Aramis or the Love of Technology

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Latour, Bruno. Aramis or the Love of Technology. 1993. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1996.[1]

Publisher's on-line blurb (lightly edited to de-fluff): The book is a

[...] tale of a technological dream gone wrong. The story of the birth and death of Aramis — the guided-transportation system intended for Pari — is told in this thought-provoking and fictional account by several different parties: an engineer and his professor; company executives and elected officials; a sociologist; and finally Aramis itself, who delivers a passionate plea on behalf of technological innovations that risk being abandoned by their makers. As the young engineer and professor follow Aramis’s trail—conducting interviews, analyzing documents, assessing the evidence — perspectives keep shifting: the truth is revealed as multilayered, unascertainable, comprising an array of possibilities worthy of Rashomon. [...]

Longer blurbs, in more depth — including one from Richard Powers, author of Galatea 2.2 — here.[2]

A work of "scientifiction," in Latour's term (also of Hugo Gernsback and J. W. Campbell much earlier in the 20th c.), discussed in detail by Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint in "Learning from the Little Engines That Couldn't: Transported by Gernsback, Wells, and Latour," which see (and from which we quote below).

In Note 1 of their article, Bould and Vint explain "Aramis":

1. Aramis is the acronym for Agencement en Rames Automatisées de Modules Indépendants dans les Stations (arrangement in automated trains of independent modules in stations). Aramis is a Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system consisting of a network of lines and frequent stations on which run small individual cars containing a handful of passengers. Each car operates autonomously, but on busier lines would group up with other cars to form train-like vehicles with non-mechanical couplings: “each car is separate. Nothing visible links it to the ones behind: no couplings, no cable, no wire, no linkage of any sort. And yet the cars form a train; they approach one another and merge ever so gently. They stay together as if by magic. An electronic calculation attaches them together more solidly than any cable” (Aramis 22-23; emphasis in original). When these “trains” approach a station, those cars that need to stop there decouple and take a sideline to the platform while the other cars regroup and continue on without even slowing: “the rest of the train reconstitutes itself and goes on.… No one needs to change trains! No more transfers between lines!” (23, emphasis in original). (print p. 145)

A key moment is cited by Bould and Vint at the end of their article (p. 145 in print): tension between "a professor, Norbert, more or less based on Latour, and his nameless student/assistant" (p. 129 in print version)

Even Norbert’s student comes to identify with Aramis, telling us,

“I was becoming the Aramis mobile unit. I understood how it worked and, like it, I was taking on confidence and personality. I no longer wanted to be a lowly student constantly lorded over by his mentor-master. Norbert had been living on my labor for a year, and I no longer needed his gratitude. I was the one, now, who was dictating my own technological choices. I had fought hard to win the right to recognise myself as autonomous. I was no longer afraid.” (Aramis 236)

The student gains agency by becoming machine-like, by representing his needs as congruent with those of the machine. This perhaps points toward the truth of living as subjects of capital: that there are not “two lists, one of human capabilities and one of mechanical capabilities” (226) as long as our collective sees nothing more to humans than our “relevant” mechanical capacities and conceives of humans as only labor power and consumers. Our collective is, like Aramis [...], flickering among different identities, constantly negotiating, without essence, becoming, always incomplete — but it is not enough to be in motion: this train also needs a destination, even if it can never be reached. (Bould and Vint p. 145)

RDE, finishing, 7Nov22