CHAPTER 6 Socio-technical webs and actor network theory


We now turn to the socio-technical nature of information infrastructures. As outlined in chapters 3 and 4 above, the development of an information infrastructure needs to be recognised as an ongoing socio-technical negotiation. An analysis of it accordingly presumes a suitable vehicle. This chapter contains a presentation of one such vehicle, namely actor-network theory. It is intended to pave the road for describing and analysing how issues of flexibility and standardisation outlined in chapters 4 and 5 unfold in relation to information infrastructure. This chapter accordingly functions as a stepping stone for the chapters than follow.

Technology and society: a brief outline

The relationship between technology and society may be conceptualised in many ways. We embrace the fairly widespread belief that IT is a, perhaps the , crucial factor as it simultaneously enables and amplifies the currently dominating trends for restructuring of organisations (Applegate 1994; Orlikowski 1991). The problem, however, is that this belief does not carry us very far; it is close to becoming a cliche. To be instructive in an inquiry concerning current organisational transformations, one has to supplement it with a grasp of the interplay between IT and organisations in more detail. We need to know more about how IT shapes, enables and constrains organisational changes. Two extreme end points of a continuum of alternatives are, on the one hand, technological determinism holding that the development of technology follows its own logic and that the technology determine its use (Winner 1977) and, on the other hand, social reductionism or constructionism (Woolgar 1991), (which comes close to technological somnambulism (Pfaffenberger 1988; Winner 1977)) holding that society and its actors develop the technology it "wants" and use it as they want, implying that technology in itself plays no role. A series of Braverman inspired studies appeared in the late 70s and early 80s biased towards a technological determinist position arguing that the use of IT was but the latest way of promoting management's interests regarding deskilling and control of labour (Sandberg 1979). Later, a number of studies belonging close to the social constructivist end of the continuum were produced which focused on diversity of use among a group of users and displaying use far beyond what was anticipated by the designers (Henderson and Kyng 1991; Woolgar 1991b).

A more satisfactory account of the interwoven relationship between IT and organisational transformations is lacking. More specifically, we argue that we need to learn more about how this interplay works, not only that it exists. This implies that it is vital to be more concrete with respect to the specifics of the technology. As an information system (IS) consists of a large number of modules and inter-connections, it may be approached with a varying degree of granularity. We cannot indiscriminatingly refer to it as IS, IT or computer systems. Kling (1991, p. 356) characterises this lack of precision as a "convenient fiction" which "deletes nuances of technical differences". It is accordingly less than prudent to discuss IS at the granularity of an artefact (Pfaffenberger 1988), the programming language (Orlikowski 1992), the overall architecture (Applegate 1994) or a media for communication (Feldman 1987). To advance our understanding of the interplay it would be quite instructive to be as concrete about which aspects, modules or functions of an IS enable or constrain which organisational changes -- without collapsing this into a deterministic account (Monteiro, Hanseth and Hatling 1994).

Today, the majority of scholars in the field adhere to an intermediate position somewhere between the two extreme positions outlined above. The majority of accounts end up with the very important, but all too crude, insight that "information technology has both restricting and enabling implications" (Orlikowski and Robey 1991, p. 154). This insight -- that IT enables and constrains -- is reached using a rich variety of theoretical frameworks including structuration theory (Orlikowski and Robey 1991), phenomenology (Boland and Greenberg 1992), hermeneutics (Klein and Lyytinen 1992) or Habermas' theory of communicative action (Gustavsen and Engelstad 1990).

Hence, there can hardly be said to be a lack of suggestions for suitable theoretical frameworks (Kling 1991; Monteiro and Hanseth 1995). We will, however, introduce yet another one, actor network theory, which we believe will bring us one step further towards a more detailed understanding of the relationships between information technology and its use (Akrich 1992; Akrich and Latour 1992; Callon 1991, 1994; Latour 1987). This choice is motivated by the way actor network theory, especially in the minimalistic variant we employ, offers a language for describing the many small, concrete technical and non-technical mechanisms which go into the building and use of information infrastructures. (We will particularly look at the negotiations of standards.) Actor network theory accordingly goes a long way in describing which and how actions are enabled and constrained.

In this chapter we develop a minimalistic vocabulary of ANT intended to be a manageable, working way of talking about use and design of IT (see (Walsham 1997 ifip8.2) for a survey of the use of ANT in our field). As a frame of reference, we first sketch and compare alternatives to ANT. We do not want to be seen as too dogmatic. There certainly exist fruitful alternatives and placing ANT in a wider context of related thinking is relevant.

The duality of technology

The problem of how to conceptualise and account for the relationship between, on the one hand, IT development and use and, on the other hand, organisational changes is complex -- to say the least. A principal reason for the difficulty is due to the contingent , interwoven and dynamic nature of the relationship. There exists a truly overwhelming body of literature devoted to this problem. We will discuss a selection of contributions which are fairly widely cited and we which consider important. (Consult, for instance, (Coombs, Knights and Willmott 1992; Kling 1991; Orlikowski and Robey 1991; Walsham 1993) for a broader discussion.) Our purpose is to motivate a need to incorporate into such accounts a more thorough description and understanding of the minute, grey and seemingly technical properties of the technology and how these are translated into non-technical ones.

The selection of contributions we consider all acknowledge the need to incorporate, in one way or another, that subjects interpret, appropriate and establish a social construction of reality (Galliers 1992; Kling 1991; Orlikowski 1991; Orlikowski and Robey 1991; Smithson, Baskerville and Ngwenyama 1994; Walsham 1993). This alone enables us to avoid simple-minded, deterministic accounts. The potential problem with a subjectivist stance is how to avoid the possibility that, say, an IS could be interpreted and appropriated completely freely, that one interpretation would be just as reasonable as any other. This position obviously neglects the constraining effects the IS have on the social process of interpretation (Akrich 1992; Bijker 1993; Orlikowski and Robey 1991). In other words, it is absolutely necessary to recognise the "enabling and constraining" abilities of IT. A particularly skilful and appealing elaboration of this insight is the work done by Orlikowski, Walsham and others building on Giddens' structuration theory (Orlikowski 1991, 1992; Orlikowski and Robey 1991; Walsham 1993).

Despite the fact that these accounts, in our view, are among the most convincing conceptualisations, they have certain weaknesses. These weaknesses have implications for the way we later on will approach the question of the relationship between information infrastructure and new organisational forms. Our principal objection to conceptualisations like (Orlikowski 1991, 1992; Orlikowski and Robey 1991; Walsham 1993) is that they are not fine-grained enough with respect to the technology to form an appropriate basis for understanding or to really inform design. Before substantiating this claim, it should be noted that the studies do underline an important point, namely that "information technology has both restricting and enabling implications" (Orlikowski and Robey 1991, p. 154). We acknowledge this, but are convinced that it is necessary to push further: to describe in some detail how and where IT restricts and enables action. At the same time, we prepare the ground for the alternative framework of ANT describing the social construction of technology. To this end, we briefly sketch the position using structuration theory.

The aim of structuration theory is to account for the interplay between human action and social structures. The notion of "structure" is to be conceived of as an abstract notion; it need not have a material basis. The two key elements of structuration theory according to Walsham (1993, p. 68) are: (i) the manner in which the two levels of actions and structure are captured through the duality of structure, and (ii) the identification of modalities as the vehicle which link the two levels. One speaks of the duality of structure because structure constrains actions but, at the same time structures are produced (or more precisely: reproduced and transformed) through human action. This mutual interplay is mediated through a linking device called modalities. As modalities are what link action and structure, and their relationship is mutual, it follows that these modalities operate both ways.

There are three modalities: interpretative scheme, facility and norm . An interpretative scheme deals with how agents understand and how this understanding is exhibited. It denotes the shared stock of knowledge which humans draw upon when interpreting situations; it enables shared meaning and hence communication. It may also be the reason why communication processes are inhibited. In applying this framework to IT, Orlikowski and Robey (1991, p. 155) notes that "software technology conditions certain social practices, and through its use the meanings embodied in the technology are themselves reinforced". The second modality, facility, refers to the mobilisation of resources of domination, that is, it comprises the media through which power is exercised. IT, more specifically, "constitutes a system of domination" (ibid., p. 155). The third modality, norms, guide action through mobilisation of sanctions. As a result, they define the legitimacy of interaction. They are created through continuous use of sanctions. The way this works for IT is that IT "codifies" and "conveys" norms (ibid., pp. 155 - 156).

Given this admittedly brief outline of the use of structuration theory for grasping IT, we will proceed by documenting in some detail how these accounts fail to pay proper attention to the specifics of IT. Orlikowski and Robey (1991, p. 160) point out how "tools, languages, and methodologies" constrain the design process. The question is whether this lumps too much together, whether this is a satisfactory level of precision with regards to the specifics of IT. There is, after all, quite a number of empirical studies which document how, say, a methodology fails to constrain design practice to any extent; it is almost never followed (Curtis, Krasner and Iscoe 1988, Ciborra and Lanzara 1994). Referring to Orlikowski (1991), Walsham (1993, p. 67) notes that "the ways in which action and structure were linked are only briefly outlined". This is hardly an overstatement as (Orlikowski 1991), as opposed to what one might expect from examining "in detail the world of systems development" (ibid., p. 10), maintains that the CASE tool -- which is never described despite the fact that such tools exhibit a substantial degree of diversity (Vessey, Jarvenpaa and Tractinsky 1992) -- was the "most visible manifestation" of a strategy to "streamline" the process (Orlikowski 1991, p. 14). (Orlikowski 1992) suffers from exactly the same problem: organisational issues are discussed based on the introduction of Lotus Notes. We are never explained in any detail, beyond referring to it as "the technology" or "Notes", the functions of the applications. This is particularly upsetting considering the fact that Lotus Notes is a versatile, flexible application level programming language.

In instructive, in-depth case studies, Walsham (1993) does indeed follow up his criticism cited above by describing in more detail than Orlikowski (1991, 1992) how the modalities operate. But this increased level of precision does not apply to the specifics of the technology. The typical level of granularity is to discuss the issue of IBM vs. non-IBM hardware (ibid., pp. 92-94), centralised vs. decentralised systems architecture (ibid., p. 105) or top-down, hierarchical control vs. user-control (ibid., p. 136 - 138).

Not distinguishing more closely between different parts and variants of the elements of the IS is an instance of the aforementioned "convenient fiction" (Kling 1991, p. 356). An unintended consequence of not being fine-grained enough is removing social responsibility from the designers (ibid., p. 343). It removes social responsibility in the sense that a given designer in a given organisation obliged to use, say, a CASE tool, may hold that it is irrelevant how she uses the tool, it is still a tool embodying a certain rationale beyond her control.

What is required, as already mentioned, is a more detailed and fine-grained analysis of the many mechanisms, some technical and some not, which are employed in shaping social action. We are not claiming that structuration theory cannot deliver this (cf. Walsham 1993, p. 67). But we are suggesting that most studies conducted so far (Korpela 1994; Orlikowski 1991, 1992; Orlikowski and Robey 1991; Walsham 1993) are lacking a description, at a satisfactory level of precision, of how specific elements and functions of an IS relate to organisational issues. We also suggest that the framework provided by actor-network theory (ANT) is more promising in this regard. We proceed to give an outline of the basics of ANT based on (Akrich 1992; Akrich and Latour 1992; Callon 1991; Latour 1987) before discussing what distinguishes it from the position outlined above.

Actor network theory - a minimalistic vocabulary

ANT was born out of ongoing efforts within the field called social studies of science and technology. It was not intended to conceptualise information technology as such, and certainly not the ongoing design of a technology like information infrastructure, that is a technology in the process of being developed.

The field of social studies of technology in general and ANT in particular are evolving rapidly (REFS). It is a task in itself keeping up with the latest developments. Our aim is modest: to extract a small, manageable and useful vocabulary suited an adequate understanding of the challenges of developing information infrastructure. To this end, we simplify and concentrate on only the aspects of ANT most relevant to our endeavour.

What is an actor network, anyway?

The term "actor network", the A and N in ANT, is not very illuminating. It is hardly obvious what the term implies. The idea, however, is fairly simple. When going about doing your business -- driving your car or writing a document using a word-processor -- there are a lot of things that influence how you do it. For instance, when driving a car, you are influenced by traffic regulations, prior driving experience and the car's manoeuvring abilities, the use of a word-processor is influenced by earlier experience using it, the functionality of the word-processor and so forth. All of these factors are related or connected to how you act. You do not go about doing your business in a total vacuum but rather under the influence of a wide range of surrounding factors. The act you are carrying out and all of these influencing factors should be considered together. This is exactly what the term actor network accomplishes. An actor network, then, is the act linked together with all of its influencing factors (which again are linked), producing a network. 1

An actor network consists of and links together both technical and non-technical elements. Not only the car's motor capacity, but also your driving training, influence your driving. Hence, ANT talks about the heterogeneous nature of actor networks. In line with its semiotic origin, actor network theory is granting all entities of such a heterogeneous network the same explanatory status as "semiotics is the study of order building (...) and may be applied to settings, machines, bodies, and programming languages as well as text (...) [because] semiotics is not limited to signs" (Akrich and Latour 1992, p.259). It might perhaps seem a radical move to grant artefacts the same explanatory status as human actors: does not this reduce human actors to mere objects and social science to natural science? We intend to bracket this rather dogmatic issue. Interested readers should consult (Callon and Latour 1992; Collins and Yearley 1992). For our purposes, what is important is that this move has the potential for increasing the level of detail and precision. More specifically, allowing oneself not to distinguish a priori between social and technical elements of a socio-technical web encourages a detailed description of the concrete mechanisms at work which glue the network together -- without being distracted by the means, technical or non-technical, of actually achieving this. If really interested in discovering influential factors regarding the way you drive, we should focus on what turns out to be actually influential, be it technical (the motor' capacity) or non-technical (your training).

Inscription and translation

Two concepts from actor network theory are of particular relevance for our inquiry: inscription (Akrich 1992; Akrich and Latour 1992) and translation (Callon 1991, 1994; Latour 1987). The notion of inscription refers to the way technical artefacts embody patterns of use: "Technical objects thus simultaneously embody and measure a set of relations between heterogeneous elements" (Akrich 1992, p. 205). The term inscription might sound somewhat deterministic by suggesting that action is inscribed, grafted or hard-wired into an artefact. This, however, is a misinterpretation. Balancing the tight-rope between, on the one hand, an objectivistic stance where artefacts determine the use and, on the other hand, a subjectivistic stance holding that an artefact is always interpreted and appropriated flexibly, the notion of an inscription may be used to describe how concrete anticipations and restrictions of future patterns of use are involved in the development and use of a technology. Akrich (1992, p. 208, emphasis added) explains the notion of inscription in the following way:

Designers thus define actors with specific tastes, competencies, motives, aspirations, political prejudices, and the rest, and they assume that morality, technology, science, and economy will evolve in particular ways. A large part of the work of innovators is that of "inscribing" this vision of (or prediction about) the world in the technical content of the new object . (...) The technical realization of the innovator's beliefs about the relationship between an object and its surrounding actors is thus an attempt to predetermine the settings that users are asked to imagine (...).

Stability and social order, according to actor network theory, are continually negotiated as a social process of aligning interests. As actors from the outset have a diverse set of interests, stability rests crucially on the ability to translate , that is, re-interpret, re-present or appropriate, others' interests to one's own. In other words, with a translation one and the same interest or anticipation may be presented in different ways thereby mobilising broader support. A translation presupposes a medium or a "material into which it is inscribed", that is, translations are "embodied in texts, machines, bodily skills [which] become their support, their more or less faithful executive" (Callon 1991, p. 143).

In ANT terms, design is translation - "users'" and others' interests may, according to typical ideal models, be translated into specific "needs," the specific needs are further translated into more general and unified needs so that these needs might translated into one and the same solution. When the solution (system) is running, it will be adopted by the users by translating the system into the context of their specific work tasks and situations.

In such a translation, or design, process, the designer works out a scenario for how the system will be used. This scenario is inscribed into the system. The inscription includes programs of action for the users, and it defines roles to be played by users and the system. In doing this she is also making implicit or explicit assumptions about what competencies are required by the users as well as the system. In ANT terminology, she delegates roles and competencies to the components of the socio-technical network, including users as well as the components of the system (Latour 1991). By inscribing programs of actions into a piece of technology, the technology becomes an actor 2 imposing its inscribed program of action on its users.

The inscribed patterns of use may not succeed because the actual use deviates from it. Rather than following its assigned program of action, a user may use the system in an unanticipated way, she may follow an anti-program (Latour 1991). When studying the use of technical artefacts one necessarily shifts back and forth "between the designer's projected user and the real user" in order to describe this dynamic negotiation process of design (Akrich 1992, p. 209).

Some technologies inscribe weak/flexible programs of action while others inscribe strong/inflexible programs. Examples of the former are tools, the hammer being a classic example, and the assembly line of Chaplin's "Modern times" a standard illustration of the latter.

Inscriptions are given a concrete content because they represent interests inscribed into a material. The flexibility of inscriptions vary, some structure the pattern of use strongly, others weakly. The strength of inscriptions, whether they must be followed or can be avoided, depends on the irreversibility of the actor-network they are inscribed into. It is never possible to know before hand, but by studying the sequence of attempted inscriptions we learn more about exactly how and which inscriptions were needed to achieve a given aim. To exemplify, consider what it takes to establish a specific work routine. One could, for instance, try to inscribe the routine into required skills through training. Or, if this inscription was too weak, one could inscribe the routine into a textual description in the form of manuals. Or, if this still is too weak, one could inscribe the work routines by supporting them by an information system. Hence, through a process of translation, one and the same work routine may be attempted inscribed into components of different materials, components being linked together into a socio-technical network. By adding and superimposing these inscriptions they accumulate strength.

Latour (1991) provides an illuminating illustration of this aspect of actor network theory. It is an example intended for pedagogic purposes. Hotels, from the point of view of management, want to ensure that the guests leave their keys at the front desk when leaving. The way this objective may be accomplished, according to actor network theory, is to inscribe the desired pattern of behaviour into an actor-network. The question then becomes how to inscribe it and into what. This is impossible to know for sure before hand, so management had to make a sequence of trials to test the strength of different inscriptions. In Latour's story, management first tried to inscribe it into an artifact in the form of a sign behind the counter requesting all guests to return the key when leaving. This inscription, however, was not strong enough. Then they tried having a manual door-keeper -- with the same result. Management then inscribed it into a key with a metal knob of some weight. By stepwise increasing the weight of the knob, the desired behaviour was finally achieved. Hence, through a succession of translations, the hotels' interest were finally inscribed into a network strong enough to impose the desired behaviour on the guests.

Four key aspects of inscriptions

There are four aspects of the notions of inscription and translation which are particularly relevant and which we emphasise in our study: (i) the identification of explicit anticipations (or scenarios) of use held by the various actors during design (that is, standardisation), (ii) how these anticipations are translated and inscribed into the standards (that is, the materials of the inscriptions), (iii) who inscribes them and (iv) the strength of these inscriptions, that is, the effort it takes to oppose or work around them.


A key feature of information infrastructure, outlined in chapter 5, is the difficulty of making changes. Using and extending the core ANT vocabulary developed above, this vital aspect may be lifted forward to occupy centre stage. In ways to be elaborated in greater detail in subsequent chapters, an in information infrastructure is an aligned actor network. The constitutive elements of an information infrastructure -- the collection of standards and protocols, user expectations and experience, bureaucratic procedures for passing standards -- inscribe patterns of use. But is it not possible to express this more precisely, to somehow "measure" the net effects (a dangerous expression, but let it pass) to which these superimposed inscriptions actually succeed in shaping the pattern of use, to "measure" the strength of an inscription?

Callon's concept of the (possible) irreversibility of an aligned network captures the accumulated resistance against change quite nicely (Callon 1991, 1992, 1994). It describes how translations between actor-networks are made durable, how they can resist assaults from competing translations. Callon (1991, p. 159) states that the degree of irreversibility depends on (i) the extent to which it is subsequently impossible to go back to a point where that translation was only one amongst others and (ii) the extent to which it shapes and determines subsequent translations.

The notions which at the present stage in our analysis pay most adequate justice to the accumulating resistance against change, and the tight inter-connection between different parts of an II are alignment, irreversibility and accordingly momentum (Hughes and Callon both underline the similarities with the other, see Callon 1987, p. 101; Hughes 1994, p. 102). Despite their ability to account for the anticipated and interleaved flexibility of an II, these notions down-play this phenomenon to the point of disappearance. To make this point more precise, consider the notion of momentum which Hughes (1994) discusses as a possible candidate for conceptualising the development of infrastructure technologies.

The crucial difference between Hughes and Callon is connected with how the dynamics of momentum unfolds. Hughes describes momentum as very much a self-reinforcing process gaining force as the technical system grows "larger and more complex" (ibid., p. 108). It is reasonable to take the rate of diffusion of Internet during recent years as an indication of its considerable momentum. Major changes which seriously interfere with the momentum are, according to Hughes, only conceivable in extraordinary instances: "Only a historic event of large proportions could deflect or break the momentum [of the example he refers to], the Great Depression being a case in point" (ibid., p. 108) or, in a different example, the "oil crises" (ibid., p. 112). This, however, is not the case with II. As illustrated with the issue of the next version of IP in Internet, radical changes are regularly required and are to a certain extent anticipated.Momentum and irreversibility are accordingly contradictory aspects of II in the sense that if momentum results in actual -- not only potential -- irreversibility, then changes are impossible and it will collapse. Whether the proposed changes in Internet are adequate and manageable remains to be seen.

Actor networks meet structuration theory

Having given an outline of ANT, let us turn to see what is achieved vis-à-vis structuration theory. The principal improvement, as we see it, is the ability ANT provides to be more specific and concrete with respects to the functions of an IS. It is not the case, in our view, that ANT in every respect is an improvement over structuration theory. We only argue that it applies to the issue of being specific about the technology. For instance, we consider the important issue of the structuring abilities of institutions to be better framed within structuration theory than within ANT. Let us explain why we consider it so. We first compare the two theories on a general level, partly relying on pedagogic examples. Then we attempt to reinterpret (Orlikowski 1991) in terms of ANT.

Inscriptions are given a concrete content because they represent interests inscribed into a material. The flexibility of inscriptions vary, that is, some structure the pattern of use strongly, others quite weakly. The power of inscriptions, that is, whether they must be followed or can be avoided, depends on the irreversibility of the actor-network they are inscribed into. It is never possible to know before hand, but by studying the sequence of inscriptions we learn more about exactly how and which inscriptions were needed to achieve a given aim. To exemplify, consider what it takes to establish a specific work routine. One could, for instance, try to inscribe the required skills through training. Or, if this inscription was too weak, one could inscribe into a textual description of the routines in the form of manuals. Or, if this still is too weak, one could inscribe the work routines by supporting them by an IS.

ANT's systematic blurring of the distinction between the technical and the non-technical extends beyond the duality of Orlikowski and Robey (1991) and Walsham (1993). The whole idea is to treat situations as essentially equal regardless of the means; the objective is still the same. Within ANT, technology receives exactly the same (explanatory!) status as human actors; the distinction between human and non-human actors is systematically removed. ANT takes the fact that, in a number of situations, technical artefacts in practice play the same role as human actors very seriously: the glue which keeps a social order in place is a heterogeneous network of human and non-human actors. A theoretical framework which makes an a priori distinction between the two is less likely to manage to keep its focus on the aim of a social arrangement regardless of whether the means for achieving this are technical or non-technical. The consequence of this is that ANT supports an inquiry which traces the social process of negotiating, redefining and appropriating interests back and forth between an articulate explicit form and a form where they are inscribed within a technical artefact. With reference to the small example above, the inscriptions attempting to establish the work routine were inscribed in both technical and non-technical materials. They provide a collection of inscriptions -- all aimed at achieving the same effect -- with a varying power. In any given situation, one would stack the necessary number of inscriptions which together seem to do the job.

We believe that the empirical material presented by Orlikowski (1991) may, at least partially, be reinterpreted in light of ANT. 3 Her primary example is the development and use of a CASE tool in an organisation she calls SCC. The control (and productivity) interests of management are inscribed into the tool. The inscriptions are so strong that the consultants do as intended down to a rather detailed level. The only exceptions reported are some senior consults saying that they in some rare instances do not do as the tool require.

What is missing, then, in comparison with ANT is to portray this as more a stepwise alignment than the kind of all-in-one character of (ibid.). In ANT terms, the management's control interests are inscribed into the CASE tool in forms of detailed inscriptions of the consultants behaviour. The inscriptions are very strong in the sense that there is hardly any room for interpretive flexibility. The CASE tool is the result of a long process where management's control and productivity interests have been translated into a larger heterogeneous actor-network encompassing career paths, work guidelines, methodologies and, finally, the CASE tool. Together these elements form an actor-network into which consultants' behaviour are inscribed. Just like Latour's example presented above, the inscriptions become stronger as they are inscribed into a larger network. This network is developed through successive steps where inscriptions are tested out and improved until the desired outcome is reached. It is only when, as a result of a long sequence of testing and superpositioning of inscriptions, that one ends up in situations like the one presented by Orlikowski (1991). If one succeeds in aligning the whole actor-network, the desired behaviour is established. Analytically, it follows from this that if any one (or a few) of the elements of such an actor-network is not aligned, then the behaviour will not be as presented by Orlikowski (ibid.). Empirically, we know that more often than not the result is different from that of Orlikowski's case (Curtis, Krasner and Iscoe 1988; Vessey, Jarvenpaa and Tractinsky 1992).

We end this section by merely pointing out another issue we find problematic with (Orlikowski 1992). She states that "[t]he greater the spatial and temporal distance between the construction of a technology and its application, the greater the likelihood that the technology will be interpreted and used with little flexibility. Where technology developers consult with or involve future users in the construction and trial stages of a technology, there is an increased likelihood that it will be interpreted and used more flexibly" (ibid., p. 421). We agree on the importance of user participation in design. According to ANT, however, the interpretive flexibility of a technology may increase as the distance between designers and users increases. Interpretive flexibility means unintended use, i.e. using the technology different for what is inscribed into it. When the designers are close to the users, the network into which the intended user behaviour is inscribed will be stronger and accordingly harder for the users not to follow this. An important aspect of ANT is its potential to account for how restricted interpretative flexibility across great distances can be obtained (Law 1986).

The chapters which follow build upon this minimalistic vocabulary of ANT. The notion of an actor-network will implicitly be assumed throughout. The notion of an inscription is closely linked to the (potential lack of) flexibility of an information infrastructure and will be elaborated in chapter 7. It also plays a central role when describing and critically assessing the prevailing approaches to the design of information infrastructures in chapter 8. The notion of irreversibility and the strength of an inscription is the subject matter of chapters 9 (a conceptual analysis) and 10 (an empirical case).

1. One way of putting this is that the actor network spells out the contents of the context or situatedness of an action (Suchman 1987).

2. Or "actant" as would be the more precise term in actor network theory (Akrich and Latour 1992).

3. Doing this in any detail would, of course, demand access to the empirical material beyond the form in which it is presented in the article. We have no such access.

Go to Main Go to Previous Go to Next