ACTOR-NETWORK THEORY AND INFORMATION INFRASTRUCTURE
Dept. of computer and information systems,
Norwegian Univ. of Science and Technology (NTNU) and
Univ. of Oslo
The development, introduction and use of an information infrastructure is an involved socio-technical process of negotiation. The open-ended character of this process - the stumbling, the compromises, the way non-technical interests get dressed up in technical disguise - calls for an analytic vehicle that helps tease out interesting and relevant issues related to the “management” of such processes.
This chapter motivates for, outlines and illustrates one such vehicle, namely actor-network theory (ANT). By way of motivating for ANT, we briefly position ANT within the broader landscape of conceptualisations of technology and society. This exercise is neither intended to be comprehensive nor systematic. It is aimed at spelling out which underlying aspects of an information infrastructure ANT makes us sensitive towards.
First and foremost, ANT, especially in the minimalistic version of it outlined here, offers an illuminating vocabulary to describe information infrastructure. It provides a language to describe how, where and to which extent technology influences human behaviour. This is valuable when identifying the influence of seemingly grey and unanimous technical components such as standards or already installed systems modules. In particular, this allows ANT to zoom in and out of a situation as suits the present purpose.
This implies that the granularity of the analysis is flexible: sometimes a comprehensive set of interconnected modules and systems is collapsed into one node, sometimes you want to focus on the relative contribution of each of the modules and sometimes you want to dig into the design and details of one, specific module. This kind of flexibility is indispensable in any analysis of information infrastructure.
The motivation for outlining ANT in relation to the development and establishment of information infrastructure is the need to critically asses the descriptions of this issue provided by traditional management literature. This literature – as discussed by Ciborra THIS VOLUME – is dominated by top-down, rational decision making.
There are, of course, alternative perspectives on strategic information systems in general and information infrastructures in particular. There exists an interesting body of literature on critical management thinking related to information systems. This literature is a lot more sensitive to issues of power distribution (Knights, Noble and Willmott, 1997), to the lack of top-down control (Ciborra 1994; Walsham, 1993) and rhetorical devices (Alvesson, 1993). An ANT influenced perspective on information infrastructure provides a fruitful supplement to the body of critical management literature. In particular, it provides a different handle on how information systems and business strategies get “aligned” (see chapter by Ciborra THIS Volume). As opposed to the “alignment” as portrayed by traditional management thinking, ANT offers a different account. Alignment in the sense of ANT, to be spelled out in greater detail below, differs along several, crucial dimensions, which turns the notion of “alignment” into something else. It is heterogeneous, meaning that there is an open-ended array of “things” that need to be aligned including work-routines, incentive structures, training, information systems modules and organisational roles. It follows immediately that there can be no strict top-down control over such a collection of “things”. Hence, ANT leans heavily towards a bottom-up concept of alignment and strategy formation. Furthermore, ANT emphasises strongly the performative or process aspect of alignment. Alignment, according to ANT, is not the result of any top-down plan or decision. It is the achievement of a process of bottom-up mobilisation of heterogeneous “things” as Latour (1996, p. 86) underscores in his phrase that “every day is a working day”.
ANT belongs to the strand of thinking that questions given categories. It is accordingly more geared towards performing order through the establishment of facts, effects, beliefs or technological solutions. Order is the effect of an achievement – it is not given a priori - and the challenge is to develop an understanding of what this achievement is made up of. In others words, to unpack the dynamic, socio-technical process unfolding over time that as a net result constructs reality and order. This is an operationalisation of the essence of social constructionism: it is waging war against essentialism and is devoted to “understand how it is that durability is achieved” (Law 1999, p. 4).
The remainder of this chapter is structured into two parts. First, ANT is located within a broader strand of critical thinking around information systems and technology more generally. We then turn to the core of this chapter, namely an outline of a selection of key concepts and issues in ANT that is relevant to a grasp of the challenges of establishing a working information infrastructure. In so doing, we will draw upon illustrations from the cases described in greater detail in the case studies in THIS VOLUME.
ANT IN context
The non-technical in information systems research
The relationship between technology and society may be conceptualised in many ways. We embrace the fairly widespread belief that IT is a, perhaps the, crucial factor as it simultaneously enables and amplifies the currently dominating trends for restructuring of organisations (Applegate 1994; Orlikowski 1991). The problem, however, is that this belief does not carry us very far; it is close to becoming a cliché. To be instructive in an inquiry concerning current organisational transformations, one has to supplement it with a grasp of the interplay between IT and organisations in more detail. We need to know more about how IT shapes, enables and constrains organisational changes. Two extreme end points of a continuum of alternatives are, on the one hand, technological determinism holding that the development of technology follows its own logic and that the technology determine its use (Winner 1977) and, on the other hand, social reductionism or constructionism (which comes close to technological somnambulism (Pfaffenberger 1988; Winner 1977)), holding that society and its actors develop the technology it “wants” and use it as they want, implying that technology in itself plays no role. A series of Braverman inspired studies appeared in the late 70s and early 80s biased towards a technological determinist position arguing that the use of IT was but the latest way of promoting management’s interests regarding deskilling and control of labour. Later, a number of studies belonging close to the social constructivist end of the continuum were produced which focused on diversity of use among a group of users and displaying use far beyond what was anticipated by the designers (Henderson and Kyng 1991).
A more satisfactory account of the interwoven relationship between IT and organisational transformations is lacking. More specifically, we need to learn more about how this interplay works, not only that it exists. This implies that it is vital to be more concrete with respect to the specifics of the technology. As an information system (IS) consists of a large number of modules and inter-connections, it may be approached with a varying degree of granularity. We cannot indiscriminately refer to it as IS, IT or computer systems. Kling (1991, p. 356) characterises this lack of precision as a “convenient fiction” which “deletes nuances of technical differences”. It is accordingly less than prudent to discuss IS at the granularity of an artefact (Pfaffenberger 1988), the programming language (Orlikowski 1992), the overall architecture (Applegate 1994) or a media for communication (Feldman 1987). To advance our understanding of the interplay it would be quite instructive to be as concrete about which aspects, modules or functions of an IS enable or constrain which organisational changes — without collapsing this into a deterministic account (Monteiro, Hanseth and Hatling 1996).
Today, the majority of scholars in the field adhere to an intermediate position somewhere between the two extreme positions outlined above. The majority of accounts end up with the very important, but all too crude, insight that “information technology has both restricting and enabling implications” (Orlikowski and Robey 1991, p. 154). This insight — that IT enables and constrains — is reached using a rich variety of theoretical frameworks.
ANT represents one framework within this restricting/ enabling regime outlined above. Given the interdisciplinary character of information systems research, there has never been a lack of candidates for theoretical frameworks. There has always been a steady import as indicated the discussion above. ANT has neither been employed for a long time nor extensively within information systems research.
ANT has been used in a few interpretative case studies such as (Timmermans, Bowker and Star 1995; Walsham 1997; Hanseth and Monteiro 1996; Jones 1998), but must still be said to remain on the margins.
In what follows, we argue that ANT is particularly relevant in relation to developing information infrastructures. This is due to the way ANT lends itself to empirically underpinned studies (Jones, 1998; Monteiro and Hanseth, 1995).
Science and technology studies
ANT has not, of course, developed out of nowhere. To trace its roots in any detail would quickly take us beyond the scope of this chapter. Still, to map out at least crudely the background is helpful in getting under the skin of ANT.
ANT is born out of the interdisciplinary field of science and technology studies (STS). This field, which is only a couple of decades old, is grounded in a fairly simple observation. The way science is actually done – not how it is normatively supposed to be – and the way technological artefacts are actually designed – not how textbooks in engineering instruct us – have largely been ignored by the social sciences and the humanities. The essence of STS, then, is to ask the following question: if we bracket all espoused theories about this realm and instead bring along the critical and empirically underpinned apparatus from sociology, history and anthropology, what does the process of producing science and technology look like?
Looking back, a handful of approaches can be identified under the general label of STS (Bijker, Hughes and Pinch 1987; Bijker and Law 1992; Law 1991; Williams and Edge1996):
Related to STS, but largely decoupled from it, there is a strand of thinking that has been influential, not the least within information systems research, namely socio-technical systems thinking. This approach has, however, seemed to fade away over the last couple of decades. During these years, socio-technical systems thinking has lost its ground and, ironically enough, even their old abbreviation, “STS”. As we approach the end of the second millennium, the label “STS” is to an increasing degree associated with science and technology studies. From the point of view of ANT, Law (1991, p. 8, emphasis added) underscores the main problem with the socio-technical systems thinking, namely that “despite the pioneering work on sociotechnical systems by the Tavistock group in the 1960s, technology does not appear to productively integrated into large parts of the sociological imagination”.
Key concepts (or: The minimalistic version)
What is an actor-network, anyway?
The term “actor-network”, the A and N in ANT, is not very illuminating. It is hardly obvious what the term implies. The idea, however, is fairly simple. When going about doing your business — driving your car or writing a document using a word-processor — there are a lot of things that influence how you do it. For instance, when driving a car, you are influenced by traffic regulations, prior driving experience and the car’s manoeuvring abilities; the use of a word-processor is influenced by earlier experience using it, the functionality of the word-processor and so forth. All of these factors are related or connected to how you act. You do not go about doing your business in a total vacuum but rather under the influence of a wide range of surrounding factors. The act you are carrying out and all of these influencing factors should be considered together. This is exactly what the term actor-network accomplishes. An actor-network, then, is the act linked together with all of its influencing factors (which again are linked), producing a network.
An actor-network consists of and links together both technical and non-technical elements. Not only the car’s motor capacity, but also your driving training, influences your driving. Hence, ANT talks about the heterogeneous nature of actor-networks. In line with its semiotic origin, actor-network theory is granting all entities of such a heterogeneous network the same explanatory status as “semiotics is the study of order building (...) and may be applied to settings, machines, bodies, and programming languages as well as text (...) [because] semiotics is not limited to signs” (Akrich and Latour 1992, p.259). It is “a ruthless application of semiotics” (Law 1999, p. 3).
It might perhaps seem a radical move to grant artefacts the same explanatory status as human actors: does not this reduce human actors to mere objects and social science to natural science? We intend to bracket this rather dogmatic issue and fully embrace Law (1992, p. 383) that this “is an analytical stance, not an ethical position”. Interested readers should consult (Callon and Latour 1992; Collins and Yearley 1992).
For the present purposes, what is important is that this move has the potential for increasing the level of detail and precision. More specifically, allowing oneself not to distinguish a priori between social and technical elements of a socio-technical web encourages a detailed description of the concrete mechanisms at work which glue the network together — without being distracted by the means, technical or non-technical, of actually achieving this. If really interested in discovering influential factors regarding the way you drive, we should focus on what turns out to be actually influential, be it technical (the motor’ capacity) or non-technical (the driver’s training).
In relation to the development of a working information infrastructure, how should we think about actor-networks, where are they and how should they be identified?
A fruitful way of approaching this, which links up with the more general arguments that IS design and use have to be contextual and situated (Suchman, 1987), is to view the actor-network as the context. An actor-network is literally the network of heterogeneous materials that make up the context. To illustrate, in the IBM case THIS VOLUME, the actor-network related to the CRM effort include: the contracts where middle managers pledge their commitment, the jungle of existing modules and systems, the hierarchical power structure, incentives, the habit embodied in employees of seeing organisational efforts come and go. Hence, the actor-network is those elements in a context that shape action as “the argument is that these various networks participate in the social. They shape it.” (Law 1992, p. 382).
Equating an actor-network with the specifics, some technical others not, of the context says something about what an actor-network is. But it does not say what it is not or, more precisely, how to delineate one actor-network from the next. The notion of an actor-network, quite literally, instructs us to map out the set of elements (“the network”) which influence, shape or determine action. But each of these elements is in turn part of another actor-network and so forth. Hence, if you take this in a too literal sense, unpacking any actor-network will cause an explosion in terms of complexity. You end up with the whole world in your lap every time. To illustrate, the actor-network related to CRM would as you trace it lead to the disciplinary regimes of structured methods, to the political-economical manoeuvring to preserve IBM as a potent, US based company, to how IBM’s portfolio of data communication protocols connect to external protocols such as Internet, the military-industrial heritage of Internet etc. In terms of methodology, this apparently makes the analytic tool of an actor-network utterly unmanageable. This, however, is a distortion of ANT. It is rather the case, we argue, that it is overly ambitious (or naive) to expect ANT (or any other theoretical framework for that matter) to instruct you how to separate foreground from background (Bijker 1993). Employing ANT still requires a researcher to make critical judgements about how to delineate the context of study from the backdrop.
Inscription and translation
Two concepts from actor network theory are of particular relevance:inscription (Akrich 1992; Akrich and Latour 1992) and translation (Callon 1991, 1994; Latour 1987). The notion of inscription refers to the way technical artefacts embody patterns of use: "Technical objects thus simultaneously embody and measure a set of relations between heterogeneous elements" (Akrich 1992, p. 205). The term inscription might sound somewhat deterministic by suggesting that action is inscribed, grafted or hard-wired into an artefact. This, however, is a misinterpretation. Balancing the tight-rope between, on the one hand, an objectivistic stance where artefacts determine the use and, on the other hand, a subjectivistic stance holding that an artefact is always interpreted and appropriated flexibly, the notion of an inscription may be used to describe how concrete anticipations and restrictions of future patterns of use are involved in the development and use of a technology. Akrich (1992, p. 208, emphasis added) explains the notion of inscription in the following way:
Designers thus define actors with specific tastes, competencies, motives, aspirations, political prejudices, and the rest, and they assume that morality, technology, science, and economy will evolve in particular ways. A large part of the work of innovators is that of “inscribing” this vision of (or prediction about) the world in the technical content of the new object. (...) The technical realization of the innovator’s beliefs about the relationship between an object and its surrounding actors is thus an attempt to predetermine the settings that users are asked to imagine (...).
Stability and social order, according to actor-network theory, are continually negotiated as a social process of aligning interests. This takes place in “the process that is called translation which generates ordering effects such as devices, agents, institutions, or organizations” (Law 1992, p. 366). As actors from the outset have a diverse set of interests, stability rests crucially on the ability to translate, that is, re-interpret, re-present or appropriate, others’ interests to one’s own. In other words, with a translation one and the same interest or anticipation may be presented in different ways thereby mobilising broader support. A translation presupposes a medium or a “material into which it is inscribed”, that is, translations are “embodied in texts, machines, bodily skills [which] become their support, their more or less faithful executive” (Callon 1991, p. 143).
In ANT terms, design is translation: “users’” and others’ interests may, according to typical ideal models, be translated into specific “needs,” the specific needs are further translated into more general and unified needs so that these needs might translated into one and the same solution. When the solution (system) is running, it will be adopted by the users by translating the system into the context of their specific work tasks and situations.
In such a translation, or design, process, the designer works out a scenario for how the system will be used. This scenario is inscribed into the system. The inscription includes programs of action for the users, and it defines roles to be played by users and the system. In doing this she is also making implicit or explicit assumptions about what competencies are required by the users as well as the system. In ANT terminology, she delegates roles and competencies to the components of the socio-technical network, including users as well as the components of the system (Latour 1991). By inscribing programs of actions into a piece of technology, the technology becomes an actor imposing its inscribed program of action on its users.
The inscribed patterns of use may not succeed because the actual use deviates from it. Rather than following its assigned program of action, a user may use the system in an unanticipated way; she may follow an anti-program (Latour 1991). When studying the use of technical artefacts one necessarily shifts back and forth “between the designer’s projected user and the real user” in order to describe this dynamic negotiation process of design (Akrich 1992, p. 209).
Some technologies inscribe weak/flexible programs of action while others inscribe strong/inflexible programs. Examples of the former are tools, the hammer being a classic example and the assembly line of Chaplin’s “Modern times” a standard illustration of the latter.
Inscriptions are given a concrete content because they represent interests inscribed into a material. As Law (1992, p. 387) points out:
“Thus a good ordering strategy is to embody a set of relations in durable materials. Consequently, a relatively stable network is one embodied in and performed by a range of durable materials”.
The flexibility of inscriptions vary, some structure the pattern of use strongly, others weakly. The strength of inscriptions, whether they must be followed or can be avoided, depends on the irreversibility of the actor-network they are inscribed into. It is never possible to know before hand, but by studying the sequence of attempted inscriptions we learn more about exactly how and which inscriptions were needed to achieve a given aim. To exemplify, consider what it takes to establish a specific work routine. One could, for instance, try to inscribe the routine into required skills through training. Or, if this inscription was too weak, one could inscribe the routine into a textual description in the form of manuals. Or, if this still is too weak, one could inscribe the work routines by supporting them by an information system. Hence, through a process of translation, one and the same work routine may be attempted inscribed into components of different materials, components being linked together into a socio-technical network. By adding and superimposing these inscriptions they accumulate strength.
Latour (1991) provides an illuminating illustration of this aspect of actor-network theory. It is an example intended for pedagogic purposes. Hotels, from the point of view of management, want to ensure that the guests leave their keys at the front desk when leaving. The way this objective may be accomplished, according to actor-network theory, is to inscribe the desired pattern of behaviour into an actor-network. The question then becomes how to inscribe it and into what. This is impossible to know for sure before hand, so management had to make a sequence of trials to test the strength of different inscriptions. In Latour’s story, management first tried to inscribe it into an artefact in the form of a sign behind the counter requesting all guests to return the key when leaving. This inscription, however, was not strong enough. Then they tried having a manual doorkeeper — with the same result. Management then inscribed it into a key with a metal knob of some weight. By stepwise increasing the weight of the knob, the desired behaviour was finally achieved. Hence, through a succession of translations, the hotels’ interest was finally inscribed into a network strong enough to impose the desired behaviour on the guests.
Inscriptions invite us to talk about how the various kinds of materials — artefacts, work routines, legal documents, prevailing norms and habits, written manuals, institutional and organisational arrangements and procedures — attempt to inscribe patterns of use (which may or may not succeed). Inscribing patterns of use is a way to confine the flexibility of use of an information infrastructure.
Inscriptions have many forms, quite a few of which are not easily spotted. We are accordingly particularly concerned with uncovering the different materials for inscriptions, that is, how and where patterns of use are inscribed. But first it is necessary to study how interests get translated, that is, how they are inscribed into one material before getting re-presented by inscribing it in a different material.
There are four aspects of the notions of inscription and translation which are particularly: (i) the identification of explicit anticipations (or scenarios) of use held by the various actors during design (that is, standardisation), (ii) how these anticipations are translated and inscribed into the standards (that is, the materials of the inscriptions), (iii) who inscribes them and (iv) the strength of these inscriptions, that is, the effort it takes to oppose or work around them.
Consider an example drawn from the Statoil case THIS VOLUME that deals with how the Lotus Notes based infrastructure actually got “diffused”. The IT-department (Sdata), in an effort to gain greater organisational visibility, lobbied for the introduction and use of Notes. In terms of inscriptions, Sdata attempted to inscribe a scenario of extensive Notes use in Statoil. To achieve this, Sdata needed materials for their inscriptions. The pressure for quality improvement in the sense of ISO certification exploited to this end. To spell it out in terms of inscriptions, the thrust behind ISO certification – initially spawned by the scandalous sinking of an oil platform in Statoil – was translated and inscribed into a specific Notes application (called Elark) for electronic archiving. This was a viable strategy as enhanced quality through the ISO certification had already been translated into stricter documentation procedures.
A key feature of information infrastructure, as discussed in chapter ECONOMICS OF INFRA THIS VOLUME, is the difficulty of making changes. Using and extending the core ANT vocabulary developed above, this vital aspect may be lifted forward to occupy centre stage. An information infrastructure is an aligned actor-network. The constitutive elements of an information infrastructure — the collection of standards and protocols, user expectations and experience, bureaucratic procedures for passing standards — inscribe patterns of use. But is it not possible to express this more precisely, to somehow “measure” the net effects (a dangerous expression, but let it pass) to which these superimposed inscriptions actually succeed in shaping the pattern of use, to “measure” the strength of an inscription?
Callon’s concept of the (possible) irreversibility of an aligned network captures the accumulated resistance against change quite nicely (Callon 1991, 1994). It describes how translations between actor-networks are made durable, how they can resist assaults from competing translations. Callon (1991, p. 159) states that the degree of irreversibility depends on (i) the extent to which it is subsequently impossible to go back to a point where that translation was only one amongst others and (ii) the extent to which it shapes and determines subsequent translations.
Hughes’ (1983, 1987, 1994) historical studies of infrastructure technologies underscore the irreversibility of actor-networks through his notion of "momentum". The crucial difference between Hughes and Callon is connected with how the dynamics of momentum unfolds. Hughes (1994, p. 108) describes momentum as very much a self-reinforcing process gaining force as the technical system grows "larger and more complex". It is reasonable to take the rate of diffusion of Internet during recent years as an indication of its considerable momentum. Major changes which seriously interfere with the momentum are, according to Hughes, only conceivable in extraordinary instances: "Only a historic event of large proportions could deflect or break the momentum [of the example he refers to], the Great Depression being a case in point" (ibid., p. 108) or, in a different example, the "oil crises" (ibid., p. 112). This, however, is not the case with information infrastructure. Momentum and irreversibility are accordingly contradictory aspects of an information infrastructure in the sense that if momentum results in actual — not only potential — irreversibility, then changes are impossible and it will collapse.
The issues of irreversibility and the alignment of actor-networks provide an entry into the debate on the (misleadingly similar sounding) notion of "alignment" from the management literature as reviewed THIS VOLUME. An ANT perspective makes it strikingly clear that this "alignment" is neither straightforward nor controllable in any strict sense. It is not so much the case, ANT instructs us, an exercise in juxtapositioning two neatly packaged entities as an attempted orchestrating of all the elements of a truly extensive, heterogeneous actor-network.
The degree of irreversibility of a network may be regarded as a process of institutionalising. This operates both ways: an increased degree of irreversibility is signalled by a firmer institutionalisation and, the other way around, the construction of institutions functions as a way to align the network and make it increasingly irreversible. The establishment of a new arena between Norsk Hydro and Statoil (see chapters XX THIS VOLUME) to exchange experience, ideas and worries related to Notes provides an example of this. The construction of an institutional co-operation aligns the two, initially independent Notes efforts in the two companies and accordingly increases their irreversibility.
The flexibility in the granularity of the analysis is essential in the description of information infrastructure. This is because information infrastructure, in a quite straightforward sense, is simultaneously a micro phenomenon (detailed design, formats, protocols, patterns of local use) and a macro phenomenon ("the" infrastructure, the collection in total, cutting across local contexts). There is a pressing need to curb the inclination that macro oriented analysises are biased towards cause and effects, of factors whereas micro oriented studies notoriously speak of contingency, interpretative flexibility and social construction (Smith and Marx 1994; Misa 1994; Callon and Latour 1986).
In much the same way as ANT refuses to a priori distinguish between humans and non-humans, it refuses to a priori distinguish between small and big networks. There is, in other words, no a priori distinction between the micro, meso and macro level. ANT offers a uniform framework regardless of the unit of analysis
The problem of information infrastructure, possibly “global” ones, seemingly inevitable leads to a macro level analysis with relevant actors like whole companies, even business sectors, governmental regulating bodies and broad trends in consumption and production (see chapter GLOBALISISATION THIS VOLUME). This is important because, as Misa (1994, p. 119) points out:
“Besides taking a smaller unit of analysis, such micro studies tend to focus solely on case studies, to refute rationality or confute functionality, and to be disorder-respecting. Generally, macro studies make it easy for historical actors to appear rational, purposeful, and as key agents of change, whereas micro studies make it difficult or impossible for historical actors to have these same attributes”
The challenge, then, for any critical analysis of evolving, “global” information infrastructure is to unpack the seemingly macro elements down to their empirical constituents (see the argument for qualitative research methods in chapter CLAUDIO THIS VOLUME), that is, their underlying actor-network. In this way, ANT provides a uniform framework in connecting the local and the global, to identify the local in the global and vice versa.
To illustrate how this works when moving up and down in the analysis, consider the early phase of the Lotus Notes introduction in Statoil in chapter XXX THIS VOLUME. A crucial element in the analysis is the way a “macro” factor – falling oil prices – got translated into a need for uniformity and subsequently inscribed into a Lotus based platform. In this way, there are empirical links between the “macro” and the “micro”. This link tend to be blurred when resorting to different framework for the micro and the macro:
“Too often sociologists … change their framework of analysis depending on whether they are tackling a macro-actor or a micro-actor” Callon and Latour (1986, p. 280)
Law (1992, p. 380) also underscores the need to be critical to the unit of analysis. In ANT “it is a good idea not to take it for granted that there is macrosocial system on the one hand, and bits and pieces of derivative microsocial detail on the other” because if we do so “we close off most of the interesting questions about the origins of power and organizations”. It is accordingly the result of an effort to construct oneself as a highly profiled organisational actor on behalf of others; it is not given beforehand.
The alternative to distinct frameworks that ANT represents is to make the notion of an actor-network scalable. This implies that one actant of an actor-network may be expanded into a new, complete actor-network. Or the other way around, a whole actor-network may be collapsed into a single actant. As Callon and Latour (1986, p. 286) phrase it:
“To summarize, macro-actors are micro-actors seated on top of many (leaky) black boxes.”
What, then, does this imply in an analysis of information infrastructures, what does this zooming in and out of actor-networks look like? It entails that the “actors” of an analysis is of the “size” that the researcher chooses as most convenient relative to the direction of the analysis. Hence, in one case an actor is a given person, sometimes a whole group or community of practise including their working technology, a whole organisation or yet another time a profession. Similarly, you would vary between a focus on a technological platform as a whole including the aligned, administrative routines, or some of its applications and patterns of use or down to the details of integration mechanisms, functionality and protocols.
The way economical, strategic, social and technical issues profoundly mesh when it comes to information infrastructure call for a framework from which to launch a critical, empirically founded analysis. The ability of ANT to cut across these issues, zoom in and out and make sense of the unfolding process including how irreversibility is constructed, makes it a promising candidate. ANT provides an effective platform from which to critically assess and unravel a set of problematic set of explicit and implicit assumptions made from the management perspective on information infrastructures as outlined in chapter XXXX CRITICAL REVIEW THIS VOLUME.
The basic message of ANT related to management and strategy is a cautionary one. ANT is a strategy for unpacking the complexity of our everyday life. Abbreviations, short-circuits and simplifications are always produced. They are the (up till now, successful) result of a mobilisation process with black-boxing effects. The ordering these simplifications produce is neither neutral nor “obvious”. They are made obvious or “natural” in order to achieve an effect, namely to curb opposition or alternatives. Hence, the utterly “obvious” requirement of global information infrastructures to tidy up the existing mess, the fragmentation and local variety is not obvious at all; it is constructed as obvious.
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