Paper to be presented at the 2011 IAMCR conference in Istanbul

This is a draft, and a work in progress - read it accordingly

Do objects dream of an internet of things: re-locating the social in ambient socio-digital systems
Dr Teodor Mitew University of Wollongong

Abstract This paper engages the notion of an internet of things and its implications for conceptualisations of the social, as exemplified by issues such as network identity, privacy, and surveillance. The paper argues that this problematic is fundamentally a function of a social projection ill-equipped to manoeuvre in hybrid space, and suggests an examination of mobile socio-digital assemblages with a conceptual apparatus borrowed from actor-network theory (ANT) and the work of Gabriel Tarde. The main strength of this conceptual apparatus lies in its capacity to encounter the hybrid complexity of socio-digital assemblages without assigning a priori subject-object relationalities; spatial relations are performed simultaneously with the construction of (hybrid) objects. The argument is illustrated with case-studies of the internet of things.


Paper to be presented at the 2011 IAMCR conference in Istanbul

Humanity begins with things. Michel Serres 1

The 2005 International Telecommunication Union (ITU) internet report entitled The Internet of Things, states that the thickening of connectivity in information networks presupposes the connecting, and therefore enfolding into the internet, of a rapidly growing amount of everyday objects 2 and devices (ITU, 2005). As the ITU report argues, in the interest of seamless integration of objects into information networks and databanks, it is crucial to in-scribe objects with a standardized set of markings which will both identify them and allow them to be visibly traced. That is, the identification of objects by a standardized networked semantics will allow their mundane circulations in time-space to become visible to humans. The report proposes this identification to be based on radio frequency identification (RFID) tags which, while passively or actively3 beaming a positioning signal in the radio spectrum, can be tracked, engaged, and re-combined from a distance. Furthermore, according to the ITU, to increase functionality and control such a system should be able to detect transformations in the displacement of objects through in-scribing an additional layer of information on them, called by the report an “embedded intelligence.” The obvious continuation of this argument is that once information networks enfold objects giving them agentorial roles, the internet stops being 'of humans' and becomes 'of things'. But just what is the Internet of Things (IoT)? The term 'Internet of Things' originated in 1999, with the work of two Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) research labs: the Auto-ID Center and the MIT Media Lab. Kevin Ashton and Neil Gershenfeld respectively are both on record arguing for the enfolding of things into the internet in an active role (Mattern & Florkemeier, 2010, p. 2) - either in terms of making the world comprehensible for things, or allowing things to use the net. In either case IoT involves extending the internet to daily objects and minute items, therefore connecting them to the wider net and allowing them to act as interfaces to internet functions. As a rough definition, the IoT stands for linking physical objects to the internet, forming a seamless assemblage with ambient data capture and processing capabilities. It is argued that once connected, objects will have unique network addresses making each discrete object uniquely identifiable; they will have some sort of layered sensing capacity allowing them to dynamically register changes to their environment; they will be able to store and process that information, as well as independently initiate action (actuation); they will be remotely localizable within their environment; and they may be provided with a human interface (Yan, Zhang, Yang, & Ning, 2008).

1 2

In (Serres & Latour, 1995, p. 166) For simplicity I am using the terms objects and things interchangeably. 3 Passive RFID tags have a shorter range, are much cheaper to produce, and respond to a radio signal, while active tags emit a signal on their own and are still quite expensive. For an excellent overview of RFID's see (Hayles, 2009).


Paper to be presented at the 2011 IAMCR conference in Istanbul

From the perspective of the social sciences and humanities, the metamorphosis of the heretofore human-centred internet into an IoT entails the emergence of hybrid socio-digital assemblages, with ambient connectivity 'gelling' the practices of humans and nonhumans into an augmented space populated by hybrid, mixed agencies. This "hybrid space" (Kluitenberg, 2006, p. 8) offers two sets of problems - from the perspective of its human users it questions fundamental notions of subjectivity, privacy, and identity, while from the perspective of objects it calls for a yet-to-be developed taxonomy of hitherto black-boxed object data. Fundamentally, this is the same problem viewed from two perspectives - of the threatened human subject, and the newly empowered object. What of the object? Modernity gives things 4 voice in one of two ways: on the one hand as idols (fetishes), which are ‘false witnesses’ and mere attribute projections of human agency, and on the other as self-evidential sensory experiences (facts), which lead the mind to truth as it is, without the corruption of human interpretation. Things therefore are to speak, and have agency, either as fetish, or as reified fact. Either a projection of human agency on passive, dull matter, or dull matter intruding on the subjective realm populated exclusively by humans. Something strange happens however when objects acquire connectivity, semantic depth, and the powers of computation and memory - they immediately and drastically transgress the ontological borders assigned to them. The potential ripple effects of this transgression are the focus of this paper. I argue that this problematic is a function of a social projection ill-equipped to manoeuvre in hybrid space, and suggest an examination of ambient socio-digital assemblages with a conceptual apparatus borrowed from actor-network theory (ANT) and the work of Gabriel Tarde 5. In the first part of the argument I examine various conceptualisations of IoT, including several functioning examples. In the second part I discuss the ways in which ANT and the work of Gabriel Tarde can be used to engage with the IoT.

Dreaming the internet of things As the ITU report suggests, information networks have the innate tendency to exponentially ‘spill over’ spaces which until recently were explicitly information network-free. 6 Until recently to be ‘on’ the internet implied attending to a very specific and carefully constructed space which provided the interface to the information network - a computer terminal connected to the wider infrastructure through a simple cable, or at most through the radio spectrum. Today, the carefully constructed space of the interface terminal has been made mobile and immutable enough, so that it can be carried by one’s body at all times - usually in the form of a smartphone. Arguably, a radically new situation appears when the process of extending the immutability and mobility of the interface stops centring on the body of the few humans around, and starts enfolding the much more numerous and potentially data-loaded objects populating the common human space.
“In Roman and Germanic languages, ‘thing’ (Causa, Sache, Ding, Thang) originally stood for ‘trial,’ ‘lawsuit,’ ‘judiciary assembly,’ ‘deliberation,’ or ‘accusation’” (Pels, Hetherington, & Vandenberghe, 2002, p. 3). On the etymology of the word thing, see also (Heidegger, 1967). 5 Tarde is often referred to as the 'grandfather' of ANT (Latour, 2002). 6 For an analysis of the complexities of newly informationalised environments, see (Burrows & Ellison, 2004), and (Burrows & Gane, 2006).


Paper to be presented at the 2011 IAMCR conference in Istanbul

Essentially, the spill-over of connectivity and subsequent enfolding of objects portends a rearrangement of “the rules of occupancy and patterns of mobility within the physical world” (Bleecker, 2006), because when objects are enrolled as explicit actors their circulations become explicit too. An early conceptual example of this process is provided by Julian Bleecker in the form of the ‘blogject’ (Bleecker, 2006). A blogject is, according to Bleecker, a conceptualization of an object that blogs information about itself and its surroundings. A blogject incorporates the tenets of the ITU report quoted above: it tracks its location in space-time, stores this information for later access, and actively participates in social discussions until now exclusively reserved to humans as speakers (Bleecker & Nova, 2006). Putting aside connectivity, tracking, and storage, the most important aspect of this scenario is the capacity of objects for active engagement with their location. In the industry jargon this ability is referred to as an 'actuator' and the 2006 ITU internet report describes it as follows: "An actuator is the mechanism by which an agent acts upon an environment. The agent can be either an artificial intelligent agent or any other autonomous being" (ITU, 2006, p. 11). Obviously, this definition of agency dispenses with the subject/thing in itself, and instead concentrates on the relational entanglements of entities with their locale 7. In the case of objects, these entanglements can be illustrated on several levels - all resulting with a visible change in the environment. For example, the Pervasive Service Interaction project (PERCI) by NTT DoCoMo Euro-Labs 8 facilitates object interaction with an environment through physical contact with a tagged surface - humans tangle with objects through touching or pointing at them with their mobile phones (Broll et al., 2009). PERCI uses near field communication (NFC) tags in combination with visual markers such as quick-response (QR) codes to facilitate the low-level interaction. In this scenario objects serve as internet interfaces, opening up space to potentially ubiquitous information, and adopting the interactive features of mobile phones (Broll, et al., 2009, p. 74). The artefacts resulting from inscribing objects with an interface, connectivity, and a low level processing power constitute a semantically rich overlay on the physical environment. 9 The mass production of such an overlay arguably started in 2004 with the introduction of RFID (commonly referred to as arphid) labels on US military supplies. 10 An emerging technology for embedding sensing capabilities in everyday objects, arphids are, according to Bruce Sterling, “a set of relationships first and always, and an object now and then” (Sterling, 2005, p. 77). The data-rich semantic overlay hanging beyond physical reality results in hybridization of space, creating what is essentially an animate environment with sometimes disturbing effects on the agentorial powers of objects.

As will be seen below, this conceptualisation of agency is very close to the one used by ANT. 9 Kranz, Holleis, & Schmidt describe a similar scenario involving what they term as netgets - "specialized networked gadgets with sensors and actuators that let users seamlessly manipulate digital information and data" (Kranz, Holleis, & Schmidt, 2010, p. 46). 10 For an analysis of the cultural and social aspects of RFID tags, see (Kluitenbrouwer, 2006). Because of the primacy of the US military in developing the conceptual environment for RFID implementation, it is interesting to note that in their analysis arphids aim to provide “identity dominance” on the battlefield through data saturation (McCue, 2005).



Paper to be presented at the 2011 IAMCR conference in Istanbul

The resulting dynamic can be described as a de-centring of humans from spatial relations, with serious implications for conceptualisations of surveillance, privacy, and identity. 11 When mundane everyday objects, or their virtual equivalents 12, acquire actuator status they become social actors, and, from the perspective of their information imprint, indistinguishable from humans. However, while pervasive tracking, logging, and observation are necessary functions of this stratum, they have profoundly disturbing ring to human ears. Even more important is the effect of IoT on the notion of subjective identity, so ingrained in our world-building projections. As Katherine Hayles astutely argues While surveillance issues are primarily epistemological (who knows what about whom), the political stakes of an animate environment involve the changed perceptions of human subjectivity in relation to a world of objects that are no longer passive and inert. In this sense RFID is not confined only to epistemological concerns but extends to ontological issues as well. (Hayles, 2009, p. 48) The ontological problematic is underlined by the capacity for IoT embedded objects to completely dispense with humans as intermediaries - i.e. when such objects are in each other's interaction range they will communicate with one another exchanging data (Yan, et al., 2008, p. 287). To make things clear, this is an environment where fridges, cars, coffee cups and virtual data streams form a contextually13 rich discussion with no human interference. The resulting object-object interaction will be, if at all, registered by humans as inaccessible background resonance (van Kranenburg, 2008, p. 16), effectuating an altogether alien extelligent environment mixing the semantic layers of human and machine memories. This semantic mashup has been theorized as "semantic gadgets" (Vazquez & Lopez-de-Ipina, 2008) capable of actuator status and able to form "device coalitions" without human intervention. Since these object societies will have sensory and computational abilities, they will be able to share, augment and 'understand' all the context information they possibly can. 14 The enfolding of objects into socio-digital assemblages portends a rearrangement of the rules of occupancy and patterns of mobility within the physical world, because when objects are enrolled as explicit actors their circulations become explicit too. While the IoT profoundly undermines human-centric projections of network sociality, it also makes the semantics of circulating objects readable for, and visible to, humans and other objects. Projects such as Pachube [F.1], Tales of Things [F. 2], and Itizen [F. 3] illustrate how making object-semantics explicit and mobile renders their human interlocutors in a hitherto unknown terrain. Pachube 15 is essentially a database platform for remote accessing of sensor data generated by devices with various stages of IoT capabilities. Objects send their contextual data feeds to the pachube database where the data is stored, converted into a human readable format and displayed
On the relation of IoT to notions of privacy and identity see (Jedermann & Lang, 2008), (Crang & Graham, 2007), (Kluitenbrouwer, 2006), (Cubitt, Hassan, & Volkmer, 2011), and (Preuveneers & Berbers, 2008). 12 Dickerson et al outline the steps through which data streams online can acquire actuator status (Dickerson, Lu, Lu, & Whitehouse, 2008, p. 360). 13 By context, researchers in the field usually understand the triangle of location, identity, state. On the notion of context in relation to ubiquitous computing see (Abowd et al., 1999). 14 For an example of a socially active household device - in this case a 'smart fridge', see (Rothensee, 2008). 15


Paper to be presented at the 2011 IAMCR conference in Istanbul

in a variety of formats. Pachube also provides applications to use with the data - usually for functions such as monitoring, automation, and remote managing. The platform allows human developers to share the data streams from their object sensorium in a variety of ways, therefore opening the potential for data feed recombination and collaboration and the resultant remote interaction of objects. Crucially, the operating presumption of the project is that the IoT entails exponentially higher levels of environmental monitoring and surveillance. Looking at a sample of data feeds - from measurements of radiation in Japan, to air quality, water, electrical, and even garden meters - it becomes easy to visualise a scenario when the majority of objects in a habitat stream recombinant contextual feeds to pachube to be accessed by humans and other objects. Issues of privacy and surveillance literally become a constant negotiation with the contextual sensorium of myriad of objects.

Figure 1: Pachube - 'Real-Time Open Data Web Service for the Internet of Things'

Tales of Things 16 on the other hand allows users to download QR codes, attach them to any object, and annotate them with data in the form of text, video, or audio. The resulting data shadow, or tale of the thing, can be accessed by any human with a smartphone by simply pointing their camera at the QR code. A tale can be GPS inscribed allowing objects to be geolocated, and it also can be commented upon by other humans therefore allowing an object to aggregate long conversations. The object tales on the website range from encounters with shoes, phones, and medieval castles to an exceedingly long list of mundane object trivia, all carrying semantic overlays of varying depth. Some objects tell a simple tale of their encounter with a human, while others carry the invocation of human memories of events, experiences, feelings.



Paper to be presented at the 2011 IAMCR conference in Istanbul

Figure 2: Tales of Things - giving objects digital memory

Figure 3: Itizen - attaching a real-time semantic overlay to objects In many respects Itizen 17 is a project similar to Tales of Things - also based on an infrastructure of QR codes and smartphones, it allows human users to annotate and share data on objects. Importantly, Itizen also allows the real time following of these data clouds by anyone. In other


Paper to be presented at the 2011 IAMCR conference in Istanbul

words, the project allows following the social status of an object, similarly to the way in which one would follow a friend on a social network such as Facebook. In the case of both of these projects, the immediate impression is that even the most minute and trivial of objects can have a unique and semantically deep identity, accompanied by potentially infinite memory. Another realisation is that if inscribed with an actuator surface these objects will be able to not only aggregate human memories, but also recombine them with contextual data of their own while engaging socially with their human 'friends'. What all of these conceptualisations and early proofs-of-concept have in common is that objects enrolled in the network gain a surface which makes visible to others their sociality, while enrolling them in further networks of circulation. 18 The networked object is therefore not simply a recording device for an expanding human subjectivity, but an active participant, a mediator coconstructing the social environment. Due to its storage capacity such an object is among other things “a device for the production and distribution of memories” (Barnet, 2005). The networked object can be all these roles simultaneously firstly because it is enrolled in many networks simultaneously. But deeper than that, it is because through these inscriptions the networked thing becomes aware of its context - it gains the ability to explicitly collect, discard, locate, measure, transmit, alter, and store information. In other words, the networked object is inextricably entangled in the semantic world of humans 19 with all the implied uncertainty as to the agentorial origins of entities within the projection. 20 According to Nigel Thrift the integration of objects into information networks (he labels them ‘metasystems’), has very interesting effects on these objects’ spatiality and temporality (Thrift, 2006, p. 191). When a thing is enfolded into a metasystem the network becomes part of that things’ existence, while this already augmented existence is being mapped by the metasystem in question. These metasystems gain depth through the stacking of object-surfaces (what Thrift calls “gaining a capacity to morph over space and time”); the morphing, or depth, allows the metasystems to control the mobility and immutability of the circulating actors and to trace “what sort of space and what sort of time has been thus designed“ (Latour, 1988, p. 25). Accordingly, this additional layer of meta-systemic data-retention and recombination creates an entirely new class of objects. Such objects, called spimes because they are things carrying a spacing and a timing through networks, have been extensively theorized by Bruce Sterling in his influential book Shaping Things (Sterling, 2005). Sterling argues that, unlike previous objects, spimes will actively enfold space and time into themselves. They will not only be tracked anywhere at any time, but will carry around their entire existence as a layer visible in space and time. A spime-object will store the entire chronology of its travel in physical space with the multitude of implications it may have had for its surroundings; in effect it will carry its bill of existence and through that, it will

For example, Amin and Thrift make a convincing argument for a perspective on urban space as a mixture of software and bricks, see (Amin & Thrift, 2002). 19 A similar argument appears in Dana Cuff’s concept of “cyburgs” (Cuff, 2003), which are “spatially embodied computing, or an environment saturated with computing capability” (p. 44). According to her, “cyburgs” produce an enacted space, relocating agency in the world. 20 For an analysis of the ethical dilemmas of this projection, see (Dodge & Kitchin, 2007).



Paper to be presented at the 2011 IAMCR conference in Istanbul

carry a discernible subjectivity. It will explicitly represent the entire production network which brought it into being, and upon expiration it will be reabsorbed into that network. This will be made possible first by the embedding of arphids into the object and the creation of a therefore historical (traceable in time) object-identity, and second by the utilization of sustainable materials. In effect, objects will become dynamically updated databases existing in a wider network of relational agencies. In addition, they will have unique identities that will compel humans to recognize them as actors for the entirety of their existence. A social network where humans and nonhumans are on equal ontological footing. The IoT then could be viewed as a conceptual matrix for imagining, describing, and tracing the behaviour of things which become active through inscription and attachment to information networks. It allows us to visualize the compost of spacings and timings produced by objects-asparticipants. As information networks “soak through physical geographic space” (Bleecker & Nova, 2006, p. 2), the objects until now rooted in this space in visibly fairly fixed and passive roles, gain new ways to produce not only their own spatio-temporal depth but mould ours as well 21. The ability, for the first time in human experience, to inscribe, track and recombine mobile chunks of space-time relations “as they wander through” (Morville, 2005), has profound influence on the way we project ourselves in the world. To reassess: 1] the role of objects in human-nonhuman assemblages has so far remained largely obscure; 2] the IoT has the potential to make visible 22 the rich semantic stratum entangling humans and nonhumans into common assemblages; 3] this implies a re-negotiation of actorial roles, and challenges human-centred subjectivities. Re-locating the social The challenges posed by the IoT to human subjectivities and notions of the social, stem ultimately from the way we construct objects in our environment, or, simply put, from the agencies we (do not) assign them. Arguably the key to the problematic resides in the ontological transgressions performed by henceforth empowered objects. Transgressions which appear as a function of the world projection employed, and which can, as I argue, be freshly approached with the toolkit of ANT and its almost forgotten grandfather - Gabriel Tarde. Starting from the root of the problem, for ANT distinctions between entities appear as an effect of the relations between them, while for Tarde the elementary social fact consists of the forms of relations through which difference is produced. The main strength of this conceptual apparatus lies in its capacity to encounter the hybrid complexity of socio-digital assemblages without assigning a priori subject-object relationalities. In other words, agencies come prior to subjectobject distinctions, and social relations are re-located to a hybrid realm constituted by the agentorial vectors of humans and nonhumans alike. The whole set of problems residual in the

On the potential actorial power of things, see (Beer, 2007), and (Dodge & Kitchin, 2005, 2007). A similar argument appears in (Crang & Graham, 2007), when they argue that “the opacities of mobility and the hidden geographies of memory are now being rendered visible” (p. 791).



Paper to be presented at the 2011 IAMCR conference in Istanbul

embattled notions of human subjectivity, identity, and privacy is sidetracked by a focus on relational agencies, neutral when it comes to human/nonhuman origins. For ANT, the canonical subject-object distinction of Western epistemology does not make sense as a notional projection because it pre-orders the possible relations. Instead, ANT borrows from the toolkit of semiotics a projection for which “entities take their form and acquire their attributes as a result of their relations with other entities” (Law, 1999, p. 3). 23 Crucially, the distinctions between entities are not hardwired into the projection, but appear as an effect of the relations between entities. Therefore, ANT approaches the world as a fluid undetermined topos, performed by the relational shifts of entities; both the topology and the entities populating it appear as an outcome of those relational shifts. That is what the notion of actor networks is out to express. It then follows, that the relational moves performing the world are one of the important research objectives of ANT. ANT concentrates its attention on a movement (…) the summing up of interactions through various kinds of devices, inscriptions, forms and formulae, into a very local, very practical, very tiny locus. (Latour, 1999, p. 17) In that sense, ANT is not a theory of the social, but a purposefully simplified projection allowing to trace entities “without imposing on them an a priori definition of their world-building capacities” (Latour, 1999, p. 20). Therefore, ANT is akin to a theory of the associations between entities, where the notion of associations encompasses and extends the social of traditional sociology to all sorts of relations. To use Latour’s vocabulary, ANT is a description of the circulations of entities in a non-modern setting (Latour, 1993). One could see how such a projection can be useful in approaching the hybrid space of the IoT. From the perspective of the argument, the most important contribution of ANT comes with its conceptualization of the actant: How do you define an actant? An actant is a list of answers to trials - a list which, once stabilized, is hooked to a name of a thing and to a substance. This made the origin of actions. The longer the list [of appearances] the more active the actor is. The more variations that exist among the actors to which it is linked, the more polymorphous our actor is. The more it appears as being composed of different elements from version to version, the less stable its essence. Conversely, the shorter the list, the less important the actor. (Latour, 1991, p. 122) Applying this definition to a human and an object on pachube, one would end with two lists from the comparison of which the human would not necessarily come out as the more important or active entity. Furthermore, notice how close this definition is to the ITU notion of actuators both concentrate on the 'answers to trials', on the entanglement of agencies as the new seat of actorial identity. The ANT projection posits a continuous renegotiation of agentorial properties between humans and things, that "renders us collectively an ‘object-institution’ endlessly ‘brewing’ hybrids" (Harris, 2005, p. 170). The work of Gabriel Tarde 24 - already more than a
23 24

For a masterful reconstruction of the ANT notion of objects see (Harman, 2007, 2009), and (Bennett, 2010). For an overview of Tarde's contributions to philosophy and sociology, among others, see (Katz, 2006).


Paper to be presented at the 2011 IAMCR conference in Istanbul

century old - provides an interesting perspective to processes of hybridization of human-object socialities. Tarde argued that the word ‘society’ does not designate in advance some special type of relations, but is a verb describing the constant coming into being and performing of existence; his was literally "a sociology of relations" (Barry & Thrift, 2007, p. 514) where relations stand for all kinds of associations. In other words, for him society was another word for associations, not a descriptor of one set of relations (i.e. between subjects). He argued that there is no difference between the associations of – and therefore the societies of – rocks, atoms, painters, fish, or accountants; what made them alike was the necessity to associate, to remain in-relation, in order to remain in existence. He argues literally that "every thing is a society and every phenomenon a social fact" (Candea, 2010, p. 9). Tarde repositions societies as a constant re-enactment of being, achieved through the exploration of new types of difference. The motto of his philosophy was Exister c’est différer - To exist is to differ (Latour, 2002). Each society, each entity, has to repeat itself into existence through a constant transaction with others, the goal of which is - difference. 25 The ‘bill’ detailing the constant process of achieving difference is in essence the much sought after ‘identity’ realm, and similar to Latour's 'list of answers to trials'; each entity repeating, opposing, and differentiating itself in a series of ‘transactions’ forming the trajectory of in-becoming. Furthermore, and crucially for this argument, Tarde hits right at the centre of the ontos: So far, all of philosophy has been founded on the verb to be, the defining of which resembles the discovery of the Rosetta stone. One may say that if only philosophy had been founded on the verb to have, then so many sterile discussions, so many mental falterings, would have been avoided. From this principle ‘I am’, it is impossible to deduce any other existence than mine, in spite of all the subtleties of the world. But affirm first this postulate ‘I have’ as the basic fact, then that which is had as well as that which has are given at the same time as inseparable. [Tarde, G. in (Latour, 2002, p. 129)] How world-changing this suggestion sounds even today, more than a century after first appearing: instead of I am – I have (and simultaneously I am had). The projection changes instantly – a radical symmetry between humans and non-humans becomes undeniable simply by nature of that re-description. I may have you, but through being had by me, you establish a foothold and so you have me too. “[That] which is had as well as that which has are given at the same time as inseparable” [Tarde in (Latour, 2002, p. 129)]. In other words, Tarde not only extends the notion of society to all kinds of agencies, therefore rendering the whole human versus non-human problem irrelevant, but also makes it impossible to talk of entities as something else but agencies. The subject-object dichotomy is repositioned in such a way that instead of Tarde having to explain how objects can have agency, now the onus is on his opponents to explain how objects can be without agency yet still be.

According to Tarde, no matter what they are, entities have to repeat themselves in existence from moment to moment, to oppose one another in order to continue existing, and to adapt to each other’s opposition through difference. “’Repetition’, ‘opposition’ and ‘adaptation’ are the three ‘social laws’ that are common, according to Tarde, to everything that moves forward in the same direction and that he calls ‘societies’” (Latour, 2002, p. 129).


Paper to be presented at the 2011 IAMCR conference in Istanbul

To say that we don’t know the being-in-itself of a stone or of a plant, and at the same time to continue saying that they are, is logically inconsistent. [Tarde in (Latour, 2002, p. 130)] When I enunciate any thing into existence I associate with it, and through me, its invoker, it gains difference, and yes - being. What Latour calls “the abyss” (Latour, 2005a, p. 164) between the social seen as a distinct substance, and the social seen as another word for association, is perhaps best visible when one realises that Tarde’s to have is another way of saying to be translated into another. What is translated? Agency is! If an entity is enunciated, it has difference enacted through its enunciator. For the modern view agency is forever chained to the social and its population of human subjects; in Tarde’s approach agency is a property of associations, of the chain of to have – to be had. Everything could be seen as having agency, or actorial powers, as long as it could be said to exist.26 Because existence is defined as difference, ‘the bill’ of translations through past differences is the only way to define and study an entity’s existence. 27 The life story of a being is therefore the list and trajectory of its enunciations, of its havings. Furthermore, if each actor-entity is simultaneously a bill of past translations and trajectories, it is also both a discernible node, and a network. Starting from the attribution of the label ‘social’ to all associations, and then re-defining the definition of actorial entity, Tarde also provides a working level distinction between societies. As Latour summarizes Tarde’s argument: [When] a society is seen from far away and in bulk it seems to have structural features, that is, a set of characteristics that floats beyond, or beneath the multiplicity of its members. But when a society is seen from the inside, it’s made of differences and of events and all its structural features are provisional amplifications and simplifications of those linkages. (Latour, 2005b, p. 8) The more linkages and differences enfolded within – the more sturdy the characteristics of the society when seen from ‘outside.’ Bearing in mind Tarde’s definition of being, the boundary transgressions of objects seem to be a consequence of approaching societies (and entities in general) with a metric crude enough to conflate their difference and heterogeneity. 28 Once this process is understood from ANT and Tarde's perspective, re-locating actorial powers and the social in ambient socio-digital systems becomes easy. We could say that any entity, human or nonhuman, can aspire to actuator status (and identity, sociality, even privacy) as long as it can present a bill of existence - a list of answers to trials which it managed to overcome in buying its repetition and continuation into being. Show me your bill, please, and I will grant that you have actorial powers. Or, more specifically: an actor is
For a discussion of some of the implications of Tarde’s sociology for contemporary social studies, see (Borch, 2005). 27 According to Latour, Tarde argued that sociology should be a general science studying precisely this bill of existence (Latour, 2005b, p. 7). 28 A similar conclusion seems to appear in feminist studies, semiology, and science studies; see (Haraway, 1994), (Lenoir, 1994), (Woolgar, 2002).


Paper to be presented at the 2011 IAMCR conference in Istanbul

whatever shifts the actions of others, where action stands for the list of performances through trials which provide an actor’s trajectory (Akrich & Latour, 1992, p. 259). It follows that the more lists an entity appears on, the bigger actor it is; ‘bigger’ of course, stands for nothing else but the competences, entanglements, and social relations of the entity. 29 Interestingly, from this perspective the problems of identity, privacy and subjectivity on the IoT do not disappear - using the conceptual toolkit of ANT and Tarde simply extends the issues to include the millions of potential but heretofore silent participants of the internet. One could conceivably build a tongue-in-cheek argument that from the perspective of objects the internet has always been predominantly ‘of things’ and only in small degree ‘of humans.’ Perhaps there is some truth behind the related ironic observation that the arrival of IoT stands for the humanization of the internet, because it makes the semantics of objects readable for and visible to humans. Yes, by granting the rights of agency to things, by making their bills of existence visible, we make the setting more humane... Examining this research problematic can provide a theoretical understanding of the arguably fundamental shifts in sociality and subjectivity entailed by the proliferation of ambient sociodigital assemblages. Such an understanding is crucial if we are to formulate a stable and coherent approach to the challenges posed by an internet of things.

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Paper to be presented at the 2011 IAMCR conference in Istanbul

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