, there is a currently accepted theory that the continents once formed a single block; this block broke up into several pieces which then drifted apart, to give rise to the current shapes of the continents. This theory was first put forward at the beginning of the 20th century; the idea could indeed occur to any schoolboy who looks at a map and notices that the “bump” on the North-West coast of Africa fits very nicely into the concave “hole” of the Caribbean Sea on the East of the American continent. What is interesting for us here is that for over half a century, professional geologists mocked this idea as naïve and ridiculous.... until quite recently, when in the space of a few short years this theory has become generally accepted, and is now dignified by the name “Continental Drift”.
Even more relevant for us, the metamorphosis of “true” into “false”, or vice versa, is not always definitive. A major example, from the history of physics, concerns the nature of light. Ever since the birth of modern science, at the time of Newton, there was a confrontation between two great rival theories: according to one theory, light propagates in the form of waves ; according to the other, light rays are composed of a flux of minute particles. At different moments in the history of physics, one or other of these theories has gained favour. At the beginning of the 19th century, an orchestrated campaign that included a political as well as a purely cognitive dimension (Frankel, 1985[*]) led to an apparently complete and final victory of the wave-theory. However, at the beginning of the 20th century, Einstein – iconoclast here as elsewhere – showed by his studies on the photo-electric effect that there were certain phenomena which could only be explained by the hypothesis that light-rays are composed of indivisible elementary units, the “photons”. The corpuscular theory was resuscitated. Today, physicists have had to get used to the idea that each of these theories, the wave-theory and the corpuscular-theory, is in some sense “true” in spite of the fact that they are apparently contradictory.
Now this reversibility of the status of scientific theories poses an insoluble problem for an objectivist interpretation according to which scientific theories and objects are neither more nor less than “reflections” of a pre-given, independent “reality”. The point is that if such were the case, there could only be a change in the status of theories if there was first of all a change in “reality itself” to be the cause of that change in status. This is such a crucial point in the thematic opposition between objectivism and constructivism that it is worth taking a little time to dramatize what is at stake. To do this, I will base myself on a scenario imagined by Latour (1980[*]) that I have condensed in some respects and elaborated in others. The two main characters in this scenario are a scientist – a palaeontologist – and a young PhD student in the sociology of knowledge. The student is carrying out an enquiry on the question which interests us here, i.e. the conditions under which the status of a scientific theory can change. To do this, he engages in a “field study” where he questions an “informer”, just like ethnologists who “inform” themselves about the belief-systems of “primitive” tribes. An important methodological point is that the student rigorously neutralizes his own judgements, in order to focus on just describing the belief-system and trying to make it intelligible. In this case, the community in question is that of palaeontologists.
At the beginning of the story, set in the 1920's, there was a scientific theory according to which dinosaurs, who lived 100 million years ago, were rather slow and stupid animals (which largely explains their complete disappearance some 70 million years ago); they had small brains, they crawled with their bodies resting on the ground, and they were cold-blooded. The sociologist asks his informer why his community holds this theory as established fact. The palaeontologist answers him: “What a strange question! Look, it's really quite simple, it's just because there really were dinosaurs 100 million years ago, and they really were slow and stupid, etc., and our theory is simply the reflection of that reality.” The sociologist notes down the answer, and writes up an initial report to the X Foundation who has given him his grant: “Scientific theories reflect reality”. Upon which he takes off for a well-deserved week's holiday. End of Act I.
When he gets back from his holiday, the young sociologist finds his palaeontologist informer in a state of considerable excitement. “Ah! What a pity you missed that symposium I just attended, I'm sure that would have interested you. They showed some new fossils footprints, and it seems that the great dinosaurs didn't crawl by dragging their bodies along the ground, they were up on their feet. Besides, the anatomists have reanalysed the data on their skeletons, and it seems that it was quite possible. And they have also done some new calculations on the body-temperature resulting from metabolism, and it turns out that without really having an active thermo-regulation, the body-mass of the dinosaurs was so great that simply by thermal inertia, their temperature must have been pretty constant around 37°C. And they have also redone the calculations about the ratio between the size of the brain and body-size, and it seems that the brains of the dinosaurs weren't so small after all, they were probably quite bright.” The sociologist is just flabbergasted. “WHAT!!! However could I have missed that? I will regret it the rest of my life, I would have given my right arm to be there!” The palaeontologist is enthusiastic, but even so it does seem to him that the disappointment of his young friend is a bit excessive. “Hey, calm down. You know, it was only a symposium, there will be others.” “No, no, no, here's what must have happened. There you all were, comfortably installed in your symposium seats, when all of a sudden: “Boom-boom-boom”, the wall crumbles and a real dinosaur bursts into the amphitheatre. And that's just the beginning; when he entered, the dinosaur was slow, stupid, dragging along the ground and so on; and then, under your very eyes, his blood started to warm up, he got up on his feet, and his brain swelled so that he became quite clever. And indeed he must have been quite clever to have invented that time-machine which he used to come into your amphitheatre, and that he rode again to go back to his place in time 100 million years ago.” Now it's the palaeontologists turn to be taken aback. “What are you talking about? No, no, there was no dinosaur in the amphitheatre”. “But yes, there must have been! You yourself explained to me that your old theory was a reflection of reality, and that you believed in it because it was a reflection of reality. So, the only way that your theory can have changed, is that the reality itself must have changed. The rest is just pure logic – elementary my dear Watson!” “No, no, you don't understand properly. I don't remember too clearly what I explained to you before, but you know, that old theory was never anything other than a hypothesis. It is true that up until last week, that old theory had not been refuted by any of the observations we had available at the time, observations which by the way are still perfectly valid; but you know, there is this philosopher Popper who explains that scientific theories are never positively proved, at most they escape provisionally from being refuted.” The sociologist has a long, hard think; at last he comes up with his conclusion. “Ah, so that's the way it is... In a way, I am quite relieved to hear you say that scientific theories are never anything more than hypotheses. I see now that the theories can change without reality itself changing, and I am glad that I didn't miss the dinosaur in the amphitheatre. But you know, now I will have to rewrite my report to the X Foundation, because that is not what I understood before. To get everything straight this time, just tell me one thing: is your new theory a reflection of reality, or is it just a hypothesis?” Now it's the palaeontologist's turn to have a long hard think, and he is visibly embarrassed. But he ends up by answering: “Well, if you insist, I would say that for the time being it is only a hypothesis. After all, these new elements are all quite recent, and it is quite possible that some inquisitive colleagues will find something to correct in these new calculations”.
The years pass, our young sociologist gains a reputation and, as is the order of things, becomes a Professor. He has the opportunity to set another young research student on doing a follow-up study on the field of the palaeontology of dinosaurs, and gives him the second report that he had written fifteen years ago. The student does his field-work, and reports back to his thesis director. He is clearly embarrassed. “Professor, with all due respect, it seems that the report you wrote fifteen years ago no longer corresponds to what the palaeontologists say nowadays. This theory according to which the dinosaurs had warm blood, that they walked up on their feet, that they were quite clever, and so on, has stabilized, and the palaeontologists told me that now they know that it is true and that it does reflect the reality of 100 million years ago. Besides, they have another sort of confirmation that the dinosaurs were reasonably intelligent: if they disappeared, it was not at all because they were stupid, but because a great comet crashed into the planet Earth, and the resulting cloud provoked a terrible “winter” of several years through which the dinosaurs could not survive.” The old Professor was not vexed that his clever young student dared to contradict him, quite the contrary; but at the same time he could not forget his own youth and the emotion about the idea of the “dinosaur in the amphitheatre”. What is to be concluded from all that? He decides that the ontological question concerning ultimate reality must be definitively put into parentheses. One can then make the following description of the sort of cognition which is constituted in scientific communities. The scientists sometimes consider that their theories are the reflection of an independent reality; at other times, that these theories are only hypotheses or interpretations of which they themselves are the authors. The first configuration corresponds to a situation where the theory in question has been stable for some time (of the order of ten or twenty years, a substantial portion of their active life as research scientists). The second configuration corresponds to a situation where the theory in question is labile and a subject of open controversies. The alternation between these two configurations is a matter of historical contingency. The temptation to “explain” this sort of alternation by saying that the periods of stability occur “because” the theory “really” reflects reality must be firmly resisted; that would amount to mistaking effects for causes, and for giving oneself what is to be explained. To sum up: scientific objects are the result, and not the ontological cause, of a process of construction.
Cycles of accumulation
We come now to the articulation between technology (Technology as Anthropologically Constitutive) and science (The social construction of scientific facts), which we can formulate in terms of a key question concerning the social dimension of scientific knowledge. How does it come about that knowledge produced in the “ivory tower” of scientific laboratories actually has real effects in the “real world” of human society at large? We will address this question in terms of the notion of “cycles of accumulation”, processes which are indeed at the heart of a capitalist social system. Latour(1987[*]) introduces this question by taking the example of the great European explorers of the 15th century – Christopher Columbus, Vasco de Gama, Magellan. The crucial point here is that it was not enough just to go there: if the explorer perished in the foreign country, nothing was gained. It is not even enough to go and to come back: if the explorer returns empty-handed, nothing is gained either. In order to set up a “cycle of accumulation”, it is necessary to go, to come back, and to bring something so that those who will follow do not start from nothing. In a way, the explorer must “bring back” the distant things that he has seen – countries, peoples, events – so that his successor can study them at leisure at home, before setting off in his turn. It is important to keep in mind the totality of all the conditions that are necessary for such a “cycle of accumulation” to succeed. Latour gives the example of an expedition financed by King John of Portugal. The cycle of accumulation that was the aim of this voyage could be ruined at many points: Spanish ships could waylay the Portuguese caravels; an unscrupulous captain could sell elsewhere the precious spices that are to finance the expedition; the wood of a boat might not resist the assault of a typhoon; a miscalculation could cause a shipwreck... A difficulty arises here, because these conditions are transversal to the distinctions that are usually made between economic history, scientific history, technological history, politics, business management, law..... The point is that such distinctions are infinitely less important than what links them together in accomplishing the goal of an expedition: a cycle of accumulation which makes it possible for one place to become a centre with the capacity for acting at a distance on many other points. How is this action at a distance possible? One way or another, it must be possible to bring back distant entities – the events, places, and peoples concerned – to some sort of centre; and for this, it is necessary to invent the means to render these distant entities mobile, so that they can be brought back; stable, so that they will not be altered or damaged; and combinable, so that they can enter into relation with each other.
To sum up, if we want to look analytically at how cycles of accumulation function, there are three aspects: (1) the relevant events and processes in the outside world must be mobilized; (2) they must then be gathered together in centres of calculation so that the key aspects can be abstracted and combined with others; (3) the results of these operations must be re-exported into the outside world, so that actual “action at a distance” occurs. We will now look at each of these aspects in turn.
The mobilisation of worlds: inscriptions
We will take up again now the theme of inscriptions that we have already introduced in The domestication of the savage mind: the invention of writing. As a prototype of the way that inscriptions can render distant places “mobile, stable and combinable”, Latour takes the case of the making of maps. For that, the ships had to become veritable instruments, equipped with everything necessary to identify the longitude and latitude of every place they visited – quadrants, sextants for the latitude, and accurate marine clocks for the longitude, together with reference books so as to integrate the new elements with those that were already known. This is a way of producing what Kant called a “Copernican revolution” in the field of knowledge: before, it was the mind which turned around things which were largely unknown; now, it is the things (here, the geographical world) which turn around the “mind” – i.e., very prosaically, the things turn around the maps (the mind is not “in the head”). The balance between men and the Earth is shifted; a new centre, Europe, is constituted and starts to make the rest of the world turn around it.
To generalize, there is no reason to limit the mobilisation of stable, recombinable traces to places where humans can go in flesh and blood. Probes can be sent in their place. For example, when looking for petrol, it would be precious to know where to start drilling. Thus, in the 1920's, a French engineer, Schlumberger, had the idea of sending an electric current into the subsoil so as to measure the electrical resistance of the layers of rocks. After some technical adjustments, the signals obtained became sufficiently stable and reproducible for the geologists to go back and forth between the new electrical maps and sediments that had already been explored. This marked the beginning of a cycle of accumulation where petrol, money, physics and geology entered into a relation of synergy. The great advantage of this system of inscriptions was that it allowed not only for the mobility of the subterranean structure, and for the stability of the relations between the map and this structure, but above all for new combinations. At first sight there does not seem to be any simple connection between a Wall Street banker, an exploration manager at the Exxon headquarters, an electronics engineer specialized in weak signals at Clamart in the outskirts of Paris, and a geophysicist at Ridgefield. These elements seem to belong to different domains of reality: economics, physics, technology, computer science. But once we consider the cycle of accumulation which employs inscriptions which are mobile, stable and combinable, we see how these elements work together. It becomes possible to understand how the managers of an oil-drilling platform can plan their production, how economists can add in some of their own calculations, how bankers can use these figures to evaluate the value of a company, and how all these inscriptions can be stored in archives so that the government can calculate the oil reserves. One can do a whole host of things with the inscriptions in this paper world that it would be impossible to do directly with the world itself.
Let us take another example. It would seem that nothing dominates us more than the stars; they are quite out of reach, and it would seem that there is no way to invert the roles so that we human beings can dominate the sky. But this changes when Tycho Brahe (Danish astronomer, 1546-1601, Kepler's master) set up a well-equipped observatory, and began not only to record himself the positions of the planets, but to do this on homogeneous maps that he sent out to other astronomers in all parts of Europe so as to collect their observations too. The cycle of accumulation functioned all the more effectively when Brahe was also able to gather together the observations contained in old books of astronomy, that had become available thanks to the invention of printing. It is not Brahe's “mind” that is transformed; his eyes were not suddenly freed from ancient prejudices; he did not observe the sky more carefully than those who had gone before. But he is indeed the first human being who is able to consider together the sky that he sees, plus his own recorded observations, plus those of his contemporary colleagues, plus the books of Copernicus, plus the multiple versions of the great Almagest treatise of Ptolemy; he is the first to be able to place himself at the beginning and end of a whole network which generates mobile, stable and combinable inscriptions.
To sum up: what we have seen here are the conditions which make it possible to produce a “Copernican revolution” in the shape of knowledge, which reverses what counts as the periphery and what counts as the centre. Before this “revolution”, it is the human beings who are peripheral, who turn around a world which they do not master; after the “revolution” it is the world which turns around the centre which the humans have constituted. But this revolution does not occur in the brains of the humans in question; the essential conditions lie with the innumerable inventions, apparently modest, which make it possible to constitute mobile, stable and recombinable inscriptions. This is how entities as apparently diverse as a new sea route to India, oil reserves, the planetary system – and many others, of course, these are just a few metonymical examples that stand for a whole host of other cases – all end up taking the form of an inscription on a sheet of paper (or nowadays a computer screen), that can be stored in archives, brought out again at will, and... combined ad lib with other inscriptions. We will be looking more closely at this process of transversal connections in the next part (18.104.22.168).
Before that, however, we are already in a position to examine a question of very general interest: and that is the construction of space and time. Much of our difficulty in understanding science and technology comes from the common belief that “space” and “time” pre-exist, and provide a “neutral” framework within which events occur. It is this belief which prevents us from understanding how a whole range of multiple “spaces” and “times” are produced within the networks that are constructed so as to mobilize and recombine the world in the course of cycles of accumulation. What scientific and technological activity does, is to import immense extents of space and time into the scope of these networks where they can be handled and dealt with. You are ashamed that you cannot grasp what it means to speak of “millions of light years”? Don't be ashamed; the astronomer, for his part, understands it because he can measure them with a ruler, in the form of centimetres on a map. You are uneasy about the “nanometres” of living cells? But that only begins to mean anything, for anyone at all, when the “nanometres” become centimetres on an electronic micrograph. It may seem strange to say that new varieties of “space” and “time” can be constructed locally, in the centre of a particular network; but we join up with fundamental philosophical insights when we realize that “space” is neither more nor less than what is constituted by reversible displacements; and “time”, by irreversible displacements. Thus it is actually quite reasonable that each invention of a new mobile, stable and combinable inscription, which will give rise to a new set of possible displacements, will thereby give rise to a new space-time.
This is a key to understanding what we see when we start to follow scientists and engineers “in action”. They circulate within the context of narrow, fragile networks that they have constructed themselves; to use a metaphor to illustrate this important point, they are somewhat like the termites who circulate almost exclusively in the galleries they have built to link up their nests with sources of food. Within these networks, the scientists and engineers work hard at improving the circulation of inscriptions by increasing their mobility, stability and combinability. It is also important to specify that these networks are not made out of homogeneous materials, on the contrary they require a quite extraordinary amalgam between a very diverse set of elements, so that the question as to whether these networks are “scientific”, “technical”, “economic”, “political”, or “administrative” loses its meaning – they are all of these at the same time, which means that they are none of them in particular. We might be tempted to use the label “social” as a general term to cover all these aspects; but this is either too vague to help us much, or else leads us to appreciate more than ever why the question of the relation between “forms of knowledge” and “forms of social life” is indeed a “hard problem”. Picking up again the thread of our analysis, the result of the construction, the maintenance and the extension of these networks is to open up the possibilities for “action at a distance”; to do things at the hub of a network which make it possible to dominate the periphery in space and time. We will now look in finer detail at two aspects in particular: how is it that what is done in the centres, by carrying out operations on the inscriptions that are gathered together there, gives a decisive advantage to those who are placed in the centre (22.214.171.124); and what has to be done to maintain the networks so that what is done in the centres can indeed have real effects on what happens at a distance (126.96.36.199).
The centres of calculation
When we enter these “centres”, these places where mobile, stable inscriptions are gathered together, we come across a problem that we have not mentioned so far. These inscriptions are certainly infinitely more convenient to manipulate than the entities and events that they represent; that is precisely what makes it possible to collect them in the centres. But after a certain time, this proliferation of inscriptions becomes a problem in itself. Faced with these mountains of first-order inscriptions – those that have a relatively direct relation to the peripheral world outside – one ends up being almost as lost as at the beginning. What is the solution? – it is analogous to the very principle of inscriptions: one has to produce second-order inscriptions, that have a relation to the first-order inscriptions that is analogous to the relation between the first-order inscriptions and the world. This process can clearly be recursive: in general, it is a question of constituting inscriptions of order (n+1) from inscriptions of order n. Latour gives two examples: the Mendeleev table; and the Reynolds coefficient.
In 1860, during their first international meeting in Karlsruhe, the community of chemists found themselves in the state of confusion that is typical of those who are overwhelmed by a profusion of first-order inscriptions. Each new instrument and laboratory procedure produced new chemical elements, and hundreds and thousands of new chemical reactions. Most courses on chemistry consisted of presenting more or less chaotic lists of known reactions. Mendeleev was one of those who were attempting to find some order in the chaos. He wrote the name of each element on a card, and tried to fit them in a table with rows and columns. In 1869 he found a compromise that satisfied him: by arranging the elements in order of increasing atomic weight, and by putting in the same column the elements having the same valency, he found an arrangement that allowed him to fit in all the known elements (figure 21).
Figure 21. An attempt at classifying the elements, according to their atomic weights and analogies in their chemical properties, published in 1869 in the first edition of Mendeleev's book on the foundations of chemistry. This is the basis of the “Periodic Table of the Elements”.
An interesting feature of this table was that it contained a certain number of empty spaces; Mendeleev had the courage of his convictions, and conjectured that these spaces corresponded to elements which had yet to be discovered. Initially, his colleagues were not convinced by the system; but between 1875 and 1886, three of these elements predicted by Mendeleev's table – gallium, scandium and germanium – were indeed discovered. With the adoption of this system, each chemical element is situated on a new, (n+1)-order inscription at the intersection of a “longitude” and a “latitude”: elements on the same line are close by their atomic weights but different as to their chemical properties; elements underneath each other in the same column are quite different in their atomic weights but very similar indeed concerning their chemical properties. Thus, a new space is created locally; new relations of proximity and distance, new neighborhoods, new families are constituted; there is the appearance of a periodicity which up until then was invisible in the chaos of diverse chemical reactions.
Another example of the passage to a level (n+1) is given by the work of Reynolds, a British engineer specialized in fluid mechanics who made a particular study of the phenomenon of turbulence, culminating in 1883. How can one related the apparently diverse cases where turbulence manifests itself, in gases and liquids, in natural settings and in the laboratory? At the time when Reynolds was working, a certain number of relations had already been noticed, which took the form of statements: “the more X the less Y”, “the more... the less”. Thus, a considerable mass of first-order observations and graphs based on experiments could be summarized by the second-order statements:
The Turbulence T is proportional to the Velocity V: T α V
T is proportional to the length L of the obstacle: T α L
T is proportional to the density D of the fluid: T α D
T is inversely proportional to the viscosity Q: T α 1/Q
And as we may imagine, it is now possible to pass to a third-order statement: T α V.L.D/Q (the turbulence is proportional to the velocity V times the length L times the density D, divided by the viscosity Q). After certain adjustments, so that the units compensate each other to give a non-dimensional number, Reynolds obtained a new formula:
CR = V.L.D/Q (this is the “Reynolds coefficient”).
What is gained, is that it is now possible to compare situations as apparently different as a small stream flowing against a stone and a great river stopped by a dam; or even more different, a feather falling in air (air is indeed a fluid, with a very small viscosity obviously) and a body floating in syrup. If two processes, however different they may seem, have the “same Reynolds”, they will behave in the same way as concerns their turbulence: if the “Reynolds” is 2300 or less, there will be smooth laminar flow; if it is 4000 or more, the flow will be turbulent; between 2300 and 4000 there is a “critical zone” where the triggering of turbulence will depend on contingent local factors. CR is now a coefficient which can be used to characterize all possible turbulences, whether it be in galaxies in the sky or the knots in a tree; by this means, all turbulences become one in the physicist's laboratory. Even more important for the questions we are discussing here, knowledge of this coefficient paves the way for re-exporting knowledge of how to act outside the laboratory. We will address this question in section iv); here, we will give just one example in the case of the Reynolds number. In the 1960's, Professor Bijker and his colleagues studied the construction of a new dam in Rotterdam harbour. The problem was to balance the flows of fresh water in the rivers and sea-water: many dams that had been built before limited the flow in the rivers, with the harmful consequence that the salt sea-water, damaging for agricultural crops, penetrated further and further inland. Would the new dam aggravate this problem? How can one know in advance? Thanks to his knowledge of the Reynolds coefficient, Bijker was able to construct a reduced model in a hanger. This allowed a “Copernican revolution” of the type we mentioned above: Professor Bijker and his colleagues were able to master the problem much more easily than the managers of the harbour who were out there in the wind and the rain and who were much smaller than the landscape. With respect to the numerous problems that can arise in the real world, the engineers have already seen them. They can envisage all the various possible scenarios, trying them out at leisure and obtaining inscriptions to document their findings. They have constructed a new space-time – which will enable them to know how to act in the real world.
Before going on, there is an issue which arises here, and which is of the greatest importance for our attempts to understand the relation between forms of social life – what actually happens at the level of the actors out in the real world – and forms of thought. This is the question of “theoretical abstractions”. In the recursive cascades of inscriptions of order n, (n+1)... that we have been examining, we always remained at the level of concrete, local activities. To be sure, each stage had the aim of simplifying and summarizing the stage before; but this activity of re-presentation remained perfectly concrete: it employed pieces of paper, tables, laboratories, instruments. And above all, this activity was always subordinated to its goal of mobilizing inscriptions in order to act at a distance; and therefore, this activity never left the narrow networks that made it possible and which gave it meaning. Now if by the term “abstraction” we mean this process by which each stage in the cascade of inscriptions “extracts” elements from the underlying level in order to improve their mobility and combinability, then we can indeed talk about a process of “abstraction”. But it is important to be clear that this process in itself remains just as concrete as the process by which an oil refinery extracts increasingly “refined” products from the brute oil. To say that the process of abstraction we are interested in happens “abstractly” is perhaps tautological, but it is actually misleading; it is rather like saying that the oil refinery functions “refiningly”. So concerning the process of “abstraction”, a problem arises if we start saying that the scientists and engineers in the centres of calculation function “abstractly”. The actual concrete processes which are involved in producing “abstractions” (i.e. inscriptions of level (n+1) based on inscriptions of level n) lend themselves perfectly well to observation and study. However, if we start to imagine that what is going on is a mysterious process happening in the “minds” of the individuals in question (and/or “in” their brains), we are lost because we will never have access to it. We are indeed at the cross-roads between the “hard problem of consciousness” and the “hard problem of social cognition” that is one of the main themes in this chapter.
This difficulty is multiplied up when we consider the question of theories. If by the term “theory” we designate the cross-roads which makes it possible for the centres of calculation to mobilize, to combine and to relate all the inscriptions that have been gathered by the network, then it is perfectly possible to study the way that these “theories” actually function in reality. They are the focal point of what happens in the centres of calculation, accelerating the mobility and the combinability of the inscriptions. Their power, which can come to seem mysterious if it is considered “in abstract” (!), actually comes from their situation at the heart of the networks – from their relation with the multitude of inscriptions which are gathered together in the centres, and as we shall see next in 188.8.131.52 their possibility of returning into the outside world. This may be the place to emphasize that these networks are social constructions, which will give us a lead in identifying their profoundly social nature. This is also the place to consider a question which can also seem “mysterious” if considered outside its actual social context: how is it the “abstract” forms of pure mathematics apply so well to the “empirical world”? Latour (1987[*]) notes ironically that entire volumes have been written in attempt to answer this “well-known fact”; but that no-one has actually taken the trouble to verify that things do actually happen that way. And when one does actually follow more closely the actual practice of science, it turns out that this “mystery” never actually occurs. What does happen is much cleverer, much more interesting and... much less “mystical”. Typically, at a certain moment in the cascade of inscriptions of order n, (n+1) etc., one obtains a cloud of points on a graph – each time with respect to a specific, local problem, but the form is common. “Pure” mathematics are maybe far from rivers and dams (to take the example we have just cited, with respect to the Reynolds coefficient, which is of course just one example among thousands and thousands); but when the rivers and dams are inscribed on pieces of paper, and they take the form of graphs, they become very close; literally, as close as one piece of paper is to another piece of paper in a centre of calculation. The connection between mathematics and the empirical world is an unfathomable mystery; the superposition of a mathematical form written on paper, and another mathematical form obtained from instrumental observations, becomes understandable.
This way in which mathematics becomes operational in a relation to the empirical world remains a remarkable achievement. What happens in the centres of calculation is that forms written on paper can come from very different domains, but they resemble each other mathematically. This opens up the way to combining forms of order (n+1) from one domain, with forms of order (m+1) from a domain that may seem quite different. In section (i), we mentioned that setting up cycles of accumulation requires relating elements from domains that are apparently very different – in the example we studied there between economics, physics, technology and computer science. Here, we see an analogous process at work within the centres of calculation. In addition to the vertical connections which are the result of passing from inscriptions of order n to order (n+1), mathematics opens up the possibility of establishing transversal connections from one domain to another. A mathematician can intervene everywhere, on condition that the inscriptions have taken the form of a graph with Cartesian co-ordinates. As with the basic cycles of accumulation, this is a phenomenon which amplifies as it goes along: the more the centres of calculation integrate heterogeneous sources of inscriptions, the more they need mathematics to maintain their coherence.
Acting at a distance
In 184.108.40.206, we have examined how events in the outside world can be mobilized, in the form of inscriptions, so that they can be gathered together in “centres of calculation”. In 220.127.116.11, we have looked at what is done in these centres of calculation, by abstracting and combining these inscriptions so as to produce an “added value”. But we now have a third question to examine. The final inscriptions produced in the centres of calculation are not themselves the real outside world; they only represent it in its absence. What remains to be done is to re-translate the “added value” into things that can actually be done in the outside world; without this, all that has gone before would count for nothing. This question of the actual application of the knowledge gained in the centres of calculation has been insufficiently studied, in large part because of a belief that scientific knowledge is “universal”, so that it should be possible to apply it without any further ado. Latour emphasizes that this is not at all the case; it is quite possible to re-export the worked inscriptions into the outside world, but... at a cost. The point is that “scientific facts” and “scientific theories” can only survive in the particular sorts of networks that gave birth to them in the first place, those that we introduced in 18.104.22.168., and which must now be extended to the sites where the “application” of the scientific knowledge is planned. A “scientific fact” would not last 30 seconds outside these networks. There is a simple rule of method: every time you hear about a successful application of scientific knowledge, look for a network that it has been possible to extend; every time there is a failure, look for the element(s) in a network that have failed. Latour gives two examples, one of a failure and the other of a success.
The failure concerns the project for a solar village at Frangocastello in Crete. When the architects, town-planners and experts in solar energy had finished their calculations, they had in their office in Athens a complete reduced model of the village. They knew “everything” (!) about Crete: the local weather conditions and in particular the power and duration of periods of sunshine, the demography of the region, the water resources, the economic tendencies, the methods of agriculture and the use of glass-houses. They had envisaged all the possible scenarios and all the configurations, consulting with the best engineers in the world; they had the enthusiastic support of several European banks for their promising, original project. All that remained to be done was to go “out there” to apply their calculations and to demonstrate, once again, the almost supernatural power of Science. But... when the engineers from Athens turned up at Frangocastello to acquire the necessary land and to adjust the last details, they came face-to-face with a “reality” that they had never even thought of. Not only were the inhabitants of the village unwilling to abandon their lands in exchange for houses in the new village, but they were actually ready to fight rifles in hand against what they thought was a new atomic base of the American military, camouflaged as a solar installation. The “application” of the scientific theory became more difficult with every day that passed, as the opposition gained the support of both the Pope and the Socialist Party. Since it was out of the question to send in the army to oblige the inhabitants of the village to accept the new prototype, the only thing to do was to open negotiations between the “inside” (the centre of calculation) and the “outside” (the field site). But what sort of compromise was possible between the project of a revolutionary new solar village, and a few shepherds who only wanted 3 kilometres of paved road and a service station? The only possible “compromise” consisted of totally abandoning the project. All the plans of the engineers went back into their boxes in the centre of calculation. The “reality out there” had dealt a mortal blow to this example of Science... which had failed to pass the threshold into “Action”.
We will now take a contrasting example which succeeded. On June 2 1881, Louis Pasteur made a dramatic prediction: all the non-vaccinated sheep in the little village of Pouilly-le-Fort were going to die of the terrible anthrax disease; but all the vaccinated sheep would be in perfect health. Was it a “miracle” of science? – no, of course not; it was the successful extension of a network. Let us look more closely at what Pasteur actually had to do. What we find is a fascinating negotiation between Pasteur and the farmers; what was at stake, was to transform the farm into a laboratory. Pasteur and his colleagues had already made several successful trials inside their laboratory; that had enabled them to shift the balance of power between humans and the bacteria responsible for the epidemics, by creating artificial epidemics inside their laboratory. However, they had not yet succeeding in really “acting at a distance” on a real farm. Now Pasteur and his colleagues were not fools; they knew full well that on a real, dirty farm with hundreds of spectators, they would not be able to create the laboratory conditions that had been so favourable to them (they would risk the same sort of misadventure as befell the solar-energy experts in the Cretian village). On the other hand, if they asked everyone to come into their laboratory, no-one would be convinced. What they had to do was to find a compromise: transform enough of the characteristics of the farm into conditions similar to those in the laboratory, but taking enough risks so that the trial would count as being performed “outside” the laboratory. As things turned out, the experiment at Pouilly-le-Fort succeeded, so that it is still talked about today. But what is important to understand is that it may well have failed; and that if it had done so, it would have been because certain crucial conditions in the laboratory had not been correctly exported to the farm; there would have been a failure in the extension of the network. To use a metaphor, techno-scientific facts and accomplishments are like electricity and trains: they can go everywhere... on condition that their networks (like the electrical wiring or the railroads) have been properly put in place. If “scientific knowledge” really was “abstract” and “universal”, it could be extended everywhere without any additional cost. But it is not; putting place the requisite networks, and maintaining them in order, is quite feasible... but it does have a cost. We will illustrate this, by coming back to two of our basic examples from section 22.214.171.124, involving the construction of space and time.
We will take first the example of time; more precisely, the time of day as it is defined by “science”. If I ask you “what time is it?”, you have to look at your watch. There is no way of reliably answering this question without reading that instrument (for certain purposes, looking at the sun will do, if it is visible – but not if you have to catch a train). Of all scientific instruments, the clock is the one with the longest history, and it has always been highly influential (in fact, we will come back to it very shortly – space and time are intimately interconnected). But sticking with time for the moment: if your watch and mine don't quite agree, we will be lead to seek a third timekeeper (the radio, the clock tower). If we persist to the end, we will be lead into a network: a very sophisticated network, made up of atomic clocks, lasers, communication satellites; it has a name, the International Time Bureau, which co-ordinates the time everywhere on Earth. The time of day is not spontaneously “universal”, off its own bat; it becomes universal, a bit more every day, by the extension of a network which links together, by visible and increasingly invisible means, all the reference clocks in the entire world; and which organizes secondary and tertiary references until we come back to the watch that you are wearing on your wrist. There is a continuous network of readings, lists, inscriptions, telephone lines.... which links together all the time-pieces. If you leave this network, you are immediately uncertain as to the exact time of day; the only way to be sure is to connect up to this network. And need we labour the point? – the creation and upkeep of this network is costly¬ – not absurdly so, not out of all proportion, but it is definitely not “free”.
To complete this discussion of the networks that are necessary for the potential “added value” obtained by operations in the “centres of calculation” to be effectively realized by leading on to actual “action at a distance”, we will come back to the question of “space”, as it is “represented” (cognitively, but externally and not “in the head”) by maps. One might have thought that once a good map has been put together in a centre of calculation, everything has been done; that the re-exportation of the map towards a particular geographical situation follows more or less automatically. But actually this is not the case at all; once again, it is not possible to stray from the networks without getting lost. The essential point is that if one does not know where one is on a map, the map itself becomes useless. When we use a map, it is very rare to compare the map with the landscape itself. No; in practice what happens most of the time is that we compare a position on the map with road-signs that are also marked as such on the map. The “outside world” only lends itself to an application of the map when all its major features have been marked by appropriate signs. An illustration of this was given when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968: the Czechs took away all the road-signs... with the result that the Russians, with all their maps, were often seriously “lost”, they just did not know where they were. When “raw reality” is really encountered, when the things “out there” are seen for the first time outside the context of the networks, “Science” is no longer effective; the essential cause of its superiority over other forms of cognition vanishes into thin air. And need we labour the point? – these networks are perfect examples of “social structures, both constraining and enabling, in the fundamental sense that we introduced in Fundamental Theories of Society.