This article focuses on the panel titled “Interspecies Agencies: Controversies, Ontologies and New Forms of Cohabitation”, presented on the 8th and 9th of July, 2022, at the EASST “Politics of Technoscientific Futures Conference” held in Madrid. The aim of the panel was to observe the interspecies bond that is manifested in various dimensions, including human-animal cooperation, public health, interspecies contagion through close contact with microorganisms, and issues related to nature and wildlife conservations. The panel included presentations that lie at the intersections of interspecies agencies and socially controversial aspects. The presentations also focused on multiple modes of scientific knowledge about animals, mushrooms, and microorganisms. New discussions and perspectives about multiple ontologies were initiated, and there was also a strong focus on theories and concepts related to ‘beyond the human’.
Humans and animals are brought together to the same scene by active participants in a set of socio-technical networks that includes different agents under diverse conditions and various possibilities. The primary focus of all the presentations was on the set of possibilities available for living with the animal, and their co-existence will evoke a new interspecies regime. In the panel, the presentation titled “Attuning to Trans-species Pidgin Articulations: Pigeon Racing as a Creolization of Interspecies Subjectives”, Kristen Livera uses the actor network theory to describe her anthropological inquiries into the re-inscribation and re-articulation of racing pigeons and their fanciers in the world. Using this theory, she demonstrates how the pigeons “aren’t bound by the subjective limits of a world of beliefs and fantasies, but cohabit a common vital world” (Ferreira, 2019: 275). Her presentation highlighted how the various actants are dragged into the politics of pigeon racing and have created “uneven topographies” (Bennett, 2010: 25). These uneven topographies (Fig. 1) include wind, fog, cow herding, radio turbines, and global warming. Such a diverse array of actants are found to be heterogeneously diffused across the topographies. Livera focuses on how her research seeks different ways of co-constructing the reality and re-articulating the bodies to be represented differently within a space of third-subjectivities (Despret, 2004).
In the presentation titled “De-extinction and the Role of Animal Charisma in Forging New Human-Animal Relations”, the panelists focus on how scientists are currently working towards the resurrection of extinct species using synthetic biology. This process of resurrection is known as de-extinction (Seddon et al., 2014). The presentation treats de-extinction as a method of nature conservation. They also bring into conversation the debates regarding the ethical implications of de-extinction (Sandler, 2017) and how the effectiveness of this method has been constantly interrogated. De-extinction contributes to the redefining of the human-animal relationships and gives rise to a new interspecies bond where the animals are also active participants in the existing complicated socio-technical networks. The presenters demonstrated that the selection of de-extinction species depends on the animal’s charisma. Using theories of priority setting in research (Ciarli and Rafols, 2019; Dalrymple, 2006), it is argued that the charisma of the animals exerts such a strong influence that it outweighs even conservation benefits.. Further, the charisma of the animals is associated with the relationships shared between the researchers and their sponsors, users, and the public in general.
The next presentation, titled “Disciplining Fungi Growth: Plantationocene in Post/Socialist Ruins”, focuses on plantation production, which is analyzed under the lens of disciplination of crops and workers (Tsing, Mathews and Bubandt, 2019). Further, plantation production is analyzed within the genealogy of market economy and capitalist production. The presentation discussed the production and the economy of the cultivatedShiitake mushrooms in the Czech Republic. The state socialist regime was responsible for transforming mushroom cultivation from a public business to a private business. After the change in regime, mushroom cultivation began in abandoned spaces such as pigsties, cowsheds, and military areas. When the Czech Republic became a part of the European Union in 2004, mushroom cultivation was upscaled and became a part of large-scale trade. The presentation demonstrated the ecologies, infrastructures and commercial strategies that were adopted for the growth of the Plantiationocene in areas of post/socialist ruins. It highlights the method used by the growers of the shiitake mushrooms in order to engage in global markets with their commodities.
These three presentations highlighted three different tents of the panel titled “Interspecies Agencies: Controversies, Ontologies and New Forms of Cohabitation”. The humans shown alongside the pigeons, the animals, and the mushrooms exist within an interspecies agency, and a transformative space is created where the social constructions and entanglements between humans and non-humans are re-constructed. The kind of materialism that the pigeon fanciers or the mushroom cultivators embody expresses a vitalist force of life and prioritizes ethical values which centralize life itself. The embodied and embedded beings sustain each other to overcome the different levels of complexities. The interspecies agencies acknowledge the sense of attachment to multiple ecologies of human and non-human relations. By paying attention to the actual world-making practices of other entities, an interspecies worlding framework arises. These presentations highlight how the new forms of cohabitation become a shared, plural, hopeful concept that is rigid and understandable.
Bennett J (2010) Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Durham: Duke University Press.
Ferreira AAL (2019) How to study the construction of subjectivity with ANT? In: Blok A, Farías I and Roberts C (eds) The Routledge Companion to Actor-Network Theory. London: Taylor & Francis, pp. 273-282.
Ciarli T and Ràfols I (2019) The relation between research priorities and societal demands: The case of rice. Research Policy 48(4): 949-967.
Dalrymple DG (2006) Setting the agenda for science and technology in the public sector: the case of international agricultural research. Science and Public Policy 33(4): 277-290.
Despret V (2004) The Body We Care For: Figures of Anthropo-zoo-genesis. Body & Society 10(2/3): 111–134.
Sandler R (2017) De‐extinction and Conservation Genetics in the Anthropocene. Hastings Center Report 47: S43-S47.
Seddon PJ et al. (2014) Reversing defaunation: restoring species in a changing world. Science 345(6195): 406-412.
Tsing AL, Mathews AS and Bubandt N (2019) Patchy Anthropocene: landscape structure, multispecies history, and the retooling of anthropology: an introduction to supplement 20. Current Anthropology 60(S20): S186-S197.
The concept of ‘crisis’ has become a central interpretative frame for explaining social changes in contemporary societies, which is also visible in the proliferation of “crisis talk”. The omnipresence of the concept has also provoked critical commentaries from scholars, who have contested its usefulness as an analytical concept (e.g. Roitman 2014). For the EASST 2022 Conference, my colleague Alexandra Ciocanel and I proposed a panel asking whether “crisis has run out of steam”, seeking to explore temporal and affective qualities of “crisis talk”.A central idea behind the panel was that paying attention to such qualities of crisis talk might help us better understand why certain kind of information comes or fails “to matter” (Latour 2004), shedding light to the stakes of contestations.
The presentations in the panel explored crises of various kinds – environmental, political and economic – through different qualitative methodological approaches. One of the central themes of the panel was climate change skepticism. In her presentation, Alexandra Ciocanel pointed to the importance to paying attention to affect and emotions when examining whether climate change comes to matter by discussing optimism and pessimism as affective dispositions. In so doing, she argued that scientific debates about “matters of fact” concerning climate change are also debates “about meaning, ethics, and morality”. Monica Marin’s presentation about climate change media discourses built on similar insights, pointing to the intertwined nature of temporal and affective work in semiotic struggles. Marin compared media content of two US publications, one considered liberal and the other conservative. She found out that “time work” and “temporal manipulations” played a central role in both, contrasting the urgency of the supporters of climate change, manifest in shorter time frames, with the geological and industrial temporalities of the denialist discourses.
Similarly to Ciocanel, Marin showed how temporal and affective dimensions were intertwined; for example, one idea advanced by the conservative publication was the optimistic assertion that technological advancement would enable humans to tackle environmental challenges. In their focus on time and affect – including pessimism and optimism – these two presentations evoked interesting questions about the ways in which the ongoing climate crisis challenges the idea of progress, which is central for both modern science and state, and transcends the liberal-conservative divide. By challenging the linear narrative of progress – or at least central components of what it involves – climate change strongly connects to what some scholars have termed the ongoing crisis of political imagination in late liberalism (Razsa 2015). If it’s easier to imagine the destruction of the earth than the end of capitalism, as Jameson has suggested (1994, xii), are optimism and long-term timeframes really a privilege of denialist discourses?
Optimism and pessimism are both future-oriented orientations, which relate to expectations. However, Rebecca Bryant (2016) has argued that “a particular sense of present-ness produced by futures that cannot be anticipated” (2016, 19) is exactly what defines a time of crisis among our interlocutors. Théo Régniez’s presentation addressed this uncertainty about the future from the perspective of knowledge producers, more specifically, economic forecasters in France. Régniez elaborated how his interlocutors were well aware of the inherent uncertainties and high probability of failure in economic forecasting in the midst of a financial crisis. Consequently, Régniez elaborated on an ethnographic distinction his interlocutors made between “understanding” and “explaining”: during financial crisis, they were unable to “understand” the situation but still able to “explain” it.Thus, Régniez argued that during the crisis, the story-telling aspect of forecasting, which was also present during “regular” times, took on a new dimension.
In my presentation, I dealt with a similar tension concerning temporal aspects of discerning “truth”. I showed how my scientist-interlocutors in Western Siberia manifested a general skepticism towards claims of “global crisis”, manifest in their doubts concerning the seriousness of anthropogenic climate change and Covid-19 pandemic. I suggested that in their doubts, my interlocutors were drawing from a culturally specific epistemology of truth, according to which scientists were understood to be dealing with the eternal, metaphysical truths of nature, independent of human cognition. In expressing their doubts, I argued, they presented a critique of the politico-economy of knowledge production in both media and academia, which they viewed was susceptible to political and economic manipulations. They considered that truth was often impossible to discern in the current moment and prolonged into the distant future, producing a certain kind of temporality of discovering truth, which could be considered antithetical to premature announcements of crisis.
My interlocutors’ reservations about claims of crisis point to the way in which claims of crisis can act as a powerful tool of political manipulation. José David Gómez-Urrego’s presentation dealt with the use of crisis as a political resource through the kind of radical rupture of expectations declaration of crisis enables. He elaborated this through an account of ‘Yachay city of knowledge’ in Ecuador – a high-profile, vast investment project advanced by the country’s long-term president Rafael Correa. In his presentation, Gómez-Urrego shows how in a matter of days Yachay went from “the most important private investment in the history of the country” to “a farce”. Gómez-Urrego argues that this radical change came about when the new president Lenín Moreno and his administration declared a crisis, reframing the last decade of Ecuadorian politics and questioning the previous government’s narrative of improvement. This, Gómez-Urrego argues, enabled destroying the long-term time horizons, which had justified the vast investments to Yachay, and abandoning the project as a failure.
Further, the presentation by Christian Colella and his colleagues addressed contestations around problem setting during a declared environmental crisis. Their case study concerned the detection of Xylella fastidiosa bacteria in Puglia in Italy, which threatened the region’s famous olive trees, which became hosts for the bacteria. Colella et al’s presentation elaborates the different framings of problem setting; the first one, advanced by EU bodies, focused on the pathogen as the cause of the trouble and advocated eradicating the infected trees as a solution to the problem, insisting on the urgency of this effort. The second approach, advanced by political and social movements in the region, argued for a more holistic and contextualized approach, seeking to address the decline of the olive trees instead of focusing on the bacteria, and questioning the “state of emergency”. Importantly, Colella et al’s presentation showed how the ways in which framing the problem as “crisis” also affects the ways in which potential solutions were understood.
Overall, the presentations in the panel shed light on the ways in which attention to the affective and temporal dimensions of crisis talk can help us understand contestations around different kinds of crises and their stakes.For example, the idea that “the problem” of climate change skepticism can be simply solved by providing the “right” kind of information, is if we understand that people’s evaluations of knowledge claims involve much more than the “logical operations of falsification, verification, and probability attribution” (2018, 169), as Mathijs Pelkmans points out. Further, the presentations also reminded us of the importance of carefully contextualizing our case studies and remaining sensitive to the power dynamics underlying both claims and contestations of crisis.
Bryant R (2016) On Critical Times: Return, Repetition, and the Uncanny Present. History and Anthropology, 27:1, 19-31.
Latour, B (2004) Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. Critical Inquiry Vol. 30 (2): 225-248.
Jameson, F (1994) The seeds of time. New York: Columbia University Press.
Pelkmans M (2018) Intervention: Doubt, suspicion, mistrust…semantic approximations. In: Mühlfried F (ed.) Mistrust. Ethnographic Approximations. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, pp. 169-178.
Razsa, M (2015) Bastards of Utopia: Living Radical Politics After Socialism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Roitman, J (2014) Anti-Crisis. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.
Futures take the form of a promise. Technoscientific futures even more so—they project a future built around a specific technological object. The “Making Media Futures” panel offered an example of this practice with four talks focused around four different promises: (imagining) the perfect girlfriend, the merging of minds and machines, airports before the existence of airports, and technoscientific imaginations of the nation-state Turkey. How are these technoscientific promises articulated? What forms do they take? Our EASST panel, titled “The power of technological promises: quantum technologies as an emerging field”, explored the power of these visions through quantum computing and information (QC). We argued that QC offers a useful example, particularly because the field has yet to deliver on any of its promises. Therefore, it offers social scientists a window into how actors construct institutions, narratives and ideologies in real time, as well as how these narratives shift according to the needs of an audience, field, or other factor. The emerging quantum sciences are, thus, an area of contestation for shifting techno-economic relations on the international level. No quantum computers fulfilling the promises made by the field exist, nor will likely exist in the next decade or so. The same is true of concepts like the quantum internet and fully-secure quantum communication.
The paper by Zeki Seskir on post-quantum cryptography offered an account of this landscape. His paper explores post-quantum cryptography and the claim that quantum computers will be able to break the Rivest–Shamir–Adleman algorithm (RSA), the means through which internet communications are encrypted. He touches on the extensive work of the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in planning for this future. This promise of encryption-breaking has spawned not only the new field of post-quantum cryptography, which Seskir discussed but moreover a class of consultants to prepare companies to adapt to quantum computing. This class of consultants is not Seskir’s focus per se, but their emergence demonstrates how seriously industry takes the promises of QC, and how complex the institutions built around it have become.
Another paper presented at our panel, coauthored by STS scholar Camilo Castillo and electrical engineer Alvaro Alarcón Cuevas, examined the relationship between the promise and products of quantum communication, where Alvaro himself is an active researcher. The authors asked how scholars and broader society do and should evaluate the field’s successes, or lack thereof. Their paper offers a tactic for handling the overwhelming power of technological promises: to shift focus away from them. They argued that “the experiment is much more than the promise” and that “we miss things when we are only fixated on the promise,” (Alracón and Castillo, 2022). They cite Jensen and Morita’s 2015 paper, “Infrastructures as Ontological Experiments,” which argues “experiments generate entities and forms of knowledge planned and foreseen by no one: The resulting entities and knowledges are emergent properties of the assemblage itself” (Jenson and Morita 2015). Alracón and Castillo frame tacit knowledge as an example of the products of experimental research which are not outlined in the explicit promises of the field. This is also the stance of some of the scientists I have interviewed in the field of QC who stress that no one knows exactly what technologies may emerge from QC research. Perhaps this approach offers an alternative to the historical reasoning on display more publicly in the field. Many actors in the quantum computing world try to have it both ways; by invoking Castillo and Alarcón’s argument that the field is valuable outside of its explicit promises for certain audiences, and permitting or encouraging others to equate quantum computing’s future and classical computing’s past at the same time.
How do you fund a promise? How do you build and maintain institutions around a technology which does not yet exist? How do you craft a credible technoscientific future? This was the central question of the papers on our panel. My paper touched on the role of history-writing in technoscientific infrastructure. As a historian, in the course of my fieldwork with QC practitioners, I was struck by how much time the scientists spent telling histories to each other and to general audiences.1 I was further struck by how much importance they placed on the disciplinary practice of history. They wanted me to write their histories the right way, by which they meant in a way that corresponds to their experience. The scientists were very well-read and opinionated about the history of science literature written about their disciplinary backgrounds. They felt compelled to write their own histories to some extent because they had experiences that caused them to believe historians of science had talked only to self-promoters and had thus inscribed the history of the field—and therefore the field itself—incorrectly.
When examining US and EU government documents on QC, I found they were filled with histories; histories of science, of the US state, of technology, and of thought. Often, they were filled with histories relayed by scientists and engineers. Our panel had an example of this as well in Alarcón’s participation, though unlike the scientists and engineers in my paper, he worked closely with Castillo, a social scientist. In his essay “Society in the Making,” Michel Callon famously argues that the engineers he studies are, in fact, sociologists. They act as sociologists in their work designing and getting buy-in for the technological assemblages that they build (Callon 1987). Callon, furthermore, argues that disciplinary sociologists ought to learn from engineer-sociologists (Callon 1987).In the same year, Bruno Latour wrote an account of how scientists make and remake the grounds of politics in his book The Pasteurization of France (Latour 1987). What should we, as social scientists, make of this usurpation? Perhaps disciplinary categories are aspirational, creating distinct cultures within those boundaries, but not actually cordoning off practice.
Callon and Latour, taken together, can offer an explanation of how scientists make credible technoscientific promises. They do so by taking on the role of social scientists in order to make and remake the grounds of politics. My paper looked at how a network of international, mixed industrial, and academic scientists made the promise of quantum computing credible, into an overdetermined future, and how they convinced US government and industry actors to fund and build institutions for the field. I found through my research that the structure of the promises made by QC relies on scientists’ ability to integrate the field into other histories of science and technology—for example, into the histories of computing. Being integrated into the history of computing allowed QC practitioners to use preexisting infrastructures built by and for classical computing practitioners. Scientists in this context act as historians whose histories have great impacts, guide policy and practice, create and recreate a number of scientific fields. The histories they recount enlist other figures (e.g., government bureaucrats, scientists from other disciplines, or industry figures) into their network and make claims about the stakes of their project. Through this practice, they make and remake the grounds of politics.
Not incidentally, these scientists (especially early practitioners in the field) are acutely interested in pedagogy and re-making the general public’s understanding of the world. By making insistent claims about the nature of reality—for example, the assertion that ‘the physical world is quantum mechanical’–they attempt to re-engineer nature and the human subject—explicitly writing and rewriting the past, future, reality, and the subjects who experience it as such (Feynman 1982, 467-71).
Whether or not historians of science want it—Daston claims that, unlike STS practitioners, historians of science would rather not—histories of science act on the world and guide policy (Daston 2009). One of my central arguments is that these scientist-histories are important to institution-building and planning, as well as anticipating the future. By anticipating the future, I mean preparing the ground for it, using Michelle Murphy’s definition of anticipation (Adams and Murphy 2009). In this case, historical reasoning is the epistemology of futures in the sense that quantum scientists apply these histories in order to excavate institutional and imagined space for their project; scientists present these histories as means through which society can anticipate the future.
The kind of historical reasoning on display by scientists relies on a crucial slippage between description and prediction. Take, for example, a central narrative of ‘tech’, Moore’s Law; the belief that devices will keep getting steadily smaller, cheaper, and faster (Fuchs 2015). Many see this as a quasi-law of technological development. It is not true that every actor takes Moore’s Law to be predictive.However, the narrative that filters into mainstream culture is that the law is almost a law of nature.Regardless of actors’ belief in the status of the law, many use it to make predictions for a variety of reasons. Moreover, progressivist histories like Moore’s Law often do not feel they have to offer an explanation of this historical trend, leading later readers or consumers to see them as laws of history. Historians of science may think we are writing descriptions of the world, but others will always use it as prediction.
Actors are primed for these progressivist histories because, as Daston shows in her article “The History of Science & the History of Knowledge,” historians of science and others tie histories of science to progressivist histories of civilization in order to explain the difference between ‘western civilization’ and the rest of humanity and thereby to justify western domination (Daston 2017). Progressive histories were adapted in the post-Cold War to account for lingering inequalities by asserting a relationship between ‘technology’ and economic difference: technological development became what distinguished the good outcomes of the economies of wealthy countries from the poor outcomes of the economies of the rest (Latham 2000). These techno-economic narratives account for our societal obsession with histories of technology and produce the substrate from which these histories of science and technology, told by scientists, wield such power. They likewise encourage the slippage between description and prediction. In themselves, these histories of science, and technology have become a form of reasoning– a predictive epistemology whose product is credible futures.
During the Q&A, we fielded many questions about when QC will replace computing and what stage in the historical development of classical computing QC had reached; for example, audience members asked if QC was still at the pre-silicon transistor phase or if we were closer to seeing computers which would replace classical computers (quantum computers will likely never replace classical computers).
These questions recall an oft-repeated narrative about how QC is the second coming of computing; that it represents a recapitulation of the information technology revolution which brought consumers personal computers, the internet, and more. In the course of my research, I have found that narrative is so powerful that managers in the US government and computing industry2 believe the field will precisely reenact major computing milestones in a similar if not the same timeframe as classical computing. Likewise, as for example Seskir’s presentation demonstrated3, actors believe it will even have same constituent parts (transistors, repeaters, internet etc). Actors anticipate quantum as computing 2.0 or information technologies 2.0 to the extent that US intelligence agency reports worry that the technology is so overdetermined it may deter progress. Once again, description has become prediction and history has become the future. There is a good reason that this is the case; Histories justify funding, industrial planning (by entities like the US national security state) and eventually lay the groundwork for industry involvement. QC practitioners, in particular by suggesting their project is an extension of the larger project of computing, are able to overcome barriers to their projects’ realization through this mechanism.
One question raised by all of this discussion is: what is the proper relationship between STS, history of science and the sciences? What promises do we make to each other and to the public? Castillo and Alarcón’s presentation offers a potential model. They had a close relationship and collaboration predating this paper and because of that were able to synthesize a valuable and interesting answer to the problem of how to deal with technological promises in practice: to spend more effort elaborating the societal benefits of these fields outside the technoscientific, product-focused, promises they make to potential funders. Perhaps scientists, historians and STS practitioners should reimagine the boundaries of our fields and collaborate on writing the kinds of histories that matter—the kinds of histories that acknowledge they act on the world as well as describing it.
1 They even introduced me to one practitioner as the ‘family historian’ of the field.
2This probably extends beyond the US but most of my research has been with US sources.
3This way of thinking about quantum technologies is pretty ubiquitous. Seskir’s presentation offered some interesting examples of this tendency.
Callon, M. Society in the Making: The Study of Technology as a Tool for Sociological Analysis. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1987.
Daston, Lorraine. “Science Studies and the History of Science.” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 4 (2009): 798–813.
Daston, Lorraine. “The History of Science and the History of Knowledge.” KNOW: A Journal on the Formation of Knowledge 1, no. 1 (March 2017): 131–54.
Feynman, Richard P. “Simulating Physics with Computers.” International Journal of Theoretical Physics 21, no. 6–7 (June 1982): 467–88.
Jensen, C. B., & Morita, A. (2015). Infrastructures as Ontological Experiments. Engaging Science, Technology, and Society, 1, 81-87.
Latham, Michael E. Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and “Nation Building” in the Kennedy Era. Electronic resource. New Cold War History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Latour, Bruno. The Pasteurization of France. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1988.
Fuchs, Erica. DARPA Does Moore’s Law: The Case of DARPA and Optoelectronic Interconnects. State of Innovation. Routledge, 2015.
Many STS communities across Europe and around the globe are now looking towards an uncertain future and how STS can aid in addressing the pressing issues of our time whose solutions or lack thereof will have concrete consequences for the future. On the 40th anniversary of EASST and with the theme of this year’s conference being Politics of Technoscientific Futures, many discussions in the conference were centered around the future, future making, and our vulnerable world. The plenary, The Futures and Politics of STS in Europe, aimed to create space for collective sense-making around the identity and future of the field of STS as it is conducted in Europe. As part of the plenary, I was tasked with speaking for Early Career Researchers (ECRs) and what we, as collective, want from the STS community in terms of our education and socialization.As well as how ECRs envision the future of STS and our place within it, as those of us at the start of our researcher careers will become the future researchers of STS.
Speaking for the ECR’s of EASST was a large task indeed, as I am only one person. So, to facilitate a collective ECR contribution to the plenary, I, along with my co-organizer James Besse, held a workshop for ECRs at this year’s conference in Madrid. In addition to the direct objective of informing the plenary, we wanted to create space to collectively reflect on concerns for ECRs: what does STS mean for us as researchers working in and around the discipline; what does it mean to do STS; what can STS do for us and our research; what motivates us to do STS research; and how we can use our expertise from STS to address our world in crisis?
The workshop had around 40 participants from all around Europe, with backgrounds from all over the world, coming from as far as Australia. We opened the workshop with an exercise looking at how we, as ECRs, place ourselves and our research in relation to the field of STS. Participants placed themselves on a graph (see picture below). On the x axis was how they identify themselves in relation to STS and on the y axis the methods they employ. This exercise was first done in December 2021, at the Netherlands Graduate School for Science, Technology, and Modern Culture (WTMC) 2021 annual meeting’s PhD panel entitled (in)between: perspectives on doing a PhD in and around STS, that I helped to organized along with my WTMC colleagues Jackie Ashkin, Anneke Boersma, Mike Grijseels, Joyce Hoek, and Nina Schwarzbach. Through this first exercise discussions arose around questions like what defines STS, what does it mean to do STS and what is in store for STS’s future? One participant even described STS as a donut, i.e., a circular community with no real core. This fruitful experience led to the decision to try the same exercise for the EASST workshop and, as intended, the exercise led to similar discussions from the perspective of ECRs.
From this intial discussion, we arrived at multiple of topics and destilled them down into four main topics we as a group found most pertinent for further discussion. The topics were decolonizing STS, politics and futures in STS, mentorship and education, and careers. The collective came up with some more concrete suggestions and more broad ones. We found that questions of what we need in terms of our continuing education and mentorship in STS are inextricably linked to many other pressing concerns and discussion for all of us in and around STS.
Questions of education in STS quickly led to questions of what STS is and how you can have an education in something so diverse and distributed, not only intellectually but also geographically. We find this multiple-ness to be a strength of STS, but we still need more explicit, less tacit ways of being introduced to the field (in all its forms).One suggestion would be a part of the EASST website for ECRs with things that introduce us to the many ways to engage with STS and the varieties of career paths in which STS knowledge can be employed. For instance, one suggestion would be to create a video archive of STS people from various backgrounds and life paths in order to show the diversity of possible application of STS knowledge.
In terms of concrete suggestions for education and mentorship in STS, we would like to find better ways to formally appreciate that mentorship and supervision are like anything a skill, requiring effort, learning, and time. We hope to find ways to reward the people that do this well, while creating institutional structures to allow space for other forms of mentorship outside formal academic structure—these informal relationships have often proved most fruitful from our experiences, but often go unrewarded and unrecognized.
Lastly, the future as well as the theme of this conference, we think fits very well with the spirit of our generation of researchers and those to come: we grew up in a world unlike our predecessors in many ways. Many of us feel a dire need for action to be taken and to find ways to make our research and ours privileged positions more meaningful—to do some good in aiding the current crises affecting the world. We want to be taught how to do an STS that makes space for activism and for differences in ways of being an academic. We look to find answers to questions like: If not just engaging with policy how to incorporate activism in our research lives? Is this combination possible? And how do we make STS more accessible to anyone interested in engaging with the field? These questions are deeply intertwined with de-colonization of STS. Looking to more political communities, like those in Latin America, may help provide creative solutions and ways to find answer to our questions.
These concerns were brought to the table in the plenary and a lively discussion around activism in STS ensued. The discussion brought forth many different viewpoints and nuances around activism in STS. Many researchers who have been in the field longer made it clear that these calls for both activisms and clearer understandings of European STS and what it can do for researchers wanting to engage with wider audiences have happened before. While others discussed feeling a similar urgency and the ways they themselves try to act, from teaching to doing radical environmental activism in their personal time. One main point that I feel warrants further clarification is that activism, as we see it and as it was shown in the discussion, can take on many forms, not just ‘taking to the streets’ as it is often envisioned. Activism can take on many forms, for example taking positions of power or advisory role in institutional settings, teaching, recognizing privilege and using it to empower others, actively situating oneself more politically within their research contexts, or more traditional engagements with activism communities.
I view this discussion that took place at this year’s EASST plenary as only a starting point for further discussion and viewpoints around activism in European STS and the plurality of ways to be involved, as STS scholars, in addressing the current crises occurring in our vulnerable world. I hope to collect various viewpoints and stories of how scholars in our community engage with the themes discussed here, i.e., mentorship, educations, careers, activism in STS and the roles STS can play in addressing current crises. If you would like to contribute, please contact me. We hope to collect as many perspectives from as many people in and around STS (at any career stage), to both showcase the diversity of European STS and continue the discussions begun during the workshop and plenary. If you like to be involved, please reach out to the author. We look forward to hearing your perspectives!
Democratic Situations is the name of an edited volume published by Mattering Press in May 2022. As the editors of the book, we (Irina and Andreas) would like to take this opportunity to report on two events associated with its publication: An open panel at EASST 2022 in Madrid in July and a book launch event at the TANTLab in Copenhagen in June.
The panel at EASST was entitled “Situating Democratic Futures”. The organization of the panel and the formulation of the call for papers was a collective endeavor that we shared with David Moats (Helsinki) and Laurie Waller (Manchester), both contributors to the book. Organizing such a panel in Madrid was a good opportunity to build on and extend existing conversations, given that the 2017 workshop from which the book project arose was co-sponsored by EASST.
The EASST 2022 panel served to open new conversations with the recent book in mind. We received 15 abstracts, out of which 10 papers were presented at the conference. All abstracts were from researchers who had not been involved in the original book project – or rather all but one, since Endre Dányi, our Mattering Press editor, participated with a paper in collaboration with Amade M’charek. Some presentations tackled themes at the heart of the study of democracy, such as ‘innovation parliaments’ (Stefan Böschen) and EU politics (Tessa Dunlop), while others examined space technologies (Zinaida Vasilyeva), big tech (Ivan Veul), and technodemocratic imaginaries of solar power (Monamie Haines). We take this as a welcome indication of how the book may help carve out a research agenda for researchers interested in pushing STS’ democratic imagination further and critically examining the big societal questions of our time.
Another recent event marking the publication of Democratic Situations was a book launch at the TANTLab in Copenhagen. Aside from toasting and celebrating with local colleagues, we were also fortunate that Anders Blok (Uni. of Copenhagen) agreed to make an intervention based on his reading of the freshly published book. Several people joined us online for this part, including a handful of chapter authors. With Anders’ permission we would like to share a lightly edited version of his comments here, since we believe they deserve a broad STS audience, and since they serve as a fantastic introduction to – and celebration of – the new book.
What follows from here on are Anders Blok’s words, originally spoken in front of a live audience in the TANTLab on the afternoon of 8th June 2022.
“What I would like to do is to give you three reasons for why you ought to read this book, and why you ought to read it in full. And one reason why I think the book calls out for a follow-up volume, casting the net even more widely.”
The first reason you should read this book is the core argument clearly spelled out by the editors in their introduction, and then echoed as a refrain throughout – showing, by the way, the value, I think, of having actually had shared conversations among contributors. The argument, in brief, that STS is not only important for elucidating the politics of techno-science but also, more generally, has the conceptual tools and methodological sensibilities to contribute valuably to the wider, if also more mundane, study of democracy in practice. That is to say, what the editors nicely and innovatively dub ‘democratic situations’.
It is important here, I think, that this argument cuts both ways, so to speak. On the one hand, it implies an expansionary move on the part of STS. No longer content to hang around laboratories, innovation labs and offices of regulatory science, STS scholars now seek out new fertile empirical grounds in newspaper debating rooms, in the corridors of EU bureaucracy, and in the halls of municipal administrations.
Conversely, however, this move also implies, as Helen Pallett and Jason Chilvers (2022: 119) write in their contribution: “humility and reflexivity on the part of STS scholars.” This is so, they continue, because we are forced “to acknowledge both the deep influence of democratic practices and systems on our knowledge-making, but also to recognize the role played by STS theories and knowledges in the empirical sites and contexts we study” (ibid.). As shown and discussed in several chapters in the book, this is true not least for participatory and deliberative models of democracy – models that, in practice, turn out to have quite divergent effects.
In short, by displaying this particular combination of expansionism and humility, this book successfully opens up new and important conversations in STS – conversations about how to study, compare, and intervene in democratic situations, and conversations on how the field as a whole has tended to think about its own commitments to democracy and democratization in some rather than other ways.
The second and related reason you should read this book, and read it in its entirety, is for the somewhat disjunctive but in the end productive sense this provides of being led across sites and settings that all have some recognizable relation to what we call ‘democracy’, but which are otherwise far apart. This is true geographically – although we tend to stay in the Euro-American realm at large – and it is true for the kinds of ‘zones of democratic tension’ to which the chapters attune.
I think there is the inkling here of an interesting proto-comparative imagination that the volume invites its reader to engage with – even as only one chapter, the one by Soneryd and Sundqvist, might be called comparative in the standard sense. So, for instance, whereas some chapters take us to the heartland of age-old democratic institutions – partly to show us their incremental forms of change – other chapters chart much more recent and still somewhat unsettled institutional terrains, from stem cell research oversight committees to participation in digital diplomacy.
Similarly, while some chapters attend to fast-paced dynamics tied to specific events – such as how campaigning technology was used and justified in the UK’s EU referendum leading to Brexit – other chapters document the slow-paced institutional accretions happening over decades whereby things like a European carbon trading market, in Véra Ehrenstein’s case, is build, upheld, and cautiously critiqued by technocratic activists. Activists who, on their part, are constantly on the brink of giving in.
Fittingly for such diversity, one finds across the chapters of this book a quite varied cast of intellectual interlocutors, whose proclamations and theorizations of politics and democracy are brought to bear on the situations at hand. Making no claim to exhaustiveness, and beyond the most canonical STS ensemble, I counted close-at-hand figures and concepts such as Isabelle Stengers on ‘hesitation’ and Maria Puig de la Bellacasa on ‘care’, but also farther-flung connections to Chantal Mouffe on ‘radical democracy’ and Hal Koch on ‘deliberation’ the Danish way.
In short, when taken and read together, this volume quite helpfully expands the frame on our established STS imaginations of politics and democracy, inviting in the process, I think, more comparative work on democratic situations.
The third reason you should read this book is a more idiosyncratic one, perhaps. But it ties into what the editors note astutely in their introduction, when they reference Latour to the effect that ‘ecological mutation’ is deeply entangled with current-day changes to democracy. Given my own interest in what I have acquired the habit of calling ‘the sustainable state’ – a speculative notion meant to signal the work ahead of re-aligning democracy to planetary ecological boundaries – I could not help but pay particular attention to the three chapters specifically on this task.
At the risk of extrapolating a bit too much, it is fair to say, I think, that the cross-cutting picture looks rather bleak. For sure, one cannot but admire the tenacity and skills of the technocratic activists in Brussels trying hard amidst persistent failures to ‘civilize markets’, as Callon would have it. And one may almost come to care for the farmer who courageously shouldered techno-financial risks during Samsoe’s renewable energy transition, only to be written out of the story. Yet, I find it hard not to take the story of Swedish water management as emblematic: here, the authors show, “local actors get engaged and try to do most of the work themselves in the absence of governing bodies handling the overflows.” (Soneryd and Sundqvist 2022: 115). Is this not the experience we all share these days in the face of climate change and biodiversity crises?
And so, it is tempting for me, of course, to point out that, while the present volume takes important first steps, more steps lie ahead if we want to re-deploy STS in the service not only of diagnosing, but of attempting to bring about something like a sustainable state, capable of integrating ecology and democracy. And thus also tempting to conclude that this is where a follow-up volume is called for. However, to do so would perhaps be to confuse my own preoccupations a bit too much with the collective project of this volume – or, put differently, I can in fact promise that more work will happen along these lines, but such a proposition is so far mostly of my own making, the specificities of which I invite others to help me negotiate.
Where I would claim the book already calls out for a follow-up volume, in the sense of an immanent overflow collectively registered but not fully attended to so far, is rather when it comes to the project of putting STS’ democratic imagination more firmly into dialogue with that of other fields and (inter-) disciplines. Rachel Douglas-Jones (2022: 178) puts it well, I think, when writing in her conclusion that “turning the analytic eye of STS towards democracy as practice […] means meeting the gaze of researchers in other disciplines”. She enlists empirical political scientists, ethnographers of democracy, bioethicists, and historians; to which I might want to add in the political theorists, including those attuned to democratic situations beyond Euro-America.
As someone who has long taken an interest in how Bruno Latour, in particular, has long since enlisted a whole range of canonical political theorists in his STS project – sometimes, I think, to less-than-fully-coherent effects, full of interesting gaps – I cannot help thinking that the time would be ripe for a more explicit, more concerted, more self-conscious encounter. Beyond STS expansionism and humility, is it not the case that STS deserves credit for having renewed versions of political theory in interesting ways? Conversely, might STS not stand to learn from having its democratic imaginations more fully compared and contrasted to a broader set of such imaginations already at work out there – as a form of empirical political philosophy?
The release of this book is an occasion that opens up to, affords and invites such further reflections on important matters lying ahead. Such is the sense, I guess, in which a book release is also a democratic situation of sorts. Let us hope that others in STS and beyond will pick up the mantle and extend this situation further. Congratulations on the book!”
At this point we exit Anders Blok’s words, spoken on a summer afternoon in Copenhagen. We would like to end this report by thanking him for making such a productive intervention at the book launch – and for agreeing to let us publish his comments in this format. We hope that his comments and the publication of our book may indeed be an occasion for STS researchers to take on a new commitment to an empirical political philosophy fit for charting the unsettled terrains we currently find ourselves in.
We hope you as a reader feel inspired to explore the Democratic Situations book, which is available open access via Mattering Press. The book is very much a product of the EASST community of which the book’s authors, publishers, editors, and reviewers are members. Let the final words here be a resounding thank you to all the people that contributed to the volume and made the book possible.
Birkbak, A., & Papazu, I. (eds.) (2022). Democratic Situations. Mattering Press. Open Acces: https://www.matteringpress.org/books/democratic-situations
Douglas-Jones, R. (2022). “Convene, represent, deliberate? Reasoning the democratic in embryonic stem cell research oversight committees”. In Birkbak, A., & Papazu, I. (eds.). Democratic Situations. Mattering Press.
Pallett, H., & Chilvers, J. (2022) “STS and Democracy Co-Produced? The Making of Public Dialogue as a Technology of Participation”. In Birkbak, A., & Papazu, I. (eds.). Democratic Situations. Mattering Press.
Soneryd, L. & Sundqvist, G. (2022). “Leaks and Overflows: Two contrasting cases of hybrid participation in environmental governance”. In Birkbak, A., & Papazu, I. (eds.). Democratic Situations. Mattering Press.
I am an art-based researcher but have attended numerous STS conferences since starting my practice-based PhD, feeling welcome and very much at home at these events. The EASST 2022 meeting in Madrid has been by far the biggest—and most expensive—out of them. I wouldn`t have been able to attend, had I not been granted a fee waiver to participate. I had never been to Spain before and was truly grateful for the opportunity—looking forward to coming and learning more about Madrid and the work of Spanish STS researchers. Here are some of my memories of the conference that I would like to share.
Attending STS conferences is for me not only an opportunity to share my research with like-minded researchers but also an important part of my research practice examining the potential of artistic research to decolonize academic knowledge production (see Veselá 2021). Learning from STS researchers and initiating and facilitating collaborations and partnerships between STS and art-based researchers is a crucial part of my activities seeking to examine and engage practices to counter colonial and/or uncaring practices in academia and beyond. With regard to my research interest in the knowledge and expertise exchange between art-based and STS researchers, the EASST conference in Madrid did not disappoint. I was excited to find out that a number of the conference participants were art-based researchers or STS researchers who either collaborated with artists or developed artistic practice of their own as part of their research work. Moreover, I was happy to learn that in both the panel “Making Livable Worlds Through Reflexive Methods: Care and Intervention in STS Research,” in which I presented, and in other panels, participants were interested in situated and reflexive approaches, as well as working collaboratively, affectively, and in a socially aware and engaged fashion. And finally, the well-attended and truly fascinating science-fiction sub-plenary session “Techno-Science-Fictional Futures: Methods, Forms, Norms,” which closed the second day of the conference, reminded everyone of the importance to think and imagine beyond the present-day status quo. Stimulating our collective imagination through the engagement with speculative, poetic, literary, and artistic visions of the future, the sub-plenary showed, is a vital tool helping us to devise and consider alternative modes of resistance and world-making for/in troubled times.
All in all, I am pleased to report that all the presentations and panels that I attended during my three days at the conference were, without exception, incredibly captivating. I was in awe of the speakers` expertise and passion, yearning to know more about them and the work they presented. Which brings me to more critical comments on the conference and the experience it offered. With more than 800 papers squeezed into three and a half days, the packed schedule didn`t allow for more than one or two “quick questions” after each of the presentations. Panel after panel was brought to an abrupt end, leaving presenters without proper feedback and disappointing those participants who, like me, were saddened that the panel discussion had to end before it could have properly started. A broader debate about the smaller and slower alternatives to a massive conference model adopted by the conference in Madrid, with more in-depth and valuable experience offered to its participants, is therefore truly necessary.
The immense size of the conference also meant that it couldn`t be hosted by any of the universities in Madrid but was instead held at IFEMA, one of the most important centers in Europe within the international circuit of the fair and congress industry. Hosting a conference in a commercial space designated for organizing large-scale events was reflected not only in a rather cold and businesslike character of the venue but also in the increased registration fees and the higher costs of lunches offered to attendees. The IFEMA convention center was close to the Madrid-Barajas Adolfo Suárez airport but almost 10 kilometers away from the city center where I was accommodated in a small hostel located in one of the old but charming apartment buildings, just a stone`s throw from the Plazza Major. In the evenings, I was wandering around the streets of central Madrid, absorbing its energy. The conference dates coincided with MADO Madrid Orgullo 2022—Madrid Pride Festival—which brought an extra portion of vibrancy to the city. After two years of Covid-related restrictions, more than half a million participants flooded the Spanish capital, marching, singing, and dancing in protest and celebration. The ecstatic energy of boiling-hot Madrid during those days stood in stark contrast to the impersonal, heavily air-conditioned conference rooms of the IFEMA. Moreover, the diversity of the people of all ages and various backgrounds enjoying the festivities contrasted with the lack of diversity among the almost 1000 participants gathered at the conference, bringing even more of my attention to this regrettable oversight.
I was not the only one who noticed this lack of diversity which included a low participation of local STS researchers. Shouldn`t a conference hosted by a discipline committed to critical examination of the practices and consequences of science and technology in its historical, cultural, and social contexts pay more critical attention to its own inner workings? Shouldn`t it be a priority for such a discipline to be mindful to include participants from diverse and marginalized communities at its meetings? And shouldn’t be one of the primary goals of an STS event hosted in Madrid to celebrate the work of Spanish researchers and to strengthen and broaden their research networks?
In the near absence of local members of the STS community (aside from the Local committee of EASST 2022 Madrid), the choice of conference venue in Madrid raised questions, not least because of the carbon dioxide emissions from air travel undertaken by most of its attendees. In the context of the current climate crisis, indeed, questions arise of whether the large-scale international meetings should be held at all. A profound, systemic shift to more sustainable conference ecologies is, in my opinion, inevitable. And while I feel it is important to stay in touch and engage in broader debate with researchers working in different regions of the world, learning to mitigate climate impacts of coming together should be a priority. Making use of hybrid formats combining face-to-face communication with digital networking or building regional networks and convening smaller regional meetings that allow for more peer interaction, discussion, and learning, for example, can facilitate rewarding conference experience without large emissions.1
I would like to conclude my argument for smaller and cheaper, more regional and sustainable conferences run at a slower and more attentive pace, by sharing some thoughts brought about by a health struggle I encountered during my time at the conference. For some ten years, I have been living with migraines. During this time, I have learned to live better with them—by maintaining a healthier lifestyle and avoiding potential triggers. Heavily air-conditioned rooms were problematic in this regard and, indeed, caused a mild headache which kept growing stronger each day. Worried that the headache could have developed into a full-blown migraine, I decided to skip the last day of the conference. Still, I suffered a migraine-related seizure on my way home which left me incapacitated and scared in the middle of the crowd, unable to see or hear for a couple of long minutes. I am not sharing this to blame the conference organizers for a personal health scare the conference environment might have contributed to, but because it made me think about the size of the conference in relation to health and well-being of its participants. A smaller conference, perhaps, would not have required so much air conditioning to keep attendees alert and to prevent the growth and development of germs and bacteria spreading easily in crowded enclosed spaces. Even more crucially, a smaller conference would have made it possible to slow down a bit, ask participants how they were feeling, and make arrangements to keep everyone happy. In this way, smaller conferences are more likely to be considerate not only of the health of the planet but also of its very participants.
1 Recent workshop “Science and technology studies in context: Provincialising STS from Central Europe” held at Vienna reviewed in the next issue can be named as an inspiring example.
Veselá, L. (2021) ‘Artistic Research as Academic Borderlands,’ jar-online.net, 24 May 2021. Available at: https://doi.org/10.22501/jarnet.0043
Assemblies of STS associations and other academic conferences went online for two years, but with the lifting of public health restrictions, we have seen the return of in-person conferences. Scholars are travelling again. And so the discussion about how to travel has resurfaced, with a focus on carbon emissions and the broader environmental impacts of travel. This also has to do with the experience of digital conferences, which, despite their practical limitations, have indeed facilitated exchange with significantly lower emissions. For example, the European Astronomical Society (Burtscher et al. 2020) estimates that the carbon footprint of its 2020 annual meeting was 3,000 times lower than at previous meetings due to the digital format. So how to learn from this via the railway? The arguments for train transport are straightforward: steel on steel rolls efficiently and can be powered by green electricity; emissions are virtually always lower compared to aeroplanes, cars, buses or ships. The actual numbers are difficult to calculate and vary by route, yet it is a matter of significant orders of magnitude. This is why, for example, the 2022 IPCC Mitigation report (Jaramillo et al. 2022) concludes that rail is an alternative form of transit and can enable decarbonisation, even if a train did not use green electricity or if a carriage only occupied a small proportion of its available seats. Plus, trains offer a more conscious use of space and time and therefore give the opportunity to combine conscious resource use with social concerns, as we will emphasize in this text. As STS scholars, we know that technology use is socially embedded and can take different forms.
Initiatives such as Flying Less and podcasts by the Oxford University Flyingless Group provide information, discussion and practical suggestions on how we as individual academics can alter our practices, but also how to challenge our institutions and professional associations. There are also discussions on how to organise conferences in hybrid or hub-like formats to reduce travel activities. For the recently held EASST 2022 conference in July, some delegates decided to journey by long-distance train across Europe to reach Madrid. As one would expect from a group of STS scholars, this was not done without some appreciation of the sociotechnical challenges involved and of course with that long standing commitment of our field that ‘things could be otherwise’.
In this article, we collect and reflect on the experiences of some of those who travelled this way. We hope others will learn about the pleasures and pitfalls of doing so, and maybe even try it for themselves when we meet in 2024.
Many rails lead to Madrid – How our contributors travelled….
Below you can see the different journeys that contributors took to Madrid for the 2022 EASST Conference.
Why did you choose the train over the plane?
Julie: I prefer to support an infrastructure less harmful to the environment, in alignment with my sense of pace, and much more comfortable in terms of space and air. Besides its comfort, this is a political issue. Employment at academic institutions in the Global North often comes with the privileged position of being able to support alternative modes of CO2-friendlier conferencing. This includes seeking institutional support and using funding infrastructures to avoid flying.
Mace: Environmental concerns of course do matter, but I take the train for æsthetic reasons – airports and all the hassle of getting into and out of, and being funnelled through the travel-industrial “factories” is quite simply insulting to me. I enjoy flying itself, but not the ugliness, anxiety related to security screenings, and the institutionalised pick-pocketing of airports.While I am drawn to liminality, the capitalist realist (Fisher 2009) version offered by the air travel industry is repellant. Instead, travelling by train speaks to my romantic (Kraftwerk 1977; Schütte 2021) and hedonist sides. The train is a convenient, non-exhausting and inspiring choice for a flâneur lifestyle – trains, stations, the views, co-passengers and the infrastructure are interesting and beautiful.
Vanessa and Richard: For various reasons: we wanted to travel in a more environmentally sound way with lower carbon emissions, we wanted a memorable adventure for Vanessa’s first ever STS conference, and we wanted to spend some productive time together to work on our common projects and interests, which we thought the train would afford more easily than travelling by plane. We also wanted to show that it could be done and that we might encourage others to consider travelling this way to conferences and other events as well.
Tobi: Three reasons: A, as the pandemic served as a catalyst for a transition to a more sustainable way of travelling due to cash-stricken airlines, I wanted to pioneer ways of travelling in the field of academia. Conversations with colleagues in my department showed me that time constraint, and a need for convenience, have been bold arguments for preferring the plane over the train. I wished to test an alternative way of travelling that contested both perceived time constraints and a lack of convenience. Also, taking long-distance trains has been a tranquillising, concentration-fostering and socialising activity for many years to me.
Rob: I generally try to choose trains over flying. Obviously, we need to fly less – most people in the world do not fly (Gosling and Humpe 2020) –but it’s also a more humane form of mobility. This time, though, I took the train because my university instigated a ‘Sustainable Travel Policy’. Because my work examines research and funding cultures, often in an interventionist way, I am particularly drawn to the idea of treating this as an experiment that asks what it means to really practice things differently in accelerated academic cultures with a view to reconfiguring them. I wanted to see what it would be like to take at face value the invitation to emit ~85% less carbon on my journey within a web of bureaucracy.
Nona: My decision to take the train was a three-step process involving a sense of adventure and a constant feeling of ‘flight shame’, economic considerations, and social ‘windfall profits’ on the way. For a start, a colleague told me that she would travel to Madrid by train using an interrail ticket. “What a brave and intriguing idea,” I thought, but still hesitated. Then, my adventurous spirit was spurred by the surprising fact that for the first time, it did not cost more to take the train! A four-day interrail pass for Europe (€250) was even cheaper than a reasonable flight route Berlin-Madrid (€550). The decisive moment came when two dear colleagues – one in Barcelona and one in Montpellier – signalled that they would have time to meet me on my passage.
Sine: I am quite afraid of flying. I keep thinking of all the things that can go wrong, and I have a strong irrational feeling that I will die. But I also wanted to see if I could travel more sustainably in the future.
Stefan: When a conference is used to justify flying, we are spinning in circles, with no way off the hamster wheel! But I must add that travelling across Europe is complicated to organise.I also used the conference as a test, proof-of-concept and even for research purposes, because at that time I was employed at the University of Siegen in a research project on rail infrastructure and its role in a potential socio-ecological transition. Travelling with a 3-month-old child added a little extra challenge – reconciling family and career. It works great as long as certain maximum travel times and rest days are respected. The advantage of the car and the plane is that the child can sleep well in peace, but on the train you can get up without danger, keep yourself busy, and even have a snack.
Did you have to overcome any obstacles to travel this way?
Vanessa and Richard: We had to commit more time to attend the conference as travelling by train took longer than flying. We therefore had to spend longer away from our families, but they were supportive of us choosing this mode of transport. Other obstacles we faced arose from not being able to book European continental rail travel through our University’s travel system, so we had to pay upfront and use commercial platforms such as Trainline. The cost of course is also higher than flying, but our Department was very supportive of our approach and agreed to fund our trip without lots of questions.
Nona: Several obstacles …I’ve already mentioned the inevitable four days of travel and sorting out reservations for French and Spanish trains, and choosing the best routes cost me a lot of time (most discounted tickets for interrailers were already sold out. Lesson learnt: Book early!). Another important obstacle was that our panel was scheduled for Saturday and it was clear that I would not make it back to Berlin in time to teach my two courses on Monday. Luckily (or sadly), the pandemic has turned our students into remote learning experts, allowing me to interrupt my journey in the South of France to meet them on Zoom.
Tobi: The most striking obstacle was the actual booking. I had never done such a trip before, so I didn´t know that an interrail ticket was the best choice to travel from Germany to Spain.Firstly, the website of Deutsche Bahn served as the point of departure for booking tickets, but I had no success, so I went in person to the train station in Karlsruhe. The customer service agent there gently asked me whether I was crazy! She could not help with making connections or seat reservations, so I ended up at the interrail website (although I still couldn’t book seat reservations for the Barcelona Sants – Madrid Atocha leg). In my opinion, the booking procedure for international train connections in Europe needs to be as easy as it is for booking a flight.
Rob: Really, the only obstacle was navigating our university travel agent. Our travel policy means that everything has to be booked through the agent and this pushes you towards flights as the form of mobility for international travel. To book things myself through their portal would mean putting together an itinerary on a different website, clicking the ‘flights’ tab of their portal, and then intricately entering each station name of each leg into janky browser boxes in the hope this would find the train. To book things by email required months of exchanges, one of which involved being told that I should fly by Ryanair instead. The other potential obstacle is cost – not of the trains but of the hotels and subsistence that come with adding an extra two nights onto a trip. I was lucky to have a grant that could absorb these.
Mace: I did not encounter any obstacles worth mentioning.
Sine: It was annoying that I had to use several different train apps to arrange the trip, as some of the apps did not recognize the night trains, and with others, I had problems with seat reservations, etc. And the night train I took from Copenhagen to Hamburg was terrible, as there were no sleeping options.
Stefan: There are multiple obstacles: getting our belongings onto trains and moving around with a baby, facing the risk of Covid (although this is also true of flying), finding a website to book the tickets, getting a fair price, and getting the institution to pay for all of this. Let me pick the most important ones from our perspective. Comfort: Not all services make it easy to board with a stroller, stow luggage, and take a seat without any problems. The French TGV stands out as a negative example. We have always managed, but with some effort. TGVs have curved staircases, so sometimes you have to lift heavy things around the corner under time pressure. Sometimes, this even needs help from fellow passengers. Regarding accounting: My institution asked questions about the trip afterwards, and people wondered about the necessity of stopovers. Then I showed them the more «direct» route, which is in fact not that much different than the trip we actually took. Regarding the price, due to the high occupancy of air traffic, the cost of the flight one month before the event would actually have been higher than the cost of our train journey (minus the hotels on the stopovers, which were paid for privately).
How would you sum up the experience?
Vanessa and Richard: It was noticeably less tiring arriving at the conference by train. We also felt mentally better prepared, having spent time working and thinking about the conference on the way there. We felt more aware of our geographical location, the distance we had travelled, and the route we had taken to get there. Eating well was difficult during the long journey – especially if you have specific requirements – and also sometimes the food on the trains ran out!
Julie: The level of comfort of the trains I took from Berlin to Madrid proved to be very high. I had a stable Wi-Fi connection most of the time, and trains were never overcrowded, late, or dirty. Though slightly more expensive than flying, the final difference was less than € 20 between a one-way flight and train ticket to Madrid.
Tobi: In short – rewarding, mentally supporting, geographically enriching. Especially currently, when airports in Europe are struggling with personnel, I surely chose the more relaxing and more comfortable option. The Paris – Barcelona Sants trip was geographically marvellous. Being that close to the Mediterranean is not possible when taking a plane. I definitely will do it again, and I´m looking forward to integrating a sleeper train in the next long-distance train journey.
Mace: I’m quite familiar with city-hopping by train or bicycle across Europe with minimal luggage, and in fact, it’s my favourite pastime. Taking the train to EASST 2022 was rather a familiar than an unfamiliar experience. I will do it again, for work and for pleasure.
Rob: I enjoyed it and would do it again! I wish that universities and conference organisers would actually incentivise it, though. As far as I know, I was the only person from Edinburgh that didn’t fly to Madrid.
Sine: I really liked the experience of meeting so many different people on the way. I talked with a young woman studying programming, a guy working with Google in Zürich, and another one moving from Perpignan to New York. And on the way from Hamburg to Copenhagen, I met another data scientist who was also afraid of flying. Well, knowing statistics does not help against anxiety!
Nona:I very much enjoyed this journey as an infrastructural experience of different sociotechnical mobility systems. The most memorable moment was getting off the train in Cerbère to cross the gap between the incompatible Spanish and French rail tracks by foot. In this place between two systems, I met an exhausted, injured bird in the burning sun on the rail track and we shared a bottle of water before I moved on.
Stefan: This was a splendid experience. I learnt a lot about European cities, modes of transportation, and how climates and landscapes slowly change. Yet I also realized that this is not the standard mode of travelling for business trips of any kind, be it academic or non-academic.
What would be your top tips for anyone thinking of doing the same?
Vanessa and Richard:Take lots of food and drinks and don’t rely on the Wi-Fi. Go with the flow – sometimes trains run late, but the operators will put you on the next one, so best not to be stressed by delays. The good thing is that if you are delayed, you’re more likely to be sat on a train and so can just carry on with what you are doing rather than prowling around a departure lounge! Practically, we also recommend that you use the The Man in Seat 61 website as this provides lots of helpful information about transfer times and hotels to stay at when on route.
Julie: Consider combining conference travels with holidays or attending other events close to the conference venue or on your way. If you are on a budget, book the train tickets and accommodation as early as possible but during the morning or early afternoon on weekdays. Prices tend to go up in the evening and during the weekend. Use night liners for longer distances, and generally avoid rush hours and routes to or from bigger sports/music/whatnot events.
Mace: My number one tip is simply to break up the travel across multiple days. I think the trick is to very concretely materialise to yourself the idea that the journey too matters, not only the destination; if we reject the slave-morality (Nietzsche, 1886) of suffering for the climate and spend some time critically deconstructing the peculiar achievement of air travel as the norm,it takes very little mental gymnastics to experience a train trip as a quest, an adventure … or simply a pleasant day like any other. Reading the Wikipedia articles of the cities you pass through is respectful and educating. Reach out to colleagues, friends and contacts along the way to catch a drink, dinner or a walk with them.
Tobi and Nona: Don´t forget to make seat bookings in advance. Booking seat reservations at a station during the journey may cause trouble and interruptions, at least in France and Spain. Having tasks to do during the journey that do not rely on Wi-Fi is advisable (especially when using German ICE trains). As mentioned earlier, taking the train can be a great pre-conference event. Making a planned journey public on social media, inviting colleagues at the department and beyond, or visiting colleagues on the way will make it even more memorable.
Rob: First, buy interrail tickets! They seem to be cheaper than booking long routes in Europe, even with the reservation fees for TGVs and Eurostar. Second, if you’re taking the Paris metro, have faith that there’ll be another ticket machine if you walk past the horde at that first one. Third: Try to use the cities you go through as an actual opportunity to stop and see your friends, do something work-related or both. Fourth: Take a backpack so you don’t have to drag wheeled suitcases up and down cobbled streets, train steps and escalators.
Sine: Use different apps and try to go for night trains. You might need to find the night train separately by searching for them. For instance, I could have taken a night train (with couchettes!) from Høje Tåstrup to Hamburg, but it did not show up in any of the apps.
Stefan: If you do not fancy planning for half a week, consider using a travel agency that specialises in railways. They know the tricks of the trade to hack the system, and it’s helpful for the accounting apartment to have one coherent bill. In general, I recommend thinking about the possibility of taking a train when travelling with a family. My partner was still on parental leave at the time, and in retrospect, the time we spent together was a socially, economically and ecologically wise investment.
As many of us travelled to Madrid and tweeted photos and updates on our journeys, it became clear that other STS scholars were also on the same rails we rode along, or even on the same train! At that moment, it showed how a conference might begin on the journey there and not only in its formal venue. Had we known, we could have stopped by each other’s seats, caught up over coffee, with the makings of a more humane academic mobile sociality. With this piece, we would also like to encourage you to connect on Twitter next time you travel #flyingless to an STS conference.
Beyond our individual experiences reported here, the STS community needs to engage with how academic conferences are organised in future (e.g. hybrid, or on various continents simultaneously as in the case of this year’s International Sustainability Transition conference). We encourage organising committees of academic conferences and the broader community to advocate for, support and make visible alternative ways of travelling. Many of us travelled to Madrid in an experimental mode or spirit, to test alternative ways of conferencing. Let’s share our experiences and the ‘results’ of this experiment with our institutions.
Useful resources to arrange long distance rail travel in Europe:
Burtscher, Leonard, Didier Barret, Abhijeet P. Borkar, Victoria Grinberg, Knud Jahnke, Sarah Kendrew, Gina Maffey, and Mark J. McCaughrean. 2020. ‘The Carbon Footprint of Large Astronomy Meetings’. Nature Astronomy 4 (9): 823–25. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-020-1207-z.
Fisher, Mark (2009). Capitalism Realism. Is There no Alternative? Zer0 Books.
Gössling, S.; Humpe, A (2020) The global scale, distribution and growth of aviation: Implications for climate change, Global Environmental Change, 65, 102194. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2020.102194
Jaramillo, P., S. Kahn Ribeiro, P. Newman, S. Dhar, O.E. Diemuodeke, T. Kajino, D.S. Lee, S.B. Nugroho, X. Ou, A. Hammer Strømman, J. Whitehead, 2022: Transport. In IPCC, 2022: Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, R. Slade, A. Al Khourdajie, R. van Diemen, D. McCollum, M. Pathak, S. Some, P. Vyas, R. Fradera, M. Belkacemi, A. Hasija, G. Lisboa, S. Luz, J. Malley, (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA. doi: 10.1017/9781009157926.012
Kraftwerk (1977). Trans-Europe Express. On Trans Europa Express. Kling Klang.
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1886). Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future.
Schütte, Uwe (2021). Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany. Penguin Books.
Before covid-19, almost all the conferences were held in person with very few exceptions which were held online. During the first months of pandemic, many conferences were cancelled and other were postponed. Scientific community started to held conferences online in its try to keep organizing conferences during pandemic. In 2022, countries started to lift restrictions that were imposed due to covid-19 and some scientific communities started to organize in-person conferences again.
As a student who started my PhD during pandemic, I have participated in many online conferences and meetings. For example, I participated in the joint meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) and the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST) which was held online in 2020. Presenting a paper at the first year of my PhD was absolutely a remarkable experience. Although, after the presentation, I felt that I hadn’t lived this experience on the highest level. This feeling changed directly when I participated in an in-person conference.
One could claim that with online conferences people could benefit from the advantages that may provide this form of events. One of the advantages is inclusivity. Online conferences are more inclusive than in-person conferences. People from all over the world can participate in online conferences and they don’t have to worry about many issues that they would have to deal with, if these conferences were held in person. They don’t have to pay for flight tickets, for their accommodation and for their meals during the conferences. So, one could say that participants could have many reasons to support that online conferences increase inclusivity. My intention is not weighing up in general pros and cons of the two forms of events. My intention is to focus on the claim that attending in-person conferences provide PhD students with experiences that cannot be lived in online conferences. The feelings that has a PhD student presenting their research in front of other PhD students, professors, and researchers and become aware of their reactions and their emotions are unique.
Being part of an enormous conference like EASST 2022 “Politics of technoscientific futures” is a unique experience for a PhD student. My research focuses on the ethics of engineering (and more specifically of artificial intelligence), so I was happy to find that many sessions and presentations were related to this topic. During all days of the conference, one could easily find panels dealing with subjects in areas related to AI, big data, and digitalization, from STS perspectives. In this review, I provide, first, my perspective as a presenter, and then, as an attendant.
Presenting a paper at an in-person conference is a totally different experience than presenting at an online conference. First, you meet in person with the other panelists of the same session. This is a fruitful experience for a PhD student. Meeting other scholars from all over the world who work on similar topics to yours makes you understand that you belong to a scientific community that shares mutual concerns. In this way, one feels that their work could have a contribution that is useful and interesting for many other academics. Discussions with the rest of the presenters start even before the beginning of the sessions. And then, when the time for the presentation comes, presenters are overwhelmed by satisfaction because finally they have the chance to present their work in front of professors, PhD students, researchers, and many others, from all over the world. This is a feeling that is almost impossible to be felt in online conferences. Questions, comments, and a constructive discussion follow the presentation. All these that seem common for a conference, are a whole new experience for a PhD student during the covid-19 era. Even once the time of the session is over, attendees and presenters have the time to discuss about their concerns during coffee breaks, lunch time, and so forth. I had the chance to exchange opinions with other PhD students and professors during breaks in between other sessions, something that I would not have the chance to do in an online conference.
My presentation was part of the panel entitled “AI, digitalization, and algorithms”. On this panel, I had the chance to meet in person and speak with scholars who focus on the same research area as mine. Apart from this panel, EASST had numerous panels and sessions focused on the broad field of AI and big data. As a result, I had the chance to attend many other presentations relevant to my research interests. Also, this conference gave me the opportunity to attend many sessions relevant with a variety of STS issues. Examples are the panels entitled “Conflict, contradiction, and crisis in data-intensive health innovation” and “Energy futures from the past”.
PhD students have some professors that inspire them. Some professors that play crucial role during their PhD studies. In-person conferences give PhD students the chance to attend the sessions of distinguished professors from all over the world. Meeting in person, asking questions, and discussing with professors and scholars from all over the world that share the same passions is a remarkable experience for PhD students. Personally, I enjoyed Plenary 1 of the first day. Annalisa Pelizza, a distinguished STS professor, and Amade M’Charek, a distinguished professor of anthropology of science, provided excellent presentations in a crowded auditorium. The presentations of these two professors were relevant, among other issues, with the question “What kind of STS do we need”, which was part of the title of this Plenary. For an STS community and for PhD students of STS this is one of the most interesting questions. Presenters approached this question by concrete examples relevant to migration and borders, having a sociotechnical approach. Questions, comments and a fruitful discussion followed the presentations. For a PhD student, being in an auditorium full of professors, researchers, and other PhD students, who make a discussion about the role of their scientific field is an incredibly constructive process. At an in-person conference, someone could perceive much better the arguments, the concerns, the aspect, and the reactions of a speaker, than at an online conference. So, in-person conferences offer a much more fertile ground for discussions like these.
I conclude this reflection by highlighting that EASST 2022 in-person conference was a brilliant experience for me as a PhD student. In-person conferences offer a more holistic experience for attendees than online events. Complying with all the restrictions for covid-19, EASST 2022 was a safe and at the same time exciting conference. Presenting your work, discussing, and socializing is much more efficient when it happens in person.
The following reflections stem from the so-called graveyard shift at EASST 2022, i.e., the penultimate talk of the last session on the last day of the conference, in Panel 062 ‘Making science in public: Studying science communication and public engagement’. When the program was published, I realised my talk was so near the end of the conference and reluctantly faced the prospect of a receding audience participation. Heeding the advice of a colleague– “whoever is there, they are game [for a great Q&A]. This is your community” –, I felt motivated to place all my energy and hopes toward the few enduring colleagues. And what a session it proved. Room 115 filled up to the brim – tables full, people sitting on the floor, and an utterly satisfying discussion.
Writing this review, I found myself revisiting the closing remarks of convenors Sarah R. Davies and Maja Horst (in absentia Noriko Hara). They offered an account of continuity and longevity of their thematic stream on science communication spanning almost ten years –a feature both rare and noteworthy, considering how tactically and of-the-moment conference encounters often are. The convenors also extended an invitation toward the assembled community, especially early career scholars (ECRs), to join the convening labours and shape the future of the stream. In the weeks following Madrid, these remarks provided me with structure for processing my thoughts and feelings regarding the overall conference experience of EASST 2022. In particular, I found myself rethinking the terms of a widespread, albeit mostly informal, conversation in Madrid on generating and practicing sustainable ways of getting together as EASST members. I remember vividly how Maja Horst delivered more or less the same invitation to ECRs to get involved in shaping the future of the association twice – once in her capacity as president of EASST during the 2nd plenary, and once in her capacity as convenor of panel 062 during closing remarks. I personally felt much more compelled to do so, in the latter occasion. In developing the concept for this review, I sought to recover elements of what makes an interpellation like that effective and landed on the conclusion that forward looking statements by themselves will not necessarily bring us toward EASST future(s) without reflecting on, effectively sharing and flattening ownership of, the ‘biographies’ of EASST – perspectival and incomplete stories about the vehicles of EASST which have sustained themselves over years, meetings, and council’ tenures. I elaborate on this point here via offering the ‘biography’ of the stream on science communication.
Methodologically, I followed the convenors’ instances of collaboration via an archive comprising stream-related information across Nomadit collections, EASST meetings’ webpages, formal literature, and some personal communications. The stream’s early foci and concepts originated in the context of EASST 2014 (Torun), and subsequently shaped further within joint EASST/4S meetings, such as 2016 (Barcelona) and 2020 (Virtual/Prague) and 4S meetings, specifically 2019 (New Orleans) and 2021 (Virtual/Toronto). Madrid (2022) was the first solo EASST conference for this thematic stream in eight years. In what follows, I first recover and review the ‘biography’ of the thematic stream as shaped by the archival sources and my own involvement. Toward the epilogue, I reflect how preoccupations about the futures of both stream and EASST come to interact and inform one another.
The first two iterations of the stream’s call for contributions, for Torun & Barcelona, are all but identical. They both call for empirical and theoretical work onto an “often overlooked area of (what [the convenors] might call) ‘straight’ science communication – that which does not claim to formally influence policy or scientific research, and which may at first glance feature one-way communication” (Situating Solidarities, 2014). An earlier formulation of this proposition by Davies et al. casts how
[d]ialogue events that do not seek to influence policy are spaces enabling individuals from potentially diverse cultures to come together, articulate positions and views, and interact in a context of genuine equality. It could even be argued that this could—theoretically—be a far more effective way of affecting the culture of science to become more personally relevant and democratically accountable than through public participation in policy. (2009: 345)
This once tentative assessment was properly explored through the selection of panel participants’ papers and thematic foci of the stream between 2014 and 2019. To better showcase the significance, for STS as a whole, of consistently attending to this overlooked area, one needs only to remember how prominently another program for research featured at the time – one foregrounding a ‘normative commitment’ to the ideal of public engagement in and for science policy (Stilgoe et al., 2014: 4). Recently Davies directly addressed the limited horizon of such proclamations, pointing out how “[STS] work on participatory and dialogic forms of science communication has, therefore, taken for granted that this is valuable to society because it contributes to democracy (specifically, democratic science policy)”, leaving much else outside the scope (2021: 119). The convenors’ efforts have systematically catered to the study of science communication as generative of accounts “about democracy as much as it is about pleasure, spaces, visions, organisations, identities, professions, stories and cultures.” (Davies and Horst, 2016: 31).
With public engagement temporarily side-lined, the study of science communication from STS perspectives could then pursue problematics such as “reflections on the role science communication may play in the democratisation of science, analyses of the constitution of publics and knowledges within particular science communication activities, or accounts of experimental practice” (Situating Solidarities, 2014). Early fruits of this strategic move comprise not only novel “explor[ations of] the boundaries of STS scholarship on science communication” (Science and technology by other means, 2016), but the overall reframing of the relation between STS and science communication (Horst et al., 2017). Observing powerful interlinkages between scientific work and the un/makings of civic life beyond conventional spaces of modern democratic politics, Horst et al. claim that:
[…] research in science communication draws attention to the role that informal engagement with science can play in scientific citizenship. In that way it enables STS scholars to observe how lay citizens use museums, popular science, or the Internet as parts of their civic lives. Equally, the foregrounding by science communication research of emotional and aesthetic responses to science—such as pleasure, excitement, entertainment, wonder, and fear—brings a new dimension to the still largely epistemic orientation of STS. (2017: 897)
In 2020, a focus on public engagement would be included within the stream’s overarching preoccupation with the dynamics of ‘making science in public’. The inclusion owes much to conceptual innovations, which had in the meantime informed the placement of research on public engagement within an ecosystem of activities, comprising all kinds of “organised actions aiming to communicate scientific knowledge, methodology, processes or practices in settings where non-scientists are a recognised part of the audience.” (Davies and Horst, 2016: 12). It was in the context of joint projects and meetings bridging EASST and 4S that the stream would re-articulate its focus on casting both science communication and public engagement as
[k]ey mechanisms by which scientific knowledge is mediated, negotiated, and transformed. Over the past decades, STS research has outlined the ways in which science and society are co-produced through public communication activities and catalysed a shift towards dialogue and engagement in science communication practice. (Locating and Timing Matters, 2020)
This is by far the most authoritative proposition to be found in the stream’s biography, prefacing each call published ever since 2019. It claims space for STS research to function as catalytic both in and for science communication practice, while at the same time placing its thematic foci as central in and for STS scholarship. Going into the future I think it is worth reflecting further on the ethos of catalytic work – a metaphor not so preoccupied with preservation or transgression of boundaries, but with how to account for the transformative epistemic effects our engagement accelerates or precipitates. In that sense my call, during my presentation at panel 062, for the study of ‘science-in-society communication(s)’ stands for an empirical and theoretical re-orientation toward the diverging ways science media and/or science communication workers reflect on their role and participation in legitimizing or contesting emerging “knowledge-control regime[s].” (Hilgartner, 2017: 9) In the next paragraphs I use this lens and offer my own impressions from synergies among the papers presented in Madrid.
Focusing on this year’s selection of papers, I particularly enjoyed contributions that painted rich empirical stories of how established (research or technology development) oversight mechanisms open up to public contestation. Stelmach and Smith’s paper (co-authored with Hartley) discussed gene drive as an emerging ‘global’ technology. They show how upcoming and almost certainly uncontainable field experiments with gene drive have demanded preparedness policies and have elicited promises for engaging publics in their risk assessment. Their study of how stakeholders in different countries envisage public engagement thus “contributes to the politics of opening up the under-researched and highly technical space of risk assessment” (Politics of Technoscientific Futures, 2022: 369). Crudgington’s video essay further contributed to the opening up of processes of (animal) research oversight governed by secrecy, confidentiality and technical specialization. In this case, it was done “[u]sing the scenario of an imaginary ethical review board tasked with future proofing vaccine productions during global pandemics, [in the context of which] participants explore more complex, nuanced, and empowering conversations in which they learn about their own views and the views of others.” (Politics of Technoscientific Futures, 2022: 402) Refracting the perspectives of researcher and advocate, Kashouris presented anti-microbial resistance (AMR) as an epistemic object assembled at the asymmetrical encounter between ‘unambitious’ state (UK) interventions and their public contestation by chronic sufferers of UTIs, expanding “[Catherine] Will’s argument that public health approaches to AMR so far reflect loss of confidence in the public.” (Politics of Technoscientific Futures, 2022: 435)
Another thematic spanning 062 explored technologically mediated investments in ‘dialogue’ or dialogical format(s) under accelerated circumstance (practice-, media- and place- specific). Such investments often seek to reinvent the values underpinning the terms and conditions for legitimate participation. As Rohden argued, a good case in point pertains to the “development of moderation and posting rules on several coronavirus-related subreddits. Deciding what kind of content would be allowed to be posted where and by whom, and negotiating what counted as ‘scientific’, ‘reliable’, or ‘expert’ sources of information, effectively shaped the way that knowledge about the pandemic was made visible on Reddit.” (Politics of Technoscientific Futures, 2022: 370) Breuer and Penkler expanded on recent concerns of professional moderators to go ‘more dynamic’ with their practice, “[analysing] ‘opinion’ as an emergent object and category [which] was imagined and produced in a series of German public engagement events called “Genome Editing in Dialogue.” (Politics of Technoscientific Futures, 2022: 370) Dolan and Riesch not only reported from their (co-authored with Mihai and Carraro) study of “how scientists and science communicators from four [science improvisation] groups have deployed improvised comedy as a form of science communication”, but also engaged in a round of “that’s right!” (a medium rooted in dialogical principles of interpersonal interaction) to showcase how experienced performers can better safeguard scientific authority against the deconstructive aspects of comedy (Politics of Technoscientific Futures, 2022: 402).
The final trio of papers approached exemplary places of scientific and/or epistemic authority, i.e. the stem cell laboratory, the oncology clinic, the biotope, but from the perspectives of those who sit very low in the respective “economies of credibility” (Shapin, 1995: 268). Aarden, rendered the in-situ observation of avian wild life into a strategic multispecies alliance. His talk explored how STS can viably extend “an invitation to different kinds of ‘publics’ to visually capture and reflect on their encounters with climate change, biodiversity, etc. [as a means for providing] insight into publics’ perceptions of environmental issues that explicitly draw on their emotional, aesthetic and experiential dimensions.” (Politics of Technoscientific Futures, 2022: 403) Van der Kamp’s paper (co-authored with Betten and Krabbenborg) presented us with a hashtag used by women living with incurable cancer, which openly challenges established codes of propriety in constructing credibility and communicating biomedical knowledge on Instagram. “[The authors] argue that the next step for science communicators is to explore to what extent these stories can and should become part of the biomedical discourse in order to enrich deliberation and decision making processes on the development and implementation of new technologies.” (Politics of Technoscientific Futures, 2022: 434)
My own contribution discussed the role of investigative journalism during one of the most tumultuous and consequential episodes of research misconduct investigation of the 21st century, the so-called STAP cell case at the prestigious Japanese research organization RIKEN (2014-2017). I was taken by the effectiveness of one such investigative reportage in particular, which questioned the credibility of the official RIKEN investigation and argued for the epistemic significance of previously unadmitted evidence of misconduct. The reactions forced the hand of RIKEN in reopening the case under a new committee. The reportage also directly attacked the legitimacy of replication experiments on the STAP cell technique, casting them as sites for contesting in the public eye the boundaries of in/acceptable scientific conduct as much as problematizing notions of the “public’s right to know(ledge)” – a co-production I analysed using the concept of scientific citizenship (Irwin, 2001: 4) and the lens of science-in-society communication.
To conclude, in recovering the ‘biography’ of this thematic stream I came to recognize it as a network of researchers, theoretical orientations, distributed practical and intellectual resources, mentoring, sense of belonging, publication plans, etc. Against this backdrop, my proposal for the EASST community would be a shift of perspective: instead of using convening work as the machinery for gathering a distributed network in one place at one time, what about using the geographically and even temporally distributed network as machinery for reimagining the labours and values of convening work? I hope this review starts a conversation, which situates the imaginations and attempts for new conference formats within experience stemming from already existing sustainable collaborations, like, but not be limited to, panel 062.
Acknowledgment: Participating at EASST 2022 would have been impossible without the generous offer of a conference fee waiver (EASST Grant), so thanks go out to the scientific committee for their support. I want to acknowledge the role of specific individuals in further facilitating good conditions of participation for me. Special thanks go to B. Kasparek, Z. Vasilyeva, C. Cuevas Garcia and S. Pfotenhauer. I am grateful to A. Maibaum for a good piece of advice. Two colleagues read and commented on early drafts of the review, and for this thank you, C. Mendes and F. Rohden.
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Politics of Technoscientific Futures (2022) EASST Biannual Meeting: Book of Abstracts. Available at: https://easst2022.org/EASST_2022_Madrid_Book_of_AbstractsDEF.pdf (accessed 15 August 2022).
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Yesterday, just two months after our Madrid conference, I finally made it to the storage room. I actually just landed back in Madrid… two months after I left my city, the day after the end of the conference. But, somehow, I was too busy settling and, in a way, I was also unprepared to take a look back. In that storage room, dozens of conference bags, a few t-shirts and some lanyards: all of them with the logo of EASST 2022.
As I entered the room, I realized that, indeed, it had happened. We did meet, hundreds of us, in Madrid at the beginning of this now fading summer. We met again; we hugged each other, sat down, looked at each other, frowned upon the nerves of standing up and present our papers in a packed room. We marveled at this opportunity, we complained about the heat and the costs, we raised our full glasses, we stormed the city at night, and we danced together. But most importantly, we shared our knowledge, our doubts, our aspirations, our questions and, why not, our hopes that we would make it forward. We inspired each other, got feedbacks, pushed forward our boundaries and our epistemic communities, small and big ones alike.
It was like before but, at the same time, it was not. Something had changed: we were immensely happy to be back together face to face, but we learned a lesson that made us realize that things could no longer be exactly the same. And this change requires now more than just our acknowledgement. The planet is burning fast, and this has been the driest summer in the past 500 years. We did not know it yet in Madrid, but we feared it could be… and it was. A wider reflection on how we should rethink our conferences in this new scenario was always behind the curtains, and often on the front stage. The pandemic is not over, as it is still harvesting thousands of deaths across the world. The war is still going on, forcing thousands of people in Ukraine to live under permanent threat, facing violence and horror every day, but also leaving shocked and outraged thousands of silent and scared Russians, who disagree with the way the situation has been handled and has evolved. People in Europe are also increasingly vulnerable and poor, with several countries marching fast towards a new economic crisis.
These concerns, along with other important ones on artificial intelligence, biomedical data, political participation and science communication, were all discussed at length in a wide variety of panels or semi-plenary sessions throughout the three days of the conference. Some of these concerns are now discussed at length by contributions in this issue. The future of techno-politics, interspecies cohabitation, the role of STS in the study of democracy and the trajectory of STS studies in science communication are but some of them. Though very different in their focus, approach and topic, all these contributions share a concern for what we live and act today as “politics”, for the complex interplay between science and democracy, and for what all these dynamics of change imply for the future of our planet, including our species. They hint at the need to rethink collectively our studies, our tools, our participation in society and, last but not least, our responsibility towards the planet which we inhabit and the political system in which we live and operate.
The last plenary in the conference was quite explicit about this, and it gave voice to a general discomfort with current participation dynamics in our democratic life, as you may also read in the contribution by Sarah Rose Bieszczad and James Besse on the Early Career Researchers meeting. It encouraged us not only to include these as central topics in our studies but also to take a more active stance in our social engagement and to rethink collectively how to make existing institutions less hostile and more welcoming to the variety of voices and proposals that are blossoming outside the palaces of power. We collectively agreed, or so it seemed, that STS also holds a potential to contribute to the study, maintenance and care of the political institutions that do not seem to work as effectively as they were used to, often high-jacked by powerful minorities who have no interest in the common good.
Yet, we seemed also to agree that Madrid has been the first face-to-face conference post-pandemic (if we can say that), but possibly also the last one. Surely, nobody argued that we should not meet again face-to-face, as it was widely recognized that it is crucial for junior and senior scholars alike to have this opportunity. Whilst it was clear that the traditional model of conference is no longer sustainable, not only for the costs, but also for the significant CO2 impact, it was also clear that existing alternatives, ranging from on-line conference to hybrid events, are also plagued with their own difficulties. In a lunch session organized by the local committee a small but motivated group had a chance to discuss these issues at length, setting the basis for a debate that is likely to last, within and outside the EASST community, for the years to come. You will indeed find more refreshing insights on this topic written by council member Richard Tutton and colleagues in this EASST Review issue.
New forms of meeting each other in order to still have a chance to share time, space, knowledge, doubts and fun together, have become necessary. It is still unclear how they will emerge and consolidate, but it is clear that our scholarly community is actively looking into this. We are honored to have had a chance to give these reflections space and support in Madrid and we are very much looking forward to the next EASST conference for novelties and surprises!
Surely, conference memories should not remain a mere nostalgic exercise. EASST 2022 was a forward-looking conference, which encouraged all of us to think the interplay of science, politics and technology not only as future-generating combination but often also a powerful conservative device that tends to uphold dominant arrangements of our political present, sidelining or obscuring even alternative visions and processes of future generation. After this summer break, the return to our academic life and jobs bears an additional responsibility, which compels us to keep this in mind as we move forward.
Faithful to this spirit, it is also time for the somewhat fragmented STS community in the Spanish state to gather and mobilize once again. The organization of EASST 2022 has been a marvelous, though no doubt demanding, opportunity for many of us to gather and work side by side again. Our hope is that what we shared along the road that took us to IFEMA last July would become a source of energy for a new journey as a thriving STS association.
On behalf of the editorial team
POSTSCRIPT: When finalising this EASST Review which looks back on the Madrid EASST Conference, we received the very sad news of Bruno Latour’s passing. Our colleagues and friends from École des Mines in Paris have written an In Memoriam for this issue. We thank them for this collective contribution and welcome any other memories and contributions to honour his life and work for the next edition which will appear in December. Chapeau, Professeur Latour! Vous resterez dans nos pensées, dans notre enseignement, nos écrits et nos discussions, en Europe et dans le reste du monde.