An Anthropology of the Machine: Tokyo's Commuter Train Network


Today, we are regularly confronted with the implications of large scale socio-technical networks on the earth and on human collectives. This book is a technography of collective life constituted at the interplay of the human and the non-human, nature, and machine. Its central scene is Tokyo’s commuter train network, one of the most complex large scale technical infrastructures on earth, where trains regularly operate beyond capacity transporting more commuters than the infrastructure can materially manage. This book treats this scene as an articulation of specific sociohistorical relations between humans and machines, and at the same as a general expression of a current but also potential condition of collective life. It is the latter, the potential of collective life, onto which the weight of analysis falls. For this book is an argument concerning not only what collective life has become but moreover what it can become under contemporary conditions of media and technology.

This question of how might we inhabit and survive collectively within current and future socio-technical conditions was given urgency by the events of March 2011 when a strong earthquake off the northeast coast of Japan sent a massive tsunami into the shore killing thousands of people and causing the meltdown of a number of reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The tragedies of March 2011, or 3.11 as its known in Japan, resist delineation into human, technological, or natural disaster. It was all three, all at once, demonstrating the absolute meaningless of thinking that remains confined to bounded sets of relations. This book takes up the challenge of rethinking technology by examining a large-scale transport infrastructure in Japan, where the issues provoked by 3.11 are inhabited in a daily and regular manner, and where we can begin to develop an anthropological media theory of scale and ecology.         

This book advances the normative claim that we need to transform our understanding of technology if we hope for collective life not only to survive but to thrive on this planet. Just as there can be no collective future without technology there will certainly be no future collective without a significant transformation in how we think of technology and what we demand of ourselves in relationship with it. This is not a claim that technological development will save life (human and non-human) on this planet. Rather, this book is an argument for a different kind of ontological entanglement with technology, one that stresses a dynamic quality of ethical relationality and trust instead of rationalized interactions and profit. The term I use to capture the notion of a relationality of quality and trust with technology is “technicity.” The term, which derives from a long history of machine theory, denotes the degree of dynamism and openness of a machine to current and future relational flourishing or becomings. It puts emphasis on the ontological and conceptual affordances of a technology and its trustworthiness as a partner of collective life in the present and future. This is also not an argument for human exceptionalism. It is, rather, an argument for a post-human humanism that recognizes the equal importance of technology, human, and non-human in the formation of robust collective life while placing exceptional responsibility on human beings to maintain the dynamic, and diverse integrity of collective emergence. Technography is the medium of post-human humanism. Embracing an experimental, speculative modality, it seeks to open collective futures.

Among the many things that Fukushima revealed is the woeful inadequacy of the term technology for parsing the complexity of our contemporary collective life. The problem with the term is that it does not allow us to make ethical distinctions between such vastly different kinds of machines as nuclear reactors, commuter trains, and more mundane personal devices like smartphones. All these machines are simply flattened into a single category -- technology -- without any regard for the radically different kinds of relationships that they enable and or disable. Aside from the obvious but also not insignificant issue of scale, that these are incommensurable kinds of machines that engender vastly different relational qualities seems common sense. And yet we have no real way to talk about the quality of ontological entanglement that these technologies allow. Technology denotes merely a value-free instrument, a means to an end, whose successful (read “uneventful”) operation is reduced to a matter of rational governance and technological management. This book rejects this reduction. It argues instead that we must begin to think technology differentially in terms of its trustworthiness.

Technological trustworthiness is not only about reliability, resilience, and failsafe mechanisms. Insofar as these are important attributes for any machine, they are not necessarily what makes for an ethical ontological entanglement. Hence the argument, which one often hears from advocates of nuclear energy, that good nuclear power is just a matter of better reactor design and more rational systems of management does not enter into how this book formulates trustworthy technology. By relational I mean systems that are less rather than more determined, that have increasing leeway for interacting, thinking, and becoming with the human and nonhuman environment. Machines with which we can be in a relationship are machines that can be in a relationship with us. Trustworthy machines do not demand compliance, they are forgiving, and ontologically capacious in their capacity to evolve with collective life.

Why develop such an argument through a train system, let alone Tokyo’s commuter train network? Surely there are more timely techno-assemblages with which to think about current collective life such as biotechnology, the Internet or even smartphones. Is not a commuter train network merely an obvious instantiation of modern industrial technology and a bygone modality of value production through the capture of surplus human-labor and attention? Exactly! A commuter train network is the ideal medium with which to re-think technology precisely because the train is generally understood to be the originary machine ensemble in the evolution of modern industrial society and the advent of our current second-nature technological condition. The problem with this general understanding is that it is guided by a narrative telos in which the train as a modern and industrial machine must be superseded by concern with more timely postindustrial, postmodern, informational systems. Such an approach is equally problematic for the way it tends to tack back and forth between on the one hand technological determinism -- each period is the result of a new technological matrix -- and, on the other hand, relegating technology to a discursive effect of distinctive periods of socioeconomic and political organization. In addressing questions concerning technology through Tokyo’s commuter train network, this book develops a different conceptual history of the train via technicity in order to open alternative conceptualizations of future collective life. Technicity traverses periodization while remaining irreducible to the specific character of any one period. It does so by foregrounding concern with the quality of a machine ensemble’s ontological opening-- its margin of indeterminacy -- and corollary capacity therein for dynamic collective life. In short, following technography’s experimental modality this book posits that if we can retell the story of Tokyo’s commuter train through its margin of indeterminacy