As we gathered outside the conference centre in Barcelona, Luke explained that he would take us on an exploratory journey of a project he had devised that investigated the ethics of urban living in a future-time. In this imagined time, urban dwellers were moved around from apartment to apartment, experiencing little in the way of permanent residency in one place. Furthermore, an imagined organisation called, ‘The Citizen Rotation Office’ was responsible for the selection of appropriate accommodations based on each individual’s personal preferences. These preferences were collected and collated by an algorithm that filtered through the social media and online profiles of each individual, matching them with appropriate neighbourhoods, providing key information about events and places in the neighbourhood and even barring access to certain other parts of the neighbourhood the individual would be moving to. The performance / lecture was run in the same manner as a local tour might be, in that we the audience were guided around the streets by Luke, who used his mobile phone and a speaker connected to it, to play GPS-triggered recordings of the monotone, digital voice of The Citizen Rotation Office. The tour was cleverly created to be site-specific, so our imagined future-time of urban Barcelona corresponded to what we could see with our own eyes as we walked. Always, alongside the bright happy sales pitches of imaginary Rotation Office users, we were constantly reminded of no-go areas and forbidden streets. Should we stray from the planned route, our membership of the Office and thus our ability to find accommodation, would be terminated.
The performed lecture provided an immersive, site-specific style of presentation that allowed for a truly affective connection with the issues Luke wished to interrogate, including: the power of algorithms and their potential future in the development of smart cities; the changing styles of urban dwelling – with particular relation to issues of permanency / temporariness in the housing market; and the rise and character of state / corporate power in the everyday lives of citizens, with particular relation to control over housing, community experience and everyday purchasing ‘choices’ of individuals.
Using performance to interrogate and enhance the development of critical thinking about contemporary issues has its advantages – advantages such as the development of affective responses, embodied thinking and connection with site and space. As an academic community, we are perhaps more used to dealing with concepts via the linguistic space alone – that is we often discuss issues via critical appreciation of the semantics and/or semiotics of a phenomenon, rather than include the real materiality that is part of the event studied. As feminist materialist scholar Karen Barad states “language has been granted too much power…”1 What Luke’s work attempted at was an actual inclusion of the body, of the spaces and sites, of the technologies discussed in their physical forms – forms that are often prone to error and even decay – as many of us couldn’t really hear all the information given due to an effect of urban, ambient noise, a reality pointing to the way that material-discursive phenomena can disrupt the best laid plans of mice and men…
Luke often drifted between representing his work as a project, and immersing us in the experience of the project itself, as we walked around the Barcelona streets. I appreciated this as – intentionally or not – it drew my attention to the differences between traditional conference forms of representing knowledge, and more nonrepresentational forms of knowledge as performance and performativity. The concept of knowledge as a performative practice has been discussed by feminist new materialists, such as Barad, Kirby, and Haraway who are at pains to bring concepts such as diffraction further into the critical analysis of events. Diffraction can be described (but not limited to) the performative differencing of phenomena that does not treat ontology and epistemology as separate entities, but as entangled together as onto-epistemology. Thus, knowing and being are inextricably bound up with each other. There is no stable out-there upon which to comment. Rather knowledge is performative, it acts performatively to shape the very world it attempts to study, leaving the concept of stable, separable units of being behind.2 Thus, as we walked as a conference track group we arguably participated in creating the themes of the talk itself. Also, not just ourselves, but the environments we encountered, the noise, the temperature, all manner of nonhuman factors contributed to the phenomenon of the Citizen Rotation Office as it was performed in Barcelona. Furthermore, this creation was developed not just in the linguistic space of concepts, but also in the material-discursive space of walking, hearing, being in material spaces, rather than within the cardboard-like walls of a conference centre.
As a performance artist and scholar myself, working on developing transdisciplinary practices for higher education contexts, I thought Luke’s work hit home in terms of using arts-based practice– specifically performance practice – to develop and enhance new forms of critical research. The practice itself clearly informed the critical research project, whilst also remaining uniquely an artwork in its own right therefore arguably occupying its own space in the burgeoning world of Practice-as-Research. Practice-as-Research is a form of research that originated in Theatre and Performance Studies disciplines. In the main, it promotes the idea that the kind of research that takes place in the development of an performance brings its own embodied, material form of critical analysis into productive play with more traditional discursive-only forms of research more traditional to the academy. 3 Luke’s work clearly provides a platform for the discussion of the further use and relevance of Practice-as-Research for the STS community.
‘The Citizen Rotation Office’ effectively demonstrated that different streams of knowledge from different forms of critical research practice and performance can usefully develop and enhance discussions on how Science and Technology might impact on the ethics and practices of a not-too-distant future-time. As technologies grow exponentially, bringing the use of Big Data and algorithms more deeply into our lives and communities, as smart cities grow in size and quantity across the globe, and as we as scholars grapple with the impact and effect of these on a global world, how do we want to develop smart thinking in order to evaluate and participate in the creation of this future? These are the kinds of questions that the kind of work, like Luke’s performance-based style of “prototyping” raise. The work arguably moves towards taking a diffractive approach to critical research practice as it incorporates performance, performativity, affectivity (in relation to the sensations evoked in the audience who walked about imagining the ethics of this future-time) and material-discursivity into the research of the phenomenon of urban planning. I hope to see more material-discursive, embodied, affective and performative works like these growing in our STS community.
1 Barad, K. (2007) Meeting the universe halfway. Durham: Duke University Press. p. 132
2 ibid. p176
3 Nelson, R. (2013) Practice as Research in the Arts: Principlies,protocols, pedagogies, resistances. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 8-11
As a brand new PhD graduate, one month after the defence, I approached my first joint 4S/EASST meeting with a twofold feeling: the need to start reflecting seriously upon my doctoral research on the one hand, and a blend of curiosity and anxiety generated by the key question ‘what’s next?’ on the other. These two dispositions required me both to look back at the work done and to look ahead to find out job opportunities inside or outside of academia. In hindsight, I realized I tackled these interrelated preoccupations by attending two moments of the conference, that is the postgraduate workshop and the track titled “Considering the performativity of our own research practices” wherein I presented a contribution. I found my condition of “in-between-ness” (Anzaldúa, 1987), that of not being a PhD candidate anymore and the one of yet-to-being something else, interestingly depicted during these two different moments of the conference. They have both confronted the challenging motto of the meeting — “Science and technology by other means” — by calling into question not just the non-traditional experiences and practices where science and technology are performed, but mainly the “other means” by which STS deals with its own epistemic practices. Indeed, the doctoral workshop invited graduate, postgraduate, and early-career scholars to reflect collaboratively upon new and unconventional research practices, publishing options, and careers. On the other hand, the track 014 — chaired by Juliane Jarke, Lisa Wood, and Lucas Introna — wherein I was involved has aimed at discussing the performative conditions of STS scholars’ research practices by drawing upon Karen Barad’s powerful concept of ‘ethico-onto-epistemology’ (Barad, 2007). These two happenings, therefore, have characterized my first experience at the 4S/EASST conference by sharing a common overarching inquiry: how do we (as junior and seasoned scholars) do STS studies “by other means”?
Such tricky question brings up the ethical and political implications of epistemological and methodological practices, an issue that goes beyond the popular debates around reflexivity and representationalism in STS (Woolgar, 1988). The postgraduate workshop saw PhD students, postgraduate and early-career scholars engaged in discussions on how to do research by other means, that is to say how to account for our own research practices carried out outside of conventional academic borders (art, architecture, design) and how to disentangle the complex relationships between the researcher and the worlds they contribute to enact. This discussion brought to the fore the methological question of how to tell different stories, explore different ways of knowledge transmission, and what are the contexts that allow us to do research by other means, expanding the range of methods we already employ.
A widespread criticism of the academic habitus (Bourdieu, 1988) combined with lively ideas on how to look at the future characterized the sessions on publishing practices and career opportunities. We discussed our experiences and challenges regarding writing research and publishing through conventional and unconventional channels. We discovered that many of us run or ran a blog to tease ideas out and that, in turn, such use of writing to shapes who we are as researchers. Some of us agree that traditional academic products — of which the conventional paper is the quintessence — and the system of peer-reviewing serve more to reproduce disciplinary standards of knowledge and conformity within the university rather than to bring about an effective impact on the world they assume to get to know. This concern nicely resonates with Geoffrey Bowker’s critique of the linear thinking and narrative conveyed by the scientific paper, whose data would often be known by the average citizen without doing any research (Bowker, 2014).
The reluctance to conform with the academic habitus — “I don’t want to be an academic. I want to be a person who gets to work in academia” —, the encouragement not to compromise our interests and the way we do theory along with practical advices such as “learn how to write funding proposals” marked the concluding moments of the workshop. For someone like me, who was looking for new perspectives and motivations to pursue a career in research, the postgraduate meeting has been an inspiring experience not just for the stories, challenges, joys and concerns I shared with my peers (see Figure 1), but because the idea itself of organizing a pre-conference workshop in which to discuss an alternative set of logics and values has been a successful attempt to put those very alternative logics and values into practice (Erickson et al., 2016).
With a reinvigorated spirit, I left the Hangar where the workshop was held to reach the International Convention Centre for the conference opening. I got to my track, scheduled throughout the last day of the conference, with the idea that the insights emerged during the workshop would have bounced back during the four sessions dedicated the discussion of the ethical, ontological and epistemological implications of STS research practices. After all, I tackled both the situations with the same concerns: to reflect on the ethico-onto-epistemic challenges of my doctoral research on the one hand, and to come across other research and researchers with whom I seemingly shared the same experiences and research interests.
As hinted, the track invited contributions relating to the performative conditions of methods and methodology in STS, the entanglement of subjects and objects in research, the enactments performed by epistemic practices and their relationship with everyday practices. The papers presented had both theoretical and empirical orientations, and covered a wide range of topics: a theoretical discussion around a posthumanist in social sciences, the critical issues raised by autoethnographic accounts, the implications of praxiography, diffraction in practice and as practice, touching as method, ethico-onto-epistemological commitments of and for sociomaterial research, and the process of writing research as ethico-onto-epistemic practice.
The concept of ‘ethico-onto-epistemology’ that inspired the track has been developed by Barad rejects the ontological separation between object of observation, instruments of observation and observer, to suggest that the materialization of reality depends on different entanglements between subjects, matter and meanings. This means that there is not a reality “out there” to be scrutinized and described, but ongoing (re)configurations of concepts, methods, human and non-human agencies. Drawing primarily upon Barad’s call for ethico-onto-epistemology, the track invited to appreciate the intertwinement of ethics, knowing and becoming that nurture any research enterprise by highlighting the generative and ontological character of methods. Considering this, the tracks aimed at exploring the ways we can perform STS “by other means”, actively and creatively participating in the enactment of the world trough research methods.
Similar concerns have inevitably challenged conventional forms of knowing, resonating with the critical issues teased out during the doctoral workshop. For example, Lisa Wood discussed the limits of the acceptability of the personal experience in research accounts by presenting both a traditional ethnographic and an autoethnographic account relating to medical visualization practices. Her argument pointed to the recurrent beliefs that consider autoethnography as lacking in rigor or as “sloppy sociology” by criteria such as ‘reliability’, ‘generalizability’ and ‘credibility’. This made me wonder: if hierarchies of knowledge still stand, what do they serve to? Who is interested in holding such perceptions of methods and why? This issue reminds me to what John Law has called ‘normativity of method’, that is to say the hegemonic pretensions of certain versions or accounts of method. It follows a call for a “slow, vulnerable, quiet, multiple, modest, uncertain, and diverse” method in social science (Law, 2004). Along similar lines, Eva Svedmark’s talk pointed to the case of doing “uncomfortable science” such as that of studying digital narratives and self-disclosure online practices related to suicide, self-harm, and mental illness. Drawing upon feminist tecnoscience and posthuman theory, Svedmark suggested touch as method within ethico-onto-epistemology. She explained how she got in touch with the research material through the body, emotions and technologies, a sociomaterial configuration that — Svedmark explained — enabled to articulate and enact phenomena rather than to capture data. In this respect, she drew on Donna Haraway’s work to emphasize the ethical challenges posed by “what stories make worlds and what worlds make stories” (Haraway, 2011), an argument that resonated quite interesting with postgraduate workshop’s remark about the need to tell different stories.
Finally, I would like to mention Lucas Introna’s reflections on performative epistemic practices. Here, I am particularly interested in his stressing the importance of the adverb ‘seriously’ contained in the track’s pivotal question “What happens if we take Barad’s call for ethico-onto-epistemology seriously?”. The presence of this modifier is anything but trivial inasmuch as, according to Introna, we do not take alternative research practices seriously because we are into regimes of truth. As a matter of fact, he argued that there are many scholars in STS that claim to use the theoretical apparatus of the ontology of becoming, but still present their research methodology — collecting, ordering, and describing — and enact their epistemic practices in the language of the representational paradigm. When I raised a question about the power differentials between epistemic practices and research fields and the consequent difficult to conceive of and carry out alternative research practices, he acknowledged the issue, but still his claim was clear and simple: “the point is that we don’t do that. So let’s do it!
The postgraduate workshop at 4S/EASST 2016 kicked off with a special meal: in the stevedore’s trade union club in the Barceloneta neighbourhood, we enjoyed fish caught by local fishermen with a range of side dishes, all prepared from old recipes, which were compiled in a book with illustrations by Carla Boserman. Dinners such as this have been organised regularly by Marina Monsonís, in order to preserve local food cultures and share histories of the Barceloneta area, which has been rapidly gentrified. While we dined, Marina’s father Marti, a former stevedore himself, spoke of the collective organising that happened during crackdowns on the stevedore’s union. When some members were being punished for participating in a strike by having their wages withheld, the group agreed that their members’ wages would be pooled and shared among all of them. Marti reminded us of these simple but effective tactics and urged us: “If you have the idea, you’re together, and you’re organised — you can do it.” I later found that an article, first published in the Workers Solidarity Alliance magazine Ideas & Action in 1989 by Don Fitz, quoted a statement from the Organización de Estibadores Portuarios de Barcelona (OEPB), the group whose club I had visited to eat local food and hear local stories. This statement reads, in part:
“To hand over our proletarian responsibility to representatives is to throw away our need as a class to participate in social transformation. We realized that we would never arrive at the social revolution through leaders or liberators. Those caught up in and distracted by the obligations of their positions and the representative function they flaunt end up distancing themselves from those they represent. As they are not affected by the same problems, troubles or struggles, they end up almost unable to recognize them. The estrangement is inevitable.”
This notion that we will “never arrive at the social revolution through leaders or liberators” is reflected in a pervasive anti-heroic turn, which ran through several presentations and informal conversations at 4S/EASST.
In the “Counting By Other Means” track, Katrina Jungnickel touched on this turn while presenting her paper “Making inventions count: the gender politics of design patents”. As she presented her work about female innovators, who were part of a wave of patent registrations in the UK during the 1880s, she noted how inventions were previously often credited to fathers, husbands, or brothers. Women were finally permitted to register patents under their own names and they came forward to do so in significant numbers, particularly for inventions related to cycling wear. (Jungnickel 2016) Mentioning she was working on a manuscript featuring some of these women and their patent filings, Jungnickel described herself as being wary of over-heroicising these women. This drive to fill in more accurate detail in the historical record should not, it was implied, necessarily swing to the other direction of creating overly promotional narratives about these women.
To briefly mention a different example, in a forthcoming piece, Jungnickel also reflects on her previous research, particularly with a community Wi-Fi group in Adelaide, as having a “a DIY ethic but they were not doing it alone—they were Doing-It-Together.” (Jungnickel, forthcoming) While investigating collective groups and their workings (the Wi-Fi group) is not the same as investigating a group of people who were performing the same activity contemporaneously (the female patent claimants), in both cases it’s clear that nominating one person as the representative case or protagonist vastly truncates the possible nuances to the history. She also notes in this manuscript that in the search for an (often male) hero to be assigned credit, we miss out on the more complex stories behind how things are invented and repurposed. Avoiding introducing or re-introducing women in the same, heroic and protagonist-centric manner as often happens but aiming for “rich, messy, and dynamic” (Jungnickel, forthcoming) storytelling is one antidote to the hero narrative.
Within another conference track, “Before/after/beyond breakdown: exploring regimes of maintenance”, Marisa Cohn contributed to the anti-heroic turn in her paper “Holding on and letting go – temporal regimes of infrastructure care work”. Her presentation explored the politics of engineering work (in particular, the maintenance of the hardware and software involved in a NASA-funded mission to Saturn of nearly forty years’ vintage) and how engineers positioned both their work and the objects of their concern (the code, the databases, the machines themselves, and so on) when speaking about their work to others. In one revealing example, Cohn quotes an engineer on the project describing the spacecraft as “a new machine”, since it has undergone so many fixes, adjustments, and changes to its component parts. By naming the machine new again, the work that the maintainers do can be presented in a different way – Cohn describes this process through an STS lens by referring to the notion of “infrastructural inversion” as described by Bowker. (Cohn 2016).
Though a “new machine”, the original producers of the spacecraft continued to receive credit for their work (whom I would call the “heroes” of the story) and the maintainers of the system got on with the job, sometimes appearing apologetic that the system creaked along in a patchwork way and that even nearly forty years later, new bugs surfaced. (Cohn 2016) Here, the hero narrative prevents recognition of essential work, which not only keeps the mission running, but effectively adjusts and changes the functionality of the machine. Cohn persuasively argues that the very notion of success needs to be reframed to allow the teams of maintainers their fair credit.
In both examples cited, the accepted hero narratives and success stories have much more nuance behind them. There is an urgency to adjusting our view of how success happens, how infrastructures are built, how social revolutions are won. Reflecting upon these presentations and conversations it also becomes clear that the very task of continuously dismantling our propensity to assign a leader or give credit to a hero is in itself a kind of essential maintenance work. As academics in STS, we can easily appreciate that this kind of maintenance work to the narratives of science and technology is of key importance – not just for our field, but for science communication in general.
Acknowledgement to ARDITI – Agência Regional para o Desenvolvimento e Tecnologia under the scope of the Project M1420-09-5369-000001 – PhD Studentship
Images of illustrated recipes and documentary images from the dinner at Organización de Estibadores Portuarios de Barcelona (OEPB) club. Dinner organised by Marina Monsonís. Illustrations by Carla Boserman.
For emergent doctoral researchers undertaking the process of engaging with the strange new world of academia in all its myriad complexities, what are the theoretical and social implications of undertaking a “PhD by other means”? What are the practicalities of undertaking engaged STS research that falls somewhere between theory and practice, social justice and science? Most importantly, what does it mean to draw wisdom from related communities and social movements in ways that matter?
These were but a few of the many difficult questions we came together to explore in Barcelona at the doctoral day which preceded 4S/EASST 2016 this August. Out of 100 applicants from around the world, there was only space for 50, and the backgrounds of those lucky enough to join were diverse. We came for many reasons, and left with many new insights. We discussed what it means to undertake research and writing that is hybridized and radical, situating itself in between traditional academic paradigms. We shared hands-on methods and tactics for integrating cooperative and open access principles into our research processes in ways that are just and sustainable.
What was especially significant, though, was the neighbourhood chosen by the organizers for us to share our ideas in – El Poblenou, Catalan for ‘new town’. We began with a tour of the area’s historic cooperatives and now-defunct factories, and spent the rest of our time at Hangar, an art centre and medialab in the former textile factory of Marqués de Santa Isabel. Since the 1990s, Poblenou has undergone a period of rapid transformation. Once referred to as “Catalan Manchester” due to being a centre of Foridst-era industry, in the 1990s it was marked by a period of simultaneous post-industrial decline (ie, abandoned factories) and creative renaissance, with artists re-opening abandoned buildings for workshops while local co-ops and collaborative movements grew (Marti-Costa & Pradel, 2002; Evans, 2009; Gdaniec, 2000; Tironi, 2009). At this time, various attempts were made by city governments to revitalize the neighbourhood’s rebellious reputation into something more business friendly. This included the large-scale “22@bcn” plan, which is currently in the process of transforming Poblenou into a mixed-use hub of technological and creative knowledge production, making it into a property-ownership friendly “model city” often lauded as a success story of urban revitalization (Marti-Costa & Pradel, 2002; Evans, 2009).
In today’s Poblenou, the converted lofts that once housed collective fabrication centres and squats are marketed to upscale buyers as ‘Barcelona SoHo’, a “neighbourhood where you can always get to the beach via the sunny side of the street” (Martin, 2005). Meanwhile, short-let vacation rental startup Air BnB, despite facing sharp criticism from Barcelona locals for its tendency to woo foreign attentions at the cost of local well-being (O’Sullivan, 2015), describes Poblenou to potential tourists as a place that “once resembled a scene from a sooty cyberpunk film”, until “thrill-seekers from around the world” transformed it into a “vibrant hub on the verge of ultimate esteem” (Air BnB, 2016). These glowing descriptions have not been lost on buyers with enough capital to move into the area. Marti-Costa and Pradel found that while rental prices in 1998 were €4.77 per square metre, by 2006 they had skyrocketed to €14.63 (2002). As Henri Lefebvre first wrote in The Production of Space, capitalist accumulations often draw their power from the use of selective, mediated representations like these, where a place becomes understood only as through being a reflection of the interests, ideologies and ambitions of those who carry the most power in a society (1974).
What these tourist-friendly narratives hide, however, is the fact that Poblenou’s streets also hold other histories which have emerged in struggles between long-time residents, local artists and city planners as new cultural and knowledge-based economies came to replace those of existing communities, causing the coexistence of many differing conceptions of place and identity that are still reflected today in both online and offline instances (Gdaniec, 2000; Tironi, 2009). Gdaniec explains that while the district continues to be seen as exemplary by the current city government, it is a very different place for locals. While renovations into luxury flats take place, they must “cope with major construction work, bad housing conditions, wait for new affordable housing, see the new expensive entertainment establishments, and look for jobs… effectively liv[ing] in a city within a city, and the new exclusive developments represent another city within a city” (Gdaniec, 2000: 381). As a result, various protest movements against foreign speculation such as the “Excuse me, do you know where is Poble Nou?” graffiti campaign have emerged (Tironi 2009). The conflicts of experience and identity during such place-based transitions also echo those we discussed at Hangar, trying to fathom our own existences as hybrid doctoral students situated in between home nations and nations of study, and in between worlds of science, technology, practice and research.
Perhaps this is because, as geographer Doreen Massey once put it, the spaces and places we see as unchanging are not just spaces or places but also constructs of our own sociality, as seen through ever-evolving power-geometries, histories and interrelations that are themselves full of hegemony and symbolism, “complex web[s] of relations of domination and subordination, solidarity and cooperation” (1992: 81). Poblenou’s historic factories have worn many different faces, as have their various representations, all interwoven into the complicated social fabrics that define Barcelona as a city. These faces reflect changing economic geographies and uneven, often forced gentrification. But they also reflect creative collaborations between local creatives and thinkers, and community struggles for identity in a long moment of transformation.
In the case of Hangar, it can be argued that while the replacement of local industry with creative and cultural capital does cause increased complexities and displacement, it can also foster powerful local projects that celebrate both pasts and presents in ways that value both traditional and contemporary approaches. In this way, instead of being “mere gentrifiers”, artists are “politically engaged neighbours” (Manuel, 2009: 92). By taking funding from both government and community donors, hosting free local events and drawing in creative, co-operative, socially-sensitive initiatives that combine disparate worlds of media, technology, research and fabrication, Hangar aims to help both long-time locals and international participants feel welcomed (Gdaniec, 2000; Evans; 2009). “Where they locate and draw on a manifest authenticity and inheritance of former cultural activity and production – whether symbolic or economic through a residual labour market, higher education hubs, specialist skills and locational advantages,” Graeme Evans writes in his extensive 2009 study of Hangar and other ‘creative clusters’ in Barcelona, “a more sustainable model can result… present[ing] a workable model of living quarters, rather than museumified quarters” (55).
While we, as foreign actors only briefly immersed in the complex circumstances and power-geometries of the spaces, places and histories of Poblenou, can never speak for its people, we can now speak a little bit about their struggles and draw wisdom from those experiences. We also find much inspiration for our own work as fledgling STS researchers in the merging of theory, practice and local activism seen at mixed-use community spaces like Hangar. Like the people of Poblenou, we are at our strongest when we gather, make things and share knowledges together as a network, within the spaces and places that matter to us. We are especially strong when we take the time to really listen to those spaces and those places. It is only then that essentialised neighbourhoods like Poblenou can truly speak.
A few days before the opening plenary of the 4S 2016, on the 29th August, the 35-strong International Working Group on the ‘Anthropocene’ submitted their recommendation to the International Geological Congress in Cape Town, proposing that there was enough evidence for this new geological epoch to be officially declared. Their recommendation still needs to be approved and ratified, a process which will take several more years and three other academic bodies. It has already taken the working group 7 years of deliberation to reach this point.1
Nevertheless, to judge by the topics at the 4S this year, in STS it seems like the initial hubbub around the notion of the Anthropocene is quietening down. There was only one panel devoted to it (which was sceptical of the term’s usefulness), and a handful of presentations that mentioned the term – including a roundtable presentation by Rebekah Cupitt entitled ‘Time to Get Antianthropocene’.
Cristóbal Bonelli2 and I presented a paper this year at the single 4S panel devoted to (critiquing) the idea, despite the fact that we are not ‘Anthropocene’ scholars. But that is perhaps one of the reasons behind the controversial success the idea has had in anthropology and STS: whatever your specialism, it is easy to feel simultaneously implicated in, and eclipsed by, its brazen anthropocentrism, its grand narrative currents and swells, its apocalyptic overtones, and the universalising politics it seems to sanction.3 The speed with which the term appeared to colonise – and polarise – conversations about environmental issues within anthropology and STS seems at odds with the fact that the geological working group has taken 7 years in order to make a recommendation, yet to be ratified, as to its scientific plausibility. At the same time, witnessing (from the sidelines) the iterations of deconstruction that the Anthropocene has subsequently suffered – for its neo-colonial implications, its biocapitalistic echoes, its anthropocentrism, for example (cf Haraway et al 2016) – it feels like the Anthropocene is almost over before it has even begun. In fact, there are already several other neologisms waiting in the wings to take its place, from Jason Moore’s and Andeas Malm’s Capitalocene (cf Haraway 2015), to Natasha Myers’ Planthropocene (2016), to Donna Haraway’s Chthulucene (2015), to name only the most commonly cited. And perhaps, as Haraway suggests, that is the point – to make it as short an ‘epoch’ as possible (2015: 160).
The panel at which Cristóbal and I presented, “Stoking the Anthropocene”, posed the question of whether we (academics), have a responsibility not to ‘stoke’ the flames that the discourse around the Anthropocene has lit in various sectors of academic practice. Rather than just “taking stock” of the debates, it asked us to consider the concrete implications of propagating such discourses, especially for those who are not involved in that privileged propagating machinery (and of course, the panel must count itself as part of that machinery, in one way or another). As with Amelia Moore’s notion of ‘Anthropocene anthropology’, in which she asks us to resist the solidification of the ‘obvious’ (2015: 28), such provocations urge STS to be attuned to the “politics and poetics” of the material interventions made in the name of global change” (Moore 2015: 36) and to take the Anthropocene as itself an anthropological object, that brings forth particular social, ecological and political configurations. Moore sees the Anthropocene as a polysemic socio-materialisation that can flow along transnational circuits of capital and create new markets, or galvanise new forms of scientized political action that frame particular spaces as fragile or endangered; and so she urges us to think of an anthropology ‘of’ and not just ‘in’ the Anthropocene (ibid: 28).
The call to take responsibility for the terms we use and the discourses we marshall is an important one. And the appeal of trying to bring the Anthropocene back down to earth (as Bruno Latour might have it) was perhaps why the panel attracted such a diverse selection of papers, ranging around anthropology, STS, philosophy and policy and environmental governance. During the discussion, many of the issues raised turned on what that responsibility might entail. Implicit in this debate is the feeling that anthropology or STS needs to pull its weight, and get serious about what it can contribute that is concrete or practical: sensible solutions that will make a real difference, not just more speculative theorising that goes no-where. And lurking behind that is the injunction to ‘act’, not just ‘think’.
But, as Donna Haraway often says, paraphrasing Marilyn Strathern, it matters what ideas we use to think other ideas with. So what ideas do we have to think the ‘Anthropocene’, as an anthropological object, differently? Swanson and colleagues have argued that the Anthropocene can be thought of as a “science fiction concept, that is, a concept that pulls us out of familiar space and time to view our predicaments as if they belonged to a distant land” (2015: 149). Science fiction has in fact long been a resource for anthropological thought, and vice versa. From Raymond Williams’ 1956 characterisation of science fiction as “Space Anthropology” (in Collins 2003: 182) to Haraway’s self-acknowledged debt to Ursula Le Guin, there has always been an intimate, if sometimes implicit, traffic between the two. Swanson and colleagues draw on this shared history to make the point that, like science fiction, the Anthropocene thus does not so much predict the future, but presents us with a ‘thought experiment about the present’ (2015: 149). As Cristóbal and I argued in our presentation, “we understand this as the potential of the present, or the real, to hold within it its own alternatives, it’s own capacity for self-differentiation. Heeding the session’s abstract, one modest responsibility we might imagine for ourselves…is therefore to draw out this tension that constitutes the anthropocenic imaginary read as science fiction, which somehow holds together both the here-and-now and the elsewhere…which locates and dislocates, identifies and makes strange, simultaneously”.
From this perspective, one possibility that the diversity of the papers at the panel point to is that the Anthropocene, as an emergent, inchoate field of knowledge, can bring forth new ways of doing and knowing, and particularly, new spaces for trans-disciplinary knowledge; and this is indeed what Swanson and colleagues argue concerning the power of thinking through science fiction (Swanson et al 2015). But I now wonder to what extent the opposite might also be important: that the Anthropocene confronts us with unknowability, excessiveness and the disjunctions and failures in our knowledge practices. In its incarnation as an object of anthropological scrutiny, the Anthropocene may not lend itself to easy revelation or deconstruction, in the same way that in its scientized form, the Anthropocene as a recursive concatenation of socio-ecological forces and feedbacks, toxic excesses and loops, extinction events and population explosions, is also characterised by something that outstrips western scientific or policy-related understandings. Is there space for other forms of responsibility – alongside concrete, practical action – to emerge?
There was another announcement a week or so before the 4S – the winners of the 2016 Hugo awards, the most prominent prizes awarded for science fiction. The winner for best novel this year was N. K Jemisin, for her novel The Fifth Season. The first book of a trilogy, it’s about the end of the world, or a ‘Fifth Season’: a cataclysmic tectonic event that happens unexpectedly if periodically – an enormous volcanic eruption that blocks out the sun, for example, or the emission of gases that change the atmospheric conditions, causing acid rain and widespread famines. People feel themselves to be at the mercy of “Father Earth”4, as the world is in almost endless tectonic upheaval of one sort or another; and people live in a constant state of readiness for another Season that they may or may not survive. Every so often, civilisations are wiped out, continents crack, thousands die and those that survive do so at great cost. It takes the enormous power of the orogones, who can control seismic energy, to keep Father Earth subdued as much as possible, and for that, they are reviled and enslaved, taken when young to be trained and ruthlessly disciplined, and killed if they show any sign of revolt. Yet, as one orogone in the book points out, the orogones can never be fully controlled, just as the Earth cannot. They will break free; the world must change. Jemisin deftly weaves together a world in which the power of the oppressed and colonised, and the power of the Earth, are entwined – both containing within them the same potential to shatter the control that has been so painstakingly, and brutally, constructed by the majority. As Jemisin says in an interview with The Guardian, “As a black woman, I have no particular interest in maintaining the status quo. Why should I? The status quo is harmful, the status quo is significantly racist and sexist and a whole bunch of other things that I think need to change. With epic fantasy there is a tendency for it to be quintessentially conservative, in that its job is to restore what is perceived to be out of whack.”5
Jemisin was the first black woman to win the Hugo award for a novel. And she won despite the efforts of the now infamous right-wing voting group within the science fiction community known as the Sad Puppies and its more radical faction, the Rabid Puppies, which were formed as a reaction against what was perceived as the appropriation and perversion of science fiction by what the founder of Rabid Puppies, Vox Day, calls “Social Justice Warriors”. As Amy Wallace writes in Wired: “in recent years, as sci-fi has expanded to include storytellers who are women, gays and lesbians, and people of color, the Hugos have changed, too. At the presentation each August, the Gods with the rockets in their hands have been joined by Goddesses and those of other ethnicities and genders and sexual orientations, many of whom want to tell stories about more than just spaceships”.6 Angered by these shifts, the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies try every year to fill the available nominee slots with authors they have sanctioned, that tell the sort of fantasy stories they want to hear: “a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds” or “a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women” rather than a “story merely about racial prejudice and exploitation with interplanetary or interstellar trappings” or “about gay and transgender issues”.7
In this context, it would be hard to see how Jemisin’s speculative, amazing (and indeed epic) books that are all about the complexities of exploitation can not themselves be read as a very concrete triumph over forces that want to determine and control, oppress and subjugate. Her books complicate exactly the idea of ‘distance’ – both in terms of the sort of escapism science fiction permits its readers and the sort of abstraction that speculative academic theories are meant to imply – by writing ‘the way things could be’ into ‘the way that things they are’. It matters very much, very concretely, what stories we tell and think. The way the world already contains within it the potential to be other-than what we have made of it, is perhaps one of those stories.
1 http://phys.org/news/2016-08-anthropocene-scientists.html Accessed 4th November 2016
2 It should be noted however that the views expressed in this piece are only mine, and not Cristóbal’s.
3 Not to mention, as Bruno Latour has pointed out, the fact that it also seems to confirm “final rejection of the separation between Nature and Human that has paralysed politics and science since the dawn of modernism.” (2013b:2)
4 “Listen, listen, listen well.
There was an age before the Seasons, when life and Earth, its father, thrived alike. (Life had a mother too. Something terrible happened to Her.)…The people became what Father Earth needed, and then more than He needed. Then we turned on Him, and he has burned with hatred for us ever since.” (Jemisin 2015: 115)
5 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/27/nk-jemisin-interview-fantasy-science-fiction-writing-racism-sexism. Accessed November 4th 2016.
6 https://www.wired.com/2015/08/won-science-fictions-hugo-awards-matters/. Accessed November 4th 2016.
7 Taken from the blog post by Sad Puppies co-founder, Brad Torgersen: https://bradrtorgersen.wordpress.com/2015/02/04/sad-puppies-3-the-unraveling-of-an-unreliable-field/. Accessed November 4th 2016.
My aim is to give an insight into an emerging line of thought according to which the European (and North-American) societies are transforming themselves into innovative living and tinkering laboratories of care. The article draws on four thematic units from the 4S/EASST Conference in Barcelona 2016, across which a “career” of the concept of “care” could be remapped:
The keynote plenary presentation by Madeleine Akrich on “Inquiries into experience and the multiple politics of knowledge” (Akrich, 2016)
“Environments of care: understanding and shaping care by other means”, T152 session
“Care Innovation and New Modes of Citizenship”, T062 session
“STS and normativity: analyzing and enacting values”, T049 session
Experience vs. expertise
“Patient-centred” care and research are alternative ways of generating “knowledge by other means”, states Akrich. Undoubtedly, there are different forms of producing knowledge, and they all value both experience and expertise, even if the combination of these two might vary from one type of (scientific) research to another. On the one hand, experience of users could be understood as their own expertise intended to bring new knowledge for the “evidence based activism” (Rabeharisoa et al., 2014). On the other hand, experience of the users and patients can appear only as targeted action, with reduced scientific value. It can nonetheless show itself as intermediary tool informing the expertise of the researchers. When following both types of logic, science and technology emerge as mediators between people and their diseases; they are mediators of new experiences.
Towards the patient/user centeredness
But what did determine the switch towards the patient or user “centeredness” as source of “knowledge by other means” in STS? A literature review from the 1980’s onwards shows the evolution of perspectives over the last thirty years.
Innovation in knowledge was traditionally related to laboratory life (Latour, Woolgar, 1979). Translation of practices and networks of human and non-human actors worked together in order to produce explanations and innovative technical and scientific practices. If Latour and Woolgar (1979) experienced the life of a laboratory in order to show the “social construction of scientific facts”, more recent studies attempted to transform the “real” life into their laboratory. One initial solution was to relate technological innovation success to experiences and experiments within confined spaces, with determined rules (Akrich et al., 1988; Woolgar 1991). But this approach showed its limits as the real life conditions of use could change the results obtained within too “controlled” environments.1
During the last fifteen years, another solution took progressively shape, the “living labs”. They are mainly related to the economic or business-centred innovation areas (e.g. European network of living labs2) and often feature their interdisciplinary research (e.g. MIT Living Labs3). For the professionals within this field, the formula of the “living lab” covers those methods developed to involve users in innovation. From a methodological point of view, their multiple attempts at defining the “living labs” remained nonetheless related to confined rules and strategies, not always able to acknowledge the complexity in practice (Law, Mol, 2002), despite the co-creation and co-design processes at work. At the same time, the user became the central figure, as opposed to an “assumed” technical and scientific expert (Ballon & Schuurman, 2015: 10).
Additionally, the same need to see how actors participate to their environment helps maybe to better explain recent research import of theories of care into STS. In fact, talking about co-creation and co-design determines a dynamic point of view on practices, but it won’t be enough to understand what makes people adopt a socio-technical artefact, the processes at stake, the attachment and the adjustments in front of the objects, or the values the actors mobilize into action. Further on, a change of perspective appears when the researcher draws the boundaries of the socio-technical world that emerges in front of her. No trial or test is deliberately imagined into a care theory approach. No rules are given at first, but they can be observed through tinkered methods or methodologies later on. Finally, this stream of research pays attention not only to human or non-human actors, but also to the environment-in-the-making: individuals engage with their material surroundings, take care of each other, tinker activities and shape interdependences. One can therefore call this perspective “a tinkering and living laboratory”, different from a schematic or systemic “living lab” as previously presented.
A living laboratory of care?
A possible link could therefore be established between patient and user-centeredness in STS, and care theories and practices. All of them focus on the centrality of the collectives of users/patients into an environment-in-the-making. Though a “conceptual” unified definition of care is hard to give, the diversity of practices related to it help us to better grasp its social and political implications. Care is not only about health issues, but also about citizens’ participation to the public space, it is about understanding complex environments.
The environment of care as basis of collective action
It is indeed difficult to talk about care in abstract terms, without referring to situated practices in actual environments of care. This ecological approach draws on different actors engaging through objects into action. The presence of technical artefacts becomes important in the relationship between beings, objects, and places, as shown all along the session “Environments of care: understanding and shaping care by other means”. Care becomes a collective laboratory that both bounds together and unfolds itself throughout different actors. Furthermore, we discover that “the logic of care does not start with individuals, but with collectives” (Mol, 2008 quoted in S. Nicolae’s presentation on “Care and normativity. Exploring a relationship’s career”).
For example, the environments of birth participate to the general universe of care (C. Colosseus). While birth pertains to a medicalized setting in contemporary Germany, an alternative online space of “stories of giving birth” takes shape, in which the future mothers share birth-related practices. The mobilized narratives show means of translating and organizing birth experience that act as forms of help to “improve care in medical obstetrics”, complementary to the midwives activities. Futures mothers and medical professionals thus form together an “ephemeral” collective over the birth time.
The care as political value in direct relationship to the citizenship
Ephemeral or permanent collectives of care are explored further on. Even if it comes from the health sphere, care is essentially political, as it often organizes itself around topics defined as public or social problems. Therefore a direct link is usually established between care, innovation practices, and citizenship.
The image of a “participatory society” was often evoked during the session on “Care Innovation and New Modes of Citizenship”. The presentations addressed “practices of participation” that determine different “modes of citizenship”. Even if participation was seldom defined and rather suggested through the implementation of technological innovation expected to improve communication or daily activities, the contribution of F. Henwood on “Care innovation and participation in mHealth development: the HIV ‘app’”, or the presentation of K. Ovsthus and B. Ravneberg on “Implications of Introducing Robotics into Home Nursing Care” offered rich insights for further discussions.
Different democratic normativities appear within stakeholders’ engagements in care innovation. “Self-monitoring” as form of “responsible citizenship” (H. Langstrup), but also “independent living programmes for people with intellectual disabilities” (J. Moyà-Köhler and I. Rodriguez-Giralt) show autonomy as value of a good citizen. Care givers work to empower the vulnerable individuals who, at their turn, by gaining more independence in action, “take care” of their fellow citizens, and even of the general “welfare system”, by saving their support efforts.
Formal and informal engagement in care is also observed within small or large-scale interactions. Important examples offer for instance the “telecare innovations” used at the family level (H. K. Andreassen, C. Pope, C. May) or the digital collectives of mothers who develop “practices of associating and sharing knowledge with others” on medical matters like Umbilical Cord Blood Banking and mastitis in Spain. In this case, “sharing knowledge with others” activates care towards a collective action (P. Santoro, C. R. Bachiller). The general role of institutions is however less visible in shaping the value of care until now.
Care beyond the frontiers of humanity
Not all the presentations from the track dedicated to “STS and normativity: analyzing and enacting values” explicitly talked about care, but a good majority took it into account as they organized themselves around the manner in which STS take position in relationship to care. A majority of presentations took up the “registers of valuing” emerging in practice.
The “ageing society” was a constant theme in the three sessions about care mentioned in this article, but was especially present when the normativity questioned its specific actors: “eldercare workers”, “older citizens”, “Euroseniors”. Multiples values seem to appear after a closer study of the practices of care. “Old age” is not only about illness or dependence, but also about dignity or quality of life, e.g. in the proposal submitted by M. Bødker on “The potentially fit – enacting value in old age” or in the presentation of J. Robbins-Ruszkowski on “Valuing Life’s Ends: Old Age in Postsocialist Poland”.
Contrasting the previous session on care, the importance of institutions was underlined and was directly linked to the production of norms. Institutions were discussed for instance as alternative collective care providers, i.e. sources of “non-family-based” practices in China (L. Prueher). Moreover, the robots seem to acquire socio-political dimensions when tested in a “real-life setting” through a results-driven approach with “political interest in welfare technological innovation” (M. H. Bruun). And there is also an “institutionalized palliative care” through which the “naturalization” of “good death” can be observed (B. Pasveer). Beyond the questions of valuing or naturalization, the frontiers of humanity (Remy, Winance, 2010) are raised as main issues related to care practices, i.e. when comparing a neonatal care unit, an animal laboratory, and a dementia nursing home (M. N. Svendsen, L. Navne, M. Seest Dam, I. Gjødsbøl).
Innovative methods and methodologies
Finally, the presentations used a diversity of methods and methodologies, from less usual ones like meta-ethnography (H. K. Andreassen, C. Pope, C. May) to more traditional, but “revisited”, ethnographic accounts, literature reviews, individual or group interviews. As shown by J. Pols, STS include the study of knowledge practices, but dare to take a step further: “studying an object is simultaneously shaping it through material research practices and through concepts and methodologies”. These remarks pave the way towards a dynamic living laboratory process put to work when studying care in practice.
I thank Laura Centemeri, Paola Diaz and Stefan Nicolae for their careful reading of this article and their insightful comments. I would also like to express my gratitude to the EASST Council for their 4S/EASST Conference in Barcelona 2016 support award.
1 The interest of this device was previously discussed: “[…] laboratory experiments are simplificatory devices: they seek to tame the many erratically changing variables that exist in the wild world, keeping some stable and simply excluding others from argument.” (Law, Mol, 2002, 2). Simplifications nonetheless “are used as a basis for action” (Law, Mol, 2002, 3).
2 “The European Network of Living Labs (ENoLL) is a worldwide community of Living Labs with a sustainable strategy for enhancing innovation on a systematic basis. ENoLL aims to support co-creative, user-driven research and contribute to the creation of a dynamic European innovation system, with a global reach.”
3 “MIT Living Labs brings together interdisciplinary experts to develop, deploy, and test – in actual living environments – new technologies and strategies for design that respond to this changing world. Our work spans in scale from the personal to the urban, and addresses challenges related to health, energy, and creativity”
YB: In review, how would you summarize the liberatory ideas around the contemporary digital fabrication from the presentations in the track?
BC: As an outsider to the field of making and digital fabrication, I wanted to know more about the values (or regimes of value – Boltanski and Thévenot, 2006) that are guiding these practices—how they may coexist, clash or subordinate one another. I have identified at least three distinct regimes of value, based on the empirical cases presented by the panelists. Obviously, what follows is a simplification, but I guess it can be a good starting point for our discussion.
Roughly put, digital fabrication has been explained or heralded as:
A way to democratize knowledge and to empower communities by giving them an opportunity to appropriate technological tools and innovate for collective needs. Similarly, it could be described as a way for people to own back the means of production and to allow for non-alienated forms of labor.
As part of a green discourse, when it is praised as a way to save natural resources by manufacturing locally and sharing globally open digital designs for more sustainable products (see also Kostakis et al. 2016).
As a form of open innovation that can be easily geared towards the creation of new marketable products and services, a form of entrepreneurship that can be at the service of industrial research or of startups seeking investors on financial markets; as the key to an era of economic growth based on knowledge and innovation.
I could see in some of the empirical cases presented at the track that one or another mode of valuation was predominant, or that there were usually some tensions between them (some more explicit, some less).
YB: I think you identified most attributed values. In addition, there are hybrids between them, as aiming for sustainability through local production might be something that a local community is looking to achieve through the means of digital fabrication. In a sense, it’s community-building through resourceful digital fabrication. While I don’t recognize any critical tension between the first and the second form, there is certainly potential for conflict when the third one acts upon the other ones.
BC: Then the suggestion by the track convenors, to look back at history and find similar (if not the same) kind of tensions, might be accurate. I am sure there are both continuities and discontinuities. How relevant and productive do you think these historical comparisons can be for the case of digital fabrication?
YB: I think this suggestion was outside of the scope or research goal of most of the presentations. Some of them clearly identified if not a similar historical tension, at least a historical point of reference to compare the ideological developments of digital fabrication. That being said, we can begin with some of the presented cases and see how much we can connect our discussion to temporalities.
The ten presentations not only reflected the different meanings of making and digital fabrication to the different actors being studied, but also revealed that the very same aim to transcend the common geopolitical and disciplinary boundaries. At best, they show how different studies of one and the same concept, here for example, mass customization through digital fabrication, can lead to somewhat opposing results and understandings. As in ginger coons’ detailed study of contemporary digital customization techniques for the mass-consumer market, where she argued that they cannot generate the same experience and connection between consumer/client, manufacturer, and the object of production as was the case of late 19th century tailor-made dresses in Victorian England. On the opposite, Sam Forster and Katharina Vones argued that through the introduction of 3D printing of souvenirs in a cultural institution such as a museum or a castle, museum visitors often felt they were getting something unique or custom-made for them instead of the common mass-produced objects. What both studies disclose is that digital fabrication, based on the principles of Computer Numerical Control (CNC) systems, is actually much closer to the mass-production processes than it is to traditional craftsmanship, but through its small scale of production it appears as tailor-made to the end-user. This is just one side of the story to look at.
For me, at times, the meanings and valuation of making and digital fabrication for different people remind me a little bit of the Arts and Crafts movement and its ideology. Those who had the time to indulge in it as leisure had the financial security and the free time of the upper middle class. The others did not have the free time and most likely had to do it for a living. This is similar with digital fabrication—in wider parts of the Global South it provides the means and promises for a better living. So the ties to innovation are not bad per se. On the other side, we can see how in the rather affluent parts of Europe and North America it’s being adopted for the promise to contribute to sustainable living and to reduce our global problems of consumption, pollution, or poverty. Yet again, even within the Global North the access to it is limited by our financial and social status.
The question is how to balance the utopian vision of making and digital fabrication as being practices and tools for everyone and their incorporation into the same old ways of knowing and doing. It is in this sense a bit like the archetypical idea of the computer hackers revolting against the system, while at the same time so many of them are ready to take on a job for the global IT companies. I think, more than anything else, the track displayed that we might need a typology of making and digital fabrication. Then, again, STS teaches us that classifications fail to account for everyone and everything (Bowker & Star 1999).
BC: You made two interesting remarks there. First, on how digital fabrication may be closer to customization within mass production than to small-scale craftsmanship. To that I would also add a complementary historical pattern in computer development: the relations of power and control between managers and the detainers of capital, on the one hand, and knowledge-workers and makers, on the other, which have been updated, only to be kept the same. Here I’m thinking about Tobias Drewlani and David Seibt’s description of Google’s Project Ara, for designing a modular smartphone, whereby a certain openness towards hackers and independent developers in the innovation process can be easily translated to enhanced corporate control.1 Collaborative dynamics and open knowledge are embraced by corporations, as long as they are the ones setting the standards in the design process and controlling production and distribution.
Second, you mentioned the question of access to these spaces, usually limited to those with a certain financial and social status. I was happy to see a counterexample in Rafael Dias and Adrian Smith’s presentation, about digital fabrication labs in São Paulo and their connection to the local community and schools. Apparently, one of the spaces was set up mostly with an educational focus, to provide the tools and social environment for the purpose of learning, of exercising creativity and curiosity. Not only did they observe a kind of “barefoot making” (as the authors named it, in contrast to the predominant culture of white male geeks), but also a space that did not come with any requirements or expectations to innovate, to produce “disruptive” ideas or products to the market. This arrangement should last, of course, as long as there is any budget – and not less important, the political will – for the municipality of São Paulo to continue funding the place.
This brings us back to the question of a wider context – political, economic or even historical – in which these spaces as inserted. The context should be explained (and not the automatic explanation), of course, for each empirical situation, but as researchers we should not overlook the recurring patterns that can be identified across sites. I noticed this thread running throughout the different presentations. Evelyn Lhoste and Marc Barbier treated the institutionalization process of the hacking and making movement by focusing on the work of Fab Lab managers as brokers, whilst Klara-Aylin Wentel, Sascha Dickel and Anton Schröpfer showed how a makerspace in the Technical University of Munich2 turned into a place for potential entrepreneurship, for business and startups, thus reproducing employer-employee relations and more hierarchical modes of knowing and investigating. The political context in urban planning was also pinpointed by Ramón Ribera-Fumaz: makerspaces can be planned top-down, placing a city in the global market to attract capital and startups, or they can be set up in a bottom-up fashion, towards citizen empowerment and to attend local needs.
Whether you call this interplay between different modes of valuation a process of “transformation”, “co-optation” or even “translation” of interests (the latter following the ANT-inspired approach), you have to recognize, as a scholar, that there are enduring patterns throughout time and space (call them social/power structures, depending on your theoretical leanings), despite the ontological uniqueness of each empirical setting studied. The proposal of the track, in this reading, was to identify one such pattern of social relations running throughout history.
YB: I’m glad you mentioned the context within which Fab Labs and makerspaces are both set up and researched, as well as how they are increasingly integrated into corporate and institutional traditions. I would add to that the idea of the value of co-creation for corporations and organizations. I would not argue that control is necessarily the leading motivation for projects like Project Ara or even the workshops run by UnternehmerTUM. Most often, larger companies and institutions just lack the flexibility to develop and create new concepts and products by themselves and the “open” inclusion of externals in these projects fosters innovation. Despite that, in the end the model often leads to what you described.
BC:The motivation behind this kind of projects is ultimately to increase profits by developing new technologies. Some form of control is necessary in order to accomplish that, either by setting the standards of the design or by owning the property rights or the capability to produce and sell any product based on the developed technology. But are the forms of control today the same as they were once, when the first forms of computerized automation at industry were seen as a way to solve the problem of labor (Noble 1984)?
YB: As Maxigas points out to David Noble, the introduction of CNC in the United States was meant to reduce workers’ control in the production process and suppress their skills (Noble 1984). But Noble also notes that with time the skills became dispersed, engineers had to interact with shop-floor workers in order to achieve what they wanted, and workers had to acquire and adapt their technical skills, so a full deskilling never happened. Moreover, not all historical examples of CNC machines or computers in work practice were considered negative or a plan to deskill workers. Pelle Ehn and Morten Kyng’s famous Scandinavian UTOPIA project from in the 1980s, where the introduction of computers for the production of a daily newspaper involved the printers, the typesetters, and the journalists to work on the development of this new system, is one such historical example of a cooperative type of hierarchy (1991).
I find it interesting that the track description brought the example of the “historical irony” that now workers demand that such automation is being introduced. I think the difference to 40-50 years ago as in Noble’s examples is that those machines and computers are now part of worklife and for many not only indispensable but also least understood as a control mechanism. If we take 3D printing as an example and its use in Fab Labs, especially those charging a pay-on-the-go fee, it might actually give back control to the ‘workers’—those that use it to create and manufacture prototypes of designs without the classical manufacturing chain of outsourcing the production elsewhere, often abroad, and waiting for their prototype to be shipped back weeks later. Rather, where I see what Noble describes happening, is the full automatisation of production with robots and not deskilling, but displacement of human beings. But this is a topic for a different discussion.
BC: The project of substituting unruly factory workers by machines certainly did not work. What solved this issue (still from the perspective of the corporate and managerial elites in the US) was moving production overseas to China and other countries with cheap workforce. That is why we need to situate technological development and its intimate relationship with labor in different periods of history (and here we are talking mainly about post-war capitalism and the subsequent period of neoliberal globalization). It is telling, for example, that John Maynard Keyne’s prediction in the 1930s about technological development lowering our working hours considerably by the end of the twentieth century never became true. What happened there, and what kind of technological advancement is being made? I find very compelling David Graeber’s (2015) argument that the present form of capitalism is more characterized by an all-pervasive bureaucracy than competition in the market spurring innovation and technological breakthroughs. In this respect, one could not help but wonder if hackerspaces and makerspaces were not also set up originally as a reaction to this bureaucratic and managerial culture of research, both within universities and corporate R&D departments. Certainly, for many they seem to be an oasis for curious, no-strings-attached, exploration of technology, in a desert of administrative paperwork and productivity goals. Perhaps that is also why leading companies are turning towards peer production and fomenting collaborative dynamics (IBM and Linux, for example), as a way to find the value they would not get from regular job contracts. Add to this the so-called sharing economy of Uber and Airbnb and we have got a great and unsustainable model based on precarious labor. But the game is not over and digital fabrication still holds its promises in a hostile environment. I agree that 3D printing has a potential to relocalize manufacture, to create a design commons, and empower cooperative of workers and communities. In that case, we need to create and reinforce the appropriate institutions to make it work.
YB: Good point and I won’t dispute this. For sure, many of these spaces and collectives began as a counter-reaction to the ‘slow’ and inaccessible modes of research and production. But I wonder which appropriate institutions would be the most empowering. In my research, I’ve been encountering several funding models for makerspaces and Fab Labs in order for them to be able to survive — communal or national government funding to establish the space, corporate partnerships to acquire the machines, business angels to ensure that staff gets paid, and at the very least paid memberships to keep it running. It’s not very different from how academic institutions or small companies run their business. Perhaps, and in conclusion, the difference is in the scale as one of my interviewees said about the plastic waste produced with 3D printing — at least, it’s one small piece at a time and not the thousands of mass-produced pieces of junk that drive the global economy.
1 In their presentation, Drewlani and Seibt showed how the conflict between openness and closure slowed down the development of the project. As a matter of fact, Project Ara was officially discontinued by Google on September 2, 2016—one day after the two researchers presented their empirical study. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-google-smartphone-idUSKCN11806C [retrieved on October 14, 2016]
2 UnternehmerTUM, https://www.unternehmertum.de/index.html [retrieved on October 14, 2016].
How to inherit from ‘this’ intervention? This was the question that Lucy Suchman posed in the plenary session with Isabelle Stengers, as she reported on the subplenary session discussing the future of academia in the neoliberalizing institutional environments STS scholars currently work. What to do with the powerful propositions for abolishing authorship, resisting quantification, rethinking academic work? How to make them productive, generative? How to keep them alive, make them public?
In these notes, I would like extend Lucy’s question and ask how to inherit from the intervention that the 4S/EASST conference in Barcelona made (or aimed to make) in the field of STS – an epistemo-political question that takes the form of both, a public recognition of the powerful conceptual proposition made by the local organizing committee through their careful curating of the plenary and subplenary sessions and, most importantly, an invitation to the STS community to engage with such proposition, to inherit from the conference as a situation that provokes thinking.
What did the Barcelona conference stand for? What was the intellectual intervention?
I think the most interesting proposition was not the conference’s motto ‘Science and technology by other means’, which directed attention to multiple engagements with science and technology by “private not-for-profit actors, such as CSOs, patient organizations and new citizens’ collectives”, and how these are “forging routes to explore more democratic and hospitable futures in the times of care, housing, food, financial and environmental crisis”. These questions reflect concerns that have shaped STS’s ethico-political engagements since at least the late 1980s. Thus what the Barcelona conference motto did was to stress this set of concerns as the common ground for any field-wide conversation.
Beyond this, the Barcelona conference entailed a different, perhaps more-subtle, but also more powerful proposition concerning the voices, alliances and visibilities that STS needs to position itself vis a vis the current neoliberalizing/anthropocenic/post-truth situation. The key here, I think, was to highlight the contribution of feminist technoscience studies as not simply one important tradition in STS, but as a critical source to rethink the whole field of STS as a feminist project. All plenary and subplenary sessions, I felt, were carefully attuned to the feminist invitations of thinking with, against and alongside technoscience, reimagining STS as a collaborative endeavour with collectives committed to making visible, and experimenting with other forms of not just science and technology, but of life together. The figure of ‘community by other means’, which emerged in the conversation of Michele Murphy and Madelaine Akrich, grasped very well the spirit of these conversations.
In the same vein, the Barcelona conference gave prominence to current articulations of STS and anthropological modes of thinking and researching. Let me clarify this: this wasn’t about re-invoking the capacities of ethnographic methods for studying science and technology or warning us to not lose sight of humans when studying complex techno-scientific projects and infrastructures. The conference’s recourse to anthropology expressed itself in the invitation to embrace the possibility of refiguring inquiry as a form of collaborative enterprise with STS’ various interlocutors; collaborations that are not only a matter of ethico-political commitments, but also of theorico-conceptual reflexivity.
When I paraphrase Lucy Suchman paraphrasing Isabelle Stengers to ask how to inherit from Barcelona, I don’t want to suggest that the local organizing committee’s programmatic intervention would be the ‘right’ agenda both in academic and political terms for the future of STS. But, more modestly, to simply point out that what we encounter here are propositions that could help us to collectively think about the future of STS as an intellectual practice.
Speaking of which I cannot fail to mention the wicked politics of conference-making.
Barcelona was the first conference organised or co-organised by EASST to be held in a conference centre. There were many good reasons why this came to be the case. The most obvious one was the sheer number of participants (around 2000) and the need to delegate some organizational tasks to professional service providers. However, I think there are also good reasons for maintaining the tradition of university-based conferences. To begin with, this could allow us to not subject our conferencing practices to the surveillance of a security apparatus and to counteract their commoditization up to the last drop of water. University-based conferences, I think, give local organizing committees and the associations involved more leeway over otherwise black-boxed issues, such as what is technically possible, what is economically viable, what is environmentally sustainable, etc.
But, beyond this, university settings are also crucial to situate our knowing and conferencing practices differently. To not encounter each other as academic tourists in global non-places close to a sunny beach, but to attach ourselves to local settings of knowledge production. Whether this type of university-based conferences could continue under the current model of joint mega conferences is an open question. The Barcelona conference managed to at least partially square the circle by organizing a program of parallel activities that took at least some of the conference participants in some critical places of local knowledge production and contestation, such as the visual arts research centre Hangar or the Museum of Design. But it probably requires more than parallel activities in order to practice conferences as learning devices that situate participants in local settings of STS production.