Tag Archives: technology

Beyond the single-site study: the biographical analysis of technology

The frame of a study shapes the portrait of a technology

A popular proverb advises against judging a fish by its ability to climb a tree. Otherwise, the ill application of judgemental criteria leads to frustration in the subject under scrutiny. By the same account, the ‘Biography of Artefacts and Practices’ (BOAP) perspective reminds us not to judge a technology’s capacity by its efficacy over a limited period of time and in a limited space. Doing so leads to frustration in scholars with interest in longitudinal analysis of technology.

The biographical perspective is a recent development that addresses limitations observed in conventional studies of technology. The frustration about limited generalisations informed by narrowly scoped technology studies is one intellectual origin of the biographical lens on technology. Three decades of observation of technological advances in the field of manufacturing information systems revealed ephemeral generalisations as produced by isolated, single-sited studies often framed as implementation or snapshot studies (Pollock & Williams, 2009). Another strand of biographical studies seeks for the systematised analysis of practices related to the development and use of technology. Practices of individuals and groups of actors are interlinked with technological development and therefore are also subject to change over time (Hyysalo, 2010).

Analysts of the BOAP perspective acknowledge that changes in the shape and form of a technology are contingent to non-linear and, at times, chaotic innovation processes that unfold over extended periods of time. They argue for a transdisciplinary framing of research problems and the acknowledgement of the many influences on the shaping of a technology. The perspective challenges students of technology to remain flexible in their assumptions about the diversity of players engaged in the development and use of a technological artefact and the timescales and speeds in which these practices unfold.


Beyond the single-site study

The track “Beyond the single-site study: the Biography of Artefacts and Practices” brought together an international community of scholars asking questions that reach beyond frames of popular research designs. From the 15 talks presented at this track we learn that the BOAP perspective is an active and growing field of research. The diversity of the studies presented indicates that the biographical lens applies to different research settings ranging from individual doctoral research studies to longitudinal research projects. Four main themes emerged across the talks in this track.

The first theme sheds lights on intermediary actors and, generally, the changing roles of actors in different stages of technological development. For example, in previous studies of enterprise resource planning systems, industry analysts have emerged as a growing influence on the shaping of both markets and products. The results of a longitudinal analysis of how industry analysts work and shape expectations in markets has been presented by Pollock and Williams (2015). Another set of longitudinal studies explored how the changing demographics of users prompted technology suppliers to reinvent their strategies to engage with their user base (Johnson et al., 2012). Emphasising a diversified perspective on actors, the biographical perspective offers an alternative approach to challenge established notions of the user-supplier relation. For example, one work-in-progress study applied this more nuanced perspective on the user-supplier relation and investigated novel forms of interactions between actor groups.

The second theme was characterised by a broader perspective on dynamics that operate across individual organisations and affect entire markets. While industry analysts have been identified as one group of influential actors outside the traditional user-supplier nexus, policy makers also continue to play a role in driving expectations about technological developments. A longitudinal investigation of information systems in hospitals showed for instance how policy incentives drove the premature purchase of immature products in an immature market (Mozaffar et al., 2014).

Thirdly, subjecting individual organisations to long-term investigation reveals the entanglement of biographies of artefacts and practices beyond single sites. Studies of both an engineering firm and a research organisation reported how internal developments and external influences shifted repeatedly the main foci of practices that internal actor groups engaged with. Adapting practices as external factors and dynamics change, can be a strategy for organisations, especially those that depend on external funding bodies to sustain operations over multiple decades (Ribes & Polk, 2015).

A fourth theme in the BOAP track also examined individual organisations but touched upon ontological questions. Cases from the automobile industry and digital economy illustrated how common concepts of networks and systems are limited in their capacity to explain dynamics that play out over extended timescales and multiple sites. Drawing inspiration from biological studies, ecological metaphors are explored to develop novel concepts that fit demanding requirements of biographical observations (Wiegel, 2016). Other talks that have not been categorised above examined further research themes including risks in infrastructures, clusters of innovation and philosophical works contributing to biographical thinking.

Each study presented faced a different set of challenges, and it was giving valuable insights to share specifics about the different approaches chosen to deal with a variety of obstacles in the research process. This was especially helpful for early career researchers who are in the process of plotting the direction of their future research activities. Equally, it was helpful for experienced analysts of the biographical perspective to see how their conceptualisations are being incorporated in other works. For example, some leading scholars are preparing a joint contribution to elaborate the core principles of the BOAP perspective. Discussions with other track participants enabled evaluation of the trajectory of current developments and informed strategies for articulating outlines for further research activities.

For a growing community it is important to come together to learn about and from each other and to jointly develop strategies to advance the field. The context of an international conference is also a welcome opportunity to explore subjects outside one’s field. The presentations in the track “Emerging ‘forms’ of life”, at first, appeared only remotely related to the biographical study of technology. In reality, the thought-provoking contents of this track resonated strongly with BOAP. The final section will reflect on how debates about definitions of ‘life’ indicate that, metaphorically speaking, biographies of humans have more similarities with biographies of artefacts and practices than commonly assumed.


Birth is not the beginning: biological origins are as opaque as artefactual origins

We invoke metaphors to reduce the complexity of phenomena under investigation by relating them to more commonly understood concepts. Such metaphors can be helpful in producing understanding and convey meaning. Applying the metaphor of biography in the context of technological development invokes an image of a long journey with numerous decision points where choices determine the future shaping of an evolving entity.

At the same time, metaphors can limit our capacity to analyse and grasp a phenomenon through the introduction of analytical limitations. A metaphor from one domain can fail to describe the unique features of another domain.


Fig. 1 Three embryos of a barred tiger salamander a few hours after fertilisation (original by John Clare CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


The biological origins of the metaphor of biography attach certain limits to its appropriation in a technological domain. There is no singular and naturally occurring event marking the birth of a technology – although there is such a thing in a rhetorical manner. However, birth itself is not the beginning of a biological organism, but a convenient starting point for a biographical narrative as one was reminded when attending the track “Emerging ‘forms’ of life”. The speakers in this track explored the challenges of defining the term ‘life’. What does life mean in an extraterrestrial setting? How can we find life on Mars if there is no clear definition of what life is? And what does human life mean in context of in vitro maturation of embryos? Exploring the question of ‘when is human life’ reveals a range of philosophical and ethical issues. These issues need attention in the attempt to produce a definition of the term life. For instance, in a blogpost on a website of a scientific publisher, a geneticist identifies 17 time points that could mark the beginning of human life – chronologically, the exemplary illustration in figure 1 depicts time point 4 in case of an animal embryo, birth comes only at time point 15 (Lewis, 2013). Faced with complexities introduced by advances in reproductive technologies, the geneticist declares,“[u]ntil an artificial uterus becomes a reality, technology defines, for me, when a human life begins, rather than biology”.

Consequently, and although some qualitative features of organic life differ substantially from those of a technical artefact, there are other features that show surprising similarities. The evolutionary journeys of humans and artefacts begin way before they are either naturally or rhetorically exposed to public life. And these journeys continue long after the moment of first exposure. The meaning of a biography, no matter if human or not, is determined by the accumulation of events along these journeys.

As such, the biological metaphor of biography offers much to technology studies, but maybe there are also a few lessons that biographers of artefacts and practices can offer to biologists interested in defining ‘life’. At least we can state with confidence that meaningful insights cannot be generated by examining only single sites over short periods of time and sticking to narrow methodological conventions of individual disciplines.

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.