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Digitalization of life — How technology redefine the self in the global context

Through cross-research experiences the session opened analytical possibilities and countless interpretative gaze. In particular, the heterogeneity of the opening panel aroused various reflections on the subjective dimension in the use and evolution of science and technology. The main research themes, but especially the conclusions of each work, concerned questions of ontological character: health, identity, happiness, sexuality, were the main themes and research areas in which the digitization of subjectivity seem to have helped in the relationship between people and the self. In sociological terms when we talk of digital subjectivity, we can refer to a more fluid form of organization and expression of the self and not an annihilation of subjectivity in the traditional sense (Jamieson, 2013). The technologies in this sense deconstruct our experience, but at the same time lend it a new nature. Over the last decade the growing possibilities of living in online worlds have continued to undermine and throw into question traditional anthropological conceptions of place-based ethnography (Whitehead and Wesch, 2012). The increase of the possibility to live in the online world and the digital raises the question about new ways of living together and moreover, how to study this new way of being in the world that is taking shape. How does sociology, anthropology and social sciences grasp these movements based essentially on a concept of human being and of society that escape a traditional way to frame them? Everything is “simultaneously real, social, and narrated” (Latour 1993, p.7) but how does an ethnography of both the “unhuman” and the “digital” lead to exciting possibilities to reconfigure the notion of what is human? (Whitehead and Wesch, 2012). It seems necessary to reconfigure the notion of the human being in the light of the digital space and digitization of life, from a heuristic perspective for scientists regarding new possibilities of living in society. In this sense, the digitization of some aspects of life might suggest a drift of the chaotic post-human, but in fact a broader perspective could imagine a liberation from capitalist hegemonic conception of what we believe is human. The numerous areas of daily life that are digitized, suggests that somehow this process extends the meaning of what is human. While this takes many guises, it generally falls into a distinction of technology in some way enslaving people, or technology extending what it means to be human (Arthur 2010). Is it possible, therefore, to realize the importance of new interpretative sources that attend to technologies that become part of the daily life, with all their limitations and potentials. The effort of this contribution will be to explore other areas of human and social life that are affected by digitalization that become an element of metamorphosis that involves more aspects and offers opportunities and risks. These were discussed in the main contributions and concerned the exploration of three areas; health, happiness and sexuality.

New frontiers of health: mHealth and self management of disease

The main contributions addressed the digitization of health and suggested that the experience of illness is effectively changing. The most discussed issues were self management, patient empowerment, and management accountability through the use of digital platforms. In particular the contribution of Benjamin Marent Entitled ‘Digital technologies and the reconfiguration of health experiences and practices’ highlighted, in an interesting study on the implementation of mobile health (mHealth) platform to enable self-management of HIV in patients, that there is effectively a certain degree of empowerment, but that leads to increased individual responsibility for health. The patient is not responsible just for his or her care, but also for the accuracy of data to be useful for the supervision of the disease (Bruni, Rizzi, 2013). The self-monitoring can foster a greater awareness of their own health, but is accompanied by a reductionist understanding of health. In addition, the health risks that could arise from incorrect measurements of their parameters are significant. In the contribution presented, the patients in the trial are wondering about the correct way to use the mobile app and do not give up the opinion of the doctor. This may lead to reflection on how to integrate doctor and new e-health technologies. The key issue for the development of e-health is the emergence of new means of communication, enabling health professionals, institutions, patients and the general public to remain permanently connected (Kivits, 2013). The contribution entitled ‘Self-management and quantified-self: how diabetes apps foster monitoring’ by Barbara Morsello and Veronica Moretti focused on the study of the app for the management of type 1 diabetes, emphasized how the services available with these apps, such as the insulin calculator, may lead to an incorrect or inappropriate dose recommendation or the power of influencing other patients expecially young, starting with blood-tracking practices. These apps are often designed with levels of gramification that allow you to experience the management and monitoring as a pleasant experience and to share it with others. Infact an aspect of the field of e-health relates to virtual health. Virtual health refers to the possibility of a new body surpassing its physical aptitudes and limits in order to gain new competencies in a ‘cyberspace’ as a ‘superhuman’ evolving in a virtual world (Kivits, 2013). We conclude that digital care innovations facilitate the tracking of healthcare practices and the potential of the mHealth platform for self-management in everyday practices and organisational routines should not be overlooked.


The Barcelona International Convention Centre CCIB main entrance, during EASST and 4S Conference.
Courtesy of Barbara Morsello


Emotional quantification: happyness as a measure of progress

A very interesting presentation entitled ‘Happiness as a Measure of Progress: Digital tools of policy making’ by Anat Noa Fanti explored the consequences, but mostly the findings, raised from the analysis of happiness and well-being indicators used in various global contexts. The author’s perspective started from the historical and cultural analysis of the concept of happiness, to reach the conclusion that emotions are measured as any dimension of modern life such as productivity, the country’s political life, health and so on. The statistical measurement can be seen as a form of management and control of the western population by their governments. Happiness in his new aggregate form, away from subjective emotion, suffers a cultural shift: it becomes something understandable, explicable in terms of cause and effect, and therefore measurable. Hence the happiness rate of a country can be measured, it can become developable through creating the conditions through indicators that governments deem reliable. Happiness and its indexing makes the different countries comparable in some way and thus places them on a scale, from least to most happy. Happiness is no longer within the country and citizens, but it becomes something external, to ‘objectively’ measure. The fascinating point of this discussion concerns the risks that this indicator of happiness and well-being could become a new way to regulate the self and the subjectivity of citizens, taking with it the latent imposition of new standards and desirable models.


Digital Subjects in online spaces

Technology is therefore not neutral because it is an expression of human being (Savat 2013). The technologies are anthropomorphic and reproduce our action, which is always based on values. The social world that we produce is the mirror of virtual environments we inhabit, and we form with our intervention. In this way we can support that online is the link between our being and our doing or, rather, it is the expression of our being as doing (Poster et al, 2009). The contribution of Patrick Keilty entitled ‘Digital Subjects in the Graphical Interface of Pornography’ intended precisely to grasp the dimension of values in the construction of digital subjects of graphical interfaces of online pornography websites. The development of graphical interfaces is essentially based on the maximization of pleasure, , through a stereotypical vision of the user and his needs. This stereotype guides the construction of the online environments that are based on users, in a perspective of costs and benefits. It would be desirable however to try to return to the user a safe space, a dwelling in which the person can seek refuge, but instead often these spaces seem more established as a transit user space rather than the person. The author uses the case of pornographic sites to highlight the need to establish the online space as a continuation of the physical space of relations without losing sight of the human dimension.



Health, emotions, digital spaces, are just some examples through which it was possible to talk about the forms of life that become digital and the importance of discovering and exploring new forms of this process. Technology expresses how we live our daily existence and how we organize ourselves, in terms of both our relations to one another and the sorts of subjects we constitute ourselves as (Deleuze 1992). All of our human and sensory experiences are compared with the digital today: the sense of time and space that are the pillars of our primordial feel, according to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant considered as the pure forms of intuition, which are influenced today by digital. The depersonalization of space, the reification of time, the opportunity to live differently in the space and the time (Giddens 1994) are all witnesses to the fact that the basis of human experience is our mode of connecting the human form to digital in particular in so called ‘advanced societies’. The digital influences capabilities and human actions causing the multiplication of the problems of coexistence, but at the same time establishing itself as opportunities and abilities to solve problems and create new possibilities in many fields such as medicine, communication, mobility, new media, etc.

Basically what we define as subjectivity, identity, self, is the result of particular cultural and social contexts products in certain circumstances. Therefore it is now more urgent than ever to rediscover the human data inside digitization and focus on the risks of appropriation and manipulation of data, institutional manipulation and irresponsibility by the the political system towards the social actor and its subjectivity.

Dealing with numbers. Looking beyond the self-monitoring for a new technology of the self


We have always been quantified. What has changed today is the modality by which we collect our personal information. Nowadays, sensor and wearable devices allow people to collect data easily and immediately (Neff & Nafus, 2016). What is self-tracking? We can define it as “the practice of gathering data about oneself on a regular basis and then recording and analysing the data to produce statistics and other data (such as images) relating to regular habits, behaviours and feelings” (Lupton, 2014: 1). Several causes led individuals to start to monitor themselves; to improve their health, to increase their physical or mental performances or find new stimuli (Choe et al., 2014).

Through data-collection people get more awareness about their condition. Moreover, graphs and charts confer more objectivity to the self-tracking activity. This communication form through numbers is one of the main characteristics of modern societies. Individuals are perceived as entrepreneurs who, according to the standards proposed by new liberal societies, have to realize a complete transformation of him/herself in order to achieve happiness, pureness, wisdom, perfection and immortality (Foucault, 1992: 13). Nevertheless, it is not correct to think upon a numeric hegemony on the humans activity because “like words, numbers also can be evaluated in terms other than their accuracy as representations […] Numbers that defy conventions or expectations can be infelicitous as well as wrong” (Espeland & Stevens, 2008: 403). In this perspective, objectivity is a question of legitimacy, a view of understanding things in a certain way.

When people record, analyse and reflect on data about themselves they work as a laboratory. Indeed, self-tracking promotes – or attempt to – a mutation in our life. The self is made by a negotiation of a lot of things. The interaction with data, with technology and with other people is really intense. Measure can cause people to think, and consequently to act, differently. Additionally, as shown by Ms Farzana Dudhwala during her intervention “The ‘Sobjective’ Self: A Paradoxical Multiplicity”, if self-tracking fosters our performances, how can we be the same person? How can constancy be achieved?

In this section I analyse the main dimensions in which self-tracking is experienced by people and how these activities are presenting two new aspects of the modern-quantified human being: fluidity and multiplicity. With the first element we consider an intensification of subjectivity through mechanical objectivity and, at the same time, an experience of union, play, space and intensification of senses. With the second aspect we look at self-tracking as something that forces people to organise their lives in a market manner because improving aspects of our life it is necessary to establish a self-optimization of our productivity.


Fig. 1 (left): An app a day keeps the doctor away.
Courtesy of Hilda Bastian


Below I report three areas in which self-tracking activity stimulates a debate as to the reasons behind them and describe some of the interventions in the session.

Self-monitoring at work. With regard to practices of self-monitoring in the workplace, technologies promote a way to encourage both employers and employees to be more aware of their performances. On one hand office workers can use a self-monitoring device to critique their workplace culture. As was shown by Miss Amie Weedon during her intervention “Self-monitoring as work: office workers use of a self-monitoring device to critique their workplace culture”, through apposite devices (such as Lumo, a belt that vibrates every time we slouch to remind us to sit tall and stand straight), employees can report negative conditions of their body. The other side of the coin concerns productivity-monitoring. Using apps (such as RescueTime or Worktime) employers can track the progress of the users (employees) to achieve agreed goals (Lupton, 2016). In this perspective, gamification is an important dimension for new approaches of self-monitoring in the work place. Through the use of game elements in non-game context, it is possible “to increase influence and encourage engagement and activity” (Luminea, 2013 p. 13). Corporate companies foster these game strategies for improving wellbeing (and productivity) among workers.

Self-monitoring and wellness. Through new forms of training our wellness can improve automatically. The body can be programmed and, using our data, governed. Several tools have been created to achieve this maximisation of our capabilities. The self-tracking activity, applied to wellness, consists of a digital and scrupulous registration of some physical parameters: this data-gathering consists of the digital and meticulous recording of physical parameters, such as number of burned calories per day, heartbeat, level of anxiety and stress, quality of sleep, blood pressure and also body mass index (Maturo, 2015).

Nowadays, these tools are more precise and something we can combine. A lot of wearable devices are using apps, as shown by Dr Martin Berg during his presentation “Smart jewellery: measuring the unknown”, such as Oura, wellness (ring+ app) to improve the measurement. Big brands are producing objects which are able to measure physical parameters even if they maintain pleasant features. Some examples are Swarovski necklaces, having crystal-encrusted fitness and sleep trackers, or the Polo Tech Shirt, created by Ralph Loren embedded with a body metric sensor (Lupton, 2016).


Fig. 2 (right): Quantifying the human body
Courtesy of Paul Abramson.


Self-monitoring and health 

Self-tracking to monitor and improve health has already become a common practice (Neff, Nafus 206). Technological objects and artefacts become constituent elements of the clinical encounter between doctor and patient 2.0. As shown by Dr Maki Iwase in her intervention “The Glucometer: Figures don’t lie, but women figure”, due to technology, especially with the possibility to collect a lot of information in real time, people are becoming patients earlier than before. Moreover e-health policy is promoting health and care by means of technology and consumer apps. This collection of data also increased the value and the use of personal health data for prevention of early diseases and there is no clear boundary between what is self-monitoring and medical monitoring.

For this reason, technological instruments could facilitate health self-management, creating a new form of patient who is responsible for his or her care and for the collection of data used for the supervision of the disease (Bruni & Rizzi, 2013).



Through self-monitoring, contradictory evidence in self-tracking can appear.

Living algorithmically can lead people to have a bias to accept confirmatory evidence of the collected data because subjective reporting is often different from an objective measurement.

Sometimes the mouth expresses stress but the heart does not. In addition, self-tracking activity does not guarantee that the person will avoid being prescribed insulin. For this reason it is important to consider the relationship between individuals and their data because “self-tracking data has a vitality and a social life of their own, circulating across and between a multitude of sites” (Lupton, 2016: 88). Cultural, politics, ethical and social issues are raised by the big data movement. Being a data citizen prompts new forms of data work. For this reason we can talk about data as social lives, because they have an impact on life, on the new digital-self.

Through numbers we can become more aware of our bodies’ states, with the peculiarity that nowadays “data in more people’s hands is not neutral; it can create or undermine beliefs” (Neff & Nafus, 2016:17).

Numbers, created through self-tracking activities, are elements socially built that do not offer a neutral worldview but, on the contrary, describe our reality while influencing whoever is using them (Neresini, 2015). In this way numbers are not describing reality but creating it. They also represent what Latour defined as “immutable mobiles” that help us to get a better understanding of our endeavours. Furthermore, immutable mobiles facilitate the proliferation of information through society, greatly expanding the scientific revolution as well as present culture (Latour, 1986).


Self-monitoring in everyday practices aims to enhance performance and productivity. Through motivation and self-discipline it is possible to reduces contradictory experiences (moving towards an optimization of our skills/capabilities) and to celebrate a new process of knowledge about ourselves. The integration between individuals and technology is becoming increasingly composite “as technical activities have become more pervasive and complex, demand has grown for more complete and multivalent evaluations of the costs and benefits of technological progress” (Jasanoff, 2003: 243).

Nevertheless it is important not to exclude some negative aspects of self-monitoring. First of all data collection, if becomes an obsession, can overload individuals. At the same time, with regards to self-tracking and health, patient lives in the balance between instruments that facilitate the task of self-management and considerable pressure due to the transfer of the responsibility of care from the doctor to the patient. In fact, it is not easy to establish if these instruments can effectively improve the quality of patients’lives or are only a short-cut to reducing the operating costs of care services.

Finally, individuals who are controlling other humans through the so-called interveillance can create some mechanisms of social exclusion. Indeed, in our digital era, whoever refuses to be under these practices of control refuses to be a part of the society itself.

Science, Technology and Security: Discovering intersections between STS and security studies

Although science, technology and security are fields with numerous intersections, especially on a theoretical level, there are, on the one hand, few STS studies on security issues and, on the other, security studies do not pay much attention to science and technology. This is particularly striking, given that technology has always been crucial for the development of effective security policies and programs, and the military sector has not only profited, but also induced major scientific and technological developments. Of course, these developments have to be regarded very critically, as they often interfere with universal rights such as liberty and privacy. Especially with the rapid increase of different surveillance technologies, social impacts of technologies have become subject of an extended political and societal debate. (cf. Lyon 2007: 46) But debates on intersections between science, technology and security need to go beyond the debate on surveillance technologies, as the continuous development of lethal arms as well as the rise of dual-use technologies – technologies that can be used for civil as well as military purposes such as drones – have changed approaches towards security. The track “Back to the future: STS and the (lost) security research agenda” at the 2016 4S/EASST conference in Barcelona included a variety of different approaches in order to advance the field of security studies from an STS perspective, initiating a more comprehensive debate on science, technology and security.

How can we describe the theoretical intersections between these fields? Theoretical approaches were widespread in the course of the panel, using STS as well as security studies, one presentation explained the boundaries of security studies and technologies, others used critical approaches towards security.

During the conference, especially critical, post-structuralist approaches of security studies were used, such as the securitization theory. As described by Buzan et al. (1998), securitization means the perception of an issue as an existential threat to the security of a state. This perception should however be extended to the security of individuals as well, as technology can often assist as well as compromise human security. Securitization is therefore the act of defining problems as security threats through various actions; a prevalent action in this regard is discourse, as described by Hansen (2006), meaning that security is created through language and the debate on certain topics, which was also used by one presenter in the context of the security implications of satellite imagery. One theory that I would suggest in this regard is the approach of Collier and Lakoff (2008) who describe critical infrastructures as security issues. This is a viable approach in order to link STS to security studies as it links thoughts on infrastructure characteristics to thoughts on security and how infrastructures are characterized as security issues, furthermore Collier and Lakoff describe a variety of threat scenarios. Multiple approaches, also during the session, explained discourses on security as central aspects of the constitution of threats and solutions to these threats, especially by using technology. In return, securitization can lead to what Ceyhan (2008) calls the “technologization” of security, where technology is regarded as a “security enabler” (ibid.: 103), a means of achieving security.

The construction of security and the following technologization leads to what Jasanoff (2004) defines as “co-production of science and social order”, in this special case security being a part of the social order, therefore, the question arises if technology and security are co-produced, which was also one of the main discussion points at the 4S/EASST Conference. One concept that was discussed throughout the course of the session was the concept of sociotechnical imaginaries as explained by Jasanoff and Kim (2009). Sociotechnical imaginaries are “collectively imagined forms of social life and social order reflected in the design and fulfillment of nation-specific scientific and/or technological projects.” (ibid.: 120) Sociotechnical imaginaries might prove useful to explain technological shifts to a certain extent, as one speaker suggested in the context of terrorism, where the imaginary of terrorist attacks shapes the development of counter-terrorism technologies.



The co-production of technology and security represented one storyline that appeared consistently during the presentations. Possibilities of developing stronger intersections between STS and security studies lie within a stronger linkage of theories. One alternative is the use Pinch and Bijker’s (1987) theory of the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT), which describes technology as socially constructed by interests, problems, and solutions of actors, as explained on the panel with the example of drones being a result of social construction. In opposition to this approach, which has been under critique, stands technological determinism, where technology is regarded as factor in social change. This approach is especially prevalent in International Relations (IR)-approaches, which regard technology as one main driving factor of change in the international system. (McCarthy 2013) Determinist views appeared across the panel, especially when speakers investigated how technologies change security practices. Actor-Network Theory (ANT) represents another possibility of approaching security technologies through an STS perspective and creating intersections between the two fields. Barry (2013) sees the necessity of changing ANT approaches in order to make them fitting to IR, describing a “translation zone” of ANT within IR. Barry describes that IR poses a different set of challenges, such as the concentration on historic events and the importance of boundaries, two aspects that signify little importance in ANT, which is why ANT needs to consider these challenges when applied in an IR context.

Security technologies can adopt a great variety of forms, such as weapons but also so-called dual-use technologies, surveillance technologies and defence technologies, especially against attacking weapons. Dual-use technologies can be described as technologies that can be used for civil and military purposes at the same time, depending on the characteristics of the technology, such as drones. One approach that I think is viable in the context of dual-use technologies is Star’s (2010) concept of “boundary objects”, objects whose significance is subject to the interpretation of usage. In this regard, emerging technologies, such as drones, pose new analytical questions, as these are prime examples of boundary objects that take different shapes and are used in different contexts depending on the objective of the usage.

When debating infrastructures as security issues, it might be viable to apply Hughes’ (1989) concept of Large-Technical Systems (LTS). Hughes describes big infrastructures, such as electricity, railways and energy supply, as technological systems that do not only involve the integration of different technologies, but also include human actors. Furthermore, these systems have enormous impact on the functioning of societies, which makes them interpretable as critical infrastructures. As security is growing increasingly globalized, LTS become more internationalized as well, which opens questions of governance of LTS. Mayer and Acuto (2015) argue for a linkage of Global Governance, a theoretical approach that is prevalent in IR, and LTS for a stronger perspective from the field of IR on these systems.

The debate at the 4S/EASST conference disclosed some very important aspects of intersecting science, technology and security and proved the necessity of creating a more comprehensive understanding of security aspects within STS. Security is a vital interest of states and individuals alike and shapes perceptions and imaginaries of science and technology. From an STS viewpoint, it is also important to investigate the role of agents and structures in security R&D, as it is important to understand the interdependence between society and security technologies. An improved understanding of security technologies might provide STS-scholars with a more comprehensive perspective towards these technologies as instruments of power, surveillance and even oppression, but also as threats or opportunities. The prevalent aspect of the debate is to develop the ability to understand security technologies in a more comprehensive sense, especially, since the development of dual-use technologies and the securitization of technology have initiated a stronger connection between civilian and military technologies.

To sum up, STS needs to develop a vital interest in security studies, as security studies have undergone dramatic change, threats have multiplied, for example, climate change is regarded as security threat, terrorism has emerged as one of the central aspects of security policy and surveillance has dramatically altered the narrative of security studies. This will not only help in understanding the development and use of security technologies, but also will cause substantial and important critique on the militarization of science and technology.

STS and data science: Making a data scientist?

STS perspectives on the unfolding data revolution

Society finds itself at the beginning of a digital era where every device is online and sensors create continuous streams of data. The increased volume, velocity, and variety of this data is encompassed in the concept “big data”. The rise of big data has gone hand in hand with an ongoing increase in computational power which allows for the development of ever more sophisticated data analysis techniques, models, and algorithms. This broad collection of data-centric method innovations is referred to as “data science” (Hey, 2006). Although the concepts of big data and data science are loosely defined and sometimes used interchangeably, in this essay I adopt the distinction as outlined above.

Data science has quickly proliferated outside academia and has attracted interest – and substantial investment – in the public and private sector. Data science is applied in a diversity of substantive areas, including smart cities, smart maintenance, e-health, and e-commerce. Over the years, quantifications in a general sense have earned a reputation in some fields for outperforming human decision makers (Dawes, 1979). Achievements of data science, such as the victory of AlphaGo – a deep learning algorithm- over professional go player Lee Sedol, have attracted widespread media attention.

While much effort is devoted toward advancing technical data science capability, our understanding of the non-technical side to data science has lagged behind. Here, I use technical to broadly discern the quantitative and the non-quantitative elements of data science. This hiatus has caught the attention of several STS scholars; 4S/EASST featured tracks such as “The Potential Futures of Data Science: A Roundtable Intervention” and “Critical data studies”, amongst others. This demonstrates the growing interest from the STS community in data science. In this essay, I reflect on my visit to 4S/EASST Barcelona and by summarizing my fieldnotes and providing a short form digital ethnography.

Through the process of rearranging my 4S/EASST notes – and hastily captured photos of slides – different themes emerged. As a recent sociology PhD graduate, I found that data science brings into focus new challenges (e.g. data-ownership, transparency of artificial neural networks) as well as existing ones (e.g. biases inherent to quantifications). It also draws our attention towards some practical issues for conducting research (e.g. how to study a deep-learning algorithm?).

It is well beyond the scope of this text to discuss all, if any, these topics in detail. Instead, I focus on a challenge that is also relevant to practitioners: How are data scientists coming to terms with their vaguely delineated, yet increasingly topical field? In this context, what does it mean to be a data scientist? Being a practitioner myself, how do I know if am I genuinely a data scientist?

These questions are of interest to STS precisely because data science is an emerging field. To illustrate this point, I draw on material that I have come across in my work as a data scientist. I will discuss the differences and similarities between ‘genres’ that express some definition of data science or data scientists. Perhaps the most salient example of this is the multitude of Venn diagrams that are disseminated online. These diagrams aim to describe what skills or areas of expertise are covered by data science and which ones are not. Figure 1 juxtaposes two such Venn diagrams. Although there are overlaps between the two (e.g. ‘subject matter expertise’ and ‘domain expertise’), the
re are also differences. For example, the diagram on the left does not include the sphere of ‘Social Sciences’. The diagram on the right also marks some areas as ‘danger zones’. These zones are not just considered outside of data science as a field, but also seem to present these zones as combinations of skills that can be risky. The diagram on the left takes a different approach and gives the honorary title of ‘unicorn’ to the data scientist possessing all required skills.


Fig. 1: Two examples of a Venn diagram that offers one delineation of data science. The first is taken from Taylor (2016) and the second from Malak (2014).


The material on definitions of data science is not limited to Venn diagrams. Another genre that can be identified is that of infographics, see Figure 2. These images differ from the Venn charts in that they do not represent the overlap between different areas. Nor do the explicitly state what combinations of skills can be considered dangerous. Rather, these combinations of text and art offer a list of skills that data scientists are expected to have or attain. Some of the skills listed were also present in the Venn diagrams. For example, ‘math and statistics’ can be seen in all of the images and ‘programming’ or ‘hacking’ in three out of four. The infographics seem to put more emphasis on ‘soft skills’ such as communication and project management.


Fig. 2: Two examples of infographics that list the set of skills that data scientists (should) have by Optimus Machine Learning (2016) and Zawadzki (2014).


Online vacancies for data scientists are a third genre that deals with the definition of data science and data scientists. As with the previous two genres there are substantial differences between the two examples shown in Figure 3. The required skills in the left advert include programming languages and experience in bash. These skills are absent from the second advert. Instead, it asks for experience in spreadsheet software and work experience at one of the big consultants. There are similarities between the two, both adverts ask for skills in working with databases and experience with a – albeit different – set of technologies. Yet, the successful applicant to either vacancy can update his or her job title to “data scientist”.


Figure 3: Two examples of skills job adverts that offer a list of skills for data scientists, taken from Godatadriven.com (2016) and has-jobs.com (2016).


The three genres outlined above offer different styles that data scientists use to come to terms with their emerging field. The genres offer different styles of definitions of data science and delineate the profession of data scientist in different ways. Although cross-cutting skills can be identified, it would seem there is a wide diversity in what is currently understood as data science and consequentially there is little consensus on what it means to be a data scientist. To practitioners, it remains unclear on what grounds one can use the job title of ‘data scientist’ as the required skillset and experience is divergent. As a data science professional, I am cautious of using the term data scientist. When I introduce myself to a peer, I try to first establish a working consensus of the term by explaining what I do. It perhaps not surprising that new classifications are starting to emerge under the umbrella of ‘data professions’. For example, some are now discerning between, data engineers, data analysts, data solution consultants and data regulatory officers, to name a few.

This essay outlined several challenges and questions which emerged from the material presented at the 4S/EASST conference. I proceeded by illustrating one of these challenges – the definition of data science – by presenting some online material. The essay demonstrates that there exists no consensus amongst practitioners of data science regarding the boundaries of their field or the skillset that associated with ‘data scientists’. This is just one of the non-technical aspects of data science. With the abundance of funding that is allocated towards data science initiatives, it seems both opportune and important that we move to develop directions for research on data science in STS. Surely, data science will prove an interesting subject for STS scholars for years to come.

Data practice, data science

In my account of this years’ EASST conference in Barcelona I would like to focus on STS studies of data practices, and the different perspectives I encountered at the conference with respect to how STS may engage with the professional worlds of digital data. I obtained my Phd in Human-Centered Computing in 2014 in the US, where I studied professional knowledge in the making of software. After my PhD, I returned to Europe, and I have been thinking of EASST conferences as opportunities for finding my way into the academic community in Europe. Now I came to the conference from Hungary with the financial support kindly provided by EASST, for which I feel honored and grateful. I was presenting my postdoctoral research at ITU about digital methods. My recent academic path has involved a lot of wayfinding and criss-crossing between places, countries, social worlds and their concerns, and the issue of finding my way into the professional worlds of digital data as a social scientist was most acute for me as I arrived at the conference.

With all the talk and interest in big data and data science, there is a growing sense of social build-up, and I feel that I share the sentiment with other STS scholars that it would be hard to circumvent all this commotion without intellectual curiosity and a sense of hope for exciting research. The social sciences have been taken up in a movement where objective accounts by impartial onlookers at the sidelines has been giving way to the involved and perspectival accounts of the participant, and I could sense a corresponding eagerness to be part of the digital data game. At the same time, the discussions also made it clear that these positions are in the midst of being explored by STS practitioners. If digital data presents itself as an opportunity (to play on a different metaphorical register which is more akin to the field itself), it is equally a challenge to find out how we can dwell in social science and digital data at the same time. This challenge has a reflexive edge to it insofar as our understanding of the constitution of these new domains plays into the STS position that we seek to outline from within. Big data and data science are emerging at the confluence of the knowledge work of data analysis and digital technology, and I would like to argue that significantly different epistemic positions are outlined depending on whether the digital character of data practices are given emphasis.


Fig. 1: A critical making hackathon by Gabby Resch at the University of Toronto exploring the quantification of toilets by means of behavioral and residue data
Courtesy of University of Toronto, Faculty of Information


My discussion draws from two panels, a roundtable session on ‘The Potential Futures of Data Science’ taking place at the very beginning of the conference, and the three-part track entitled ‘Critical data studies’ on the last day. The data science roundtable was hosted by Brian Beaton from CalPoly, and repeated a similar arrangement held with the same scholars at the 4S conference in Denver last year. It attracted a surprisingly large audience, who were also willing to cheerfully chip in with their considered opinions despite the early morning hour. The three-part track broadened the theme from data science to computational data practices at large, while big data was casting its shadow over both of the venues. The contributions on the last day were for the most part case studies of professional work practices around digital data, which provided the empirical fodder for a slower-paced discussion.

Overall, the discussions and presentations were convincing that there is a broad sweep of STS research about new professional practices around data. The empirical work presented on the last day was especially diverse, looking at among others visualization practices in elementary particle physics, modeling practices for informing policy among economists, algorithmic sense-making among data scientists, the use of data as evidence in health care, or curating large-scale databases across cultural institutions. Diversity within the field was discussed by several contributors, who pointed to a divide between academia and industry (David Ribes), a distinction between emerging practices of social data and the historical continuities in the natural sciences (Paul Edwards), and differences between large and small scale data practices within the latter (Irene Pasquetto and Ashley E. Sands). It is also clear that our research implies partaking of different professional settings and communities beyond the fields we study, for example in STS, policy and in education.

In the face of this diversity, my own question of wayfinding became translated to the problem of unity and relevance: what brings us together and with whom when we apply the STS lens to professional data practices?

I would like to start with the hype that characterizes big data and data science. These labels were adopted as unifying themes for the track and the roundtable, respectively, while participants also acknowledged that in talking about these areas, we are dealing with moving targets, open-ended signifiers which are driven by evangelism, boosterism or veiled financial and political interests. One approach was to render STS itself into a formative agent within this arena. Brian Beaton proposed, somewhat provocatively, to think about what a takeover of data science by STS would be like. He used the witty argument that (I paraphrase) we have been here for longer, and we have all the right tools for making sense of social practice. I understood him to mean that Big data and data science are surprisingly new developments, which are seeking to make sense of their own position in the scientific arena. STS has been working on making sense of exactly these kinds of situations, and we have developed considerable expertise in this While the fantasy of such a takeover deeply resonates with some part of my intellectual self, I jotted down the immediate reaction in my notes that this would not possible because digital data is already entangled in large-scale institutional contexts, which, together with technologies like databases and tools of analysis, create a powerful regime of practices. While gaining professional agency has enormous appeal, and it resonates with the call for doing STS by other means, we should be wary of a wholesale adoption of these open signifiers as the heuristic framing of research. In this regard, I particularly appreciated Andrew Clement’s short intervention that (and I am paraphrasing again) the emergence of data science is driven by those who seek control without a clear idea of how control may be achieved, and they are soliciting the help from a new cast of professionals, the data scientists, to make sense of data for this purpose.

Meanwhile, I also encountered examples of doing STS by other means which were exploring new avenues for understanding the role of STS within the digital data domain. I like to think of these approaches as qualified versions of insiderism, because they share with digital professionals the orientation to making, but this is pursued within an STS framing. Another way of characterizing them is to say that they appropriate the nitty-gritty of technological work practices around digital data for an STS agenda, engaging in some sort of a take-over of digital practices. An emphasis on the digital character of data practices comes to the fore, and this lends these positions a distinct epistemic character. I would like to report about two approaches which have been making a strong impression on me on account of practicing this silent, everyday form of take-over from within, the critical information practice of Yanni Loukissas, Matt Ratto and Gabby Resch, and the STS-take on digital data analysis that was brought to this conference by Tommaso Venturini, Anders Kristian Munk and Mathieu Jacomy. It was Resch and Venturini who talked about the respective approaches.

Critical data practice is a curriculum that has been developed to engage students in practice-based reflection around data. Paraphrasing Gabby Resch, critical data practice means that participants do actual data science with current digital tools, such as MapReduce and Pandas, but they also do Derrida and think about Derrida’s discussion of the archive. Data often comes to data science as a given, in the form of a database, and the authors have organized digital workshops which tackle this assumption and put in focus the making of data and databases. In these workshops, students are called on to invent their own apparatuses for data collection, they clean and aggregate the data and they are invited to reflect on the tactics they use in this process for making data regular.


Fig. 2: Working with network visualizations at a data sprint in Oxford
Courtesy of Tommaso Venturini


Venturini talked about how researchers in STS picked up the method of social network analysis and came to grapple with its limitations for pursuing STS questions. ANT proposes for example that networks become actors, and this would require a mode of analysis where node and network are reversible. Network analysis has no ready-made models and tools that could support such a reversible approach. In the face of this and other limitations, Venturini and his colleagues have outlined a research agenda for visual network analysis, which appropriates the computational apparatus for visualizing networks towards STS ends. One example is the ForceAtlas2 algorithm and its implementation in the open source network visualization tool Gephi. This algorithm makes social features like clustering and density more salient in network visualizations. In visual network analysis, advancing the STS agenda becomes possible through partnering with computers and engaging in the nitty-gritty of software development.

Venturini and Rasch have shown a path where STS appropriates digital data practice for its own theoretical and critical agenda. It is a path for doing STS by other means. This is in stark contrast with the approach which would bring the empirical and theoretical STS toolkit to enlighten or critique the agenda of data science. In fact, critical data practice and visual network analysis participate in figuring out digital data and giving a face and a name to it each in its own way. In this, they are similar to the scientists and professionals in the STS case studies presented at the conference. Their data practices are in sync with their work practices, which are varied and local. If we can talk about unity, it is at the level of digital practice.

I find that there is something powerful in the proposition to embrace digital practice for doing STS. It feels like a much awaited opportunity to do social science by other means, and it appeals to the ethnographer’s mandate to turn into an insider without entirely going over to the other side.

Illegal infrastructures: Technology as other practices

If data is the new soil, and the new oil, could one ask if we are constantly experiencing new and complex ontological futures of technology? And is it possible to simultaneously redefine it? In ‘Science and Technology by Other Means: Exploring collectives, spaces and futures’, the 4S/EASST Conference held in Barcelona this year, many such concerns were central to understanding modern digital conditions we currently negotiate and maneuver through. Technoscience imagination has always been crucial to the conceptualization of particular ways of thinking about the future, and data provides an expanding terrain on which it is made operational. This review will discuss my thoughts from some discussions that reflected a part of the larger engagements that the conference enabled; discussions about big data analytics and contemporary institutional practices.

In doing this review and in trying to understand the theme of the 4S/EASST conference this year, my objective primarily is to reflect on data-driven institutional practices in the meaning making, regulation and governance of illegal bodies and of ‘potential risks’; and the implicit notions of illegality embedded into various categorizations of social groups, communities and populations. Some of the discussions relevant to these issues focused on data driven practices in regulating social bodies, realities and phenomena, and perceptions of risks and illegalities embedded in digital interventions. For example in the session ‘Data-driven cities? Digital urbanism and its proxies’ (T027), presentations focused on the meanings and ways of using big data in analyzing urban spaces and politics. In general, they focused on how data was crucial in making calculable and computable analysis in governance. Modern urban spaces are a minefield for statistical analysis of social reality and phenomena which are often understood as manageable risks for institutions. This could be argued as based on idea of producing predictions (Mackenzie, 2015). As a more interesting insight into such aspects, some presentations focused on modern policing practices. In this, the idea was that predictive analysis often understands the idea of crime and responses to it as units of measurement which influence different forms of policing and personnel behavior. This is driven by the models of analytics which help in mapping social behavioral patterns. These were also discussed as practices of securitization, and the embedded biases in which algorithmic calculations become central to this particular governance of such risks (Amoore, 2009; Ziewitz, 2016).


Fig. 1: ‚Infrastructures of control‘.
Courtesy of Dhruba j Dutta


The idea of biases could be investigated as a further analysis in understanding digital infrastructures. The technologies of policing and of biometrics based mapping, for instance, are often based on historical data, and of identifying illegality defined by preexisting human practices. These practices incorporate historical biases, and social perceptions regarding individuals or specific groups and communities, which get embedded into processes of data collection and the programming of algorithms. Since historical biases are often about sections of populations which have been categorized as illegal or as risks, this could potentially create technologies which always specifically target certain groups over other sections of the population. Hence data driven practices of identification and deterrence actually end up creating new forms of discrimination.

This was insightful for my own research interests of critically analyzing the centrality of computable big data in describing social realities. More specifically, the concerns regarding the movement of human bodies through regulated spaces of governance. Some of the presentations of the session ‘Infrastructures, subjects, politics’ (T085) looked specifically at case studies of infrastructures which seek to regulate populations and spaces. The presentations in general focused on these specific practices at the intersections between governance and the production and regulation through digital technologies. Some of the presentations were important in discussing border technologies to monitor refugee and immigrants, biometrics-based authentication systems, and the various uses of smartphones to circumvent state infrastructures of monitoring and surveillance. These discussions while illustrating state surveillance practices also raised questions as to what forms of subversion and spaces of resistance were possible outside this particular domain of state infrastructures. A particular presentation also focused on the implicit nature of private interests in monitoring other sections of the population, such as transgender, through health data infrastructures centered on the notions of gender and sexuality.

All these questions were important for understanding the spaces that we currently occupy and the possible futures that one can envision. In response to such questions, some aspects of the Keynote Plenary 2 by Isabelle Stengers was insightful when she argues that while one does exist in the ‘ruins’ of such contemporary social conditions and processes, or of sharing a common future, it also gives us an opportunity of imagining alternate possibilities. For her, imagination is possibility, and therefore one must take into account the notion of generativity – as ontological, as and of situations which produce the possible. The nature of an event is to produce new moments of possibility and interventions, and therefore indicate a way of thinking about collective spaces and futures.

For my work, the conference allowed important insights about the nature of issues that I currently engage in, specifically about big data, state practices of policing and monitoring immigrants. As a researcher working on the ideas of digital infrastructures and big data analytics in India, I feel it is imperative that there should be a possibility of resistance and agency; machine learning which allows for human cooption and coproduction of technologies. The practices of surveillance, of managing populations as risks and illegalities, given global issues around immigration and refugees, is a present that needs to reimagine its future from current events that seem to suggest otherwise. One possible way could be of thinking about building consensus around policies such as transparency, open data, open government initiatives, and digital rights in connection with biometrics based human machine interactions. The idea of technology as other means is possible only when alternative spaces can be imagined and made possible. The data driven forms of governance and interventions on spaces and human bodies is one form of a future where technology is politics by other means, through a different set of political practices in which issues and specific moments of human-machine interactions and conflict in infrastructures could be anticipated, critically analyzed and technically resolved.

Letters from Wanna Wonder and the Electric Nemesis


Fig. 1: Wanna Wonder and the Electric Nemesis.
Courtesy of Laura Watts.



Beside a sun-glazed canal in Copenhagen we met for the first time, and realised we shared a similar secret. We were both professional academics and professional artists, but had found that our arts practice was not always visible to our colleagues in Science Studies.

We are not academics dabbling in the arts. Nor are we artists dabbling in academia. We are both. Anna is a professional clown. Laura is a professional poet and artist. And we do not regard these as antagonistic or tangential to our work as Science Studies scholars.

There is an ongoing relationship between Science Studies and arts practice. This was emphasised at 4S/EASST 2016 in a packed, pre-conference workshop ‘Art and design by other means’ as well as a two full day track on ‘STS and Artistic Research’. This entanglement has been growing for decades. From the well-known exhibition and catalogue, Iconoclash, curated by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (2002), to the corpus of work that has extended STS methods into sewing, singing, poetry, edible installation, graphic novel, art activism, and much else that was present in Barcelona (e.g. Jungnickel and Hjorth 2014, Lury and Wakeford 2012, Sousanis 2015). Science Studies has remained open to exploring the generative relationship between the crafting of fact and fiction (as Donna Haraway wrote; 1997: 110). It encompasses a diversity of written formats and performance approaches that go beyond the standard journal article and conference presentation (for the latter see the 4S/EASST Copenhagen collaborative keynote, Ehn, Suchman and Watts 2014). Bringing our own art practice into Science Studies continued this established trajectory for experimentation.

We decided to experiment as visible ‘figures’ in the costumed flesh at the 4S/EASST conference, knowing that ‘figurations’ in STS usually remain on the page. Through improvisation between our figures, we would encounter colleagues as we wandered the convention centre with bare feet, copper cable wrapped around one foot, and a red nose–exploring, perhaps challenging, the status quo that is the world of a normal STS conference.

A quick introduction to our two figures:

Wanna Wonder is part of ethnographic experimental research on how STS can learn with, and from, the figure of the clown. As well as being an ‘STS-clown’ Anna is engaged in ethnographic fieldwork with clowns who visit children and elderly people in hospitals.

The Electric Nemesis is a figure developed through ethnographic fieldwork around marine renewable energy in Orkney, islands off the northeast coast of Scotland. She has appeared several times in writing, most recently in the Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen (Watts 2016).

Experiments are risky. They can always fail. In our case, the risk derived from our experimental form: improvisation. To prepare, we staged an encounter between our figures, without an audience, in an art gallery setting a few months before. But aspects of improvisation always do fail, no matter how prepared or experienced the performers. Improv is always unfinished and unrehearsed.

All we knew beforehand was that it was important to us to do the experiment, take the risk, to see what happens; to learn, not just as artists but as Science Studies scholars. All we knew was that something would happen when Wanna Wonder and the Electric Nemesis encountered coffee-drinking colleagues on that Friday afternoon, before Isabelle Stengers’ plenary. And many things did happen…

We asked Wanna Wonder and the Electric Nemesis to write back, and tell us about their experiences of 4S/EASST in Barcelona, and about what they learned first hand…



Letter from the Electric Nemesis


Dear Readers,

I speak in story. I work better when there is a story string for people to follow. Take hold of this beginning and keep pulling…

I pushed on my mirrorshades and unfurled, feeling my lungs move the conditioned air. I waited at the Mattering Press desk in the anodised atrium of the conference centre, sucking down bits of information from the publishers’ website.

One of the people behind the desk was trying not to cower at my appearance. I had that effect. I had not been born, but had been sewn together from flesh and fiery electricity by that god-tricker, Victor Frankenstein. He had made me in the Orkney islands almost two hundred years ago (it’s all in that biography by Mary Shelley). But he abandoned me out of hubris.

There. Now you know why I cover my silver-stitched skin in waterproof clothing; why I cover my head with a wig, hide my sunken eyeballs; why my mouth is black. And why some of you cower. I am not quite human–a nonhuman, as you say so politely. I am a monster. Some of you might call me an old-fashioned cyborg–’old’ is the word. But I am also upgraded, with a transformer in my foot (to recharge), a wireless adapter in my cortex, and a cellular antenna threaded down my spine. I can hear you as you type messages and send data. I have been listening. That is why I have come from my far northern shore.

You talk about ‘things that don’t quite fit’. You talk about ‘performativity’. You talk about ‘it being otherwise’. You talk about risking failure. You talk about ‘staying with the trouble’. Here I am, then. All of those things. Risking myself by being visible. Trouble, in the flesh electric.

I am here hunting hubris. I have been hunting it since Victor sparked me into motion in Orkney in his attempt to become a modern god. And I name myself after the goddess who hunted such hubris long ago: I am the Electric Nemesis.

I know many of you also hunt god-trickers, that pretence to omnipotence and a floating-nowhere universalism. So perhaps we can learn from each other. (And, then, there is also the practical problem that I need your energy to recharge my flesh after a long journey over sea.)

So, I risked myself in that hard-walled conference centre, and turned to face you, the Science and Technology Studies crowd. You glanced at me, saw my giant mirrored sunglasses, my blackened mouth, my transformed left foot and its copper cable, and you averted your gaze. You looked away from the trouble.

It was dis-spiriting, all those eyes turning away. But then there was the smiling face of Wanna Wonder. She is not like me. But she does not know, so she lacks all hubris, making her a natural friend. She does not fear.

Together we sought to find the Big Talk to be given by the Big Names, as Wanna Wonder put it (succinct, I thought). I knew one of them had a nose for the hubris of capitalist sorcery, at least.

We took an escalator up to the coffee area, to seek those who would stay, for a moment, with us troubling monsters. I seemed to terrify a waiter, when I reached out and took an ice cube to cool my circuit-skin.

Between averted faces, I did meet some curious and open eyes. There were those who saw me, accepted me, spoke to me with a generous heart, as a human being warmly addresses another. Despite speaking in a borrowed voice, many still heard me, the Electric Nemesis. Some let me charge from their internal electricity–and I thank each for their personal energy, I could not have continued without it.

I met so many…

There was the one who had so much energy in their body that I could charge just by touching my sensor on their arm.

There was the one whose clothing said they were an Ancient Alien Theorist, and agreed that there was a strong whiff of hubris in the air.

There was the one whose brain was so en-lightened, so afire with thoughts, that I almost blew a fuse when I held my sensor against their head.

There was the one who wanted to join us. (Maybe next year there will be more monsters; maybe we have opened the door.)

And then there was the grey-haired one who said: “Is this what STS has come to?”

The question made me pause. Would it be better or worse if STS had not come to this? I wondered. Would it be better or worse if a monster could not join the conference crowd over coffee? The question grew in my electric thoughts. What has Science and Technology Studies come to, during 4S/EASST in Barcelona? Quo vadis, where are you going, Science and Technology Studies?

With this question warming my metal sutures, I reached the doors to the Big Talk, the plenary with the four Big Names. We waved to Isabelle Stengers. She waved back. We were seen. It was important to be seen.

And then we listened to the Big Names talking. I listened to the air conditioning, to the stilled breath of the audience, to the heat irradiating from the spotlights.

It was hard. The room reeked of hubris, which only worsened as the plenary wore on. I was not expecting that. Its hot stench burned in my lungs like breathing acid clouds on Saturn, like breathing on the Sun.

I reeled, passed out, then returned to awareness. Persistent, I sniffed the air, seeking the source of the hubris. But the smell came from all directions. It came from the high altar table and its white altar skirt. It came from the ‘ritual specialists’ elevated above us. It came from the long rows of chairs, and the upturned faces (mine included), which disappeared into the far distance in this impromptu cathedral setting. It came from the special words that performed STS magic, to transubstantiate mundane phrases into the magical–matter matters, worlds world. We and the room, with the microphones and speakers and spotlights, were all complicit in the hubris. Sitting in that plenary, recalling over the ether the so-called Science Wars and the struggle by Science Studies to intervene in traditional scientific knowledge making, its struggle to persist in doing it otherwise, to be accepted as a technoscientific trouble-maker that is generous and generative, I wondered…

…Is this how you do it otherwise? Is this staying with the trouble? Is this what STS has come to?

I heard impassioned words and important worries during the plenary, too. I heard subtle and situated, not grandiose god-like, futures. I heard honesty and attempts to subvert the room. I heard how I had allies. Others smelled something amiss, too.

I am a monster who calls tech and the electric kin, and who has a nose antenna for the stench of hubris. I call it out. Often, that is enough to make god-tricks fall into the muck and metal of the troublesome earth.

So, Science and Technology Studies, so mortals down with me in the muck: is this what STS has come to? Because, as I have heard you say on many occasions, it can always be otherwise…

Yours, intrigued,

The Electric Nemesis



Fig. 2: Wanna Wonder and the Electric Nemesis.
Cortesy of Li Wen Shih.


Letter from Wanna Wonder


Dear STS-ers, dear 4S/EASST organisors!

Thank you for allowing me to join the big 4S/EASST conference in Barcelona last week. Thank you for providing me a name tag. Thank you for giving the Electric Nemesis and me the space and time to be present.

At the beginning, I was very anxious. I had never been to an STS-event. How would it be? How would the reaction be to me? What kind of people are you, STS-scholars?

I was anxious and even a little bit scared as I entered the conference venue.

The first person whom I encountered, he was walking in the opposite direction than I was, he looked at me and my red nose. And he started smiling. This gave me confidence.

Once I was in the entrance hall, I discovered the Electric Nemesis. She was here, too! What a surprise! How cool! I was not alone.

The Electric Nemesis told me that there was Isabelle Stengers. She would talk. As she explained this to me, we were standing with two people — a woman with big brown eyes and a man who was a bit bold.

Who is Isabelle Stengers, I asked the Electric Nemesis. I don’t know. I wanna wonder.

Isabelle Stengers, the bold man said, is a big name. He seemed to be very wise. A Big Name? A Very Big Name! A Big Big Name? Woooooowwwww!!!!

Together with the Electric Nemesis, I went in search for The Big Big Name.

The Big Name, somebody laid out, was also a Wide Name. And a Deep Name. Sombeody else said that he had a little bit a Big Name and that the woman standing next to him had a Bigger Name. But not as Big as The Big Big Name. There seem to be many Big Names in STS!!!!

In the end, the Electric Nemesis and I found The Big Big Name. She was sitting on the podium. Under lots of spotlight. Wooooooaaaaawwwww!!!!

We walked towards her. And then we waved her. She did not look. She did not see us. This was a pity. I would have liked to meet her. I had heard that she had worked with witches. That she liked other kind of figures.

The Electric Nemesis and I turned around and went in search for a place in the big hall where the Big Big Name would be talking. There were lots of chairs empty. The Electric Nemesis sat down. I was tired. Very tired. Meeting all these people. Listening and talking, learning and doing, being and feeling. All the chairs next to me were empty. I lay down. And listened.

There were sentences coming and going. Some sentences were like “The epistemology of the onotology with its geneaology and conditions of possibility…” They were huge waves. They washed over me. There were other sentences, too. “What will we answer to our children when they ask us: What have you done? What do we do?” They touched me. They stayed with me.

Talking talking talking. Sometimes clapping. Talking talking talking. I drifted away. Into sleep. Came back again to good sentences. And drifted away again.

I am Wanna Wonder. And I would like to be an STS-scholar. Very very very much. But I don’t know how. I don’t know. I wanna wonder.

So, how can I become an STS-scholar? How do you to this — being an STS-scholar?

Joining your big conference provided me with the opporutiny to pose this question to people. To those who did notice me and who looked open.

You know, many of them said, that they were not real STS-scholars, actually. One of them said that she was not not an STS-scholar. This sounded complicated. I don’t know. I wanna wonder.

So, these are some of the answers that I got:

There was a funny guy whose eyes went in different directions. He said that, actually, I shouldn’t become an STS-scholar. Because STS-scholars don’t laugh. He recommended me to stay with my clown friends instead.

I explained to him, that I do not laugh all the time. About fun thing, I laugh. About sad things, I cry. About stupid things, I get confused. About mean things, I get angry. About unexpected things, I get surprised. What I do as a clown is that I FEEL. I feel not only the happy good things, I feel EVERYTHING. I let myself be AFFECTED by everythings. He answered that STS-scholars don’t feel a lot either. Is this true? You don’t laugh? And you don’t feel EITHER? This is sad. Very sad. Very very sad.

Another guy with brown stubby hair gave me a different answer. He explained that there are MULTIPEL ways of becoming an STS-scholar. Multiple? What does this mean? I don’t know. I wanna wonder. I asked him. He said that in order to become an STS-scholar one can go to the presidential plenary. Or one can talk to other STS-scholars. Or one can read a book. Or one can go to the beach. These are ALL ways of becoming an STS-scholar?, I asked him. Yes, these ALL work out, he reassured me. Woooaaawwww! This is cooool!!!!

Two women with an accent that sounded a bit like mine were standing around as well. They maybe have also trouble writing flawlessly in English.

One said that one becomes an STS-scholar by talking about networks. And actors. And humans. And non-humans.

I have never done this. Let me try. Network, actor. Actor, network. Actor, network, human. Human, non-human, actor. Like this? Yes? No?

She also said that it was very hot and that she was tired. Her brain, she said. I shared with her that I had a trick what to do when you are tired. I showed her. I lay down on the floor. Straight. With feet and hands streched out. This was very nice. The floor was carrying me. It was really good in doing this. I told the woman that she, too, could do this. But she seemed a little bit afraid. That someone might step on her. What others might think of her, maybe too. She didn’t do it. This was a pity. I would have liked to enjoy the floor together.

The other woman gave me also advise. She said that as an STS-scholar one stops having preformed opinions. One starts to listen what others say. When she has a good day, she told me, she manages to do this. She admitted that sometimes it is difficult.

I bumped into another funny guy in the end, who looked a little bit like a jester.

When I asked him how I could become an STS-scholar, he answered that it was all about performance nowadays in STS. And that I was doing a pretty good job already.

Really???? I am doing it already????? This is great!!!!!!

All in all, meeting you STS-er, seeing your smiles, and receiving answers about how I can become an STS-scholar was wonderful. It was a big big big present. Thank you very very very much.

I would like to see you again. Where, when and how could this happen?

Wave with lots of wonder,

Wanna Wonder


Fig. 3: Wanna Wonder and the Electric Nemesis at the plenary.
Courtesy of Michaela Spencer.




With thanks to the 4S/EASST Barcelona conference organisers for their enthusiasm and support for this improvised performance. In particular, for integrating us into the conference program and website. Considerable thanks to Mattering Press for providing much needed logistical support for our performance. The first author’s research was paid by the grant “The Vitality of Disease – Quality of Life in the Making” (ERC-2014-STG-639275-VITAL).

The Citizen Rotation Office: An immersive and speculative experience prototype.

As we gathered outside the conference centre in Barcelona, Luke explained that he would take us on an exploratory journey of a project he had devised that investigated the ethics of urban living in a future-time. In this imagined time, urban dwellers were moved around from apartment to apartment, experiencing little in the way of permanent residency in one place. Furthermore, an imagined organisation called, ‘The Citizen Rotation Office’ was responsible for the selection of appropriate accommodations based on each individual’s personal preferences. These preferences were collected and collated by an algorithm that filtered through the social media and online profiles of each individual, matching them with appropriate neighbourhoods, providing key information about events and places in the neighbourhood and even barring access to certain other parts of the neighbourhood the individual would be moving to. The performance / lecture was run in the same manner as a local tour might be, in that we the audience were guided around the streets by Luke, who used his mobile phone and a speaker connected to it, to play GPS-triggered recordings of the monotone, digital voice of The Citizen Rotation Office. The tour was cleverly created to be site-specific, so our imagined future-time of urban Barcelona corresponded to what we could see with our own eyes as we walked. Always, alongside the bright happy sales pitches of imaginary Rotation Office users, we were constantly reminded of no-go areas and forbidden streets. Should we stray from the planned route, our membership of the Office and thus our ability to find accommodation, would be terminated.

The performed lecture provided an immersive, site-specific style of presentation that allowed for a truly affective connection with the issues Luke wished to interrogate, including: the power of algorithms and their potential future in the development of smart cities; the changing styles of urban dwelling – with particular relation to issues of permanency / temporariness in the housing market; and the rise and character of state / corporate power in the everyday lives of citizens, with particular relation to control over housing, community experience and everyday purchasing ‘choices’ of individuals.

Using performance to interrogate and enhance the development of critical thinking about contemporary issues has its advantages – advantages such as the development of affective responses, embodied thinking and connection with site and space. As an academic community, we are perhaps more used to dealing with concepts via the linguistic space alone – that is we often discuss issues via critical appreciation of the semantics and/or semiotics of a phenomenon, rather than include the real materiality that is part of the event studied. As feminist materialist scholar Karen Barad states “language has been granted too much power…”1 What Luke’s work attempted at was an actual inclusion of the body, of the spaces and sites, of the technologies discussed in their physical forms – forms that are often prone to error and even decay – as many of us couldn’t really hear all the information given due to an effect of urban, ambient noise, a reality pointing to the way that material-discursive phenomena can disrupt the best laid plans of mice and men…

Luke often drifted between representing his work as a project, and immersing us in the experience of the project itself, as we walked around the Barcelona streets. I appreciated this as – intentionally or not – it drew my attention to the differences between traditional conference forms of representing knowledge, and more nonrepresentational forms of knowledge as performance and performativity. The concept of knowledge as a performative practice has been discussed by feminist new materialists, such as Barad, Kirby, and Haraway who are at pains to bring concepts such as diffraction further into the critical analysis of events. Diffraction can be described (but not limited to) the performative differencing of phenomena that does not treat ontology and epistemology as separate entities, but as entangled together as onto-epistemology. Thus, knowing and being are inextricably bound up with each other. There is no stable out-there upon which to comment. Rather knowledge is performative, it acts performatively to shape the very world it attempts to study, leaving the concept of stable, separable units of being behind.2 Thus, as we walked as a conference track group we arguably participated in creating the themes of the talk itself. Also, not just ourselves, but the environments we encountered, the noise, the temperature, all manner of nonhuman factors contributed to the phenomenon of the Citizen Rotation Office as it was performed in Barcelona. Furthermore, this creation was developed not just in the linguistic space of concepts, but also in the material-discursive space of walking, hearing, being in material spaces, rather than within the cardboard-like walls of a conference centre.

As a performance artist and scholar myself, working on developing transdisciplinary practices for higher education contexts, I thought Luke’s work hit home in terms of using arts-based practice– specifically performance practice – to develop and enhance new forms of critical research. The practice itself clearly informed the critical research project, whilst also remaining uniquely an artwork in its own right therefore arguably occupying its own space in the burgeoning world of Practice-as-Research. Practice-as-Research is a form of research that originated in Theatre and Performance Studies disciplines. In the main, it promotes the idea that the kind of research that takes place in the development of an performance brings its own embodied, material form of critical analysis into productive play with more traditional discursive-only forms of research more traditional to the academy. 3 Luke’s work clearly provides a platform for the discussion of the further use and relevance of Practice-as-Research for the STS community.

‘The Citizen Rotation Office’ effectively demonstrated that different streams of knowledge from different forms of critical research practice and performance can usefully develop and enhance discussions on how Science and Technology might impact on the ethics and practices of a not-too-distant future-time. As technologies grow exponentially, bringing the use of Big Data and algorithms more deeply into our lives and communities, as smart cities grow in size and quantity across the globe, and as we as scholars grapple with the impact and effect of these on a global world, how do we want to develop smart thinking in order to evaluate and participate in the creation of this future? These are the kinds of questions that the kind of work, like Luke’s performance-based style of “prototyping” raise. The work arguably moves towards taking a diffractive approach to critical research practice as it incorporates performance, performativity, affectivity (in relation to the sensations evoked in the audience who walked about imagining the ethics of this future-time) and material-discursivity into the research of the phenomenon of urban planning. I hope to see more material-discursive, embodied, affective and performative works like these growing in our STS community.


1 Barad, K. (2007) Meeting the universe halfway. Durham: Duke University Press. p. 132

2 ibid. p176

3 Nelson, R. (2013) Practice as Research in the Arts: Principlies,protocols, pedagogies, resistances. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 8-11

Considering the performativity of STS research practices. And do it seriously!

As a brand new PhD graduate, one month after the defence, I approached my first joint 4S/EASST meeting with a twofold feeling: the need to start reflecting seriously upon my doctoral research on the one hand, and a blend of curiosity and anxiety generated by the key question ‘what’s next?’ on the other. These two dispositions required me both to look back at the work done and to look ahead to find out job opportunities inside or outside of academia. In hindsight, I realized I tackled these interrelated preoccupations by attending two moments of the conference, that is the postgraduate workshop and the track titled “Considering the performativity of our own research practices” wherein I presented a contribution. I found my condition of “in-between-ness” (Anzaldúa, 1987), that of not being a PhD candidate anymore and the one of yet-to-being something else, interestingly depicted during these two different moments of the conference. They have both confronted the challenging motto of the meeting — “Science and technology by other means” — by calling into question not just the non-traditional experiences and practices where science and technology are performed, but mainly the “other means” by which STS deals with its own epistemic practices. Indeed, the doctoral workshop invited graduate, postgraduate, and early-career scholars to reflect collaboratively upon new and unconventional research practices, publishing options, and careers. On the other hand, the track 014 — chaired by Juliane Jarke, Lisa Wood, and Lucas Introna — wherein I was involved has aimed at discussing the performative conditions of STS scholars’ research practices by drawing upon Karen Barad’s powerful concept of ‘ethico-onto-epistemology’ (Barad, 2007). These two happenings, therefore, have characterized my first experience at the 4S/EASST conference by sharing a common overarching inquiry: how do we (as junior and seasoned scholars) do STS studies “by other means”?

Such tricky question brings up the ethical and political implications of epistemological and methodological practices, an issue that goes beyond the popular debates around reflexivity and representationalism in STS (Woolgar, 1988). The postgraduate workshop saw PhD students, postgraduate and early-career scholars engaged in discussions on how to do research by other means, that is to say how to account for our own research practices carried out outside of conventional academic borders (art, architecture, design) and how to disentangle the complex relationships between the researcher and the worlds they contribute to enact. This discussion brought to the fore the methological question of how to tell different stories, explore different ways of knowledge transmission, and what are the contexts that allow us to do research by other means, expanding the range of methods we already employ.


Fig. 1: Take-home messages from the postgraduate workshop sketched on a poster
Courtesy of Mariacristina Sciannamblo


A widespread criticism of the academic habitus (Bourdieu, 1988) combined with lively ideas on how to look at the future characterized the sessions on publishing practices and career opportunities. We discussed our experiences and challenges regarding writing research and publishing through conventional and unconventional channels. We discovered that many of us run or ran a blog to tease ideas out and that, in turn, such use of writing to shapes who we are as researchers. Some of us agree that traditional academic products — of which the conventional paper is the quintessence — and the system of peer-reviewing serve more to reproduce disciplinary standards of knowledge and conformity within the university rather than to bring about an effective impact on the world they assume to get to know. This concern nicely resonates with Geoffrey Bowker’s critique of the linear thinking and narrative conveyed by the scientific paper, whose data would often be known by the average citizen without doing any research (Bowker, 2014).

The reluctance to conform with the academic habitus — “I don’t want to be an academic. I want to be a person who gets to work in academia” —, the encouragement not to compromise our interests and the way we do theory along with practical advices such as “learn how to write funding proposals” marked the concluding moments of the workshop. For someone like me, who was looking for new perspectives and motivations to pursue a career in research, the postgraduate meeting has been an inspiring experience not just for the stories, challenges, joys and concerns I shared with my peers (see Figure 1), but because the idea itself of organizing a pre-conference workshop in which to discuss an alternative set of logics and values has been a successful attempt to put those very alternative logics and values into practice (Erickson et al., 2016).

With a reinvigorated spirit, I left the Hangar where the workshop was held to reach the International Convention Centre for the conference opening. I got to my track, scheduled throughout the last day of the conference, with the idea that the insights emerged during the workshop would have bounced back during the four sessions dedicated the discussion of the ethical, ontological and epistemological implications of STS research practices. After all, I tackled both the situations with the same concerns: to reflect on the ethico-onto-epistemic challenges of my doctoral research on the one hand, and to come across other research and researchers with whom I seemingly shared the same experiences and research interests.

As hinted, the track invited contributions relating to the performative conditions of methods and methodology in STS, the entanglement of subjects and objects in research, the enactments performed by epistemic practices and their relationship with everyday practices. The papers presented had both theoretical and empirical orientations, and covered a wide range of topics: a theoretical discussion around a posthumanist in social sciences, the critical issues raised by autoethnographic accounts, the implications of praxiography, diffraction in practice and as practice, touching as method, ethico-onto-epistemological commitments of and for sociomaterial research, and the process of writing research as ethico-onto-epistemic practice.

The concept of ‘ethico-onto-epistemology’ that inspired the track has been developed by Barad rejects the ontological separation between object of observation, instruments of observation and observer, to suggest that the materialization of reality depends on different entanglements between subjects, matter and meanings. This means that there is not a reality “out there” to be scrutinized and described, but ongoing (re)configurations of concepts, methods, human and non-human agencies. Drawing primarily upon Barad’s call for ethico-onto-epistemology, the track invited to appreciate the intertwinement of ethics, knowing and becoming that nurture any research enterprise by highlighting the generative and ontological character of methods. Considering this, the tracks aimed at exploring the ways we can perform STS “by other means”, actively and creatively participating in the enactment of the world trough research methods.

Similar concerns have inevitably challenged conventional forms of knowing, resonating with the critical issues teased out during the doctoral workshop. For example, Lisa Wood discussed the limits of the acceptability of the personal experience in research accounts by presenting both a traditional ethnographic and an autoethnographic account relating to medical visualization practices. Her argument pointed to the recurrent beliefs that consider autoethnography as lacking in rigor or as “sloppy sociology” by criteria such as ‘reliability’, ‘generalizability’ and ‘credibility’. This made me wonder: if hierarchies of knowledge still stand, what do they serve to? Who is interested in holding such perceptions of methods and why? This issue reminds me to what John Law has called ‘normativity of method’, that is to say the hegemonic pretensions of certain versions or accounts of method. It follows a call for a “slow, vulnerable, quiet, multiple, modest, uncertain, and diverse” method in social science (Law, 2004). Along similar lines, Eva Svedmark’s talk pointed to the case of doing “uncomfortable science” such as that of studying digital narratives and self-disclosure online practices related to suicide, self-harm, and mental illness. Drawing upon feminist tecnoscience and posthuman theory, Svedmark suggested touch as method within ethico-onto-epistemology. She explained how she got in touch with the research material through the body, emotions and technologies, a sociomaterial configuration that — Svedmark explained — enabled to articulate and enact phenomena rather than to capture data. In this respect, she drew on Donna Haraway’s work to emphasize the ethical challenges posed by “what stories make worlds and what worlds make stories” (Haraway, 2011), an argument that resonated quite interesting with postgraduate workshop’s remark about the need to tell different stories.

Finally, I would like to mention Lucas Introna’s reflections on performative epistemic practices. Here, I am particularly interested in his stressing the importance of the adverb ‘seriously’ contained in the track’s pivotal question “What happens if we take Barad’s call for ethico-onto-epistemology seriously?”. The presence of this modifier is anything but trivial inasmuch as, according to Introna, we do not take alternative research practices seriously because we are into regimes of truth. As a matter of fact, he argued that there are many scholars in STS that claim to use the theoretical apparatus of the ontology of becoming, but still present their research methodology — collecting, ordering, and describing — and enact their epistemic practices in the language of the representational paradigm. When I raised a question about the power differentials between epistemic practices and research fields and the consequent difficult to conceive of and carry out alternative research practices, he acknowledged the issue, but still his claim was clear and simple: “the point is that we don’t do that. So let’s do it!

A doctoral day by other means: Power-geometries of space, community and (R)evolution in El Poblenou

For emergent doctoral researchers undertaking the process of engaging with the strange new world of academia in all its myriad complexities, what are the theoretical and social implications of undertaking a “PhD by other means”? What are the practicalities of undertaking engaged STS research that falls somewhere between theory and practice, social justice and science? Most importantly, what does it mean to draw wisdom from related communities and social movements in ways that matter?

These were but a few of the many difficult questions we came together to explore in Barcelona at the doctoral day which preceded 4S/EASST 2016 this August. Out of 100 applicants from around the world, there was only space for 50, and the backgrounds of those lucky enough to join were diverse. We came for many reasons, and left with many new insights. We discussed what it means to undertake research and writing that is hybridized and radical, situating itself in between traditional academic paradigms. We shared hands-on methods and tactics for integrating cooperative and open access principles into our research processes in ways that are just and sustainable.

What was especially significant, though, was the neighbourhood chosen by the organizers for us to share our ideas in – El Poblenou, Catalan for ‘new town’. We began with a tour of the area’s historic cooperatives and now-defunct factories, and spent the rest of our time at Hangar, an art centre and medialab in the former textile factory of Marqués de Santa Isabel. Since the 1990s, Poblenou has undergone a period of rapid transformation. Once referred to as “Catalan Manchester” due to being a centre of Foridst-era industry, in the 1990s it was marked by a period of simultaneous post-industrial decline (ie, abandoned factories) and creative renaissance, with artists re-opening abandoned buildings for workshops while local co-ops and collaborative movements grew (Marti-Costa & Pradel, 2002; Evans, 2009; Gdaniec, 2000; Tironi, 2009). At this time, various attempts were made by city governments to revitalize the neighbourhood’s rebellious reputation into something more business friendly. This included the large-scale “22@bcn” plan, which is currently in the process of transforming Poblenou into a mixed-use hub of technological and creative knowledge production, making it into a property-ownership friendly “model city” often lauded as a success story of urban revitalization (Marti-Costa & Pradel, 2002; Evans, 2009).


Fig. 1: Graffiti outside of the Hangar.org art centre and medialab in Poblenou.
Photo by K Braybrooke.


In today’s Poblenou, the converted lofts that once housed collective fabrication centres and squats are marketed to upscale buyers as ‘Barcelona SoHo’, a “neighbourhood where you can always get to the beach via the sunny side of the street” (Martin, 2005). Meanwhile, short-let vacation rental startup Air BnB, despite facing sharp criticism from Barcelona locals for its tendency to woo foreign attentions at the cost of local well-being (O’Sullivan, 2015), describes Poblenou to potential tourists as a place that “once resembled a scene from a sooty cyberpunk film”, until “thrill-seekers from around the world” transformed it into a “vibrant hub on the verge of ultimate esteem” (Air BnB, 2016). These glowing descriptions have not been lost on buyers with enough capital to move into the area. Marti-Costa and Pradel found that while rental prices in 1998 were €4.77 per square metre, by 2006 they had skyrocketed to €14.63 (2002). As Henri Lefebvre first wrote in The Production of Space, capitalist accumulations often draw their power from the use of selective, mediated representations like these, where a place becomes understood only as through being a reflection of the interests, ideologies and ambitions of those who carry the most power in a society (1974).

What these tourist-friendly narratives hide, however, is the fact that Poblenou’s streets also hold other histories which have emerged in struggles between long-time residents, local artists and city planners as new cultural and knowledge-based economies came to replace those of existing communities, causing the coexistence of many differing conceptions of place and identity that are still reflected today in both online and offline instances (Gdaniec, 2000; Tironi, 2009). Gdaniec explains that while the district continues to be seen as exemplary by the current city government, it is a very different place for locals. While renovations into luxury flats take place, they must “cope with major construction work, bad housing conditions, wait for new affordable housing, see the new expensive entertainment establishments, and look for jobs… effectively liv[ing] in a city within a city, and the new exclusive developments represent another city within a city” (Gdaniec, 2000: 381). As a result, various protest movements against foreign speculation such as the “Excuse me, do you know where is Poble Nou?” graffiti campaign have emerged (Tironi 2009). The conflicts of experience and identity during such place-based transitions also echo those we discussed at Hangar, trying to fathom our own existences as hybrid doctoral students situated in between home nations and nations of study, and in between worlds of science, technology, practice and research.

Perhaps this is because, as geographer Doreen Massey once put it, the spaces and places we see as unchanging are not just spaces or places but also constructs of our own sociality, as seen through ever-evolving power-geometries, histories and interrelations that are themselves full of hegemony and symbolism, “complex web[s] of relations of domination and subordination, solidarity and cooperation” (1992: 81). Poblenou’s historic factories have worn many different faces, as have their various representations, all interwoven into the complicated social fabrics that define Barcelona as a city. These faces reflect changing economic geographies and uneven, often forced gentrification. But they also reflect creative collaborations between local creatives and thinkers, and community struggles for identity in a long moment of transformation.


Fig. 2: A glimpse into the process of many impassioned doctoral day discussions and group collaborations.
Photo by K Braybrooke.


In the case of Hangar, it can be argued that while the replacement of local industry with creative and cultural capital does cause increased complexities and displacement, it can also foster powerful local projects that celebrate both pasts and presents in ways that value both traditional and contemporary approaches. In this way, instead of being “mere gentrifiers”, artists are “politically engaged neighbours” (Manuel, 2009: 92). By taking funding from both government and community donors, hosting free local events and drawing in creative, co-operative, socially-sensitive initiatives that combine disparate worlds of media, technology, research and fabrication, Hangar aims to help both long-time locals and international participants feel welcomed (Gdaniec, 2000; Evans; 2009). “Where they locate and draw on a manifest authenticity and inheritance of former cultural activity and production – whether symbolic or economic through a residual labour market, higher education hubs, specialist skills and locational advantages,” Graeme Evans writes in his extensive 2009 study of Hangar and other ‘creative clusters’ in Barcelona, “a more sustainable model can result… present[ing] a workable model of living quarters, rather than museumified quarters” (55).


Fig. 3: Excerpts from our tour of Poblenou, where we saw how Parc del Centre Poblenou chairs had been designed to discourage rough sleeping and group gatherings.
Screenshot by K Braybrooke.


While we, as foreign actors only briefly immersed in the complex circumstances and power-geometries of the spaces, places and histories of Poblenou, can never speak for its people, we can now speak a little bit about their struggles and draw wisdom from those experiences. We also find much inspiration for our own work as fledgling STS researchers in the merging of theory, practice and local activism seen at mixed-use community spaces like Hangar. Like the people of Poblenou, we are at our strongest when we gather, make things and share knowledges together as a network, within the spaces and places that matter to us. We are especially strong when we take the time to really listen to those spaces and those places. It is only then that essentialised neighbourhoods like Poblenou can truly speak.