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Playgrounding Techno-Anthropology

The Techno-Anthropological Laboratory (TANTLab) was founded in 2015 as a response to what we saw as a growing need to road test digital methods and its associated styles of analysis with non-university partners. Located as part of the Techno-Anthropology Research Group at the Department of Learning and Philosophy at the University of Aalborg in Copenhagen, and thus part of thriving research and educational programmes in STS, we had been developing an interest in digital methods over a period of five years. These methods were relatively new to STS, where they had been developed under headings like issue mapping and digital controversy analysis (Marres & Rogers 2005, Venturini 2010). At the same time, STS more broadly had been asking itself how it means business and what kinds of interventions it wants to make. Our intuition was that digital methods in STS were now coming sufficiently of age to answer some of these questions more directly and in practice.

From the very beginning we decided to signpost this mission with two words: laboratory and playground. We called ourselves TANTlab and we adopted the tagline The Techno-Anthropological playground. In the following we will try to convey our sense of what it means to be a laboratory-playground.

Labs and serious play

We live in the age of labs. For someone taking an outside look at Academia these days, it quite possibly seems as if we’ve all contracted a contagious case of ‘laborangitis’. A new lab springs to life almost on a weekly basis (Smith et al. 2013, Ehn et al. 2014). On the relatively small campus of Aalborg University Copenhagen, we can think of at least 6 entities that call themselves labs, including a biotech lab, a food lab and a lab for physical prototypes.

Visitors coming to the TANTlab are not greeted by classic lab equipment. We have no petri dishes or microscopes, no animal models or bunsen burners, and no strangely looking blackboxed pieces of equipment. The physical space of TANTlab is a relatively conventional place – a room with screens, tables and chairs. You will find students mingling with researchers, and academics mingling with practitioners. You will hear people claiming to be makers and doers first, and thinkers or critics second, people claiming to be designing things, prototyping things, exploring and experimenting with things, although often ‘digital’ things that are only visible on screens and on large print-outs attached to the walls.

When you walk down the hallway, you will see the lab’s tagline in bold print on the glass wall: the techno-anthropological playground. It is only fair to ask if it is all fun and games?

Our response is that laboratories are indeed serious business. But so are playgrounds. Anybody who remembers being 5 or sending their kids off to kindergarden for the first time will know this instinctively. The transition from playing on your own, or under the close supervision of an adult, to holding your own against peers your own size, age and ferocity is a tough and challenging experience. And it takes place on playgrounds.

At the techno-anthropology lab we contribute to a young degree programme – only 6 years of age, in the middle of kindergarden, in fact – and we face all sorts of formative playground trials all the time. Our students face them in the college bar late at night, or at the family dinner, talking to that friend or relative who got into anthropology proper or decided to become a doctor: ’So, what exactly is a ”techno-anthropologist”’? They face it at their job interviews and when they negotiate a semester project with a company or a public agency.

Our researchers face it when they justify themselves to their colleagues in more established disciplines. But they also, and increasingly, face it when they strive to translate the societal relevance of their findings and methods. And, not least, our collaborators and future employers face it when they have to decide if we are worth playing with?

An age old tactic of the playground is of course to rely on your friends and your older siblings, if you have any. At the techno-anthropology lab we draw inspiration and support from fields like Science and Technology Studies, Digital Methods and Co-Design.

The trouble with siblings, however, is that they are not always there. Try walking into a job interview and rely on Science and Technology Studies to cover your back. It’s not bullet proof.

We – students, researchers, collaborators – need to work actively with how we are playgrounding techno-anthropology. That is the idea of the techno-anthropology lab.

The benefits of playgrounds

Playgrounding, or playground design, is actually a sprawling professional field now. In a recent paper on ”The developmental benefits of playgrounds” Frost et al. note that:

“Among the benefits of unstructured outdoor play (…) are the abilities to make decisions, work and play within a community of others, and to try out ideas and explore the play environment. Also highlighted are the benefits of pretend play, which has recently been shown to further the development of brain synaptic connections. (…) “If children lack opportunities to pretend, their long-term capacities related to critical thinking, problem solving, and social functioning, as well as to academic areas such as literacy, mathematics, and science, may be diminished.” (Frost et al. 2004)

That is surely something worth striving for! As a collateral bonus, the authors add that:

“Besides the social and academic benefits of play, research indicates that children with play opportunities are not likely to be depressed and hostile and generally do not exhibit excessive fear, rage, and worry.” (ibid.)

What is not to like?

The crux of the matter seems to be that good playgrounds have to be thought through. A little bit of playground history is instructive here. The idea originated in Germany in the mid 1800s but only spread at the beginning of the 20th century. Here is what president Roosevelt had to say about the matter in 1907:

“City streets are unsatisfactory playgrounds for children because of the danger, because most good games are against the law, because they are too hot in summer, and because in crowded sections of the city they are apt to be schools of crime. Neither do small back yards nor ornamental grass plots meet the needs of any but the very small children. Older children who would play vigorous games must have places especially set aside for them; and, since play is a fundamental need, playgrounds should be provided for every child as much as schools.”

You will notice that there is a classic dilemma lurking between the lines: How do you design something that is supposed to afford games, that are vigorous and likely to be against the law? Can you even design play?

Actually, we have quite a tradition for it in Denmark. The landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen pioneered the concept of the adventure playground, or junk playground, in the 1940’s. He wanted to create imaginative environments, building on the pragmatist ideals of John Dewey. As pointed out by Kozlovsky, in a paper from 2008, it was the imagination of the child, not the architect, what Dewey would have called inquiry, that was supposed to unfold. We believe that is a good ideal to adhere to for a playground.

Carl Theodor Sørensen later said that: “of all the things I have helped to realise, the junk playground is the ugliest; yet for me it is the best and most beautiful of my works.” (Kozlovsky 2008: 7)

It seems essential that playgrounding is about coming out. That it is about doing things with others, rather than on your own. At the lab we are trying to do that with our students, for instance, making sure not only that they work problem based – or simply with other people’s problems – in concrete collaborations every semester, but also that this work is sign posted on our website as part of building a techno-anthropological identity.

And of course, when you play, you get invited home on play dates. We see this as a great opportunity. One of the things we did was to assist the municipality of Aalborg in developing a Facebook driven vision for the future of their schools. Going to other people’s locations and work spheres means learning to play by other people’s rules while honing and fine tuning your own position. The learning potentials are enormous, we think.

Often times, and again this is conveniently equivalent to actual playgrounds, this learning involves the simultaneous development of our imagination and our motor skills. At the techno-anthropology lab we work with a range of cutting edge techniques for harvesting and analysing large amounts of digital online traces. That is an ongoing process of acquiring tools and skills, while constantly maintaining a critical and imaginative perspective on their potential applications. And that is best done in a lab setting. It is together with other people’s problems, so to speak, that the strengths and weaknesses of new methods can crystallize.

Styles of play

On playgrounds, including ours, certain styles of play tend to emerge over time. Sometimes these styles are clearly demarcated. Kids who play football would NEVER join the roleplay with their younger siblings. In our case, the emerging styles of play overlap both in terms of participants, tools and ideas. And yet we can distinguish at least four different genres.

Re-tooling ethnography 

This game explores how traditional ethnographic approaches such as interviews and participant observation can be enriched or challenged in conversation with analysis and visualization of large datasets, and vice versa.

Participatory Data Design

This game explores how digital methods can enter into collaboration with actors who are already substantially engaged in particular fields or issues. We engage the actors, whom we call issues experts, to understand the problem of the field, and together we explore. Instead of just looking at data together, we take inspiration from participatory design methods and pursue the idea that decisions about datafication, filtering, analysis and visualization are never ‘just’ technical but more often where the scope and limitations of the project is laid down and blackboxed. We work actively with the data sprint format to facilitate participation in the early stages of a data project.

Media publics and democracy

This game is about assisting democracy. It presumes that new media has a variety of consequences for democratic practice and the formation of public opinion, some of which are adverse. The game is about providing meaningful interventions. It necessitates an ongoing discussion about normative commitments to particular styles of public deliberation and the goods that result from such commitments.

Critical metrics in organizations

This is a valuation game. It is about providing alternative metrics to help organizations make the quality of their activities visible in new ways. It draws on valuation studies and the sociology of markets to assert that the perception of quality depends on the devices available to perform it. Under an evidence based policy paradigm, to be critical can arguably be done at a distance or in proximity with the business of doing evidence (cf. Latour 2005; Birkbak et al.). This game pursues the latter option and embeds with the organization to do evidence in new ways.

Snapshots from the playground

In the following texts we present a set of case examples that illustrate the diversity of play from our first two years of operation. We have selected them to provide a tangible idea of what our playgrounding looks like in practice – the collaborators we engage with, the digital tools we deploy, and the emerging styles of play.

Not a Very Slippery Slope: A Reply to Fuller

Steve Fuller (2017) argues that STS has set the stage for a post-truth world, but has then stepped back, distancing itself from everything post-truth. I’m his primary target, having explicitly argued for the distance (Sismondo 2017a).

Fuller sets out four “tropes”, for which he credits STS, and labels them “common post-truth tropes”. I’ll make a distinction among them, but I argue that none of them are common post-truth tropes, and the ones for which STS should take credit sit at some considerable distance from the post-truth.

The first of Fuller’s tropes is:

  1. Science is what results once a scientific paper is published, not what made it possible for the paper to be published, since the actual conduct of research is always open to multiple countervailing interpretations.
    In this, Fuller presents us with a version of the old distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification, adding an interpretive twist. This one doesn’t belong to or in today’s STS, a field that has invested enormous amounts of time to studying the actual conduct of research. While we might join Fuller in rejecting any ideas of a scientific method, that is hardly the same thing as rejecting as relevant to science everything that occurs before publication. Where would he leave STS’s many detailed studies of the practices of scientific research? Where would he leave STS’s many detailed studies of the materiality of scientific research? Our field integrates materials, tools, practices, infrastructures, rhetorics, epistemes, institutions and more, but Fuller’s purposes are served by restricting his attention dramatically. Science, for Fuller, appears to be a discursive activity.
    Thus the first trope sets the stage for a specific reading of his others. On these, I’m happy to agree about the central ideas behind them, and to agree that these are distinctively STSish ideas. Let me rewrite them, though, without Fuller’s extravagant flourishes and suggestive asides:
  2. Accepted scientific truths are contingent.
  3. Consensus is contingent, the result of effort.
  4. Normative epistemic categories are contingent.

The way that STS has tended to develop them, this family of important and valuable themes doesn’t amount to an endorsement of or support for a post-truth era. The diverse inputs into stable technoscientific orders to which STS pays attention, those materials, tools, practices, infrastructures … and more, mean that scientific contingency is not at all like the apparent contingency of current popular political beliefs. For example, in the current issue of Social Studies of Science, there are studies of the practices of handling blood donations (Berner and Björkman 2017), valuing life (Hood 2017), and monitoring deforestation (Monteiro and Rajão 2017), all of which highlight alternatives. Like most other empirical studies in today’s STS, even where these examples focus on interpretation – which they do – they attend to skills, tools and infrastructures, as well as established practices, rhetorical moves and professional pressures. The creation of stable technoscientific orders is complex.

Meanwhile, as I claimed in the editorial to which Fuller takes exception (Sismondo 2017a), and somewhat more fully argue in another response to critics (Sismondo 2017b), the most exemplary episodes of post-truth behaviour involve a narrow range of resources – almost entirely discursive – to establish widespread beliefs. They involve rumours with emotional appeal, spread via alt-right websites, Twitter campaigns, and commentaries on quasi-mainstream media. Although they can have durability and lasting effects, it’s interesting that these rumours can collapse as quickly as they arise. The pizzagate conspiracy theory (about a Hillary Clinton-led sex trafficking ring headquartered in a Washington pizzeria) mostly died when a would-be fan tried to investigate it with a high-powered rifle, finding no evidence and nearly injuring some of the pizzeria’s patrons. The birther conspiracy theory (that Barack Obama had been born in Kenya) became sidelined as soon as President Obama ceased to have real power.

In a survey of what commentators are writing about post-truth, my research assistant Heather Poechman and I identified five themes, based on our readings of the 60 most prominent distinct sites on Google on which commentators characterized the “post-truth” or the “post-truth era” (Sismondo 2017b). These, I submit, have a better claim to being “common post-truth tropes” than the ones Fuller listed:

  1. The emotional resonances and feelings generated by statements are coming to matter more than their factual basis.
  2. Opinions, especially if they match what people already want to believe, are coming to matter more than facts.
  3. Public figures can make statements disconnected from facts, without fear that rebuttals will have any consequences. Significant segments of the public display an inability to distinguish fact and fiction.
  4. Bullshit, casual dishonesty and demagoguery are increasingly accepted parts of political and public life; this should not, however, be confused with ordinary lying, which is nothing new.
  5. There has been a loss of power and trust in traditional media, leading to more fake news, news bubbles and do-it-yourself investigations.

I am hard-pressed to see why we should connect STS’s emphasis on and careful studies of contingency with any of these themes. From the constructedness of science to the bullshit of post-truth politics, the slope is long and slight, and, with a good pair of walking shoes, not particularly slippery.

What came before Post-Truth?

To call the political moment “post-Truth” implies a recent past governed primarily by something called “Truth.” This should immediately conjure some scepticism, but perhaps it isn’t that far-fetched. At the very least, the decades following the end of the Cold War brought us a series of premises about governance based on empirical knowledge. Three keywords in particular, Transparency, Information and Knowledge, ruled 1990s development discourse. Transparency emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the argument that tyranny was best prevented by making the workings of the state visible to citizens. Information harnessed the promise of new technology, particularly the Internet, in generating new economic and political rationality. And Knowledge was about the decline of the manufacturing economy in Europe and North America, and the increasing economic importance of what many hopefully called the “knowledge economy.” Later we would get “evidenced-based” governing, and the many promises of Big Data. These terms came from different places, but they are the sorts of concepts that, if one squints a bit, all relate to our expanding ability to know the world accurately. In the anxious floundering of the post-Truth era, I think this is what many have retroactively come to think of as “Truth.”

In order to take a bit of distance from this proposition about the relationship between knowledge and government, we might call it “truth politics.” The rider reminds us that this attitude, while it presents the relationship between truth and freedom as universal, responds to a certain constituency, situated in time and space, and requiring adversaries. As Graham Harman1 has pointed out, both the left and right have their brands of truth politics, which deny their own particularity and claim to transcend mere agonism. But in the decades following the Cold War, liberals have become the undisputed masters of forgetting their own particularity. Although I am primarily referring in this post to the North American experience, where the collapse of effective alternatives made it possible for many liberals to genuinely believe that politics had ended, a version of it also operates in continental Europe, where the opening of borders and unification of currency (among other standards) were seen as flowing naturally from the fall of the Berlin wall. So hegemonic had this conception of politics become in the 1990s and 2000s that it rarely described itself with direct reference to the “truth.” And this is what makes the declaration of post-truth so revealing: it retroactively reveals the epistemological stakes of a politics that had forgotten it was political.

Post-Truth might then be thought of as a revival of temporarily-suspended Cold War anxieties. In the US, this story even includes the ambivalent re-emergence of Russia as a singularly problematic political adversary. The give-away here is the sudden popularity of Orwell’s 1984, now on US bestseller lists again, and even back on Broadway. 1984 is a curious analog for the present-day America. It’s not really about a Trump-like country, led by a schoolyard bully who disregards facts and science, but about totalitarianism, in which a faceless state destroys both freedom and knowledge by undermining its citizens’ capacity to think rationally. Bill Pietz2 argued in 1988 that this largely fictional view of totalitarianism was the ideological cornerstone of the Cold War because it projected liberalism’s antithesis onto the Soviet Union. But it did so as an extension of earlier fears of the dark colonies.

Despite his own well-known critique of British colonialism, Orwell’s image of totalitarianism was based on orientalist stereotypes, beginning with the notion of a subservient population incapable of rationality. In other works the link between Cold War thought and colonialism is even clearer. American historian and diplomat George F. Kennan argued that “‘totalitarianism’ is nothing other than traditional Oriental despotism plus modern police technology,”3 and Hannah Arendt saw totalitarianism as a breaking-point for civilization, a reversion to “barbarism.”4

Behind the sudden interest in Orwell as a supposedly prescient analyst of the present, lie works like Heart of Darkness, in which liberals encounter some inscrutable other whose very inscrutability they fear might be nascent in themselves. Totalitarians and barbarians join a long list of what historian Uday Singh Mehta5 calls liberalism’s “constitutive exclusions,” the outsider on whom liberalism depends to define its own epistemology. And like all universalist worldviews, liberalism contains a story about the resolution of its own contradictions. The End of History6, declared once at the beginning of the 19th century, and again in 1989, has been the messianic poison pill in liberalism since its beginning.

In light of this history of liberal anxiety, the era of Truth was a period of ideological complacency. Paul Gottfried calls what ensued “managerial liberalism,”7 an ethos that engulfed much of the right and left in western democracies. At the end of history, liberals could content themselves with tweaking their righteousness rather than defending it against existential threats. As Emmett Ressin recently put it, “The most significant development in the past 30 years of liberal self-conception was the replacement of politics understood as an ideological conflict with politics understood as a struggle against idiots unwilling to recognize liberalism’s monopoly on empirical reason.”8

But as in the 19th century, the contradictions of liberalism were perhaps most easily seen in the global south. Once colonies, where liberals like John Stuart Mill advocated promoting enlightenment through conquest, by the 1990s they had become “developing countries” which could now be coaxed with more sophisticated carrots and sticks to enlighten themselves. Truth politics was supposed to have two very different effects in developing countries in the 1990s. First, increased government transparency was supposed to help countries transition out of authoritarianism and into more robust forms of democracy. Following Orwell’s logic, it is the citizen armed with truth who is able to speak to power and wrest their rights from a government bent on controlling them through misinformation. The informed citizen is the enlightened citizen, who grasps truth and wields it against the state.

Second, the increased circulation of information was also supposed to generate growth according to a paradigm known as “information for development,” popularized by Joseph Stiglitz when he ran the World Bank after a stint as Clinton’s economic advisor.9 This was based on the neoliberal argument that economic planning was bad because it was never possible to fully understand the economic variables at play in any given situation. Soviet and Keynesian economics suffered from the same hubris: that it was possible to know the economy and thereby control it. Thus development economists argued that economic growth, and optimal resource distribution, occurs primarily when no-one is in control of information and it is allowed to circulate as freely as possible.

These theories about why information is good for government and national economies are somewhat different. But they both serve the same purpose of policing liberalism’s epistemological fortress. Together, the Truth era’s international development policies explained both tyranny and underdevelopment as being not about the legacy of colonialism or the Cold War’s proxy wars, but about mismanagement of information, about endemic cronyism, corruption and authoritarian culture.

It’s therefore not at all surprising that Donald Trump’s emergence in US politics would immediately inflame fears of some sort of outside influence. Comparisons of Trump to a “tin-pot dictator” make the colonial tenor of this anxiety obvious. The collective insanity drummed up by Russian interference in US institutions is even more telling, where Vladimir Putin represents both the return of both oriental despotism and Soviet information control. But for committed liberals, the real existential crisis comes from within–from the inscrutable Midwest, the working class–who supposedly vote “against their own interests,” can’t distinguish between truth and fiction, and are driven by emotion rather than rationality. In the American context, Post-Truth is really a story about the collapse of a geographic firewall between reason and unreason that liberals have held dear since the beginning of colonialism.

None of this is to say that there isn’t something quite frightening occurring in way Trump, and other resurgent political movements appear to be using new forms of communication in the service of a violent worldview. But I doubt that it is particularly useful to think of this as post-Truth, and certainly not to bemoan STS’s role in undermining the status of certain kinds of knowledge. In an earlier contribution to this Review,10 Estrid Sørensen reminds us of the longstanding distinction in the social study of science, between truth and facts. STS has never had much interest in Truth, per se, except perhaps as a foil for facts. What is frightening about a figure like Trump, she argues, is not that he is post-truth, but rather that he doesn’t seem concerned with facts. But this should have little effect on social science’s commitment to questioning truth politics, even among allies, wherever it occurs. As Harman11 usefully points out, one of the greatest political contributions of STS, and new materialisms more generally, is to offer us ways to respond in the world that don’t fall back on a clear-cut dichotomy between truth politics and power politics (or, by extension, between managerial liberalism and fascism). That contribution, it seems to me, is needed now more than ever.



1 Harman, Graham, 2014. Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political. London: Pluto Press.

2 Pietz, William, 1988. The “Post-Colonialism” of Cold War Discourse. Social Text 19-20(fall):55-75.

3 Pietz, 1988, page 58.

4 Arendt, Hannah 1951. The origins of totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt Brace.

5 Mehta, Uday Singh. 1999. Liberalism and empire: A study in nineteenth-century British liberal thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

6 Fukuyama, Francis. 1992. The end of history and the last man. New York: Free Press.

7 Gottfried, Paul Edward. 2001. After liberalism: Mass democracy in the managerial state: Princeton University Press.


9 World Bank. 1998. World Development Report 1998/1999: Knowledge for Development. New York: Oxford University Press


11 Harman 2014.

From a politics of difference to a politics of sameness, and back!

There are conspiracy theories, climate change denials, creationists, or, evangelic and Muslim evolution-denials to be precise, and, there are alternative facts. So why are we interpellated by the latter so fiercely? Why are we intellectually moved and politically mobilized. Or, why am I alarmed by this notion, I kept asking myself?

Alternative facts demand a response from academics and STS scholars in particular. Partially this has to do with the power of words. Their power to structure reality. The power to align disperse and desperate politics and moods under one banner: alternative facts. It is a potent notion that has organized rightwing politics as well as its responses, such as the Marches for Science, or, this special section.

Alternative facts demand a response also because of the particular era that we find ourselves in these days. An era of growing xenophobia, racism, sexism and populism, not in the margins of democratic societies, but at the very heart of mainstream discourse and political debates. An era characterized also, by radical changes in the sociopolical order, both in the ‘peripheries’ of EuroAmerican empires and at home. A move towards the neoliberalisation of everything with the dwindling of fundamental rights as its effects.

And as you read these words, I can hear you think: So, what’s to be done? Should we hit the street and go safe the world, or at least take it for repair? Yes. But, not all of us and not all the time! But it is vital to see that the very practice of protesting, in whichever version, is a mode of experimenting, testing and innovating the very architecture of democracies (e.g. Mouffe 2000). It is a mode of practicing political subjectivities as well as a mode of imagining and chanting, collectively, worlds and lives otherwise (e.g. Blaser 2014).

While I cannot believe I have put these words to paper, here, in this forum, I mean every word of it. But there is more, much more, and that is why it has been an enormous struggle to produce this intervention on alternative facts.

The talk of alternative facts did not only perform me as a political subject, it also helped to me to appreciate ‘our’ institutions and value them as singular entities. For, alternative facts are first and foremost, a fierce attack on democratic institutions. And as we know, the suspicion placed on institutions is quickly translated onto the people who work there. For example in January this year Pieter Duisenberg, a Dutch Member of Parliament for the conservative liberal party VVD, submitted a resolution in which he requested that the political inclination of Dutch academics be investigated, because he was of the opinion that Dutch academia was too leftist. His resolution received the support of the majority in parliament and the requested study is currently underway. The assumption of this resolution is that the trustworthiness of knowledge is contingent upon the political color of the scholars, – there might be alternative facts – therewith reducing institutions and knowledge to a matter of people and their worldview. It is crucial to see that this reduction makes the sedimented and collective work that goes into building institutions and making them work, invisible, leading to their vulnerability and the risk of them being closed down.

Alternative facts are obviously made somewhere and thrown at us by someone (even if this someone is a robot), but they can only exist as free-floating entities because any institutionalized mode of knowledge production undermines their factuality. While obscuring their provenance they have to circulate at high speed to achieve traction and become real. Alternative facts feed off velocity. Institutions by contrast, are bureaucratic settings that are there to slow down our doings, including our thinking. They slow down our movements, because they are in the business of producing sameness (to which I will return below). Now, there is no need to romanticize them, because institutions can sometimes also stop our possibilities to think altogether. And this not the place either to engage in problems with institutional racism, sexism and classism, to name a few. Rather I want to think briefly with the singularity of institutions.

As said, alternative facts scare me to death, precisely because they are part of a growing “attack on the social order” (Sørensen 2017, previous volume). They project a vision of hollowed out institutions. It is obvious that any institution is a complex configuration and I am here glancing over dazzling multiplicities, when simply speaking of it just like that. Yet, I want to suggest that just like Helen Verran has argued for numbers (2017), also institutions, despite their multiplicity, insist on taking singularity seriously. Their singularity is key, because the bureaucratic machine of institutions, their standards, protocols, and procedures are aimed at producing sameness. To be sure we are not talking identity here, but rather a sameness that is probably best captured as evolving fractal patterns. They are key in producing what we tend to call the common, or with Isabelle Stengers (2015) ‘commoners’, sharing not goods but concerns. The task of democratic institutions is to facilitate sameness of sorts, either in the form of education and the diploma’s that are its results or a juridical system with the eventual ruling of the judge. Again, I am not blind to persisting inequalities, yet I find it key to articulate what it is that we value about our institutions, and how to ‘respect their singularity’ (Verran 2017). Where singularity is by no means the same as totality or wholeness. For, while the aim is to produce sameness, our institutions not only work on differences, they also produce differences. The challenge is what stories we can device to talk about the good of institutions without neglecting the bad.

While in STS we have attended importantly and productively to differences, sameness has largely been overlooked. This contributes to the idea that difference is produced while sameness is given. This attention has also led to a political sensibility for differences (think of race or sex-differences) whereas sameness seems curiously apolitical. But how does sameness come about? What is the stuff of sameness? I contend that raising this question does not simply produce the binary-other of difference, but allow us to attend to other configurations of the social and to foreground other normativities. It allows us, e.g., to weigh and value the different kinds of sameness that institutions help to produce. It seems to me that attending more carefully to sameness might also help to find an answer to versions of populist politics that quintessentially builds on notions of sameness (nationalism, us, or them). If sameness is not simply a baseline of human condition or an original state of social groups, we need to take account of how different versions of sameness come about as well as the series of differences they presupposes.

O EASST Review lovers, where art thou? On STS as extitution

Let me begin with an announcement: in the next few weeks we will publish the yearbook Doing STS in Europe: EASST Review 2016 – a 250 pages book compiling all the contributions to the EASST Review during last year, including the profiles of four STS groups located in Europe and four STS publications platforms, as well as dozens of reports on STS events and EASST-funded activities, including two special features: one on Bruno Latour’s exhibition RESET Modernity featuring an interview with the author and three commentaries; the second one on the EASST/4S conference in Barcelona last year featuring over to 20 reports on specific sessions and panels. A digital copy of the yearbook will be downloadable for free from our website. And you will be able to buy print copies (yes, nothing like physical objects you can hold in your hands) from conventional online retailers.

Good news, right?

But the project has also confronted us with tricky questions. First we thought: well, we would then need to give authors a free print copy, just like the one you get from any other publisher. This would also put some print copies in circulation among our core audience (you!), who might then in future buy print copies of all yearbooks we publish, and start their own collection. But discussing the idea further a different proposal came up: we could send free print copies to STS centers and departments. The issue is still undecided and we do not know yet how we are going to handle this, but the latter suggestion made me ask myself two questions: first, have we seen in the last years an institutionalization of STS at universities and research centers? And, second, should the goal of our professional organization be to just reinforce that process of institutionalization?

Thirty years ago, there were only a few STS centers around and practically the whole field was based in sociology, philosophy, anthropology, and political science departments. But has this really changed? We had a look at the last ten issues of the EASST Review and the result is perhaps exactly what one would wish for a successful interdisciplinary field: an exact tie of 62 authors based or affiliated to STS departments or centers and 62 authors, for whom in their bios we mostly found other institutional affiliations. By the way, we also have 57 female authors and 67 male authors, which is not so bad either. But even if we included Russia and Israel as ‘non-European’, the percentage of authors based in non-European institutions is just 12,9%, which should maybe remind us all of the regional character of our association and its main outlet.

But coming back to the question of institutionalization of STS, as reflected in author affiliations in the last ten issues of the EASST Review, we need to be careful with the prima facie positive results presented above. To begin with, we need to take into account, that in mid-2015 we introduced the section STS Multiple, where we invite STS groups and centers to present themselves. The seven contributions included in our database average 4 authors each. So, we have about 28 authors that appear listed as STS-based authors, whom we explicitly invited and encouraged to publish here. This doesn’t speak against the strong presence of STS-based colleagues, for the important question is how are we collectively performing the field of STS, not what the field is in itself. But it introduces a nuance in the result.

A second consideration is how our list reflects different levels of participation and institutionalization of STS across European countries. Most authors are based in Western European countries: UK (30 authors), Germany (21), Denmark (12), Austria (10) and Italy (9). For these five countries, 58% of authors are affiliated to STS departments. The percentage appears as remarkably high, when compared with the 42 authors from the other 19 countries, of whom only 33% is based in an STS department. Taking all this into consideration, we can confirm the obvious: STS is highly institutionalized in a small set of Western European countries, whereas in the rest of countries STS is primarily practiced in the margins of non-STS institutions.


We come thus to the second and more interesting question: how to act as a professional association in this context? I have really never questioned the idea that a major goal of EASST should be to support the institutionalization of STS both at universities and in national research funding agencies. It seems pretty obvious that we aim for a future in which universities have centers or departments of STS, where you can get a job in STS in most countries, and where, when you apply for funding, you don’t need to crook your research questions or methods in order to make them fit in a disciplinary evaluation committee (remember Josefine’s editorial on the presences and absences of STS in grants applications and CVs? See Raasch 2015). I certainly still believe that these are major goals for our field. I applaud the systematic support that EASST has given to the formation of many national STS associations and networks. At the EASST Review, the sections STS Multiple and Cherish, not Perish aim precisely to make visible this process of institutionalization of STS across different countries.

But I think that we should equally make an effort to support a non-institutionalized STS practice, but not in order to help it to become institutionalized, e.g. to create STS centers, associations or journals, but to keep STS a minoritarian intellectual practice in the heart of social and political science disciplines. In other words, couldn’t also be the role of EASST to cultivate STS as a line of flight that effects deterritorializations of the institutions it departs from and that creates a highly experimental, speculative, but also committed intellectual space1? Or to put it differently: couldn’t also be the role of EASST to cultivate STS as an academic ‘extitution’?

I really got to understand this Serresian notion through the work of Daniel López. Two references are illuminating. The first one is a quote: “Institutions fragment, disaggregate, and separate in order to make visible the distinction. To build an institution is to constitute a Cartesian space, clear and distinct […] In contrast, the extitution is a social ordering that does not need to constitute an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ but only a surface in/upon which a multitude of agents connect and disconnect” (López 2006). As López further explains in a blog post from 2014 entitled ‘There is no extitution, but modes of extitutionalization’, an extitution is not just a different type of institution, one that could be more heterarchical or with flexible boundaries and that you can point to with the finger, but rather a process of deterritorialization or extitutionalization affecting institutions, contesting power arrangements, and opening up provisory spaces for establishing new connections.

Looking at the incredibly generative history of STS in the last 40 years, my sense is that this didn’t occur in spite of, but rather thanks to its lack of institutionalization; lack of institutionalization that has pushed STS scholars to always invent new connections, new vocabularies, new research objects, and new political commitments2. Might it be that herein lays the crux and paradox of our field, always in need of simultaneously striving for institutionalization and extitutionalization?


1 In ways perhaps related to how the Spanish STS network is currently being practiced and reflected upon. “What would then be prototyping an academic network? We don’t really know but we have decided to explore it through the figure of openness and experimentation: opening spaces of dialogue with other actors and institutions outside the academic environment; experimenting with our academic modalities of rationality and their spatial organization” (Estalella, Ibáñez Martín & Pavone 2013: 6)

2 See, for example, Tomás Criado’s (2017) reflections on his personal experience in both highly fluid and highly institutionalized STS spaces.

Former Council Members: Parting Words



Harro van Lente

Maastricht University

I joined the EASST council in 2009 and served as secretary and as treasurer since then. In both roles I was supported incredibly by Sonia Liff, the EASST Council Admin Assistant, who always had the numbers, names and dates in place. A major effort we took on board was the creation of a legal entity, an appropriate action given the increased budgets of conferences and the association. Our first choice was to have a European registration, but we soon discovered that associations and foundations can only be national. After dutiful comparison the Dutch legal and fiscal system appeared to be the most supportive. So, EASST now formally is a Dutch legal entity – if you now study carefully the website you may discover my personal address in Maastricht. During the last decade, STS has expanded, both in terms of topics and in number of scholars. It also has been discovered by other fields, such as management studies, architecture or geography. It is important now to foster these new connections, to allow mutual enrichment in the future.



Estrid Sørnesen

Ruhr-Universität Bochum

On the first meeting I attended as an EASST Council Member in 2009, we decided that the Council should meet regularly twice a year, and that the Council would cover members’ costs to attend the meetings. This was just the beginning of the professionalization of the Council’s work, which was radically improved over the following eight years I served as a Council Member, most of them as its secretary. Awards, Event Support, a house Journal (S&TS) and an improved house Magazine (EASST Review) are other measures that have been launched over those years and that have contributed considerably to establishing STS as a recognized academic community in Europe. Over the last year of as a Council member I started acknowledged that in our efforts to professionalize the association and gaining public recognition to STS, we had attended less to the political developments in Europe. As the suspension and firing of deans, professors and teachers at universities and other educational institutions started in the summer 2016 in Turkey, I proposed to the Council to publish a statement denouncing these measures, similar to how other academic societies across Europe reacted. The Council did not manage to do this. A few weeks ago Hungary experienced a new law that will limit international and critical research in the country. As sad as it is, we may in the future expect to see more of such acts that seriously undermine intellectual debate. I find it painful that a scholarly association, whose members are experts in the analysis of the entanglement of science, technology and society remains silent witness to such events. STS is needed more than ever. I hope the new Council finds ways to engage actively with the political situation of academia in Europe.

The New EASST Council – Outcomes from December 2016 Elections

EASST is run by an elected body of eight members, of which one is a student representative. There is additionally an elected president. All positions are for a 4-year term.

Elections carried out in December 2016 have brought a major renewal of the Council. A new president and 5 new council members have begun their terms this year.

This is your new Council:



Ulrike Felt

President Elect 2017 – 2020


Professor of Science and Technology Studies and Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences

University of Vienna, Austria

Ulrike Felt was the founding chair of the STS department in Vienna. She holds a PhD in physics and a habilitation on STS. Her research focuses on issues of governance, democracy and public participation in technoscience, changing research cultures, as well as the role of time in science and society issues. Her work has covered the life sciences, biomedicine, nanotechnologies and sustainability research. It is often comparative between national/cultural contexts and technological or scientific fields. She has been an invited professor at numerous universities and has been involved in policy advice to the European Commission, the ESF as well as to national bodies. In 2014 she received, together with a group of STS scholars EASST’s Ziman Award for a significant innovative cooperation in a venture to promote the public understanding of the social dimensions of science. She is 2015 winner of the Austrian State Prize, Ars Docendi, for innovative excellent teaching. From 2002 to 2007 she was editor-in-chief of Science, Technology, & Human Values and is one of the editors of the 4th edition of the STS Handbook (MIT 2017).



Attila Bruni

Elected Council Member 2011 – 2018


Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Social Research of the Faculty of Sociology

University of Trento, Italy

Attila Bruni is Associate Professor at the department of Sociology and Social Research of the Faculty of Sociology of the Trento University, where he teaches Sociology of Technological Phenomena and Sociology of Organizations. He is member of the Editorial Board of Tecnoscienza – Italian Journal of Science&Technology Studies ( and has been President of the Italian Society for Science and Technology Studies ( between 2010 and 2013. His research interests regard particularly the intersection of technological phenomena, work and organizing practices, especially in the field of healthcare.



Justiina Dahl

Elected Council Member 2017 – 2020


Postdoctoral Fellow, Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment and International Arctic Science Committee Fellow, IASC Social and Human Working Group.

KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden

Justiina Dahl is a postdoctoral researcher at the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. Her research interests lie at the intersection of environmental studies, international relations and STS. The kinds of problems Dahl tackles in her work include: Do technical and scientific experts hold similar or different position as other forms of expertise in global governance? What has does it mean and take to be able to “see like a state” in a system or society of states? How and why have the international definitions of what is considered as ‘rational’ and ‘good’ governance of the material world in international society changed?



Sarah de Rijcke

Elected Council Member 2017 – 2020

Associate Professor and deputy director at the Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS)

Leiden University, The Netherlands

Sarah de Rijcke is associate professor and deputy director at the Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS) of Leiden University. She leads the Science and Evaluation Studies research group at CWTS, which focuses on gaining a deep theoretical and empirical understanding of the politics and practices of contemporary research governance. Sarah is member of the Young Academy of Europe and an editorial board member of Science and Technology Studies, the EASST house journal.



Miquel Domènech

Elected Council Member 2017 – 2020


Associate Professor, Departament de Psicologia Social

Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain

Miquel Domènech’s research interests cohere broadly in the field of science and technology studies, with a special focus on the relationship between care and technology and on citizen participation in technoscientific issues. He is currently leading research on participative methodologies in the design of health technologies. He is the Coordinator of the Barcelona Science and Technology Studies Group (STS-b) and he is also coordinating the PhD Program “Person and Society in the Contemporary World”.



Dara Ivanova

Elected Council Member 2017 – 2020 (student representative)


PhD Student, Institute of Health Policy and Management

Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Dara Ivanova is doing a PhD project on the significance of place for the governance of healthcare. The aim is to understand and mobilize place as a focal point in healthcare research by examining the relation between place and governance. The focus is on somewhat odd and unconventional empirical cases, where the importance of place as an analytical concept can be observed clearly. Dara has an educational background in cultural anthropology (Utrecht University) and is currently a member of the Netherlands Graduate Research School of Science, Technology and Modern Culture.



Aleksandra Lis

Elected Council Member 2017 – 2020


Assistant Professor at the Institute of Anthropology

Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland

Aleksandra Lis works at the Institute of Anthropology at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland and completed her PhD on carbon market at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. Currently, she works on public perceptions of fracking as well as scaling expertise and the governance of shale gas development. Aleksandra was a Fellow at IAS-STS at TU Graz and at Max Planck Institute for the Study of Society in Cologne. She is a member of international project teams and she leads her own projects.



Kalpana Shankar

Elected Council Member 2017 – 2020


Professor of Information and Communication Studies

University College Dublin, Eire

Kalpana Shankar is particularly interested in how data practices and systems reflect and reify the larger society, culture, and institutions where they are enacted. Her current research projects focus on the sustainability and longevity of data archives and Irish attitudes towards climate change.



Vicky Singleton

Elected Council Member 2014 – 2018


Senior Lecturer, The Centre for Science Studies and The Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies, Department of Sociology

Lancaster University, UK

Vicky Singleton is a Senior Lecturer in The Centre for Science Studies and The Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies, Department of Sociology, Lancaster University, UK. She carries out ethnographic case studies, informed by a feminist material-semiotic approach, on care and the interdependency of policy and practices. She is currently researching the production of normativities-in-practices through the materiality and politics of compassion.



Salla Sariola

Co-opted member; Co-ordinating editor of Science & Technology Studies


Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology

University of Turku, Finland

Salla Sariola is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at University of Turku, Finland and holds fellowships at University of Oxford in Ethox Centre, Nuffield Department of Population Health and School of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Her research interests concern social studies of biomedicine –  clinical trials and bioethics more specifically – and feminist technoscience, gender and sexuality. Salla’s ethnographic work has focused on low-income settings such as India, Sri Lanka and Kenya.



Ignacio Farias

Co-opted member; Editor EASST Review


Assistant Professor, Munich Center for Technology in Society

TU München, Germany

Ignacio Farías (Ph.D., Humboldt University Berlin, 2008) is Assistant Professor at the Munich Center for Technology in Society of the Technische Universität München. With a background in sociology and anthropology, he is currently preparing a book on studio life and creative processes in three creative industries. Farías has done extensive research in urban issues, such as tourism and disaster reconstruction. He is co-editor of Urban Assemblages. How Actor-Network Theory Changes Urban Studies (Routledge 2009) and author of journals articles in Space and Culture, Mobilities, CITY and Convergencia. Revista de Ciencias Sociales.



Ingmar Lippert

Co-opted member; Eurograd admin and web support


Assistant professor

IT University of Copenhagen, Denmark

Ingmar Lippert is an ethnographer of data and organisational practice. His research is concerned with the enactment of realities – ontic and ontological achievements interwoven with numbers, calculations and spreadsheets. His empirical focus is on techno-managerial practice in environmental management and governance, in particular in carbon accounting.

EASST Conference 2018: Lancaster, UK

The next EASST conference will be held in Lancaster UK from 25-28th July 2018.  The new EASST Council will visit Lancaster in May to see the facilities and to discuss the plans of the local team. We then expect there to be an announcement of the theme and an initial call in June 2017.  Please hold the dates for our conference.

Maintaining Technological Worlds Care and its Ambivalences

In the last issue of EASST Review, Michelle Kasprzak (2016) observes a pervasive interest in repair, care, and maintenance at the Barcelona 4S/EASST meeting – what she calls an „anti-heroic turn“. Instead of focusing on the innovators this work brings other less visible actors into view. For example, Jérôme Denis and David Pontille celebrate maintenance work as care practice by highlighting the vulnerability of things (2015). Maria Puig de la Bellacasa (2011) advocates treating sociotechnical assemblages as matters of care. Steve Jackson calls for an investigation of repair as “subtle acts of care” through which “order and meaning in complex sociotechnical systems are maintained and transformed, human value is preserved and extended” and through which “the complicated work of fitting to the varied circumstances of organizations, systems, and lives is accomplished.” (2014: 222). Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell’s Maintainers Conference convenes a broad array of scholarship that coheres in the critique of innovation’s current overvaluation. However in her review article, Michelle Kasprzak also warns against the risk of turning those engaged in technological care into heroes. How can we both re-privilege invisible forms of care work while not romanticizing this new anti-hero?

Our workshop, held in October 2016 at IT University Copenhagen (ITU), was motivated by a similar ambivalence with regard to thinking with care. On the one hand care resonated deeply with our empirical projects on sociotechnical assemblages; on the other hand we felt it unsettling to mobilize care as a lens due to the normativities that come with it (e.g. Mol et al. 2010). Michelle Murphy (2015) warns against conflating care with positive feelings by emphasizing the colonial legacies of feminist self-care and interrogating the values in health care practices. To bring these two ways of mobilizing care into a conversation, we read and discussed Jackson’s and Murphy’s text in ITU’s weekly STS salon. Lucy Suchman, visiting ITU at that time, urged for a reflection on why we are worried about invisible labor. She argued it is only invisible to analysts but not to those involved in it. For example, the work of academics at a University may be invisible to the janitors and cleaners and it might not matter to them. What drives our motivation to make invisible labor visible?

With these two texts as a backdrop, we designed the workshop to launch into a collaborative hands-on discussion of care across empirical domains. We circulated a call for contributions in the Copenhagen area asking workshop attendees to bring their own cases as materials for discussion. We instructed the participants to bring an empirical case which they felt exemplifies care or which prompted them to think about care. We suggested that participants consider bringing in one technological artifact from their research that is an object of care, or to share an empirical moment in which we might observe enactments of practices of care. While participants were free to choose the format of the example, by sharing photos, a vignette, or a physical artifact, e.g. we wanted the presentations offered by participants to stay closely to the empirical material rather than developing an analytical or argumentative frame for their case as they might in other venues. The aim of this format was to leave as much as possible open for the other workshop participants to draw out analytically.

We based the workshop format on experiences with similar workshops, including inspiration from the “world café” format. We designed the workshop by dividing participants into three working groups of 4-5 people. The discussion unfolded in two rounds of presentation and discussion. Each round began with 10 minutes plenum presentations of empirical cases followed by 20 minutes of focused discussion in the smaller working groups. The first round included presentations of three empirical cases after which each working group was assigned one case to discuss in greater depth. The second round included presentations of three new empirical cases after which the each working group took up a second case into their discussion. Finally, each group reported back to the plenum on their discussions of the cases.


Figure 1: Once you start looking through the lens of care, you notice it everywhere. What are the politics of extending an analytics of care and repair to technologies and infrastructures?


For the first session of table discussions we asked to focus on the identification of what care is in these cases by considering the following questions: What objects are in need of care? What forms of care work are present? What missing infrastructures or infrastructural work is made visible through a lens of care? In the second session the working groups discussed a second empirical case which was put it into conversation with the first – continuing to identify forms of care at play, but with an emphasis on noting tensions, contradictions, and ambivalences in the conceptualization of care. Each of the three tables was supplied with large sheets of paper, discussion cards, markers, and pens to visualizing the tensions.

Marisa Cohn invited Dylan Mulvin from Microsoft Research, New England to present his ongoing project on the year 2000 bug. Dylan Mulvin’s presentation focused on how the COBOL programming language — deemed obsolete and symbolically buried in 1995 — resurfaced as an international matter of care. Fear of the year 2000 bug prompted a revaluing of technological competence and skill. Anne Kathrine Vadgård presented a vignette from her fieldwork on taking care of evening out the numbers in electoral ballot counting. Ingmar Lippert discussed a case where a corporate employee is sacked for caring too much for carbon emission accounting. Based on his fieldwork on battery charging practices, Pedro Ferreira argued that repair can crucial part of use yet often invisible to the users themselves.

The two sessions were followed by a final wrap-up conversation kick-started by Brit Ross Winthereik highlighting the role of analysts in attending to care. She contrasted two moves: figuring care work as an empirical object and using care as an analytical lens. First, care work is highlighted by members or mobilized as a member’s category. For example, in Marisa Cohn’s study of engineers devoted to simultaneously maintaining an aging spacecraft and their team on earth, making technological care work visible is a power move. By positioning elements of the space craft as consumables rather than an unlimited resource, and the spacecraft itself as geriatric and in need of care, engineers increase the visibility of their work toward management and scientific staff. In this example, attending to care implies asking what care does for the members.

Second, Brit Ross Winthereik asserted appropriating a lens of care can be an interventionist move. Attention to care work historically has meant revaluing unwaged and marginalized forms of labor and challenging the separation of public spheres and private spheres. Attention to the care work that sustains technologies can help us to challenge dominant technology imaginaries that pose a seamless infrastructural future of unlimited potential and growth. Attending to technological care work helps to see how ongoing maintenance work is enacted that sustains these (unsustainable) dreams of control and seamlessness. For instance, in Göde Both’s case of computer scientists entangled with their ‘autonomous’ cars, the cars’ reliance on technological care to function and maintain its shape is made invisible through publicly staging the car as a bounded and self-sufficient entity endowed with autonomous agency.

Attending to this distinction between care as an empirical object and care as an analytic lens (and the normativities that come with each of these moves) was valuable for deflating the romanticization of care that occurs when these two moves are conflated. However, during the wrap-up discussion, this distinction collapsed. As Brit Ross Winthereik argued, perhaps care is in part defined by its tendency to overflow. As soon as we call something care work, it becomes something else. Invisible work becomes visible work, e.g. And while the term tends lose its meaning along the way, calling out something as care work performs a re-enactment of the meaning of care, which as Maria Puig de la Bellacasa has suggested, can provide interventions into these “fraught and contested terrains” (2015: 707) in which these invisible forms or work are located.

This framing of our empirical objects as objects of care or empirical moments as enactments of care practice, thus demands that we ask what intervention we make in taking up the lens of care: What are the politics of valuing technological care? What risks are there in valuing care work, e.g. does foregrounding care for technologies contribute to the dominant framings of technology? Or, does a focus on some kinds of care work with and through technology conceal who is caring for whom–i.e. How do we recognize the people in technological care work? What new anti-heroics are we conjuring as we value these hidden forms of labor?

Understanding the Role of Color in the Sciences

From amazingly colorful antique relics to the attempts to standardize colors in biomedical imaging, color has gained relevance in the sciences. Yet the epistemic role of color, its long-standing neglect due to historically symbolic and partly gendered ascriptions, and the function of color in visualization for scientific purposes have not received much attention in the sciences or the humanities to date. The internal use of color in the sciences raises different epistemological questions from those that arise with images for external communication. The choice and symbolism of color in the latter case is guided to a greater degree by a need for simplification and considerations as to the expectations of a broader public. Coloured images for internal scientific use emerge during the research process itself (as a medium for self-reflection) or are produced in devices and used for intersubjective communication and to obtain feedback from the scientific community. Digital publishing has enhanced the use of color in scientific images, in contrast with the costly use of color in print media, whilst the globalization of the scientific community challenges the idea of universal color symbolism. All these issues raise the need for color awareness.

The conference “On the Epistemic Dimension of Color in the Sciences”1 invited speakers and participants to investigate the epistemic dimensions of color in the sciences, across the disciplines and across history: it was a meeting of researchers with expertise ranging from the digital and life sciences to gender studies and art history. They all shared an interest in the reflection on the historical understanding of color and of its contemporary uses in science and technology.

The conference kicked off with a keynote by art historian Ulrike Boskamp (Free University, Berlin) held at the site of the +ultra. knowledge & gestaltung exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau Berlin, where the Cluster of Excellence Image Knowledge Gestaltung presented its research between 30.09.2016–8.01.2017. The exhibition provided a fitting context for the launching event of the conference and for Boskamp’s talk “Coding and Gendering Color: Scientific, Epistemological and Aesthetic Discourses in 18th Century France,” which laid the ground for recurrent comments on gender aspects in scientific color use in modern science throughout the conference: Boskamp discussed David Batchelor’s thesis on the longue durée of what he calls ”chromophobia“ (Batchelor 2000), showing its move from antiquity to the Renaissance (as already discussed in Jacqueline Lichtenstein’s ground-breaking study The Eloquence of Color, 1993) and into modern science. According to Batchelor, western cultures follow a binary concept of color versus line, coding the line (as in drawing and alphabetical text) in relation to cognition and the (white) male, versus color as directly addressing the senses and emotions, thereby categorizing it as female and (especially within the context of 19th century archaeological studies),2 as “oriental.”

Starting out by acknowledging the overall tendency of this color code by reference to the two central characters in Fifty Shades of Gray (fig. 1) (James 2012), Boskamp complicated this straightforward picture. She demonstrated how after the Cartesian understanding of color as “just” light, Netwton’s color theory made it possible for color to enter the scientific stage, to become an object of cognition in physics (fig. 2). The experimental approach to color, entangled with concepts of physically measurable color harmony (with the then primary colours yellow, red and blue, fig. 3), led to yet another shift sparked by Rousseau, among others. He built an argument on the opposition of mere ‘pleasure’ in such scientized corrupted color harmony (thereby female) and real ‘passion’ created by the use of the line in art. The justification of the hierarchic opposition between color and line thus had shifted from attributing the (achromatic) line with cognition to attributing it with masculine passion.


Figure 1: Christian Grey, together with Anastasia Steeles the main character in E. L. James’ popular novel Fifty Shades of Grey (2011, in the cinemas in 2015) as the embodiment of chromophobia. Dakota Johnson und Jamie Dorman, press photography for Fifty Shades of Grey (last access 13.06.2016), provided by Ulrike Boskamp.
Figure 2: An illustration from the Poem „La Peinture“, published by Antoine Marin Lemierre in 1769, gives an idea of the status of colour around mid-century. While the material origins of colour are signified by a personification of Terra, the earth, and the production of pigments by chemistry, the ruling of colour and its harmonies in painting is represented by a dominating figure personifying physics or physical optics carrying a prism, that is complemented by a rainbow in the sky.
Le Coloris, Etching by Nicolas Ponce after Charles Nicolas Cochin (fils), from Antoine Marin Lemierre: La Peinture. Poëme en trois chants, Paris 1769, p. 20. Provided by Ulrike Boskamp.
Figure 3: The preoccupations of the colour theorists of this time also entered into the realm of art. Francois Boucher, the most prominent painter of this era, like other contemporary painters, serially applied a combination of the three primary colours for the garments in his paintings, completely independent of its motif.
François Boucher, Autumn Pastorale, 1749, oil on canvas, 259,9 x 198,6 cm, London, The Wallace Collection. Provided by Ulrike Boskamp.





























The first session of the second conference day, taking place at the central laboratory of the Cluster of Excellence Image Knowledge Gestaltung in Berlin-Mitte, was dedicated to the evolution of standards in analogue and digital color print and projection. The basis of these media, working up to today with a triad of colors, as Ricardo Cedeño Montaña (Institut for Cultural History and Theory, Humboldt-University and BWG) showed, ultimately figure in Young’s, and later Helmholtz’s, color receptor theory. Cedeño Montaña’s main point however, was to show that the step from analogue television to digital cameras meant bringing together luminance and chromaticity (fig. 4) – once separate from the body in the TV – towards the human eye. This, he stated, closed a circuit initiated by the CIE, the Commission Internationale d’Eclairage (International Commission of Illumination), who in its Colorimetric Resolution of 1931 constructed a standard observer with a standard perception of luminance and chromaticity. This was also a topic discussed by Wolfgang Coy (Computer Sciences, Humboldt-University and BWG): the standard observer was developed together with the so-called horseshoe, the spectrum of differentiable colors measured in wavelengths which at a certain point merged to become white. This horseshoe followed a universal concept assuming that “the tested 20 caucasian males” were representative for any culture and historical situation an observer could be embedded in. Interestingly though, as Coy showed, the crossing wavelength that resulted in white moved in the diagram of the horseshoe during its evolution over the next decades. The presentation of the concept of the standard observer was followed by a discussion about the im-/possibility of a transcultural and ahistorical perception of color sparked by a doubtful biologist: wouldn’t people brought up in Ireland or in the Amazonian rainforest be able to differentiate more shades of green than people brought up in the arctic?


Figure 4: Low reproducibility of quantitative values and inter-observer agreement rates pose problems in clinical settings. Could colour be playing a role? Grey, jet and hot colour scales. Images provided by Aldo Badano, 11/18/2016.
Figure 5: CIE xy 1931 chromaticity diagram including the Planckian Locus. Wikipedia, PAR~commonswiki, 3 Jan 2012, last access 11/16/2016, provided by Ricardo Cedeño Montaña.
Figure 6: Nominal Data: Atom Colors. Produced and provided by Daniel Baum.




















The keynote by Aldo Badano (Center for Devices and Radiological Health, FDA, USA) addressed this issue of individual or collective learning of color perception and interpretation within the realm of medicine: in his talk on “Color Visualization in Medical Images” the Chair of the AAPM task group “Requirements and Methods for Color Displays in Medicine” discussed his empirical project on the question of whether the use of color in medical images was relevant, for example, in reaching a correct diagnosis (fig 5.). Few years ago before the medical imaging community began to become interested in consistency in image visualization there was no knowledge about assumptions of color effectiveness nor on whether there was any reliable difference between the performance of gray scale versus the so-called jet scale (using rainbow colors). Badano’s group (Zabala-Travers et al. 2015) found that attitudes towards the performance of both differed much among clinicians and that these expectations didn’t meet experimental results when comparative tests were done using as example the detection and localization of cancer. Badano stated in the discussion that the role of training was of rising relevance, as color imaging became more frequent while training with such visualization didn’t; on the other hand, the same holds for the reversed situation, especially as medical practitioners move between countries, continents and thus medico-technical cultures.

Taking a clearer position regarding the effectiveness of the rainbow color map than Badano’s results, Daniel Baum (Zuse-Institute, Berlin and BWG ) in his talk on “Data Visualization Perspective on the Use of Color” discussed its disadvantages, such as its non-linearity and lack of perceptual order. For those professionally visualizing data, the main questions in the choice of color scale are what the type of data attribute is, what the task to be carried out entails, whether we work with 2D or 3D data, and who the audience is. Besides educated choices, contingent ad hoc decisions may lead to perpetuated color codes, as exemplified in the case of atom colors, which are the result of August Hoffmann using cricket balls as a model in a 1865 presentation (fig. 6).

A cultural history oriented session started with Linda Baéz Rubí (The Warburg Institute, London; Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, UNAM and BWG ), who discussed the appearance of the Virgen de Guadeloupe in 1531, a painting of the Virgin Mary at a mountain in the north of the city of Mexico. The different stories about the inexplicable appearance of the image in the following century led to an entrenchment of physical theory and proof of God’s existence. To convince the Pope and the Congregation of Rites of the apparition in the 16th century Luis Becerra Tanco, a Creole Jesuit and mathematician and astronomer at the University of Mexico explained the apparition according to the model of optical geometry, which makes use of the medieval theory of the perspectiva communis. In 1756 the painter Miguel Cabrera explained: since the colors in the image didn’t change over time, it had to have been created by God – and vice versa. Nils Güttler (ETH Zurich) in his talk on the Justus Perthes’ map workshop in Gotha demonstrated the “Perthes style” in maps at the turn of the 20th century between science and marketing. The symbolism and political iconography included a distinction between Europe with golden-yellow borders in contrast to Africa in red, then connoted, i.a. in Rudolf Steiner’s work, as bellicose. Map coloring was female labor in all map workshops, with 160 women in Perthes’ workshop alone – the pedagogical discourse in girls’ and boys’ schools early on brought girls to color and boys to technical drawing, which in the discussion of course allowed for a loop back to Boskamp’s talk. This linking of color and female work was further transposed into photography and film, where the colorists also were mainly female.


In the second half of the 19th century pink was still rather worn by boys.
“Boy with whip“, anonymous, American School, circa 1840-1850, Honolulu Museum of Art, commons wikimedia, last access 4/14/2017, provided by Isabelle Grisard.


Margrit Vogt (Institute for Language, Literature and Media, University of Flensburg) and Dominique Grisard (Honorary Visiting Fellow, City University London) in their respective talks analyzed the history of scientific studies on the cultural use of color. Vogt drew attention to the fact that only since 1900 did colors begin to be produced as stable colors through a mix of technique and science, consumer culture and arts, which in addition to the introduction of electrical light at the beginning of the 20th century helped change the focus on color: its relevance in art and science was no longer the essence of colour as a static phenomenon, but rather the visual effect of one color in relation to another. The conference closed with Grisard’s talk on scientific theories that try to explain a supposedly female color preference for pink in evolution theory as well as in psychology since the early 1990s (fig. 7). The phenomenon was referred to in evolutionary psychology as “archaization”, placing sources of this preference in the female biological constitution as already indicated in 19th century biology – again looping back to the beginning of the conference with the keynote on the historical linkage of the femininity and color.






1 The conference took place on Nov. 17th and 18th, 2016 at the Cluster of Excellence Image Knowledge Gestaltung (BWG), Humboldt University, Berlin, organized by its research associate Bettina Bock von Wülfingen and co-chaired by the BWG-members Jochen Hennig, John Nyakatura, Kathrin Amelung and Martin Grewe.

2 Alexander Nagel (Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Washinton D. C.), expert i.a. on the history of the “whitening” of near east antique architecture and sculpture during 19th and 20th century archeology, was hindered for health reasons.