Six AM Book Club: Aramis (or the love of technology) by Bruno Latour

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‘Now that it’s loved by so many people, we’re going to have to move from the little guys to the big guys. Ready to take on the stratosphere, Mister Young Engineer? You must admit you’re learning more here than in your classrooms, where you solve equations the professor already knows how to do. Do they talk about love, at least, in your school? They never teach technology in engineering schools, if they don’t teach you to follow a project from the smallest cubbyholes up to the loftiest spheres. Our laboratory is Paris and its antechambers.’

(Bruno Latour, Aramis (or the love of technology), 1993, p 142)

I didn’t know there was such a thing as bookception until it happened to me a few weeks ago on an early train from London to Norwich. What is bookception, you ask? It’s that life-imitating-art, or life following on a little eerily too close to what you’ve just read about in a book. I just finished reading a book and I’m looking at my Twitter feed. Someone I follow has interacted with a tweet about some planned infrastructure innovations in Chicago.

“Strange…” I thought. “That sounds really similar to the end of the book I’ve just read.”

Written more than 25 years ago, Aramis (or the love of technology) is Bruno Latour’s attempt to perform a post mortem on a radically innovative public transport project in France, spanning from 1969 to 1987.

Normally it would be considered unorthodox to begin a book review by quoting its final passage. But Latour’s whodunnit technoscientific murder mystery is in itself unorthodox.

“Two years later, on the plane coming back from a colloquium on “smart cars,” I was stunned to read [an] article in the April 28, 1990, San Diego Union

“Damn!” I said to myself. “If they’d just waited a couple more years, Aramis would have been on the right path, technologically! ‘This revolutionary transportation system is soon going to transform the city of Chicago… Thereby solving the problems of congestion,… pollution.’… They should have held out. It’s all becoming profitable again. I should have stuck with guided transportation…”

-Bruno Latour, Aramis (or the love of technology), 1993: 300-301.

The tweet I read shortly after this passage described Elon Musk’s newest plans for The Boring Company

My reaction to developments in The Boring Company has been shaded by having Aramis as a companion reading of sorts. I range in reaction from ‘Huh, there’s nothing new under the sun.’ to ‘Has he even read Aramis?’

But the fact is, Aramis isn’t just something Musk should read. Aramis is ripe for today’s moment where academics are revisiting infrastructure with new vigour and many governments are undertaking ambitious technological projects. And let’s not forget the automotive companies who are racing to develop mass-marketable autonomous vehicles. In this post, I’ll give a brief introduction to Aramis (or the love of technology) and outline why it’s a text worth revisiting in 2019.

Literary non-fiction or academic genre-bending?

Bruno Latour is one of my favourite living philosophers. His theoretical writing translated into English from his native French can often be challenging to read. But I find his empirical work helpful to illuminate the theoretical points he makes. Aramis falls into the latter category of empirical work. It bends the genre of academic writing as Latour forms a thinly-veiled fictionalised account of a sociology professor working alongside an engineering intern. The unlikely duo has been commissioned to find out what led to the demise of Aramis a (real-life) public transport project in Paris that ultimately fails to get off the ground. What makes Aramis unique is that the tale has a number of narrators, jumping from the bewildered intern to Norbert the professor, to Aramis itself.  These narrative bursts are interspersed with documentation, diagrams and interview transcripts that form the ‘evidence’ that Norbert and the intern are working through.

But it is in this tangle of voices and documents and diagrams that we join the investigation into the demise of Aramis.

What is/was Aramis?

In the 1960s, the French government was keen to innovate in public transport. In particular, they wanted to construct a form of autonomous public transportation where commuters could choose their destination. And rather than large train carriages, the commuter would travel by a pod direct to their destination. It sounds like the dream, right? Public transport with personal space, and an express service for everyone. You could call it a rudimentary automated car on rails, an automatic taxi service on rails. It’s easy to come up with mutant descriptors for Aramis.

The problem? The ambition existed, the technology did not. The logistics were tricky. Logistics, technology and ambition require time and money. Aramis goes into these logistical and technological problems in great detail.

How did Aramis die?

Aramis tells us directly that they died because they were not loved enough. Which is quite a whimsical way for Latour to both anthropomorphise the technology and allude to the fact that Aramis died from neglect. It also helps to describe that Aramis didn’t die from one event. It died from multiple causes.

A lack of clear vision

What is Aramis? It would depend on who you asked and when you asked them. What Latour does throughout the book is show how this idea of Aramis was stable over time. However, what he also does is show that the physical components and the engineering that builds out this idea shifts and morphs over time. Aramis is a pod, then it’s a carriage, then it’s a pod again, but slightly larger than the original.

At one point in the book, the professor and his intern make a stocktake of the many versions of Aramis. They count up to 20 versions of Aramis, which are as literal as the original specifications, to prototypes to be delivered for the World’s Fair (which never took place), to the idea that a finance minister likes. Many of these Aramises never combine into a unified Aramis that everyone can work towards.

What is this down to? Latour explains it’s partly political whim. Because Aramis spanned 20 years, it fell in and out of favour with successive governments. Government held the purse strings and therefore, when government saw potential in Aramis, they gave it money to continue. When times were fiscally tight, Aramis was seen as a frivolous project.

But it wasn’t just government that lacked clear vision, the companies involved couldn’t quite agree exactly what Aramis as a delivered, working system would be. So it kept changing. This was partly because Aramis started life as a research project. In a research and development project, there is scope to see what works, what doesn’t work. But with Aramis, it was unclear when it when from a research project to a prototype to product that needed to be delivered. This lack of clarity meant that Aramis shaped shifted, the problem being solved by Aramis was never clear.

Aramis was held back by technical problems, the engineering required to make Aramis work was tricky. It’s not easy to have a set of Aramis pods join together for a while and then decouple as they make their way to their specified destinations. Crucially, it’s difficult to develop the technology that do this without damaging people or the pods. When Aramis died, the question was what could be salvaged from the project? The answer was a type of motor that relied on magnets rather than gears.

A lack of public purpose

From my perspective as a researcher who has worked in public technology, the glaring problem with Aramis was that is wasn’t loved by the people who would have possibly used it. The companies involved in developing Aramis assumed there would be a ‘rape problem’, what if a woman was followed into a pod by some malicious people and couldn’t escape until the pod arrived at its destination?

But market research rather late in the game uncovered that people weren’t overtly concerned about this. Rather, they couldn’t imagine where Aramis fit into their public transport universe of options. It wasn’t distinct enough from the Metro and yet it didn’t provide the comfort of anonymity and the known norms that larger, established public transport systems provide.

The research also noted that those interviewed picked up that Aramis excluded many people; those with mobility troubles, those with luggage, those travelling in large groups. The aspiration of Aramis was admirable, but the practicalities stumbled. Even if Aramis became a reality, would it have become beloved with the very people who were intended to make use of it?

Who should read Aramis?

Towards the end of the book, we read a scene between Norbert the sociology professor and the intern.

At the end of my internship, in June 1988, I met Norbert for the last time.

“What are you going to do now?” I asked him.

“I’d really like to publish that story, since everybody tells me it’s a novel.”

…” But that’s impossible; and besides, it would be incredibly boring. And what good would it do?”

“Well, it would be good for training people like you. And it would be good for educating the public, for getting people to understand, getting them to love technologies. I’d like to turn the failure of Aramis into a success, so it won’t have died in vain, so…” (Bruno Latour, Aramis (or the love of technology) 1993, pp 297-8.

So who would read Aramis (or the love of technology) 30+ years after the death of the technology?

Part of me hopes that Aramis has a cult following amongst trainspotters and public transport enthusiasts, that they see the ebbs and flows of plans, policies and society that swirl around the decisions and developments of infrastructure that we come to take for granted. These stories are all around us. Around the time that I read Aramis, I was spending some time in the Transport for London archives, where plans for new lines were touted in documents from the 1960s, plans that only fully come to fruition in the 1980s and 1990s. Some plans mentioned never come to pass, others become resurrected as though they are new ideas. Aramis teaches us that infrastructure, like Rome wasn’t built in a day.

In that spirit, I also hope that those interested in or critical of entrepreneurs take note of the tale of Aramis. Disruption and involves many parties, not just the bullheadedness of a ‘visionary’. Many people need to be enrolled in the vision, politicians, stakeholders, and most importantly the public who you hope will make use of it. Failure often occurs when these actors aren’t involved or listened to.

Questions in response

In these series of book reviews, I also want to pose questions in light of the text, in the spirit of response and pushing the conversation past the final page.

This book has left me wondering how Latour views ambitious yet disingenuous technology projects in light of Aramis. What are his thoughts on billionaires such as Elon Musk intervening in public infrastructure? Does he roll his eyes and reply that there is nothing new under the sun? Does he get an assistant to send a well-worn copy of Aramis to Mr Musk?

Most importantly, I want to know whether Latour still considers himself a detective. I hope he does.

What do you think? Have you read Aramis? Leave your comments or thoughts below.

Latour, B. (1996). Aramis, or the Love of Technology. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. ISBN: 978-0-674-04323-7