Towards a cartography of financial controversies
February 11, 2009
As Joe Deville explains in his recent post, Bruno Latour did indeed give a remarkable presentation at Columbia this past weekend. His talk, part of a day-long workshop on the crisis of journalism and the “Changing Dynamics of Public Controversy,” is very well captured by Joe’s summary.
Latour was particularly effective when he gave a personal example. His wife recently had to get back surgery. Bruno went to the Internet to learn about her condition. And he found no less than four different ways to think about it. What one would want in cases such as this, as Latour put it, is simple ways –“coarse signs”– to orient oneself in the controversy over the diagnosis. A cartography of public controversies.
Latour went on to demonstrate “Mapping Controversies,” a project he is leading to accomplish exactly that. That is, to show different forms in which controversies can be visualized. The project is being done in collaboration with, among others, my friends and ex-colleagues Vincent Lepinay and Verena Paravel.
As I sat at the workshop listening to this, I asked myself… what does it mean for the social studies of finance? The field has clearly grown out of science and technology studies, which places controversies at the center of its understanding of science. To the extent that markets are like science –a form of expert knowledge subject to uncertainty– is there market equivalent to scientific controversies? And what does it look like?
Visualizations such as Latour’s, I believe, point the way forward in developing expert knowledge on Wall Street — and making it usable to investors. Following the very public investigation by Eliott Spitzer, the analyst profession suffered a crisis of public confidence, decreased resources and reduced coverage. Not so different from the crisis that the journalists were describing in the mini-conference. But just as the rise of new tools –the Internet– brought with it a crisis to print journalism, a different sort of new tools could offer a solution to expert knowledge on Wall Street.