The Berlin Key
Is a symmetrical key still a key? What balance of power lies behind the relations it generates?
Guided by the natural learning process of an archaeologist finding this beautiful object, Bruno Latour introduces us into a journey towards technical sociology and social technology. In The Berlin Key or How to Do Words with Things, the fictional archaeologist resolves the mistery at the same time as the reader does: speculations, trials, errors and deductions; social relations and networks made of steel.
“What is this thing ? What’s it used for ? Why a key with two bits ? And two symmetrical bits ? Who are they trying to kid ?”
The forced-locking key, invented in Berlin 1912, obliged users to… [read full essay]
“All large cities, all groups of coowners, all union newspapers, all concierge’s lodges, are full of complaints, notices, recriminations and groans about the doors, the fact that they are impossible to lock and impossible to open. But if it was a question of words, or notices, or howls of “Lock the door !” or placards, we would merely be in the world of signs. […]But now with this Berlin key we find we are neither altogether in the world of signs nor altogether in the realm of social relations. Are we in the world of technology ? Of course we are, since here we are confronting keyholes and a handsome steel key with teeth, grooves, and lips. And of course we are not, since we are encountering know-how, punctual concierges, and obstinate cheats, not to speak of our Prussian Locksmith.
The Berlin key, the door, and the concierge are engaged in a bitter struggle for control and access. Shall we say that the social relations between tenants and owners, or inhabitants and thieves, or inhabitants and delivery people, or co-owners and concierges, are mediated by the key, the lock, and the Prussian Locksmith ? The word mediation, quite useful, can also become an asylum for ignorance depending on the meaning one gives it. One person will take mediation to mean intermediary, another to mean mediator. […] With mediators, in fact, there always begin chains of mediators, otherwise known as networks. One is never done with them. But sociologists, like technologists, enemy brothers, believe they can come to an end, the former with the social, the latter with objects. The only thing they do not manage to end is their fratricidal war, a war that prevents us from understanding the world in which we live.”