Friday, January 25, 2008


A friend was talking recently about how things influence our lives. the long term impact of our choices are impossible for us to envision or hope to fully understand. Here is a powerful story of how a simple thing like speed bumps in an area can profoundly effect the quality of life for all people in the neighborhood.


In the US, we call these “speed bumps.” In other parts of the world, they’re called “sleeping policemen.” (The model pictured is a Rediweld Sitecop sleeping policeman.)
Through a different mechanism, the sleeping policeman has the same social effect as a human policeman: slower cars and an environment matching collective preferences.
We can take this a step further. Consider neighborhoods. Many sociologists might explain the existence of neighborhoods by appealing to powerful abstract forces like power, class, or racism. An ANT explanation, by contrast, might start with speed bumps.
Consider a car as an “actor” that can affect—push on, act as a force upon—other actors, specifically children. Speeding cars are a danger to children, and they affect their behavior. Children aren’t allowed to play near streets where cars travel fast.
Now suppose speed bumps are put up across those streets. The speed bumps mediate or “translate” the effect of cars on children. The cars become less dangerous. Parents (another set of actors) are more likely to allow children to play outside. As many parents know, children who are playing together outside soon invade houses in packs. Parents come to know the nearby children. And, inevitably, they come to know those childrens’ parents. They begin trading favors like driving children around. They become neighborly.
Now, speed bumps by themselves don’t create a neighborhood, but there are lots of other physical objects that have similar effects, and they keep having these effects, day in and day out. The continual recurrence (”circulation”) of all these forces, all these actors affecting other actors, is (according to ANT) a sufficient explanation for the “assembly” of a neighborhood. We don’t need to bring abstractions like power into the equation.

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