Google Docs and ANT

I use Google Docs a lot. It makes it easy for me to find and edit things I am writing no matter which computer I find myself using, and it is also easy to share documents with others and collaborate on multi-author pieces. When it’s all going smoothly I don’t even think about it – I just use Google Docs as a blank page on which to write. But when it goes wrong I curse.

As I wrote here a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been looking a little bit into ANT (Actor Network Theory) for an upcoming conference presentation that some of us are involved in. I’ve been mainly looking at a paper by John Law that I find easy to read and understand. Note, as he says, that ANT is not one theory, rather it is:

a disparate family of material-semiotic tools, sensibilities, and methods of analysis that treat everything in the social and natural worlds as a continuously generated effect of the webs of relations within which they are located. Law, 2008 (Draft here)*

So I’d suggest that if you don’t get on with Law then you try another writer. However, the main points for me are that:

  • Objects are part of social networks. As Law says: “It is obvious to most engineers that systems are made not simply of technical bits and pieces but also include people” (ibid). This means that they can form causal relationships with us – what they do, or are, can have an effect on what we do, or feel.
  • Most of the time we ignore (we “black box”) a lot of our environment because we cannot concentrate on everything: “an actor is always a network of elements that it does not fully recognize or know: simplification or “black boxing” is a necessary part of agency”.
  • Often it’s not till things go wrong that we notice how important they are to what we are doing (my point in my earlier post).

So how does this apply to my experiences with Google Docs? Well, sometimes it all goes wrong, and then I am all to painfully reminded on how much I count on the technology to be seamless, and reliable, and accessible – in ANT terms, I stop “black boxing” it.  Some examples:

  1. I was writing a conference abstract last year. I left it open on my home PC, did considerable edits on my work PC, and managed to lose them all by saving the earlier copy on my home PC without syncing (not sure what went wrong, but I think that’s what I did). This was, needless to say, only hours before the deadline. PANIC!!
  2. Typically, when we write as a swarm, we make many, many comments on our work in progress – in fact the comments are often more important than the text. This is great when I am using a PC with a browser, as it displays them alongside the text and I can click onto a comment to see which part of the text it links to. However, in the evenings I move to a sofa and my Google Nexus tablet or Moto G (i.e. Google) smart phone. Now, when I try to use Google Docs it presents comments as numbered footnotes at the bottom of the page. This makes it functionally unusable for me, so I do not use Google Docs in the evenings. As my swarm in transnational, this means that I often miss synchronous editing. Maybe there is a way of changing the interface that I have not found, but if there is then it’s not for a lack of trying. [Edit: it turns out that the android app is better than I remember it being, so if a doc is already in my G Drive I can use it.]

So – there you have it. ANT tells us that objects are part of social networks, though we generally ignore this fact as it is not necessary for us to function. My experiences with Google Docs suggest that ANT is right when it says that.

* I annotated a pdf (from my Google Drive) of the published (2008) copy of Law’s paper using a tool called Hypothes.is. The annotations can be found here. I used Greg’s instructions to do this.

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8 Responses to Google Docs and ANT

  1. scottx5 says:

    Not sure if this relates to Latour but causality is often miss-identified before the fact. Our recent election here in Alberta was predicted to go in many different directions yet the results, though predicted by some were a strange stew of factors that may never assemble again. The unknown causes from before the election ONLY appear in the dis-assembly of the outcomes and I wonder if Latour chose everything as actors to be sure we can see as many likelihoods and not omit anything.
    For a long time I’ve worried about the confidence we have in the human ability to design things, I think we see a science in planning that causes us to assume that this follows that and in the process miss the human talent to adapt our way through. By trying to cover all details we give the impression of knowing in advance and also sort out those things that seem unlikely.
    Your tools are an extension of yourself. They enable your presence in the world and by necessity become part of you. The ‘failure’ of software can feed right back into the parts of your thinking it displays.

  2. Greg says:

    Hey Nomad,

    Great post. Two issues with Hypothes.is and the way I set it up:

    1. It would be easier for everyone to annotate the draft from the weblink in your post rather than one if your Google Drive.

    2. Since you already annotated that one you can make the link public and we can download and annotate locally.

    3. If you annotated locally as well we can see your annotations.

    The Google Drive stuff is hard. I will try to work on a clearer tutorial.

    I am excited to learn more about ANT.

  3. Greg says:

    What I really take away from this is the idea of different user interfaces and experiences across devices. I agree this isn’t good.

  4. Pingback: Actor- Network Theory and Google Docs | Things Education

  5. Can you talk more about swarming here? I think this notion may itself be an interesting example for the actions of the actor-network itself.

    • NomadWarMachine says:

      I think you’re right, Jeffrey. I’ve been re-reading Law (2008) and thinking that the heterogeneity of the rhizome is similar to this, as Law himself goes on to say:

      “Precarious relations, the making of the bits and pieces in those relations, a logic of
      translation, a concern with materials of different kinds, with how it is that every-
      thing hangs together if it does, such are the intellectual concerns of the actor
      network tradition.” Law 2008 p145.

      I’ll blog separately about it later.

  6. Pingback: My love/hate relationship with email – a #rhizo ANT post | Rebecca J. Hogue

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