On the fallacy of the zoom

Posted on | May 14, 2013 | 1 Comment

Notes from Bruno Latour’s closing keynote at Paris CHI.


Latour’s opening provocation set the agenda: ‘There are no collective phenomena’. Rather, collectives contain the work of collecting (as we will see, contain can have several senses here: to hold, to include, to limit). There are many collecting devices which generate collected data.

There is no way of avoiding the oligopticon, or a highly specialised view. This means ‘a little bit of the whole’, and anticipates the idea of monadology Latour takes from Tarde and earlier Leibniz. Since we are not gods we can only ever have a unique point of view on the whole universe.

Latour maintains that there is no better, more comprehensive mode of representation beyond the particular. We never shift to a higher level of perception; the notion of a ‘change of scale’ never actually occurs. ‘The fallacy of the impossible zoom’ refers to the perceptual trick played by services like Google Earth. When we use Google Earth we assume an optical illusion – a fallacy in coherence that is the ‘zoom’ function (see also Charles and Ray Eames, The Powers of Ten).

For Latour, a global view is never larger: information is simply discarded or formatted differently. His talk used photography by Armin Link and others to underline the work of collecting. The process of collecting has many instruments, which may be high or low tech.

Visualizing phenomena at scale is a flawed means of linking the individual to the collective. The foundational premise Latour destabilizes is the division between the individual and the collective – the motivating tension at the heart of sociology.


Just as there is no collective view there are no individual phenomena either. Instead there are individualizing agents. In the Paris Invisible project a state ‘surveillance’ camera or an ordinary person in the street are each collecting data flows and thus have the same ‘size’. What they don’t have are the same connections.

Our present prejudice: big because collective; small because individual. Why is this prejudice indivisible?

What is usually meant by an ‘individual’ is an extended center of perception shaved of all its connections. In turn, a collective is perception shaved of its data flows. How to ‘reconcile the two levels’ is thus an artificial conundrum. As is the question: how is it possible to obtain the ‘collective’ level out of the ‘mere interactions’ of individual agents (who are previously deprived of all their relations!)

The other possibility: once the collectivity’s collecting activities are foregrounded in all cases it is possible to identify the monad (what Latour elsewhere calls the actor-network). This alternative project for sociology was elaborated by Gabriel Tarde (1843-1904) in Monadology and Sociology but lost favour due to the entrenched influence of Durkheim. In an era of large data sets and enhanced collection methods it is an approach that can be reawakened and realized.


The monad provides an individualizing grasp of the whole universe of relations (what is meant by ‘collective’ phenomena is usually the superimposition of these particularities). Digital technology allows for the first time a direct experience of the monadic principle, which is simultaneously individual and collective, and comes from the fact that there exist as many collected phenomena as there exist collecting paraphernalia.

Merging visually the many collecting display styles (e.g. through data visualisations of various kinds) has become a most banal experience – think of stock market graphs or weather maps on the nightly news. The simple act of performing an online search merges ‘in one seamless move’ both the extension and individualization of an entity in line with the monadic principle.

Similarly, Googling someone and finding their CV (Latour used Wendy Mackay, the conference organiser as an example, very funny) is a way of recognizing someone as both an individual and part of a paradigm. The more individual the features of the CV, the more collective the data (Wendy is a CHI person, a field which has its own journals, conferences, hierarchies, etc). The more individual, then, the more collective: we share information to artificially produce an atom. In Latour’s hilarious turn of phrase, reading Wendy’s CV, ‘I am trying to squeeze everything to make her a dot’.

In sum, monadology means we should abandon the key principle of impenetrability of entities and understand any whole as overlaps (see The Whole is Smaller than its Parts).


Challenges to CHI in light of the monadic principle (where structures do not cohere/comprise/contain individual entities):

Data 'mining' removes information

Data ‘mining’ removes information

– Visualising without losing data

– Capturing the inner narrativity of overlapping monads

– Qualitative and quantitative are each effective methods

– If there is no structure, then there are passing connections: how to represent them?

– If you link the idea of the monad to profiling, what does it do?

– The study of association

For a century, social theory was entrenched in a vision of the social based on Durkheim’s ideas (namely, the individual vs. the collective). In this vision, structure is assumed to last. The individual is assumed to pass. This is a false idea: an event like CHI shows that we and it are part of a monadic system which has overlaps.

We need to recognize other kinds of association, and this involves replacing models, building and describing emergent structures, and highlighting differentially overlapping monads. These priorities will move us away from the Great Social Theory. They will also show that an instrument does not construct or record a phenomenon but performs it.


One Response to “On the fallacy of the zoom”

  1. Data 1.0 : Home Cooked Theory
    August 18th, 2015 @ 2:18 pm

    […] through association. They come together to say something. But to do so, first they must be assembled. This work of crafting association is necessarily rhetorical, since it is never possible to capture […]

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