Tag Archives: STS Events

Sensor Publics: Report from a workshop on the politics of sensing and data infrastructures

Invested with ideals ranging from ‘the smart city’, ‘evidence-based policy’, ‘algorithmic governance’, ‘citizen science’, or ‘hack-tivism’, sensors have been widely foregrounded in contemporary debates about the role of digital technologies in addressing the big political challenges of our time. The idea of a workshop on the politics of sensing developed in discussions with our colleagues at the Munich Centre for Technology in Society (MCTS) about the need to take on the political and ethical challenges emerging in data-driven approaches to dealing with public issues and to challenge narrowly reductive and positivist accounts of ‘big data’ and informational politics.

The workshop was developed with three broad motivations: first, to address theoretical questions about how concepts of sensing might be used to freshly problematize recent political debates about the shape of public space and ‘data power’ in digital societies? Second, to bring together researchers in security studies together with participatory and environmental researchers to explore opportunities for collaboration between these fields. And, lastly, and somewhat opportunist on our part, to invite a diverse range of researchers and engineers who themselves are experimenting with sensors to Munich to explore with them whether and how the ‘proliferation of sensors’ might open up inventive approaches to social research.

Through invited keynotes given by Geoffrey Bowker and Jennifer Gabrys, we aimed to put into dialogue two leading figures in the social study of digital devices and data infrastructures. Both speakers engaged with the ways in which sensors not only produce ‘raw data’ but also often problematise the relation between epistemic practices and their environments. Addressing the politics and ontology of data infrastructures, Geoffrey Bowker turned to a provocation from a Business Week article claiming that “the earth will don an electronic skin”, mobilizing this fantastic-sounding proposition as a critical resource for attending to controversies around the uses and abuses of personal data. Rather than reducing the politics of personal data to issues about the rights of private individuals, Bowker proposed that researchers engage with how such controversies can also provoke reorderings between politics and its environments. Attacking the ‘misplaced concretism’ of epistemologies of ‘big data’, Bowker argued against falling into the trap of naturalising relations between digital infrastructures and particular forms of social and political order. In her keynote on environment data and data citizenships, Jennifer Gabrys discussed her work in the “CitizenSense” project by prototyping two devices, the dustbox and frackbox, and working with groups of activists to deploy them in particular environmental controversies. Highlighting problems around the calibration of many ‘off-the-shelf’ sensors, she drew attention to the complex data landscapes in which professional and amateur sensing practices take shape and intervene. Outlining a Whitehead-inspired conception of “environmental data”, Gabrys argued that the instrumenting of the planet with sensors not only brings environmental issues into politics but can also repose citizenship as an environmental problem.

Over two days, presenters engaged with a range of issues implicating sensing technologies and politics. The city as a setting where sensing projects are publicly tested, was explored by Nona Schulte-Roemer, Sara Degli Esposti, Claudio Colletta, Alexander Pólvora, Leslie Mabon and Gerard Jan Ritsema van Eck. A range of these papers addressed the role of sensing technologies in processes of public experimentation, in which urban infrastructure become sites for demonstrating the “eco-city” or “smart city”. Many highlighted that experiments with sensors can, in different ways, provide occasions that problematize the urban environment as a setting of political engagement; often indirectly resonating with Gabry’s proposal to understand citizenship as an environmental problem. Schulte-Roemer, for instance, highlighted the ways in which urban sensing projects can perform infrastructure such as street lights as multivalent in their relation to public space and not only mere instruments for governing it. Indeed, a similar point was made by Coletta who discussed an experiment with a sensor-network deployed in Dublin, highlighting – in contrast to reductive accounts of urban experiments as mere ‘scalable’ procedures – that the such experiments rarely domesticate infrastructure in the ‘low-cost’ way city authorities envisage and can effect the “accidental” emergence of unforeseen urban problems and publics. The provocation of urban publics was proposed as an active participatory design strategy by Claudia Mendes and Hannah Varga in their workshop on ‘prototyping publics’, in which they tested a workshop method to engage groups of citizens with the implementation of a ‘smart city’ sensor installation project in Munich. Pólvora too highlighted that ‘bottom up’ citizen science projects can not only be used to construct an ‘evidence-base’ for policy, but can stimulate broader engagements between art, design and technology in addressing issues such as urban air quality.

In contrast to such post-instrumental understandings of public experiment, a range of papers highlighted that urban sensing trials can in other cases perform more familiar modes of government and privatisation that have long been associated with the technocratic approaches of city management. Many of the presentations understood data produced in urban sensing projects as often highly biased and asymmetric in its political uses, highlighting how ‘data-driven’ initiatives can displace and marginalise issues such as urban poverty, community development or public ownership. Mobile apps encouraging users to report where and when they feel they are in an insecure or threatening environment, offer a powerful example for the manifold and contingent entanglements of sensors, publics and urban security. As Gerard van Eck has shown, this crowdsourced open-sourced content not only stigmatizes streets or neighborhoods (with all the socio-economic implications) but can be valuable for law enforcement agencies in deciding where to target resources. Raising questions on how to overcome what van Eck called an “evidence-based stigma”, Nikolaus Pöchacker also outlined how sensing in the field of predictive policing already assumes attributes connected to imaginations of (in)security where the data is given a specific voice through a complex apparatus of sensing and sense-making.

Questions about relations between ‘local’ sensing experiments and ‘global’ data apparatuses were addressed by several presenters. Christopher Wood´s work, situated at the intersection of artistic and scientific practices, focused on making geospatial infrastructures visible through experimenting with breakdown and infrastructural inversion in the built environment. Wood’s trails of satellite tracking apps with different collectives played with the personal relations of individuals to satellites orbiting above and the disruption of these relations as they individuals navigate through densely constructed urban settings. Moving from art to engineering, the following presentation by Godert-Jan van Mannen on “How to Hack a Satellite” step-by-step showed how it is possible to intrude a communication satellite and get access to radio or television streams using cheap and commercially available technology. This demonstration pointed to some of the often-overlooked vulnerabilities of techno-political infrastructures and the need for a much broader consideration of risk in discourses on sensing technologies. At the same time, it pointed to the manifold forms of resistance against forms of neoliberal sensory governance, e.g. when hackers used their capabilities to claim free access to television for all. Indeed, the ways in which security expertise are claimed and technical competences distributed was addressed by Becky Kazansky whose paper examined how activist groups are dealing with risks and threats of sensory surveillance. Adopting an engaged methodology in working with human rights activists, Kanzansky highlighted some of the different ways in which distinctions between technical and ethical responsibility get translated between what she termed ‘communities of security practice’.

Questions about how the construction of threats – digital or not – come to matter with sensors, their governance and in different forms expert practice figured prominently during the workshop. Ubiquitous sensor networks raised challenges for many participants about how we envision privacy, data protection and configurations of risks. Indeed, one of our central aims for this workshop was to connect the different engagements with sensors in STS, urban- or data studies, that are mainly focused on the level of ‘localized’ collectives to the foreign entanglements of sensors and their embeddedness in the global political economy and international relations. In an attempt to facilitate such a conversation between international security studies and STS, Philipp Olbrich discussed the politics of satellite observation of North Korea as the technologization of security governance. Here, the seemingly objective satellite´s view from above translates and black-boxes it into a socio-material mobile assemblage of satellite data, eyewitness accounts and other sources. In this way, satellite imagery closes off important controversies and political alternatives as it locks in a hierarchy of evidence that reifies an adversarial posture and discredits North Korea as a future dialogue partner in the context of international relations.

The relation between international sensing apparatuses and the politics of the ‘view from above’ was also addressed by Vera Ehrenstein in her presentation on the scientific and political challenges of producing epidemiological data about ‘African pneumococcus diseases’ caused by pneumococcus bacteria. Following the bacteria from international conferences to their collection by lab researchers and street recruiters in Burkina Faso to the offices of the European vaccine distributor that contract the lab workers, Ehrenstein described the challenges involved in translating bacteria from nasal swabs into data that can robustly represent a city population and its bacteria. Where epistemological treatments of epidemiology have long been described the role of this scientific field in making populations known and governing them, Ehrenstein argued that epidemiological measurement was much more a “patchy sensing” process than one of comprehensive surveillance. Ehrenstein’s appropriation of the concept of sensing to think politically about epidemiological measurement was a powerful example of what could be said to be at stake theoretically in choosing to foreground sensing technologies/practices and displace the priority of epistemology to sort out relations between data and politics.

Sensors are, of course, not new objects in STS research. Whether in the design of experimental apparatuses, the implementation of ‘large technical systems’ or the production of novel measuring instruments, sensors have been widely studied as ‘lively’ devices that detect, inscribe, capture and record; if not always as “sensors”. As workshop participants often reaffirmed, there are many good reasons we might want to be skeptical towards hyperbolic and positivist-sounding claims that sensors are now “everywhere” and that we live in an era in which almost anything can be turned into “data”. But the presenters at this workshop also highlighted sensors also offer opportunities for STS research to problematize and extend debates about data-driven politics and power in digital societies. As our MCTS colleague Tomas Sanchez-Criado (Tironi and Criado, 2015) has highlighted in his work on urban politics: even if we recoil at the corporate jargon of the sensor-equipped ‘smart city’, there may nonetheless be many reasons we might value the modes of “sensitivity” that can be occasioned in experiments to instrument cities with sensors. At the same time, the sense remoteness of the satellites that are orbiting above us, appearing as (re-)presenting facts from an allegedly neutral perspective, requires an enhanced sensibility towards the global socio-political, economic and cultural processes (as Witjes and Olbrich 2017) – or the foreign entanglements in Dewey´s sense – in which sensory networks and forms of their governance are embedded.

Infrastructural choreography of STS scholars

Living infrastructures in cities and beyond

The notion of infrastructure became popular in STS literature in the 2000s and in the 2010s (fig. 1). Its popularity might be explained by its relevance to many urban and non-urban systems and networks, at the same it usually demands focusing on particular empirical case-study.

 

Fig. 1. Frequency of keyword “infrastructure” in comparison with other keywords in STS literature. Source: Own elaboration based on Scopus Database and Science Scape tools by the Medialab, Science Po. URL: http://tools.medialab.sciences-po.fr/sciencescape/

 

Infrastructure addresses big urban and technological projects like power networks (T. Hughes), as well as situational interactions between people and things (S. Star, G. Bowker). Infrastructure simultaneously covers the fields of urban studies showing the importance of the processes of privatization, neoliberalization and hybridization of city spaces (S. Graham, M. Gandy, S. Collier), informational technology studies addressing issues of scale, connectedness, categorization, and accessibility of information (G. Bowker, S. Star), mobility studies that tackle with the questions of flows, frictions, connectivity, and also the everyday experience of spaces and places, and many others (J. Urry, P. Adey). This kind of multiplicity of the notion of infrastructure makes it fresh and heuristically useful (?) for thinking the contemporary city and beyond.

Dancing with the Western infrastructural ideal

With all these thoughts in mind, a group of scholars from Volgograd and Saint Petersburg (Russia) with the support of Volgograd State University and European University at Saint Petersburg organized the international conference “Living Infrastructures: Beyond Global North and Global South”, which took place in Volgograd on April 27-28, 2017. The topic itself was devised during a previous workshop in Volgograd when several scholars questioned the position of urban infrastructures in Russia with regard to the Western infrastructural ideal. Based on the ideas of scholars from the so-called “second wave” of infrastructural studies, who criticized the normativity and the Western-centrism of infrastructure concepts in the articles and books of the STS cannon, we sought to articulate the specificity of Russian cases, as well as to emphasize the diversity of infrastructures all over the world. The idea was not only to de-colonize infrastructural studies extending them to Russian cases, but to show the delicate relations between people and the everyday things they are engaged with. “Living infrastructures” became thus a metaphor to remind scholars that infrastructures are dynamic and surprising, simultaneously resilient and fragile. They are ecologically mutually dependent on other life forms. They are not invulnerable or “eternal beings”, as social scientists of Durkheimian denomination thought of societies. They confront risks to their continued existence and have sometimes their own life.

The logo of the conference – the “dancing bridge” in Volgograd – might be seen as the symbol of the living infrastructures idea (fig. 2).

 

Fig. 2. The Volgograd “dancing bridge”. Source: the design logo created by the Volgograd team for the conference.

 

Volgograd’s “dancing bridge” was under construction for 13 years and it connects the central part of the city, very busy and intense one, with the natural outskirts of Volgograd floodplain, establishing a fast connection between different parts of regions at the cost of harming the subtle ecology of the floodplain. Notably, after the construction, the bridge began to “dance”, that is, oscillate because of wind conditions that created a lot of authority concerns and people’s rumors (look at the bridge here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WEQrt_w7gN4). It became an important tourist attraction of Volgograd, although some days after the dancing, with the help of Swiss and German engineers (sic!), the oscillation was stabilized. In this way, the common infrastructural urban object became important part of Volgograd hybrid ecology, its urban narratives and global technological connections.

Organizing and blogging!

Preparing the conference, the organizers decided to “build” a temporary digital infrastructure to liven up an interest in the forthcoming event. The idea was to create a special blog on the WordPress platform, where different topics around the infrastructures could be exposed (https://livinginfrastructures.wordpress.com/about/). The team posted little essays on bicycle mobility, kids smart technological infrastructure, innovation infrastructure, anthropology of infrastructures, the influence of mega-events on urban infrastructures, childbirth infrastructures in Russian central and peripheral regions, and also on the topic of how the urban infrastructure elicit affects and emotions from the citizens. All these essays were disseminated in social media and helped to attract the attention of different scholars and activists to the conference issues. The blog platform attracted hundreds of website visitors.

The infrastucturation of the world

The conference gathered scholars across Russia, India, Bulgaria, Germany, Sweden, and the UK. It was the first STS-oriented conference focused on the topic of infrastructure in Russia ever. The conference was opened with a keynote on “Infrastructuring Mobile Utopia: Global Challenges, Global Responses” by Prof. Monika Büscher (Centre for Mobilities Research,​ Lancaster University) (fig 3). She analyzed cases of material infrastructural breakdown and digital humanitarianism when people converged online to restructure absent governmental. The presentation raised a range of important issues of mobile utopia and dystopia in equipped smart cities, digital and immaterial infrastructure, reflexive resilience in the context of sharing data and the precarity, and creativity in the process of infrastructurization. Three modes were suggested to develop the argument of reflexive resilience – archaeology, ontology, and architecture, in order to contribute to the discussion on relational infrastructure and posthuman relational ethics.

 

Fig. 3. Monica Büscher gives a lecture on the mobile infrastructures that are enacted in the time of societal crises. Source: Lyoubov Torlopova.

 

Ivan Tchalakov (PAST-Center, Tomsk State University / University of Plovdiv) opened the second day with his talk “Ships, Channels, Gravity Wells and Valleys: Towards Deep Space Infrastructures” (fig. 4). The examples of SpaceX and ULA were redefined through Latour’s restored symmetry as transportation for human and nature and as a conquest of the resources to become an infrastructure for the space-scape and interplanetary network. Tchalakov also discussed new private projects that might advance space industry further.

 

Fig. 4. Ivan Tchalakov on the division between the governmental and private space programs.

 

Both keynote lectures revolved around the questions of new and only anticipated infrastructures that should be delicately and intensely investigated by the STS scholars, using conceptual resources from philosophy, activism and social studies of science and technology.

The main topic of the conference was devoted to mobility infrastructures. The session “Mobilities Infrastructures: Speeding Up the Slow, Slowing Down the Fast” gathered scholars interested in changing practices of urban dwellers, the Russian subdued forms of mobility called “marshrutki”, the social infrastructures of public transport, the ambiguity of bicycle infrastructure, bike sharing systems in Russian big cities, and children “smart” mobilities. The multiplicity of the topics challenged participants to ponder upon the possibility to assemble the cases under the head of the mobility infrastructure notion. At the same time, it became very apparent that mobility is an important part of any infrastructures since it makes informational or material units pass through. How to create the infrastructure in such a way to make easier and comfortable to transit units, and at the same time to make people who use this infrastructure to feel comfortable and not alienated – it is a very important question.

The session “Urban infrastructure” drew attention to the relations between city and infrastructure. Participants demonstrated their interest in the influence of politics and policy on urban infrastructures, the access to the latter and the regime of uses. Many Russian cities represent cases of infrastructures with the centralized logic of a planned economy. Despite contemporary neoliberalism scholars’ emphasis on privatized and splintering infrastructures, we may find a lot of examples of path-dependent urban infrastructure, which follows the old and very obsolete logic of planned economy. It opens up the space for thinking about the very principles of urban infrastructure development.

In the session devoted to digital infrastructures, speakers problematized the relations between online and offline: how the space-based digital games connect to the body, perception, and the social order of city; how visualization and simulations of existing and anticipated infrastructures make work with the city space, and help to construct more comfortable and participative infrastructure. The question of representativity also penetrated the issue of media infrastructure in the game development for gamers’ imagination and anticipation of the cultural product itself.

The “Infrastructured Bodies” session tackled with the biopolitical question of a seamless connection between sociomaterial infrastructures and bodies. The speakers demonstrated how infrastructure matters when certain policies and extensive spatiality affect professional work, patients’ access and abilities and how particular enactments of diseases involve people through mobile applications and handmade infrastructures, where technology becomes secondary to knowledge exchange and accumulation.

Finally, the “Infrastructure Theories” session grasped all the previous insights into the concepts of infrastructure with all their range. Forgotten sociological classic Ferdinand Tönnies was considered to be a pioneer in logics of translation (connection of wills) and assemblage (collectives), dealing with a paradox of things as objects in relations of possession and capital. Bruno Latour’s material semiotics with the focus on operations of shifting (shifting-in, -out, -up, down) was considered an important resource for thinking of infrastructures as a type of relation and not as a set of things.

Make them live!

Monika Buscher from the Lancaster University told about how in situations of risk or accidents people start to help each other and make their own living infrastructure that are sometimes more effective than already created and established state and municipal infrastructures. The notion of living infrastructure could be also told about the conference participation as a special infrastructure when people all around the world gathered to talk about the different cases of infrastructure and by this created temporal emotional and narrative infrastructure to make infrastructure be living longer in the minds of scholars. Geoffrey Bowker and Stephen C. Slota in the brand new “Handbook of Science and Technology Studies” named their chapter “How infrastructure matter?”. We believe that the conference “Living Infrastructures Beyond Global North and Global South” in Volgograd advanced further another vital question: “How to think and talk on infrastructures as a living matter?”.

 

Fig. 5. The participants of the conference, who have enacted the infrastructures in the Global North and South for the two days of the conference.

‘Taken over by Gaia’ — A collective conversation with Bruno Latour

Prior to its opening, a research collective, IUP_JI@MCTS, met with Bruno Latour to discuss his recent Gedankenausstellung, Reset Modernity. Granted access to the gallery still being installed, we had attempted to follow the exhibition’s closely prescribed procedures in a setting perhaps closer studio, workshop or even construction site – one former engineer among us noting the impressive range of construction tools littering the floors – than to the contemplative environment of a conventional museum. When we later met to talk with Latour we had to confess we’d found it harder to follow the procedures than the catalogue accompanying the exhibition seemed to suggest it would be. Perhaps we had been distracted by the harried curators and exhibition designers running around us and shouting to each other. Or perhaps we had reset modernity (!) but the realisation had yet to sink in. When would we know? What if our resets were like those of our smartphones that simply ‘restore default factory settings’? The following extracts are taken from the conversation between the TU Munich researchers and Latour in which we pressed him to elaborate some of these problems. In well-humoured exchanges, Latour explained how he – and the project of resetting modernity – has been “taken over by Gaia”. The following extracts are taken from a longer transcript that moved between planetary-scale problems, issues of social design and discussion of public experiments.

Fig. 1: IUP_JI@MCTS in conversation with Bruno Latour at ZKM.

 

IUP_JI@MCTS: In the catalogue we find various references to your project An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (AIME). This project is, at least in the way you present it the book of that title and in the exhibition’s catalogue, a highly systematic project. But when we go to the gallery we are presented with displays that appear, in their assembly, more like the work of free association. Clearly Reset Modernity is not simply putting the Modes of Existence system on display, or if it is then the modes appear surprisingly difficult to detect. Could you explain how this exhibition relates to your aims and method of the Modes of Existence project?

BL: Well, my AIME project itself is a descendant of the STS program I started from, because my essential loyalties are to the STS field I started with. There is no way you can begin to handle what could be called ontological pluralism without first having resituated knowledge production… so for me STS was the only way and it still is! If you talk with people who are not STS there is not much you can say, because they imagine knowledge to be everywhere unsituated. Now, the AIME project is an excessively long and elaborated, and in some way, systematic, enquiry on the modern. The horizon of the project is what I call Gaia. Currently, we have a political situation in which we have to deal with an ecological mutation in which politics becomes extremely difficult to pursue. I’m interested in multiplying the medium to deal with this question of Gaia. So, I did a theatre play last year, a big simulation with my students in Paris of the Climate Conference last year as well and this time we do an exhibition. I’m doing this is because, well, first, because I find it funny to change the medium, and also because every time you have a different medium you strengthen and deepen the consequence of what might otherwise appear a somewhat abstract argument. We wanted with the curators, my friends there, to multiply the entry points into the AIME project: so we had the book, we had the site, we had the encounters. We were from the beginning interested in trying to see if this project can be understood and make people sensitive to the argument through an exhibition. It just so happened that the exhibition does not explicitly mention AIME at all except in the catalogue, but even there it’s only in the political and, religious part. AIME too has been taken over by Gaia, basically [laughter].

IUP_JI@MCTS: Reset Modernity is presented as a Gedankenausstellung – a thought exhibition – and you and your colleagues are credited as its curators. But curators have rarely been credited as great thinkers: they are credited as technicians, administrators, sometimes even as artists but rarely as thinkers. Who is doing the thinking and the research in this exhibition?

BL: I have absolutely no principal answer to that. Bricolage is my rule and the only systematic thing I do is AIME; the rest is complete bricolage. Why Gedankenausstellung? Firstly, it’s chic because it’s a German word and a very long German word [laughter]. This is third exhibition I’ve done with Peter Weibel and there’s no other place in the world where this would be possible. In relation to the classical thought experiments from Kepler to Einstein, at least as I understand them, you actually experience what the experimental situation would be like and you share this experiment with other people. So you create a collective thought experiment, so to speak. And we are not the only ones engaging in this practice: you know Sarah Palin is producing a film on the fact that climate science is bunk?! We want to engage in a politics of climate but how can we when our politics doesn’t have a city corresponding to the one our ancestors recognised, or notions of democracy, land, territory, sovereignty, power, war that no longer matter? All of those words have to be reinvented for a politics of climate. You have to do a thought experiment, which we call here an exhibition experiment. What we are doing with the medium of art is not so different from what geologists or stratigraphers working on the anthropocene do when they imagine “what it would be if”…

Now who is doing the thought experiment? It’s of course the curators, then it’s the visitors and all of the intermediary people I love here, the dozenten: so it’s a small thought collective, Gedanken collective, to use the famous expression.

Fig. 2: Tools for Resetting Modernity

IUP_JI@MCTS: We can’t help but be alarmed by urgent tone you adopt in the Reset Modernity catalogue. Do we need to speed up STS to keep pace with the barrage of facts being produced in contemporary technoscience?

BL: Well I am also for slowing down… I think the two are not contradictory. We need to slow down, which is one way of stopping having been modern, but also to register the urgency of the present situation. And, I think it’s exactly the same movement: slowing down is avoiding the panic, and the angst, which is not conducive to any sort of thinking. Jan Zalasiewicz, a great stratigrapher, and the head of the anthropocene commission, I think has this tone of, how could I say, quiet anxiety.

If we undervalue and underestimate the threat it is because we are using old reason and old idea of science. Paul Edwards showed in his book on the Vast Machine of climatology the deep tragedy of all these scientists who are taken out of the usual, slightly comfortable, epistemological view, and then dropped into the anthropocene and having to deal with all sort of strange things like ethics, morality and art and even sci-art. They are scientists, but they are scientists, of alarm, it’s a new role for a new situation. We can help those scientists navigating this very difficulty. If it’s not our field of STS who deal with this situation then I don’t know who will do that.

IUP_JI@MCTS: Is this exhibition just about the presentation of your research or are the procedures you’ve prescribed also designed to give visitors the experience of researching?

BL: Well the distinction is hard to make because my aim is to build a dispositive where, people are supposed to be co-inquirers. Now, of course, I haven’t done many exhibitions, only three or four, but I’m always surprised by the complete indifference of the curators for the reaction of the public. They do care, of course, about things: the happiness of visitors and do people find the ticket too expensive and so on. But, they never actually use exhibitions as an experimental setup. As an STS person, for me this is an occasion to bring thousands of people into a dispositive. We should be able to share something with the visitors, not simply exploiting them for data, but for this we need a protocol. Usually, curators don’t have so many ideas: they, put things together, assemble things, and they say “let the public do the work”. But you never know what the public will do with a gallery display. That’s why people often go through galleries, especially art shows, very quickly, because nothing is constructed experimentally. For me that’s a huge waste of time. With an exhibition you can do an experiment, you just set it up, you have a protocol and you observe what’s happening: I mean this is basic [laughs], basic use of a scientific dispositive.

Fig. 3: Curating in action

IUP_JI@MCTS: Don’t you think some people might feel uncomfortable with the whole idea of a procedure for an exhibition experience, not least for an exhibition addressing the controversial and complex political topics raised in Reset Modernity?

BL: The procedures are simply for resetting. The notion of reset, as I mean it here, is in the sense of the laboratory where you have one measurement and you cannot do the second measurement without resetting the balance. It’s a very simple idea: reset is not to restart again and there’s a whole chapter in the catalogue by Donato Rici about this metaphor. In the beginning I was not convinced by the title, but now I like it more and more because it’s not a tabula rasa, it’s not a revolutionary term. By resetting you become sensitive to registering information. I mean this is why I’m so excited by the museum: we’re using a classical technique to do STS-style cartography to mix and overlap territories in 3-dimensions.

In the exhibition we talk about the compass. The compass of course is a simplified metaphor, but we are in new, territory, and we need “regrounding”, to use an expression of one of my students. Regrounding is not nation construction, it’s earth construction. The earth is not a nation state, it’s not a sovereignty, it’s not the globe it has very different characteristics, and that’s the task, the political task, is to describe it. If we fail to reground we will be back to ethnicity and nationalism very fast; and things are moving fast in that direction.

Reset, is not a modernist metaphor that requires us to choose between progression and backwardness. A reset is not backward, but is absolutely necessary to get information again: with a balance or set of scales you don’t go backward. But, unfortunately, this is what politics today is all about. Politics has become entirely reactionary, about movements back to the land of old, and it’s everywhere – well, I don’t know about Indonesia but certainly in Europe, America and England it’s everywhere. To finish on STS, then, this is a most important, task: do we try and find a third position which is neither the land nor the globe but which is the earth? The earth is very different from the globe because it’s flat, it’s small, it’s not nature, it has very different features, the earth is a different beast.

6th Postgraduate STS Conference in Lancaster – Connecting Links in the North West

 

On March 21st-23rd 2016, the Department of Sociology and the Centre for Science Studies at Lancaster University hosted its 6th annual Postgraduate Science and Technology Studies (STS) Conference. The event was supported by a range of academic departments and the Economic and Social Research Council North West Doctoral Training Centre in recognition of its increasing importance for the STS postgraduate community in Lancaster, and increasingly for the North West. For the second year, the conference invited students working on STS and related fields from the University of Manchester and the University of Liverpool. This invitation attracted students and academics from a wide range of disciplinary perspectives including Science Studies, History of Science, Educational Research, Geography, Management and Organisational Studies.

The conference was generously supported by academic staff and is entirely student led. Its primary purpose is showcasing postgraduate work-in-progress and opening it up for discussion. It thereby reinvigorates the North West STS community by offering Ph.D. students the chance to present their work and join the ongoing discussions about the field’s developments. The conference was opened with a keynote speech which this year was delivered by Gail Davies, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Exeter and member of the Home Office Animals in Science Committee. Professor Davies presented on “Economic values, animal affects, and the length of the (primate) working day” discussing her work on situated experimental practices, ethical debates of animal labour and the forms of animal agency associated with researching the neuroscience of reward using macaque monkeys.

The keynote speech was followed by two days of postgraduate presentations on their work-in-progress. Postgraduate presentations bring together academic staff from different departments to create one of the annual forums to discuss STS related concerns. In this respect, the annual conference reflects the interdisciplinary and engaged nature of STS work in the North West. The presentations are followed by commentaries and discussions that help to further research objectives and modes of inquiry in a supportive and engaging atmosphere.

 

Professor Law started his presentation by remembering his colleague Professor John Urry
Professor Law started his presentation by remembering his colleague Professor John Urry

 

We believe that scholarship is rooted in a continued interest in other people’s work, and to flourish we need to learn from each other as a community of scholars. This commitment is reflected in our review process, where each presenter submits a paper before the conference that is reviewed by both an academic and another student. Each reviewer gives feedback after the paper is presented, and once all the papers in a session have been presented, reviewers are invited to open a more general and wide-ranging discussion picking up on issues that emerge across the papers in that session. This system is popular with students and staff alike as students develop the vital skill of peer review, and receive more detailed questioning and suggestions compared to most conferences.

In 2016, the presentations charted a wide range of topics on the borderlands of established understandings of human, science and technology, which both necessitated and facilitated conversations across disciplines. Finding a common theme, as such, would be difficult. Student’s work addressed issues of how devices and bodies as diverse technologies, microbes, standards and screens are refigured when crossing the boundaries of not only laboratories or clinics, but homes, churches, farms, communities of amateurs, the “Global South” and the Iron Curtain.

While the diversity of topics could be seen as unusual in other disciplines, it displays how STS works across boundaries and draws together different connections. Additionally, the scholarly practice of unsettling research objects remains reliant on bringing heterogeneous cases together. In spite of this diversity, two themes seemed to surface in most of the presentations: (1) a troubling of and with method, where tools of knowledge-making, may it be our informants’ or our own, remain always problematic and open to questioning; and (2), a interest in displacement and how things, bodies and methodological tools ‘travel’, and how following these voyages enable problematisation.

In the last few years, it has become a tradition for the closing lecture to be delivered by a senior faculty from Lancaster, such as Professor Brian Wynne or Professor Maureen McNeil. In 2016, Professor John Law gave an account of his “journey through STS”. Professor Law touched upon both his engagement in developing actor-network theory and its successor material-semiotic approaches, and diagnosed some of the present challenges STS scholars can face in providing more symmetrical accounts of issues. More specifically, Professor Law discussed how knowledge making in STS remains bound up with Euro-American locations and tropes. Drawing on common work with Taiwanese Scholar Wen-yuan Lin, he explored how we can benefit from enrolling non-Western ideas into our analytical frameworks.

This year, the conference was suspended for an hour on receiving the news of the sudden death of Professor John Urry, a friend and mentor as well as co-worker to many conference participants. This enabled colleagues to assemble, reflect, tell stories and begin to grieve. He will be very much missed, but his legacy remains influential both in Lancaster and beyond.

The 2016 conference was organised by Lancaster research students in alphabetical order, Peter Fuzesi, Victoria Gorton, Jess Phoenix, Derly Sanchez Vargas and Andy Yuille. We extend thanks to the North West Doctoral Training Centre and Lancaster University for funding and supporting this event and hope it will continue to develop productive links between STS scholars in the North West and beyond.

Making Science Public: Opening Up Closed Spaces

What does it mean to make science more public, open or accountable? How is ‘the public’ imagined and constituted? How does this relate to challenges of legitimacy and moderation in politics and policymaking? These questions have been explored by ‘Making Science Public’, a five-year research programme (2012-2017) funded by the Leverhulme Trust and based at the University of Nottingham in collaboration with the Universities of Sheffield and Warwick. The End of Award Conference on 22 June showcased findings from across the programme’s nine projects and two doctoral studentships, and considered implications for the future. While contemporary configurations of science, politics and publics show instances of promise, imagination, and experimentation, further work is needed to (re-)build institutions, conditions and capacities for public reason(ing) and political accountability. 

 

The day before the UK voted in the most controversial British referendum in recent times, the researchers of the Making Science Public programme gathered from across sociology, geography, politics, ethics, and STS, with an international, multidisciplinary audience, to reflect on the relationship between science, politics and publics in the UK and beyond.

In introducing this theme, Sujatha Raman noted the unintentional significance of the conference’s timing, tagged ‘Britain’s “truthiness” moment’ by the press in acknowledgement of the prevalence of truth claims unencumbered by facts in the run-up to the referendum. The programme has focused on initiatives of open science, open policymaking, and engaged publics. So, have efforts towards making science public resulted in a greater capacity to engage with different forms of expertise? What are productive ways of holding together difference without falling apart? Raman borrowed the evocative metaphor of a sharp circle, attributed to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to call attention to cultivating forms of reason that can accommodate contradictions.

Now, in the post-referendum UK and broader European landscape, these questions are all the more relevant and charged.

The day comprised four panel sessions, each with four speakers from the programme, comments from an external discussant and questions from the floor. It concluded with a lively public event.

Opening Up Scientific Agendas and Policy Practices

Have research agendas and policy practices been reframed as a result of initiatives to open them up? In Judith Tsouvalis’ case study of the UK outbreak of ash tree ‘dieback’ disease in 2012 onwards, a website for openly sharing genomic sequence data and a citizen science movement monitoring the spread of the disease did not equal ‘more democracy’. Rather, together with the British government-convened expert Task Force, they served to reproduce a culture of surveillance and control, omitting inconvenient publics (e.g. conservation organisations) that might challenge the predominant ‘biosecurity risk’ framing, and perpetuating post-political policymaking.

 

Figure 1: The UK government’s ‘Go Home’ van. Courtesy of Rick Findler (www.rickfindler.photoshelter.com)
Figure 1: The UK government’s ‘Go Home’ van. Courtesy of Rick Findler (www.rickfindler.photoshelter.com)

 

Pru Hobson-West described the emergence of a ‘transparency’ imperative in the field of animal research, pushed by three discourse coalitions (animal protection groups; the animal research community; government/research funders), justified to counter, respectively, a secretive system; misinformation/misunderstanding; mistrust in science/government. ‘Transparency’ could be the deficit model reinvented or maybe open up potential for new science-society relations. She offered a framework that might be of interest for future research on transparency in other domains.

Sarah Hartley’s projects on the governance of agricultural biotechnology at international and national levels showed promise for unsettling the status quo of public engagement as legitimisation of pre-established priorities, by enabling actors such as the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to consider the full range of public and disciplinary expertise available to them at different stages of their work.

Carol Morris and Susanne Seymour found that the UK food security research field is in theory open to contributions from social science and humanities (SSH), but narrowly conceived (economics, psychology, ‘people’ rather than subjectivities). However, SSH has the potential to re-frame such research (e.g. from security to sovereignty, and from production to waste). More attention should be paid to interdisciplinary politics.

Guided by questions from discussant Fern Wickson (GenØk – Centre for Biosafety), the subsequent discussion considered the role of RRI and engagement as tools for re-politicisation; the university as a post-political, privatised space; the need to focus on the quality of deliberations in such initiatives, and consider what publics might gain from participation; and on whose terms social scientists should and can engage with policy.

Science, Religion and the Moderation of Democratic Conflict

Is the common trope of a clash between science, democracy and religion adequate? What roles do science and religion play in moderating democratic conflicts? In Alexander Smith’s study of the Kansas ‘culture wars’ around evolution/creation in state school curricula, science has become a battleground, but this is best characterised as a debate between political activists over religion and science rather than one between religion and secularism. A normative theory of political moderation is required, entailing a commitment to pluralist political community and civility towards people with whom one disagrees.

Warren Pearce saw moderation as disciplined engagement with divided publics, a key responsibility of all academics (both natural and social scientists) in their engagements with policy makers and publics, and particularly necessary in highly polarised cases such as climate change. Brigitte Nerlich’s analysis of the relationship between concepts of (un)certainty, consensus and religious rhetoric in climate discourse suggested that as insistence on the certainty of the science increased, religious metaphors (e.g. ‘cult’, ‘dogma’, ‘preaching’, ‘prophecies’) were used to challenge mainstream science. While decision-making in the presence of uncertainty is a familiar topic, certainty and polarisation are perhaps new problems.

Vivien Lowndes reminded us of the political nature of evidence, distinguishing between data (observations about the world), information (data that has been organised/categorised) and evidence (information that has been selected in support of an argument). In the case of Pakistani Christian asylum seekers in the UK, officials assessing asylum claims and the asylum seekers themselves had different views on what constituted evidence of religious identity and religious persecution, based on different understandings of Christianity. Evidence-gathering and use involves active processes of translation, power and selection; also on the part of social scientists.

Discussion, led by observations from Robert Antonio (University of Kansas), focused on the dearth of deep normative visions in contemporary politics, and the significance of constitutional arrangements and institutional designs for agonism, respectful disagreement and dialogue.

Science, Publics and Participation

How are publics – and progress – imagined in participatory initiatives and more broadly? Roda Madziva introduced the case of the ‘Go Home’ vans (Figure 1), a 2013 UK government initiative to ‘encourage’ illegal immigrants to leave the country. Here ‘immigrants’ became a category of people excluded from ‘the public’, visible only as the target of increasingly restrictive policies which claimed to reflect public opinion. However, British publics rejected the vans’ meanings by crafting alternatives (Figure 2), and the ‘Go Home’ vans were eventually withdrawn.

Informed by her ethnographic fieldwork on activists’ understandings of responsible innovation, Stevienna de Saille suggested that those wanting to engage need not only an idea of how science works but also knowledge of (macro)economics, given that definitions of R(R)I predominantly rely on the market-based meaning of innovation, as opposed to ‘ingenuity’. This prompted an exploration of responsible stagnation and what innovation might look like in a steady state economy.

In my case study of Future Earth (a major international research initiative on global environmental change and sustainability), co-design and co-production of research were envisioned in diverse ways underpinned by different conceptualisations of the public value of research and the proper relationship between science, politics and their stakeholders. This gave rise to tensions and ambiguities, which are not necessarily problematic if Future Earth is seen as an ongoing experiment; ambiguity makes space for openness and flexibility.

Alison Mohr’s talk made a case for bringing distributive and procedural justice principles to bear on global North-centric sustainability transition frameworks.

 

Figure 2: Liberty’s response to the ‘Go Home’ vans. Courtesy of Liberty (www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/)
Figure 2: Liberty’s response to the ‘Go Home’ vans. Courtesy of Liberty (www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/)

 

Co-design of solar nano-grid technologies in rural Kenya and Bangladesh promoted opportunities for communities (women and youth, in particular) to write the script of their own socio-technical transitions and move beyond narrow, top-down energy framing to consider broader socio-economic needs.

Subsequent discussion, initiated by Alan Irwin’s (Copenhagen Business School) insightful questions, considered the role of social movements as sites of experimentation, whether ‘co-’ talk diverts from more deeply embedded power dynamics, and what responsibility we as social scientists (should) have for how ‘our’ concepts are framed and used in practice.

Science and the Public Interest

How is the public interest imagined and framed, and how might these visions be reconstructed for our times? Sujatha Raman suggested that having acknowledged the plurality of publics, new ways of thinking about the public interest might be opened up by seeing social questions as inherently material. For example, a challenge like antibiotic resistance might be understood as needing inequality and poverty to be addressed in order for pharmaceutical technologies to work.

Adam Spencer found that UK policymakers envisage a major role for science and technology in food production: in meeting both the increased global need for food and the UK’s national trade interests within the neoliberal global system. A nascent UK food sovereignty movement, originating in developing countries, instead emphasises local governance.

Paul Martin considered the role of civil society organisations in articulating an alternative vision of science/technology in the public interest, noting that their knowledge is often seen as illegitimate, despite using the methods of science. So what is their role: are they outsiders, or part of the public? Do they provide a form of accountability in acting in the name of the public interest?

John Holmwood addressed the closing down of open spaces, arguing that the UK government has misconceptualised the public interest in Higher Education as private investment in human capital, and economic growth. Researchers have been complicit in commercialisation by accepting the impact agenda, whereby publicly funded research addresses the needs of private ‘users’, including in social science big data projects. The unruly public needs to be invited back into the university.

Mark Brown (California State University) highlighted the distinction between audiences of claims in the name of the public interest and constituencies supposedly represented: to what extent do those represented accept the claims, and under what conditions are they able to assess them? The discussion considered whether the term ‘public interest’ still has any power given the multiple and emergent nature of publics, and whether civil society and richer notions of ‘the state’ might be adequate replacements.

What Kinds of Evidence Do We Need in a Democracy?

On the public panel, Charlotte Watts (Chief Scientific Adviser, UK Department for International Development) noted policymakers’ need for multidisciplinary syntheses of complex problems, but also the challenges of difference in pace between research and policymaking, and scalability of research results. James Wilsdon (University of Sheffield) suggested that while notions of experts and evidence received a battering in the context of the referendum, recent developments in the impact agenda and scientific advice show promise for the science-policy interface. However, steps should be taken to develop the support structures around ‘brokers’, broaden the disciplinary spread drawn on in policymaking, and take public knowledge seriously in these contexts.

Brian Wynne (Lancaster University) argued that to move beyond decisionism we need to focus on whether we are collectively asking the right questions: too many questions are posed with one particular policy purpose in mind. Which questions aren’t on the table? Sheila Jasanoff (Harvard University) proposed a further consideration: what sort of polity or democracy should we build to ask the right questions? The word ‘evidence’ has become colonised and now people are rebelling against this. However, denying the power of science is not the way to decolonise it; rather we need to think about the accountability of counters, modellers and the ways in which their (ac)counts affect people (not an aggregate public).

The subsequent discussion explored which capacities are needed at the science-policy interface, and the importance of understanding how and why some capacities (particularly of public reason) are not currently being built.

This point is all the more poignant in post-referendum hindsight. While questions of citizenship and community are, for many of us in the UK, currently imbued with profound sadness, we are buoyed by the support and friendship of our colleagues across Europe and beyond. We hope for the continuation of inspiring, interdisciplinary, international collaborations well into the future; not least to strengthen conditions and capacities for political accountability and public reason(ing) so that we might move forward holding together differences without falling apart.

 

Read more about the Making Science Public programme here: www.nottingham.ac.uk/makingsciencepublic

Programme publications are listed here: www.nottingham.ac.uk/sociology/research/projects/making-science-public/research-output.aspx

The centrality of lateral economic objects: examples from Latin America

On July 1st, 2016 the workshop ‘Social Studies of the Economy in Latin America’ took place at the Science and Technology Studies Department, University College London. The meeting convened a number of scholars who work at the intersection of social studies of the economy, STS, sociology and the anthropology of economic knowledge. The workshop focused on leading research that offers a close-up examination of economic life. In particular, it engaged ethnographic and historical perspectives on the multiple ways in which the economy, culture and technology intersect, and on the way in which economic subjects and objects are constituted and performed.

The kinds of research objects discussed in the workshop go beyond the usual economic entities and processes often examined by Latin American scholars in the social studies of the economy, such as markets, competition, money, economists and finance. Instead, most of the participants investigate assemblages of lateral epistemic objects which play a critical but relatively humble role in the orchestration of the economy, e.g. indexes, databases, economic news and regulatory figures. The research presented aimed to show how the production of different types of knowledge relates to the constitution, contestation and regulation of economic forms and processes, which are considered to be more central in public debate – e.g. inflation, competition, economic prospects and customers. Broadly speaking, three kinds of epistemic objects were discussed: public numbers, private numbers and economic news.

Economic News

Mariana Heredia and Claudia Daniel take a long-term historical view of the way inflation is publically framed and understood in contemporary Argentina. Analysing the way price increases were discussed in the news of the two major newspapers (La Nación and Clarín) between the 1940s and 1990s, they distinguish two clear periods. From the 1940’s to the 1970s, inflation was presented as a social and political phenomenon, in which social leaders representing workers and branch industries played key roles in disputing state involvement in price control. These national newspapers took clear ideological standpoints on inflation, standpoints reflecting different conceptions of the economy. While La Nación represented a liberal vision, Clarín promulgated a more interventionist approach. Notably, inflation during this period was an important problem for liberals, and particularly so during unstable years. Since the mid-1970s, however, inflation has not only continued at three digit levels, they argue, but its framing has also changed. As experts in economics were increasingly called to give their professional advice and opinion, ideological cleavages began to fade. Inflation came to be considered an urgent ‘economic’ problem shorn of clear ideological baggage, a problem involving all members of society equally, without regard to political orientation, a problem requiring the in-depth intervention of independent economic experts. The story they tell shows how inflation moved from being a general social and political problem to a technical, ‘economic’ subject fit only for experts.

In a similar vein, Tomás Undurraga investigates the assemblage of economic news by Brazilian journalists. Based on a multi-site ethnography of two influential newspapers in Brazil, he examines how the production of economic news involves journalists in mediating knowledge claims made by experts, policy makers and the lay public. Undurraga asks whether and how Brazilian journalists experience themselves as knowledge-makers. The paper describes how journalists aim to produce news that is marked by four main features: depth, authorship, influence and expertise. In doing this, this paper shows that journalists are more likely to consider newsmaking a contribution to knowledge when: they have the resources to do proper investigative reporting (depth); they are able to help define the public agenda through their reporting and to express their opinion on events (authorship); they have impact on the field they cover (influence) and their journalistic knowledge is recognised as a form of expertise by readers and specialists (expertise). In practice, however, there are multiple obstacles that make Brazilian journalists hesitant about their contribution to knowledge, including, intensified working conditions alongside other challenges of media convergence, the lack of plurality within the mainstream presses, journalism’s low professional status in Brazil, and difficulty in dealing authoritatively with experts from other fields.

Fig. 1. Workshop participants, from left to right: Tomás Undurraga, Tomás Ariztía, Mariana Heredia, Martín de Santos, Ana Gros, Gustavo Onto
Fig. 1. Workshop participants, from left to right:
Tomás Undurraga, Tomás Ariztía, Mariana Heredia, Martín de Santos, Ana Gros, Gustavo Onto

 

Public Numbers

Neiburg and Gross’ papers examined disputes concerning the production and circulation of public numbers and consumer price indexes through regulatory documents and policies. While public numbers play a key role in defining how the economy is shaped, such numbers are often constituted via historical knowledge practices through which specific versions of the economy are supported and others discarded.

Examining the way in which Argentina’s inflation dispute was framed, Federico Neiburg maps the genealogy and justifications of ‘economic emergencies’ as economic and legal objects. Exploring the state of “national statistical emergency” decreed by President Macri in December 2015, Neiburg discusses the juridical and political implications of intervening in the National Institute of Statistics. In this context, the paper maps a genealogy of devices and justifications for economic emergencies, which aim to suspend momentarily the rule of law and to encourage the normal, independent operation of markets. He shows how economic emergencies open a clear window onto the interconnections between everyday and academic categories relating to the ‘real economy’. Neiburg discusses how  “emergency” regulations designed to govern the economy allow action to be taken in relation to knowledge of economic life, such as the production of indicators. These actions are generally justified in defence of the ‘common good,’ and directly affect the ‘real economy’ and ‘people’s real lives’: prices, wages, contracts, employment, debts, savings and so on. Similarly to Heredia and Daniel, Neiburg shows how the production of ‘emergency’ situations relates to the practical implementation of technical numbers such as indicators.

Ana Gross takes the controversy generated around the validity of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) in Argentina since 2006 as an empirical occasion to observe how public economic numbers are produced in an increasingly decentralized way. She explores two distinctive features of the controversy surrounding the proliferation of alternative inflation indicators: first, the public disaggregation of inflation databases that render the products and prices used to calculate CPI; thus transforming the way in which prices are visibilized; and second, the emergence of alternative inflation indicators based on different temporal modes of release and communication. The paper looks at how the observation, knowledge and experience of public economic numbers becomes re-organised when statistics are disaggregated to the point where they render the specificities of their calculations visible, and when official indicators like CPI become contested by other measures.

Private Numbers

We also examined objects such as databases and visualization techniques that help to shape and materialize economic subjects and states of affairs. These objects, such as antitrust policy charts and consumer databases, illustrate the mediating role that knowledge practices and devices play in shaping central economic objects and subjects – such as consumers, markets, and competition. These objects (Guyer, 2016) cannot be described as necessarily “economic”, since they are also used to enact things that are not necessarily considered economic. Further attention to these epistemic objects, however, expands the way we are prone to describe the economy.

Based on an ethnography of the Brazilian antitrust governmental agency – the Administrative Council for Economic Defense, CADE – Gustavo Onto explores the production and use of documents and graphic artefacts and the role they play in regulating market competition. Antitrust regulation involves a variety of administrative practices aimed at producing knowledge about specific markets, industries, companies and consumers, with the aim of facilitating decisions about, e.g., whether to authorise a merger between two companies, or to condemn anticompetitive practices like those of a cartel. These knowledge practices rely on the production and circulation of different bureaucratic artifacts that are critical for regulators to be able to visualize market competition, usually through tables, charts and percentages. Taking specific merger cases analyzed by regulators as examples, Onto argues that competition is not necessarily an abstract or theoretical notion when seen from the point of view of knowledge practices that frame the possibility of future harm to consumers and other companies. By contrast, he argues that competition can only be understood or visualized by regulators through specific material and graphic techniques that foreground a set of relations of similarity and difference between products, services and companies.

In a similar vein, Tomás Ariztía discusses how consumers are enacted in marketing datamining. Based on an experimental ethnography of the manufacture and analysis of a transactional dataset from a small retail company in Chile, Ariztía describes the practice of ‘number crunching’ – i.e. the process of creating, modifying and datamining transactional data during the production of consumer databases. In doing so, the paper describes the enactment of consumers in datamining as the outcome of a myriad of socio-material practices and devices through which specific accounts of the social world are rendered visible. The paper describes how the consumer that is enacted through datamining is the result of a practical operation of qualification deployed trough different digital infrastructures. In doing so, the paper explores two specific aspects of the production of consumer datasets: first, the central place of error as both a heuristic tool and an outcome of consumer data practices. Second, the paper explores how datamining for marketing purposes relies on multiple, humble valuation processes through which the data that “counts” is defined. These processes involve defining and mobilizing consumers in specific ways, while others are discarded.

Lateral Economic Objects

What do public and private numbers such as consumer price and inflation indexes, market share tables, consumer datasets and economic news have in common? On what grounds can these objects be labelled “economic”? How do they relate to the production of more well-known economic entities and processes, such as markets, prices or firms? In what follows we discuss some common threads among the papers. We do so by proposing two key arguments about the place that lateral epistemic objects occupy in the production of the economy.

First, the objects described are ‘lateral’ since they relate to processes such as indexing, prospecting scenarios and deploying an administrative procedure, which are not necessarily specific to processes of economization. At the same time, however, all these objects contribute to the assemblage of entities that go on to be considered central to economic life, such as consumers, prices, market competition and economic forecasts. This apparent tension points us to one of the core theoretical claims that is supported by a close reading of the work presented: namely, that the different epistemic objects that constitute the economic world do not necessarily relate to the processes of economization described by Çalışkan and Callon (2009; 2010). These objects instead participate in the production of the economy in a subtler, lateral manner. In other words, core economic entities rely on the mobilization of a plurality of non-economic processes and knowledges, which are key in shaping the economy, such as databases, news or excel tables. Core economic processes are therefore not as autonomous and sui generis as the work of Caliskan and Callon is often taken to suggest.

It is in this sense that we term the objects described in these papers as ‘lateral economic objects’. They take part in economization processes only in an indirect manner. They deal with practices and devices that constitute the economy in so far as they mediate further processes of economization, but they may play a similar role in processes that are not overtly economic. The relatively humble operation of, e.g., manufacturing indexes, regulatory documents, economic news, databases and market shares tables contribute to making the economy possible but are not themselves specific or exclusive to modes of economization. Eschewing the centre/periphery binary, ‘lateral objects’ illuminate other processes that are not necessarily less central to the economy but have received less attention in the making of the economy

The previous claim points us to a second, stronger one. As argued by Miyazaki and Riles (2005), not all the objects and practices that shape economic life need to be related in a direct fashion to processes of economization or marketization. Economic life is produced in ways which are not always convergent and that might involve the existence of different frictions in the production of the economy. In this sense, these papers dealing with the production of lateral economic objects illustrate how economic life is produced and assembled in different and divergent places, which are only partially related to one another. The contributors to the workshop thus attempt to develop an understanding of the economy that is open to the multiplicity and contestability of knowledges and materialities that shape economic life.

The focus on the laterality of the objects examined here raises a further question about the Latin American nature of our examples. How do these examples help us to understand the production of the economy in Latin American countries specifically? What do these various research projects focused on Argentina, Brazil and Chile tell us about the specificity of the economies of the region? Going beyond the traditional stereotypes with which the social sciences tend to label Latin America – e.g. as being a laboratory for economic experimentation, as being politically and economically hierarchical and a place of contestation and hoped for political change – these papers shed light on the socio-technical nature of the Latin American economies from an anthropological and sociological perspective. In this sense, the papers discussed here illuminate a second meaning of laterality, one that relates to the place that practices and devices have in the analysis of economic life in this region. In fact, contrary to a meta-narrative reading of Latin American political economy, these papers reveal the nuances and specificities of the economies in the area, and how these economies are locally constructed, governed and contested.

This workshop received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013)/ERC grant agreement No. 283754. 

The organizers thank Tiago Mata, Asa Cusack and the members of the ‘Economics in the Public Sphere’ project for helping us put together the workshop

Gedankensprüngeausstellung

“Let’s pause for a while, follow a procedure and search for different sensors that could allow us to recalibrate our detectors, our instruments, to feel anew where we are and where we might wish to go. 

No guarantee, of course: this is an experiment, a thought experiment, a Gedankenausstellung.” 

(Field book, p. 1)

 

»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber
»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber

 

 

That voice is familiar. It appears in many texts and lectures, navigating between directly calling on the reader – never without a sense of humour, but seriously upset about the way we continue to act out modernity – and considerately trying out new ideas and forms of de-modernisation. In short: “r-M!”

“Gedankenausstellung” is one of these ideas, coined by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, who since their “Making Things Public” (2005), have tried to open up new ways of relating to the world through the mode of the discursive exhibition. In “reset Modernity!” it signals the theoretical work to be done by the visitors once they have gone through the six “procedures” that structure the exhibition. The “field book” is another:

“As the name ‘field book’ indicates, you are invited to do a bit of research yourself.” 

(Field book, p. 2).

 

»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber
»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber

 

As an impatient visitor of exhibitions, but an anthropologist passionate about analysing knowledge in the mode of the exhibition, I was most curious about the making of “reset Modernity!” when I visited it on its opening weekend. Would space be reserved for reflection on how this Gedankenausstellung became an Ausstellung? And if so, what kind of spatial arrangement could express the localising qualities of this very representational work?

As it turns out, there was. Firstly in the catalogue, which was too heavy to carry, and will be a source for future reading. Here, a seventh procedure with the title “In search of a diplomatic middle ground” had been added. The chapter provides a visual and textual documentation of the conferences, workshops, symposia and plays that took place in the context of AIME — the ERC-funded research project and network based in Sciences Po’s médialab in Paris. The website, which has been developed as a working tool for the group, contains additional materials, including interviews with Bruno Latour on the question, “What is a Gedankenausstellung?” (http://modesofexistence.org/what-is-a-gedankenausstellung/). When it comes to learning about the making-of process, the photographs of their work sessions are potential sources of information – they show people sitting around tables covered with document folders, bottles of soft drinks and plates of sweets, discussing plans that have been projected on the wall. It features photographs and an audio-visual recording of the curators visiting the ZKM in 2015, bent over plans and examining the future exhibition space. It also shows the “statement of intent”, which prompted the following comment: “It sounds exciting. Stay strong and hold on to your original vision. Alicia Flynn (a year ago)” (http://modesofexistence.org/statement-of-intent-for-the-aime-exhibition-at-zkm-2016/)

 

»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber
»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber

 

»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber
»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber

Did they stay strong? And was that the right approach? (It shouldn’t be, see Latour/Weibel 2007: pp. 94-95) They did keep to their plan, and while the catalogue and website document how the research network took on the risks of interdisciplinary work (intertwining research, debate and theatre with analogue and digital design in different locations and constellations) the exhibition includes traces of their original working practice in the form of “stations” implemented in each procedure. Here, thematically related quotes, notes, images and audio-recordings are provided and loosely arranged on a single white wall. These arrangements are aesthetically reminiscent of the associative Warburgian atlas production – without claiming to be exhaustive.

Quite the opposite: These stations point directly to another, virtual actor — potentially a zettelkasten of the AIME team and its collaborators, which could be a probable source for the arrangements. The looseness of the wall arrangements and the virtual zettelkasten cautiously suggest the existence of selection, but not to the ways in which the selection took place. Which lines were drawn between those artworks and references that became part of the spatially, temporally, financially limited exhibition-project? Which artworks and references made their way into the exhibition while transgressing these lines? And which ones never did become a part of it, despite having the strongest of qualifications1 Since much of the “field book” isn’t a “fieldwork notebook”2, the stations don’t offer these types of insights into the representational work. Given that these processes are always driven by tension and passion – which shape the agency distributed between the actors – these walls have a lightness, they breathe and invite the visitor to do the same.

 

»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber
»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber

 

But do they provide the quiet that, as Bruno Latour mentioned in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist (http://modesofexistence.org/what-is-a-gedankenausstellung/, 26:14), is necessary for a reset? The field book proclaims that they are “a sort of workplace … this is where you will find more information and where you can discuss the path of the inquiry” (field book, p. 2). Here something might have been lost between the original vision and its spatialisation.

 

»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber
»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber

 

The very discreteness of this AIME-archive (the table with books at the intersection of three procedures should also be mentioned) is partially the result of the large, all-consuming two-dimensional artworks that surround these stations. Walking through the exhibition, these spectacular images again and again captured my attention: the more-than-realistic, staged photographs of Jeff Wall showing scientific practices; Armin Linke’s photographic work, which seemed to be part of almost every procedure, and simultaneously points to humanity’s intriguing megalomania and smallness and, visible from far away, at the end of the first exhibition hall, the floating walls of film projections in procedure five. The latter, called “Secular at Last”, resonated with the large scale of the other pictures. One work in this procedure is spatially secluded by a triangular installation of screens: “Obama’s Grace” (Lorenza Mondada et al, 2016). Here, the performative force of Barak Obama’s combination of political statement and religious “sound” is disturbingly intensified. An analytical transcript on one of the screens, however, demonstrates the extent to which this intensity stems from both the president and his parish. When standing between these three screens, the need for a way out of modernity’s binding forces could not be more obvious. Time for a Gedankensprung!

Reset Latour!

In press releases and in the impressive catalogue, the new Reset Modernity! exhibition at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe – (co-)curated by a certain Bruno Latour – is framed as a thought experiment or, in more idiomatic German, a Gedankenausstellung. Having perused through the exhibitions’ 75+ works of various origins and media formats, and thus partaken in the six successive procedures of dis- and reorientation meant to achieve the promised reset, this framing seems to us both highly appropriate and somewhat symptomatic. Appropriate, in the sense that what is being exhibited here, more than photographs and video screens and installation art, is in fact the thoughts of… Bruno Latour. Symptomatic, because in this case as well, German is more precise than English: while thoughts are literally put on display, it seems as if nothing much experimental is happening here. In particular, the detour through other materials seems to make no real difference to how the thoughts unfold themselves.

From start to end, the exhibition looks and feels like a crash course in Latour’s version of science and technology studies (STS). Guided by a field book, we move from laboratory life (a, ‘re-localizing the global’) to the anthropology of techniques (f, ‘innovation not hype’), via more recent interventions aligned to the various modes of existence of the moderns: fictional art (b, ‘without the world or within’), religion (e, ‘secular at last’), morality (c, ‘sharing responsibility’) and politics (d, ‘from lands to disputed territories’). Crashing, indeed, is what modernity is said to be doing, under the weight of ecological crises. Or, to follow the opening video of the show, perhaps the crash has already happened and we are scrambling to face up to its effects? The answer was never entirely clear; just as it was not clear just why modernity needs resetting if, as the curator might say, we were never quite modern in the first place? Perhaps resetting is what happens to critique of ideology, once we stop believing in both critique and ideology?

 

The article’s co-author engages with the thoughts on display, and in the field book, during Reset Modernity!, photograph by author

 

 

With so many interesting ideas flowing around; with such an impressive list of star artists enrolled; and with such a pressing eco-political mandate, Reset Modernity! frankly strikes us as something of a missed opportunity. Not that the show lacks exiting moments, far from it. Strong works of contemporary art, such as those by Simon Starling, Tacita Dean, Thomas Struth and Pierre Huyghe (to name but a few), make it well worth a visit. For anyone familiar with Latour and STS, moreover, the joy of recognition is a palpable one: if you read Reassembling the Social, you will surely enjoy watching Charles and Ray Eames’ promotional video Powers of Ten (and its critical-theatrical deconstruction); and if you follow discussions on the Anthropocene, you will like the enigmatic hybrids of humans and stones conjured by Anne-Sophie Milon and Jan Zalasiewicz (himself a leading geological protagonist). Yet, at the level of curatorial guidance – of which the show has (too) much! – the thoughts on display often curiously falls short of their purported model, i.e. the ground-breaking and thought-provoking writings of… Bruno Latour himself.

Let us give a few examples to illustrate what we mean. During procedure b of the exhibition, the visitor is treated to two striking works by Jeff Wall, the Canadian artist well known for his self-reflexive inquiries into the nature of photographic representation. The choice of artist, of course, is far from coincidental. As many readers of this journal will recognize, Latour has a history of reflecting on one of these works: specifically, Wall’s 1992 photographic rendition of Adrian Walker, Artist, Drawing From a Specimen in a Laboratory in the Department of Anatomy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver (as the full title reads). In the picture, Walker-the-artist is seen in the laboratory, absorbed in his work of making an anatomical drawing of a detached, mummified limb from a once-living animal. It is a wonderful piece of art, dwelling as it does on the capacity of photography to capture one of those still-rarer moments in scientific practice where artistic competence remains superior in precision to automated inscription.

Latour surely agrees, to a point. As he explains in his brilliant 2005 Spinoza lecture, What is the style of matters of concern?, he is critical of Wall’s gesture: Wall has been blinded, he argues, by the contrivances of this situation, failing to see that its entire aesthetics of matters of fact has been rendered improbable. To his credit, in this 2005 text, Latour re-prints a lengthy response to this interpretation by Wall himself, explaining why it misses what Wall takes to be the key point, to do with the pleasure of all depiction (his own included, of course). Here is the problem, however: at the Reset Modernity! exhibition, this worthwhile exchange is reduced to a mere assertion on the part of the curator. In particular, the other photograph by Wall allows Latour to drive home the point: here, we witness a group of archeologists at work in their field, excavating. Unlike Walker, Latour writes in the field book, scientists “are involved inside what they study”. A nice STS point, for sure. But why do we need Jeff Wall’s photographs in order to make it? Indeed, are we not presented here with a strangely realist, matter-of-factly way of appreciating what is, after all, a highly self-reflexive photographic practice? If scientists are active inside the worlds they study, then what about photographers? Is only STS allowed to determine where the frame starts and stops?

 

 

Elevated view of the exhibition layout, with Milon and Zalasiewicz' The Mystery of Brunaspis enigmatica on the floor, photograph by author
Elevated view of the exhibition layout, with Milon and Zalasiewicz’ The Mystery of Brunaspis enigmatica on the floor, photograph by author

 

A second and related concern arises for us as we start embracing the full diversity of materials on display in the exhibition as a whole: tactile works by world-renowned contemporary artists sit alongside amateur scribblings and installations; videos by Peter Gallison’s STS students stand around the corner from the Eames’ work of design consultancy; a (copy of a) 15th century print by Albrect Dürer shares the space with excerpts from late-20th-century movies. In fact, only the large-size photographs by Armin Linke gives to Reset Modernity! a kind of recurrent visual mark (albeit, we think, a less interesting one than Latour lets on in the catalogue). Such material diversity is of course potentially interesting. It juxtaposes times, spaces, media and genres not usually juxtaposed. It challenges how boundary-work is usually performed in artistic spaces. However, at the curatorial level, nothing much is done with this diversity and its potentials in Reset Modernity!. In fact, and disappointingly, diversity of materials and stylistic genres fails to register anywhere in the thoughts on display, in the (heavy!) narrative being told. It is as if the various thoughts and the various materials, interesting as those registers are, are just not rendered that relevant for each other. Here is a split one would have trusted an STS curator to bridge – especially when that curator has done more than perhaps anyone else to bring to attention the inherent materiality of ideas.

Third and finally, there is the narrative itself, the narrative of what happened to us during the short experience called modernity, and how we might want to reset that experience. Here, as noted, we are treated to a tour around Latour’s universe, slanted towards his more recent concerns: during the show, we move from (ancestral) land to the (modernist) globe; get lost on the way; witness the birth of the environment (out of Nature) and its later morphing into Gaia; only to realize that our imaginary land and utopian globe have both disappeared, leaving us the task of cultivating new careful techniques of attachment to our new and inhospitable umwelt, the Earth. Anyone up to date with Latour’s writings will recognize the (geo-)story. What becomes obvious in this 3-D exhibition version, however, is just hos well Latour’s own wonderful concept of the panorama fits this story of his: we are presented with a 360-degrees full-color projection, with no cracks and fissures, but equally with no visible signs of connection to the world beyond the screen. The panorama, as Latour would say, is nicely suited for preparing its audience, the public, for the collective journey ahead – such, indeed, seems to us the better way of appreciating the Reset Modernity! exhibition. Yet, even the best of panoramas eventually leave you starving for more, for something tangible, connected, entangled, engaged. For the kinds of worlds, in short, which STS is so good at cultivating, and which actor-network theory feeds on, full of gaps and fissures and translations and betrayals.

Few contemporary intellectuals have done more to completely revamp, indeed to seriously reset, all the ingredients of our common world – of science, technology, nature, politics, not to mention the study of their multifarious interrelations, known as STS – than has Bruno Latour. His recent exposition of the modes of existence of the moderns adds new and interesting layers to this already-impressive intellectual edifice, as does his engagement into transdisciplinary dialogues on the fate of our Anthropocene. In the meantime, he has managed to (co-)curate three multi-media art exhibitions, at least one of which (the 2005 Making Things Public) stands as a model for those art-science collaborative endeavors so seriously needed. In light of all this, Reset Modernity! is a parenthesis; not a complete failure, for sure, but neither groundbreaking in any way. Sometimes, resetting your computer is no big deal, just something you do to refresh your extended mind. We suggest a similar procedure here: upon visiting this exhibition, remember to reset Latour (!) and refresh your memory as to just why his thinking matters so much in the first place.

Procedures to deal with modernity without irony

My own interest in this exhibition

Having only witnessed Bruno Latour live in a lecture over two decades ago and having recently (re-)read a large fraction of his work, including his Inquiry into Modes of Existence (2013), I gladly accepted the invitation to take part in the opening event of his exhibition Reset Modernity! My own interest in Latour’s work, including his philosophical work, stems from his combined empirical and theoretical analyses of practices of dealing with uncertainty. Besides having studied Latour’s approach to science and politics (in particular pertaining to global climate change) I was recently triggered by his approach to science and religion (in, e.g., his Rejoicing, 2013). I will here reflect how his exhibition added a useful dimension to the readings I had done before.

 

Executing procedures with more senses

Latour’s approach in his books is already unconventional, for instance by using fictive narrators. In the exhibition, a whole other dimension of the problématique appears, through a variety of media, alongside what can be addressed through the ordinary mode of reading and thinking. During the opening symposium (and in the book accompanying the exhibition) Latour emphasised that in order to be able to deal with the future ‘our individual instruments’ need to be ‘reset’ (from a false modernity) by a sequence of ‘procedures’ that the exhibition carries out with the participants. And to be honest: I took a whole day to dutifully execute all the suggested procedures, using my guidebook and walking through the exhibition and looking carefully and reflecting on what was shown, and indeed got sensitised to several aspects that had escaped my notice from reading his books. This happened already in procedure 1, relocalising the global, when watching the precursors and Latour’s criticism of the film Powers of Ten (Charles and Ray Eames, 1977). I immediately ordered a copy of Kees Boeke’s Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps (1957). Latour highlights the ‘complete implausibility’ of the moves in Powers of Ten. One should not jump too quickly to the ‘big picture’. Or, as Latour writes, ‘Earth is not visible as long as it is hidden behind the globe’. Of course I was already open to it and quite prepared, but still the exhibition is accessible to a large audience (actually, it is more accessible than some of Latour’s books).

 

No irony

Another observation that Latour made during the opening was that none of the work in his exhibition has any form of irony: none of it is critical in the 20th century modernist sense. And he deemed that to be something positive. According to Latour, you do not want to exit from the successes of modernisation. And indeed the exhibition, although it addresses – among other topics – global problems such as climate change, embodies a pragmatist philosophy of hope. Indeed several pragmatist elements are recognisable in the exhibition: avoidance of dualisms; the flux of experience and of the experienced world; reflexivity; responsibility; creativity and inclusivity. The exhibition hence confirms that Latour’s work refers back to the early phase of pragmatism (that of James and Dewey) combined with a sharp analysis of present day connections.

 

Religion as politics

The least attractive procedure, at least for my own project, was the procedure called ‘secular at last’ focussed on the crossing between politics and religion. The procedure focused on religious film and highlighted the politics of religion. While the crossing of politics and religion is no doubt a problématique of global significance, I had hoped to learn more about Latour’s analyses of science and religion, which he both sees as the result of transformations. In the case of science the interest is in information and representation; in the case of religion the interest is in translation and ‘saving’. In Rejoice, Latour had focused on alterations that happen to people when they utter religious speech and engage (models of) beings that ‘have the peculiar characteristic of bringing persons from remoteness to proximity, from death to life’. I would have liked to see demonstrations of how models of God are used in practice, and how deep uncertainty and ignorance about these models are dealt with and expressed in religious practices. And maybe to explore the crossing with the mode of reference, how science models nature.

 

Gaia

To be honest, I have always been sceptical of references to ‘Gaia’. Especially of the popular reception of the Gaia hypothesis as it was put forward, defended and refined by the inventor and independent scientist James Lovelock (the hypothesis being that biota influence the environment in a way that causes a homeostasis in the face of a changing external forcing). While Lovelock and his supporters have consistently tried to accommodate scientific criticism of the Gaia hypothesis by seemingly getting rid of the metaphysical versions, the attractiveness of the Gaia hypothesis for the general public remained precisely what Lovelock cannot suppress himself to say about Earth: ‘It is most certainly an organism—and alive!’ Latour in this exhibition, however, does not at all allude to these metaphysical versions and is able to take a fresh look at Earth, in a grounded way. I found his visual distinctions between globe and Earth enlightening. And also what he indicated during the opening: speaking about Gaia is not about animism: it is to indicate that there was no modernist deanimation in the first place.