Actor- Network Theory and Google Docs

Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is difficult. For a newbie it is almost impossible to understand or make sense of. Any attempt by the absolute neophyte, it would appear, could simplify or completely miss the point. So take this to be a disclaimer and pardon any bits of incoherence if you managed to get to the end.

ANT comes over to me as a kind of a holistic framework for exploring  systems. Its main thesis encourages (requires?) the examination of all actants  (human actors, things, processes?) in a given system(assemblage ?) in order to understand how they affect each other. ANT does not support levels of importance or status for any set of actants. In other words everything in a system takes on a sort of equal level of importance. While this is difficult to accept at times, I believe the general premise that you do not assign or think about levels of importance (agency/ a flat ontology ?) of actants. In fact, ANT suggests, I believe, our understanding of a system of actants cannot be determined a priori – that things unfold (in situ?).

Google Docs

Google Docs is an online word processing type tool that can be used by an individual or for collaboration. Collaboration is made possible because sharing/viewing/editing of a single document is possible. Sharing can be private (via emails) or public (by sharing a link to the document). A document is created by a user who is automatically assigned ownership privileges. It follows that Google Docs is a socio-technical system.

Google Docs as a Black box

We do not need to understand all of the components of Google Docs and how they fit and work together to utilize it for collaboration. We know that there are elements we can interact with and we know that some of it is beyond what we can know more about or see. We know that there are features – permissions and sharing, auto-save, comments, download, comments, etc. But we know little about the auto-save algorithm beyond ‘it just saves at intervals’.

Google Doc – interesting actants?

AutoSave – google doc automatically saves every bits of editing periodically. This means that everything is captured by the tool (and saved somewhere). Subsequent editing may result in changes that are not visible presently unless previous versions are reverted to. The technology also saved everything (mistakes, errors, typos?) and keeps it somewhere. Google Docs (the software, not our document) is not owned by any of us and therefore we have little understanding of what happens with what is contributed. So in reality while the technology is non-human and might only come into action at first when triggered by human action, algorithmic processes kicks in that allows non-humans to act periodically.

So my question is “does auto-save” affects what is communicated/shared and what is not? If you have to save your contribution manually would it be the same or would it be different? And yet a more general question – how does the non-human actors/intermediaries/mediators (features of tools, internet connectivity and bandwidth, tools used to access google docs, etc) affect how we contribute and what we contribute to our collaborations?

Track Changes – while this is a most useful feature in google docs and for any collaboration, we did not think consciously about its utility. We came to track-changes when things went bad. For example, when Sarah could not locate an updated version that she thought she had added/edited, we were forced to check for an earlier version. At this point and perhaps at various previous points we figured that we could go back if something went wrong? But I do not think that track changes are looked at a priori; as a safeguard to fall back on. What is tracked and when snapshots are captured and saved is largely dependent on the algorithm used.

Google Docs and mediators/intermediaries?

It is important to note that Google Docs is primarily an online/internet-based collaboration tool and not one that is not necessarily meant for a standalone platform. This distinction is important because utility means access to the Internet. Further, other tools such as hardware e.g. tablets, computers, smart phones, etc is required. And of course electricity/power is not always a given. In some places there’s frequent power cut or no power at all. Google docs is therefore not in and of itself the collaboration tool – it needs other supporting elements to work. And these in turn affects how it may be used and how it works for any particular project.

When all of the above factors are considered, the question for me then is – how are my thoughts and eventual contribution affected by extraneous factors (other actants?)?

Better articulate thoughts here from my fellow #rhizoANTs


About lenandlar

Lenandlar Singh is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Guyana.
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4 Responses to Actor- Network Theory and Google Docs

  1. Rebecca says:

    One interesting thing about track changes is that it is something we actually used to demonstrate the collaboration. There are snapshots of the track changes that appear in the VoiceThread document about the collaborative autoethnography. So, as we started writing about our writing process (the first of the meta reflections), we went back to Google docs and looked at the history in order to help capture in an image the collaborations that occurred.

    • lenandlar says:

      Rebecca that’s a really good example about how utility of track changes beyond well record keeping. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I mostly focused on its utility when stuff goes wrong. But to show it as a recorded set of collaborative moves is a good example how ANT brings stuff to the fore- stuff that we may not always zoom in on.

  2. Lenandlar, I think your overview of actor-network theory and how it works with Google Docs is helpful, though want to add a wrinkle into it 😉

    While in many ways, as you stated, “everything in a system takes on a sort of equal level of importance,” given that “a system of actants cannot be determined a priori – that things unfold (in situ?),” there is still a constant process that Callon talks about where elements of power form and attempt to enrol others in the network to act in a certain way. While we may collaborate or otherwise use ANT to collaborate, Google is very structured in forcing its systems to be used in certain ways, often changing its terms of service or systems and thus altering how the networks form and maintain (or not) in the process.

  3. Pingback: My love/hate relationship with email – a #rhizo ANT post | Rebecca J. Hogue

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