Aramis, or the love of technology

2022-07-31 17:16

A 'scientifiction' (word coined by Latour to mean roughly literature where technology takes the form of plot, as opposed to setting) book about the death of Aramis - a French attempt from 1969 - 1987 to manifest the worlds first PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) system.

PRT was based on the principle of small units (cars) which can travel individually on less busy track, and then join to form a train when they reach more busy areas. This allows for both individual comfort and privacy, and in theory solves the problem of congestion.

Aramis was planned to use a 'non-mechanical' coupling system to join cars into trains. Cars were to be joined 'electronically' using a computer.

Latour starts by establishing that it's broadly agreed by all parties involved that Aramis essentially killed itself. By the time the plug was finally pulled, the project was as good as dead.

Through the project duration there are overlapping realities. Aramis is both an 'engineers toy' and not. They were starting from user needs - being transported from one point to another without interchange, slowing down or having to think. But also there is an undeniable elaborate-ness which creates interesting engineering problems to solve.

Perhaps Aramis went on for so long because it was hard to oppose in principle. A transportation system that is both private and efficient, and whose technology seems on the cusp of realisability. It's so easy to imagine, so seductive an image. The challenges to overcome are known, making them appear easier.

There is no such thing as the essence of a project. Only finished products have an essence. For technology, too, "existence precedes essence." If all the actors had to agree unambiguously on the definition of what was to be done, then the probability of carrying out a project would be very slight indeed, for reality remains polymorphous for a very long time, especially when a principle of transportation is involved.

For many people interviewed, the project was dead on arrival. When transferred from vision to working prototype, there are too many conflicts in the vision to resolve - and when you drop one aspect of the project, it creates other problems. For example, the small size of cars requires too large a number of them to be economically viable. However, if you make the cars larger then their turning circle increases, so the track must also change. If the track changes, that affects the placement of stations - and so on, until the vision no longer exists.

Latour describes technology as a constant dance of human and non human actors who come together to make itself real. Things can become less real anytime for example if there are train strikes and people get used to not taking the train it becomes less real. It must be constantly willed into existence.

 The only questions that count are the following: Who is compatible with what? Who agrees to stay with whom, and under what conditions, according to what hidden intentions?