On some uses and abuses of topology in the social analysis of technology (Or the problem with smart meters)

Marres, Noortje. 2012. On some uses and abuses of topology in the social analysis of technology (Or the problem with smart meters). Theory, Culture and Society, 29(4-5), pp. 288-310. [Article]


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This article examines different ways in which topological ideas can be used to analyse technology in social terms, arguing that we must become more discerning and demanding as to the limits and possibilities of topological analysis than used to be necessary. Topological framings of technology and society are increasingly widespread, and in this context, it becomes necessary to consider topology not just as a theory to be adopted, but equally as a device that is deployed in social life in a variety of ways. Digital technologies require special attention in this regard: on the one hand, these technologies have made it possible for a topological imagination of technology and society to become more widely adopted; on the other hand, they have also enabled a weak form of topological imagination to proliferate, one that leaves in place old, deterministic ideas about technology as a principal driver of social change. Turning to an empirical case, that of smart electricity metering, the article investigates how topological approaches enable both limited and rigorous ‘expansions of the frame’ on technology. In some cases, topology is used to imagine technology as a dynamic, heterogeneous arrangement, but ‘the primacy of technology’ is maintained. In other cases a topological approach is used to bring into view much more complex relations between technological and societal change. The article ends with an exploration of the topological devices that are today deployed to render relations between technological and social change more complexly, such as the online visualisation tool of tag clouding. I propose that such a topological device enables an empirical mode of critique: here, topology does not just help to make the point of the mutual entanglement of the social and the technical, but helps to dramatize the contingent, dynamic and non-coherent unfolding of issues.

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July 2012Submitted

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Date Deposited:

14 Aug 2012 07:55

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 15:45

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Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.



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