Gavin MacDonald has been kind enough to offer a reply to the article Sybille Lammes and I wrote in Global Discourse recently on Latour and digital mapping. This is a short personal response – and does not necessarily represent the views of my co-author, Sybille – just to avoid any possible confusion.
In it Gavin draws attention to Latour’s celebration of ‘touching at a distance’ – rather than the aura of immediacy (in the form of ‘double-tap’) we identified as the ideal focus of Latourian work at present. In so doing, MacDonald attempts to qualify our own efforts at conceiving the relationship between phenomena and representation, vision and touch.
In short, MacDonald plays up Latour’s use of haptic terminology – especially the likening of mediation to the work of termites (!) and other ‘blind insects’. As MacDonald says:
Access depends on a relay of mediators, each of which touches the next. For Hind and Lammes, vision and touch are bound up with each other in the operation of touchscreen in such a way that the latter secures the former. A question that isn’t explore or answered here is whether or not we can conceive of these glossy interfaces [of phones, tablets etc.] in a way more attuned to Latour’s celebration of ‘the world at your fingertips’.
Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with MacDonald in this – Latour is remarkably keen to show how mediation is an inexact haptic science; of groping, fumbling and struggling to make connections, I’m keen to see how the interface erases this distance and smooths the otherwise unstable relays. It may be true that in order to load OSM or Google Maps onto my smartphone a huge number of commands need to be issued – to code, capacitors and cell towers – but I don’t need to (or do) consider this each and every time I do so. Put otherwise: the interface user barely – rarely – experiences this. Until, of course, like we say in the paper, things go wrong. I’m interested in this normalizing force. I think this as much an issue of methodological orientation as any conceptual approach – do we look being the scenes or into the audience itself? To use a theatrical metaphor.
MacDonald also rightly questions whether Latour’s notion of immutability mobility is still fit for purpose. I think this is an incredibly valid point – especially in relation the digital map. Is there value in attempting to trace the various im/mutable or im/mobile elements in each enterprise? As MacDonald says, we’ve stretched Latour’s sense of the term somewhat and pushed it out to refer to wider systems rather than objects themselves. I think this is necessary – to refocus our attention away from the objects and specifically the map – but I don’t think we need to do so in reference to exclusively Latourian terms. Indeed, squeezing our efforts back into an ill-fitting framework is a recipe for disaster. Nonetheless, I’m still intrigued by the tension in immutability mobility. There is no agreed answer; maps are ‘in general’ neither immutable or mutable mobiles. Moreover, there is no need to find one. As ever, we need to trace the connections in each and every case – just as Latour would rightly suggest.
Once again, thanks to Gavin for his reply.