Aramis tells the story of the birth and death of a high-tech public transportation project. The story is told not only from the viewpoint of reports on the failure of the project, but also from the viewpoint of Aramis itself, also mixing in expositions on the nature of technology, and interviews with the main actors in what appears to be a really complicated affair. The conundrum the author is after: Why did such a promising project, into which millions of francs were invested in 13 years, and positive reports of progress were written in regular intervals, suddenly get cancelled without getting deployed anywhere?
The answer lies, according to Latour, in te nature of high-tech innovation. Before they become “objects” that are out there and used by people, technological visions are vaguely overlapping fields of interest through which different groups aim to achieve different things. As the subject of the project becomes ‘objectified’ more and more, these fields converge through compromises and realignments. In the case of Aramis, the RER, RATP, ministry of transport and the realizing company each had different interests, but assumed that the technology created would carry the project forward, giving it a reason to exist and a momentum. What they forgot, or didn’t care about, according to Latour, was the fact that before becoming objects, technological entities need love and caring from their creators. Specifically, they have to be argued for, represented, taken sides with etc. Latour makes this point regarding the love affair between a technological creation and its creator through comparisons with Frankenstein, the prototypical creator vs. creation story.
Latour tries to depict what he calls ‘the mush of innovation’ through the use of multiple voices and perspectives, including the narrative voice of the reporters, excerpts from interviews, heartfelt complaints from Aramis itself, and dialogues between Dr. Frankenstein and his creation. Because of this varied mixture, and the frequent change of voices, in the end, the book becomes a mush itself, with the reader losing sight of what she is reading now, and what purpose it serves in understanding innovative technological research. What I found particularly annoying were the romantic passages from the voice of Aramis and Frankenstein’s monster. Interspersed between the earthly engineering discussions and pragmatic business calculations, these monologues were a huge distraction.
Thanks to Latour’s observational acumen and sociological insights, however, the book is full of interesting points on the nature of innovation and research. Regarding big and complicated projects, Latour points out that these are impossible to separate into neat stages that can be completed one after the other, because the outcome is a matter of negotiation itself. Because of this, the project is always in that narrow strait between dead and close to completion. It is very difficult to gauge whether what has been established is just the basics, or the grunt of the work, leaving only the details. This is very similar to the software developers’ mantra “”The first 90 percent of the code accounts for the first 90 percent of the development time; the remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time”. Another interesting point concerns the relationship between common sense and innovation. Once they are produced, innovative objects are ‘perfect’: Their initial conception or an imperfect copy is what you hold in your hand, and it had to be this way if you look at the function of the object in a sensible light, or so the story goes. This is far from the truth when one pays attention to how they are brought to being. Innovations create common sense, building it along the way. An innovation that doesn’t invent common sense is an oxymoron.
All in all, Aramis or the love of technology is a very valuable read for anyone who builds technological objects, even though it’s a bit difficult to follow and ‘novelistic’ for its own good.