Bruno Latour on Digital Traces

Posted: January 31st, 2008 | No Comments »

Stumbled across an essay of Bruno Latour entitled “Beware your imagination leaves digital traces” published in Times Higher Literary Supplement, 6th April 2007 in which he describes the massive consequences for social sciences to get access to digital traces:

The situation is entirely different with the digitalisation of the entertainment industry: characters leave behind a range of data. In other words, the scale to draw is not one going from the virtual to the real, but a scale of increasing traceability. The stunning innovation is that every click of every move of every avatar in every game may be gathered in a data bank and submitted to a second-degree data-mining operation.
I am sure that this accumulation of traces has enormous effects for the entertainment industry, for specialists in marketing, advertising, intelligence, police and so on, but another consequence is worth pointing out. The precise forces that mould our subjectivities and the precise characters that furnish our imaginations are all open to inquiries by the social sciences. It is as if the inner workings of private worlds have been pried open because their inputs and outputs have become thoroughly traceable.
The ancient divide between the social on the one hand and the psychological on the other was largely an artefact of an asymmetry between the traceability of various types of carriers: what Proust’s narrator was doing with his heroes, no one could say, thus it was said to be private and left to psychology; what Proust earned from his book was calculable, and thus was made part of the social or the economic sphere. But today the data bank of has simultaneous access to my most subtle preferences as well as to my Visa card. As soon as I purchase on the web, I erase the difference between the social, the economic and the psychological, just because of the range of traces I leave behind.
Dozens of tools and crawlers can now absorb this vast amount of data and represent it again through maps of various shapes and colours so that a “rumour” or a “fad” becomes almost as precisely described as a “piece of news”, “information”, or even a “scientific fact”.
The consequences for the social sciences will be enormous: they can finally have access to masses of data that are of the same order of magnitude as that of their older sisters, the natural sciences. But my view is that “social” has probably become as obsolete as “natural”: what is common to both is a sort of new epidemiology that was anticipated, a century ago, by the sociologist Gabriel Tarde and that has now, at last, the empirical means of its scientific ambition.

Relation to my thesis: Bruno Latour mentions the emergence of digital traces coming from the “virtual world” (sticking with the descriptions of second world and amazon’s social navigation). I would add that some of these traces are intrinsically important because they are general through the interaction with digital means within a physical context.