Models and Theories in Human-Computer Interaction/Examining System of Systems
ANT: A Tool for Exploring Systems of Systems (Harold Kevin Glover)
At its core, Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is a constructivist theory, where a single system is examined as a set of atomic subsystems.
Think of our own bodies as a machine, or a system, that moves to our will. We tend to think of ourselves as a whole, but the human body consists of many different actors and relationships occurring simultaneously. The sensory organs communicate with the brain through signals, blood pumps oxygen throughout the body, other organs extract nutrients from food and process waste, and so on. It is a very complicated system, but we think about it as a whole. In fact, we only notice the individual parts once something goes wrong, like joint pain or a stomachache; the illusion of the whole breaks, and we are aware of the multiple systems at work.
ANT seeks to expose these invisible relationships that are often overlooked. Like our bodies, technology is not a homogenous composition of our world, but it is a heterogeneous network of interactions. Even when typing this essay, I am not always aware of the keyword or my fingers hitting the correct keys, but it would be remiss to dismiss this interaction. In this situation, the line between human and non-human actors are blurred, as the keyboard becomes an extension of the human body. The way we view our own body and the way we integrate with our surrounding technology illustrates the characteristics of ANT not in the abstract, but as a natural occurring event.
Actor-network theory suggests that technological development accounts for social context; both human and non-human actors are part of the design negotiations; each share a symbiotic relationship and influence each other.
It is important to understand that the actor-network theory is descriptive rather than explanatory in nature. It is a tool for examining the nuanced atomic systems occurring within interactions. However, that does not make it less valuable for design; in fact, it can be considered fundamental. We need to be conscious of the connections between actors, both human and non-human, when developing new systems of interaction.