Latour Reading: Sociology of non-human objects

Where are the missing masses? The sociology of a few mundane artifacts
Bruno Latour

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Bruno Latour is a cheeky Frenchman who is arguing that objects are a moral entity and deserve study in sociology. They affect our interactions in the world and enforce certain morals and values and therefore would be worth studying to make sure they’re implemented wisely.

It seems strange at first but a couple of points in the argument helped me understand this. Throughout the article Latour talks about a door butler, the mechanism at the top of a door that makes it close after you. He argues that this device represents and enforces societal values. On one level, that we want our doors close and that for whatever reason our current methods of door-closing aren’t working out. We’re not getting people to consistently close doors behind them. Rather than pay or enslave someone to always open and close our doors, we decided that it was more moral to create a device to do it and disperse the value. It kind of seems like a jump, doesn’t it? But in fancy hotels or expensive apartment buildings, they have people at the doors just to open the doors for visitors. They have these human doorman in order to disseminate a certain value. That they are in an extravagant place and that the guests are worth having a human open the door from. But we have a device to replace that person.

From a different perspective, these non-human objects can should be studied within sociology because they have behavior. A door butler can behave rudely. We think they are the ultimate equalizer because they treat everyone the same always, but we let these mechanisms get away with things we don’t normally let people get away with. Have you ever used one those sensitive door butlers that will slam quickly behind you? Imagine that same action being done by a person, you’d be shocked. Or when a door has a hydraulic mechanism to slow it down but it makes the door really difficult to open. It’s pretty much impossible for the elderly or little children. We would be angry if a doorman did that.

That’s the basic argument. So then we designers should be thinking about the things we create and what morals they’re reinforcing and how they behave with people. Good design changes the inbetween space between how much people have to do and how much the object does. It accepts the idea that the object has influence of the person and that person + object is different from a person and a object.

We ended by analyzing the phrase: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Here we can see an object that is easier for us to project morals on to. The argument is fighting whether the object has agency or the person. But as we discuss in class, the gun enables you to be a different person when you’re holding it. Have you ever fired a gun? The first time you did it, how did you feel before and after? At first, I was scared, but after I fired it once, I thought it was pretty neat. It felt powerful. I felt different. It’s the its the person-with-gun that kills people.

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Another example in the book was the seatbelt safety features in cars and how they enforce a law/moral. These two commercials came up as examples of objects taking human form:

Thoughts? Discussion? I'd love to hear 'em!

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