Category Archives: easst review

The politics of antibiotic resistance: imminent threat, global policy, and the challenge for STS

In September 2016, a street theater group toured several German cities with a performance called “Schluck & Weg” – literally meaning “swallow” (the pill) and the disease is “gone” – publicly staging the saliency of antibiotics resistance as a pressing global health issue. The main protagonists in this performance were the “super agents” Alpha and Beta, decorated agents who have successfully served for a long time in their battle against evil bugs. But a surprising strike from “super bugs” hitherto unknown to Alpha and Beta has confronted our super agents with an experience of total impotence in the face of these newly emerging antagonists. Licking their wounds and puzzling over what has actually happened and why, the super agents begin to trace the lineages of their predicament — and thus the histories of microbes resistant to antibiotics (BUKO Pharma 2016).

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has also been a concern at the recent joint meeting of 4S/EASST in Barcelona. Within the track on “Antagonists, Servants, Companions: the Sciences, Technologies and Politics of Microbial Entanglements”, a full session was dedicated to the multiple problem of AMR, exploring diverse aspects and dimensions.

Problematized in the United Kingdom and the United States in the 1960s and almost two decades earlier in Scandinavia (Podolski et al 2015), antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is hardly a new fact. However, its political and societal saliency seems to have changed dramatically in recent years. AMR was framed by the World Health Organization as an imminent threat to global health, both in the rich countries of the North where hospital-acquired infections with resistant bacteria pose challenges to health care systems, and in the South, where the treatment of severe endemics – such as Tuberculosis – runs into constraints due to the proliferation of resistant strains (Blasner 2014). But AMR is truly a global issue in an even more comprehensive sense: as microbes do not abide by the normativity of socio-political boundaries, the WHO has inscribed AMR into the “One Health” paradigm, which means that it affects the entire world irrespective of geographical boundaries, but also that it ignores inter-species boundaries proliferating precisely through the entanglements between humans, animals and even plants.

At 4S/EASST, I remember this session as particularly intriguing not only because of its thematic topicality, but also because it raises questions for STS that go well beyond the scope of AMR. Let me briefly capture the four presentations in a nutshell before returning to some further thoughts on these matters.

Inge Kryger Pedersen (U Copenhagen) presented findings from a collaborative project, asking how the situated local practices in medical care interrelate with efforts to tackle global problems, such as AMR. As many efforts to act upon AMR address physicians in their ability to prescribe antibiotics, various guidelines had been drafted that seek to police and promote the “rational use” of drugs. Hence, norms of “good doctoring” (usually centering on an individual patient-doctor encounter) have come to be closely intertwined with notions of “prudent use” of antibiotics (subject rather to statistical reasoning and the indicators of evidence-based medicine). And yet, when translated into the realm of everyday medical practice and the doctor-patient-relationship, these guidelines leave considerable space for professional discretion and case-by-case maneuvering.

Approaching the combat against overuse from another angle, Catherine Will (U Sussex) explored public campaigns against antibiotics overuse that seek to act upon the desire of patient-consumers and their attachments to practices of antibiotics use that had been cultivated throughout past decades. Will shows that these policy campaigns seek to “detach” publics from antibiotics by invoking individuals and publics simultaneously as rational subjects and as passionate subjects of desire attached to certain notions of disease and treatment anchored in social norms and tacit routines (One campaign poster for instance informs the public that “40% of all Europeans wrongly believe that antibiotics work against colds and flu”).

Focusing on how public knowledge of AMR is co-produced between different social domains, Stephanie Begemann (U Liverpool) set out to study how the science of AMR is taken up and communicated in the media. Her findings add rich empirical detail to the notion that AMR is a controversial issue that crisscrosses multiple sites and domains where its meanings may significantly alter. Taking up the cudgels for STS research, Begemann’s argument suggests that knowing how and where exactly the “multiple ontologies” of AMR are being established may shed light on emerging controversies and help to better tackle the problem in practice.

Similarly, Sujatha Raman (U Nottingham) addressed the question of how knowledge on AMR is produced and diffused, yet taking a slightly different take on this matter. Raman explored how different framings matter in the ways we conceive of and address the problem of AMR. To begin with AMR is broadly framed as an imminent, human-made global threat and as such shares many similarities with climate change. In past years, the idea has taken shape to establishing an International Panel on AMR modeled after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (see Woolhouse/Farrar 2014). A crucial difference might be, though, that the science of AMR is — yet? — less contested than the science of climate change: scientific accounts present strong evidence that AMR constitutes a profound systemic problem on a global scale, precisely because it unfolds in a complex eco-socio-techno-economical system (see the illustration in Figure 1) and there seem hardy radical controversies over these facts; yet, the policy responses to AMR are predominantly framed in terms of – and thus seek to act upon – individual behavior.

In sum, this rich session provided an intriguing picture of AMR and the important role of STS research in this field of actuality. What all four presentations emphasized is that AMR is being problematized predominantly as a pressing policy challenge, and not primarily a scientific controversy. To be sure, the “policy question” had been located at various levels and through multiple domains, and has been articulated in terms of public awareness campaigns, in the politics of representation and issue framing, or in governing (through) behavioral patterns. Clearly, these multiple policy practices intimately involve questions of science particularly in relation to public knowledge and policy programs. Re-reading my notes while working on this review made me come up with a series of interrelated thoughts and impressions that address the relationship between global (health) policy and STS.

Worldwide, the vast majority of political and expert authorities seem to acknowledge that AMR amounts to a multifaceted systemic problem: a pressing human-made, apocalyptic scenario that demands immediate attention. Experts further seem to concur on how AMR developed, how it works at the microbiological and epidemiological levels, and what the social and economic structures are that make it grow. Moreover, it seems quite uncontroversial that AMR is produced and propelled not in one center or social domain, but across and in-between domains of practice: from human medicine to the livestock industries, from material production (of health, of food, etc.) to the production of collective needs and desires. As such, we could say, the question of AMR appears as a question of global capitalism in its broadest possible meaning.

 

Fig. 1: AMR as complex system. A similar version of this slide was used in Raman’s presentation. The original reference is Linton, AH. Veterinary Record 1977;100:354-360. The version used here was retrieved online from http:// tdvglobal.com/en/about-us/news/ development-of-canadian-roadmap- for-amu-surveillance-in-food-animal- production (access November 15, 2016)

 

In this light, I expected that technoscience would have assumed a more central role in the discourses and enactments of AMR counterstrategies, compared to other STS-related policy debates over other grand challenges confronting the contemporary world: from the surge in age-related degenerative diseases to climate change and economic recession, the respective problems are more often than not framed in ways that are amenable to technoscientific solutions (for instance, “regenerative medicine”; “green bio-economy”; etc.). By contrast, the role of technoscientific innovation only seems to play an underpart in the global “war” against AMR. To be sure, I learned that there is limited biopharmaceutical R&D activity into “super antibiotics” (geared towards fighting resistant “superbugs”), and that there are considerable efforts to build and harmonize surveillance infrastructures to detect, map and monitor the global geography of AMR (O’Neill 2015, Chakradhar 2016). Yet, the dominant problem frame is one of overuse and misuse: the majority of efforts seem to focus on behavioral interventions, that is to say, programs that seek to act upon AMR through altering routinized patterns of antibiotic consumption. Moreover, these various policy programs of “antibiotic stewardship” that have been launched to counteract AMR largely remain within an individualistic-liberal framework and articulate the problem in terms of individual behavior, be it the (aggregate) individual prescribing practices of physicians or the (aggregate) demand-desire of patients for antibiotics due to embodied cultural treatment practices and/or erroneous beliefs about the reach and efficacy of antibiotic therapy. If it just were to alter consumer-choices and guide subjects to behave rationally!

From this angle, AMR seems to be less a contentious (techno-)scientific issue, and more an issue of policymaking, state strategies and practices of governing: it is about getting individuals, professions, and institutions to alter their routines. Clearly, in this regard (scientific) knowledge plays an important part – and this had been reflected nicely throughout the papers in our session: framing, public understanding, practices of subjectification. But throughout the different locales and practices, it is apparent that what is at stake in the overall picture is to translate – semiotically and materially – a global and systemic problem-constellation into a series of discrete, individualized policy responses actionable at the local level (administered largely through national action plans). In this context, the key question at stake, it seems, is the question of implementation. But less has been said about the material politics of AMR, about the state-driven efforts to implement a global anti-AMR strategy, about the institutional forces that enable, channel, support or perhaps thwart these manifold efforts. Where then could be the role of further STS in research that takes these issues seriously? At this point I see a veritable chance for establishing a more intimate joint working space between STS and critical/interpretive policy studies.

From their very infancy, STS and interpretive policy analysis (IPA) have formed a mutual thinking space underpinned by many shared methodological presuppositions (Gottweis 1998, Paul/Haddad 2015, Åm 2016). And yet, despite their vicinity there are hardly any efforts to comprehensively integrate the rich conceptual toolboxes of either fields. Given the specificities of AMR, as well as the general stress in STS on the co-production of science and policy, it seems worthwhile to pay equal attention to the formation of policy knowledge and to the role the state plays in articulating knowledge and practices of intervention – and hence, the “implementation” of global policies and its translation into local practices.

To begin with, implementation – as technical and top-down as it may sound – is not a linear process; it always involves a politics of translation. STS stresses that in order to understand how and why knowledge can be established as scientific facts and how technologies work as innovations in society, we need to look at the dense network of heterogeneous elements that create and stabilize it. Yet, concepts of policy and of the state often remain monochrome. Conversely, policy studies have for long ignored science and technology as active agents in policy. Engaging STS work, policy studies can improve their sensibilities for how exactly scientific knowledge and technologies matter – and in what precise, situated ways – in policy practice. How is policy knowledge fabricated and translated into the design of political strategies of intervention into the dynamics of AMR? In turn, critical policy studies can complement STS scholarship with a profound toolbox to study how certain policies are being articulated, designed and implemented. What seems particularly relevant for AMR is to include a fine-grained focus on how path-dependencies and institutions shape not only the content of policies, but also how “epistemic selectivities” (Vadrot 2016) emerge in relation to complex institutions such as the state and its role in rendering some forms of knowledge accessible to policy programs while others are being silenced or dismissed. How to conceptualize the role of the state in providing corridors for selective policy knowledge? How should we situate science, policy and the state in broader global socio-material formations and particular historical conjunctures (for the relationships between policy knowledge and the state see the recent conversation within critical policy studies in Brand [2013], Paul/Haddad [2015])? These are pressing issues in order to make sense of AMR as a global phenomenon, and could also enrich STS debates more generally – especially in fields that are, right at the outset, as much about science as about policy.

To conclude: the challenges that confront the politics of AMR make clear that STS has a vital role to play in establishing not only knowledge but also perhaps help to design policy responses that go beyond the half-heartedly conventional behavioral approaches. However, if it were to adequately address the policy question in STS, insights from other fields are vital. AMR seems an intriguing field to develop synergies between allied yet perhaps estranged fields of critical social science research, and particularly between STS and interpretive policy studies.

Postphenomenology, material hermeneutics, and aesthetics of art: modern haute cuisine and culinary aesthetics

This essay came out, rather unexpectedly, from an international conference in a city well known far beyond its national borders. The 2016 4S/EASST conference took place in the capital of Catalonia, Barcelona, a vibrant and colorful city tempting the conference participants to walk and enjoy the urban environment, rather than participate in the conference. Excellent food, Mediterranean sunny weather, beautiful architecture even on the most mundane buildings, a quite clean air, and sand beaches inviting, or rather seducing, people to leave all of their obligations behind and go and swim for hours on end. The conference took place at the Barcelona International Convention Center next to the sea front, and I have to admit that although I was eager to attend the sessions, at the same time I had a strong impulse to leave the conference and go to the beach instead.

The convention center was full of people when I arrived to register, because, as I learned later, the internet was down and registration had stopped for a while. This small crowd at the reception, though, was something interesting to observe: people from all over the world were coming together each and every one attracted by a common concern in science and technology in a modern as well as in a historical context. As in every collective human activity, some would be keen on sharing their ideas, some would be curious as to what a conference would look like, some were more concerned with advancing their careers, and some, most probably the more senior participants, would be happy to see that the field has grown into a quite big and vibrant community.

There were many sessions to attend – in fact, too many to attend within the limited time frame of four days – a strong indication that the field has grown in size and developed into multiple directions. I was to present a paper on Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics, and looking through the information booklet I received at the reception I saw a session on Don Ihde, another major philosopher on hermeneutics, greatly influenced, among others, by Ricoeur. I decided within split seconds that this session had to be attended without a second thought.

The session was focussed on Ihde’s postphenomenology and the first presentation was on the second edition of one of his books on acoustics and auditory hermeneutics (Ihde, 2007). After the presentation Ihde himself started commenting on his philosophical approach of hermeneutics and then answered questions from the listeners. I felt glad to be there and see one of the world’s leading philosophers talking in flesh and blood. I started thinking, while Ihde was talking, how nice a conference like this was for a junior scholar like myself: an event bringing together not only people from every corner of the world, but also older generations of scholars and younger ones. When the session finished, I left with the presentation on acoustics and auditory hermeneutics still ringing in my ears.

Postphenomenology, a term coined by Ihde himself, designates the next step after phenomenology, that is, the study and description of how reality presents itself to human consciousness. According to Ihde material artifacts and the human body themselves play a major role in mediating between reality and consciousness: observation of stars with the naked eye is different from observation through a telescope; social life organized on the basis of calendars and clocks is experienced in a different way from social life organized according to the movement of sun and appearance of moonlight; a walking person perceives reality in a different way from a sprinter when running.

A major thread in Idhe’s postphenomenology is material hermeneutics: the importance of artifacts in interpreting objective reality. In studying Antiquity, for example, “we seek texts, inscriptions, and other forms of [visually perceptible] written language” (Ihde, 2009: 68). In quantum physics scientists develop [visually perceptible] mathematical formulas to describe spaces of eight and ten dimensions; in chemistry there are molecule graphs to describe molecular structure; or in biology there are enhanced photographs of bacteria taken with the help of electronic microscopes. In all these cases scientists use visually perceptible artifacts to describe and interpret realities that, in fact, exist beyond, or below, human perception.

 

Fig. 1: Spherified melon and passion fruit drops served in a caviar tin (Jouary, 2013: 41).

 

Ihde attempts to expand the material hermeneutics, as he calls it, from the visual to the auditory experience of reality: whale songs, for example, are mostly sung in the infrasound range imperceptible by the human ear; using, though, time compression we can “hear the technologically mediated and translated sounds” (Ihde, 2007: xv, original emphasis). Expanding, now, on our initiative, Ihde’s material hermeneutics, to the gustatory sensory perception, that is, the perception of taste, we could very easily think of eating baked chicken, for example, as the gustatory perception and interpretation of raw chicken meat through cooking technologies, such as baking as a technical process, and through the addition of gustatory artifacts such as dried herbs and spices. Ihde’s material hermeneutics, however, is deeply related to the aesthetics of art.

Pablo Picasso’s famous painting Guernica depicts the bombing of the Basque town Gernica by Nazi and Fascist bombers at the request of the Spanish nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso wanted to depict the horrors of total war “where innocent people are bombed indiscriminately, or strafed by machine-gun fire, as they escape from the carnage in the town up to the hills’’ (van Hensbergen, 2004: 3). While the painting is not a photographic depiction of an actual scene that happened during the bombings, it can still confer the horror and pain from the destruction and death that took place.

As a visual artifact the painting was built upon Picasso’s emotional distress when he came into contact with the news of the bombings: “By his artistic activity, the painter himself produces these particular parts (the layer of pigments on the canvas, paper, or wood) and the properties of the painting determined by them” (Ingarden, 1989: 160). The material artifact, though, presents the artist’s subjective reality to each member of the artwork’s audience: “[i]t goes essentially beyond the merely real … in that it consists of strata (object and aspect), which are simply not contained in the real thing called a painting. This presents us with the task of determining the mode of being that is characteristic of the ‘picture’ ” (Ingarden, 1989:160). We should distinguish, in other words, the material painting [the artifact] from the concretized [i.e. individually interpreted] picture [the artwork], since the artwork itself “never fully comes into being until the viewer constructs, or constitutes, it” (Mitscherling, 1997: 198, original emphasis).

In a fashion similar to Picasso’s, and other artist’s, artworks, the purpose of haute cuisine [French for high cuisine] is to “offer a new culinary experience and not merely the opportunity to taste new dishes or representations of food” (Opazo, 2016: 27). This purpose of offering a new experience lies, as well, behind the construction of smartphones by Apple Inc. aiming at “offering users a ‘new technological experience,’ not new technological devices per se’’ (Opazo, 2016: 27). One such famous restaurants of haute cuisine was elBulli, located at Cala Montjoi bay, two hours away by car north of Barcelona, until its closing in 2011. Some of elBulli’s most celebrated innovations in cooking equipment was introducing the systematic use of liquid nitrogen for flash freezing, carbon dioxide for creating foams as part of a dish, centrifuges normally used in scientific laboratories, and food dehydrators for adding new shapes in food presentation. ElBulli’s new style of cuisine, along with other restaurants in the world, became popularly known as molecular gastronomy.

ElBulli aimed at four levels of pleasure during the dining experience: physiological pleasure sparked by hunger and fulfilled by eating itself; sensorial pleasure, that is, “the subjective act of liking or disliking something” (Opazo, 2016: 125); the emotional pleasure “contingent on each situation, based on the company, the scenery, and so on” (Opazo, 2016: 125); the trademark pleasure, though, that elBulli was aiming at was reflective pleasure induced by appreciating “culinary creations not through taste buds but according to the underlying ideas and sensations that these creations aim to convey” (Opazo, 2016: 125). Although the first three pleasures were based on the materiality of each served dish and dependent upon the instinctual, sensory, and gregarious sensitivities of each diner, reflective pleasure was being concretized by the diners themselves.

Added to the above was the elimination of the à la carte menu, that is, a menu where the various courses are offered and priced separately. The diners were left with no choice but to taste the one and only menu set by the executive chef himself, and which consisted by 40 to 50 smaller in size and quantity than customary courses. Dining would now extend to four and five hours and each course was defined by the previous one and defined the next one. If we distinguish now between a material dish served at the table from the experienced course as concretized by each diner herself, we can say that a restaurant course is a temporal object which constitutes “the temporal fabric of the stream of [gustatory] consciousness itself, since the flux of the temporal object precisely coincides with the stream of [gustatory] consciousness of which it is the object” (Stiegler, 2011: 14). Restaurant time now is being experienced as memory of the previous course, tasting of the current course, and anticipation of the next one; a cinematic gustatory consciousness takes over the experience of dining, that is, a consciousness of a changing culinary sequence of having-just-been-experienced, at-the-moment-being-experienced and soon-to-be-experienced courses. The menu of elBulli, in other words, was not just a list of courses, but a list of gustatory scenes in a cinematic culinary universe.

Ihde himself does not seem to have dined in elBulli, at least, if we judge from his writings. There is, however, the testimony of another professional philosopher who dined there and tried spherified [caviar-like] melon drops (see Fig.1), one of elBulli’s landmark dishes:

After six or so small starters […] we were served an escabeche of tiny rock mussels and basil. That exploded in the mouth and released a scented [sic] oil (a nod to the olives we had at the start […]) which aroused both feeling and hilarity. This was followed by popcorn mousse which dematerialised like candy floss and which provoked yet more laughter. We remembered the small blue tins that are definitely associated with a particular make of caviar, which bear the well-known drawing of the sturgeon, filled to the brim with these precious little orange grains, well chilled as they should be. This was 2003, and we had already burst out laughing: despite its appearance, the dish actually consisted of spherified melon and passion fruit drops like the olives we had at the beginning, perfectly pure in taste … I think of this dish each time I eat melon as the very notion of melon itself, now sadly out of reach (Jouary, 2013: 40, 42).

How to define and treat materials in social theories of practice: Exploring the role materials

I was initially apprehensive about taking part in the 4S/EASST 2016 conference in Barcelona. As a digital sociologist focussing on how web application based digital maps (such as Google Maps or Bing Maps) are engaged in everyday life, I had often considered my research to site at the oblique margins of STS. This belief was quickly dispelled with the opening plenary. There, the full diversity of STS was set out, and provided both reassurance and reaffirmation that my work does fit well within STS as a field. Meanwhile, many of the authors I had diligently read over the last few years were there in person, alongside many more I had never met or read. However, beyond the overarching benefit I gained from attending the conference, it was the Track 091 in which I was invited to speak that provided the most valuable experience.

As the title suggests, the focus of the track was on ‘exploring the role of materials in practices and sustainability’, a broad topic which led to some very fruitful theoretical discussion. Despite a wide variety differences in the approaches to research taken by speakers and a stunning array of substantive topics, there was an overall coherence across the talks. The success of which has ultimately led the track organisers to begin a process of collating papers from each speaker based on their talks, with the intention of submitting them for publication in a peer-review journal as a special issue. All the talks of this track can be located at: http://www.anglia.ac.uk/global-sustainability-institute-gsi/4seasst
Interestingly, the differences in approaches taken highlighted some clear divides on key underlying themes, raising important questions. For example, where Mandy de Wilde discussed the emerging smart meter monitoring of domestic energy consumption, she held borderline seams such as the boundary or neighboring walls of a property (spaces where the meter sits), as both social and material. Meanwhile, Shivant Jhagroe turned to the everyday temporal rhythms and routines of washing in the context of web 2.0 to argue that “…materials do not exist…”. That is, the social and digital are mutually constitutional and dialectic. As an underlying theme, this raised a question on how to treat materials which continued throughout the talks. For some, this was implicit in the methodology and for others it was discussed in the context of literature surrounding sociomateriality.

At the same time, the location of where to place the focus of study also informed several talks. In my own talk, I discussed the role of practice hacks as temporary workarounds that practioners employ in order to reestablish or maintain stable routine when limitations are met, enabling them to carry on in practical consciousness. Comparing these to breaching experiments in ethnomethodology, I highlighted the importance of focussing on the liminal space of change in social practices as a site of study. Likewise, both Marianne Ryghaug and Helen Gansmo, and Marius Korsnes and Jenny Bergschold focussed on participants that moved into a LivingLab, setting their sites of study as extended explorations of this liminal moment of change in practice. Taking this even further, Mia Rasmussen and Laura Nielson discussed purposefully bringing about change as an action-focused intervention in order to gain a better understanding of the enactment of materials. In contrast however, other speakers set their focus on the establishment and maintenance of routines instead. For Carolynne Lord, this entailed an understanding of how tablet devices are domesticated and engaged as new technologies by demographic groups of typically low intensity users such as elderly retirees. Similarly, for Toke Christensen and Els Rommes, a focus on ongoing engagement with social media platforms via personal digital devices by teenagers appropriated some key concepts from social psychology (without fraying into the realms of cognitivism or methodological individualism). Through several examples, they set out their participants’ passive-aggressive expectations of others, their anxieties of disconnection, and even forms of repetition compulsion as embodied tacit routines. In comparison, this diversity on where to explore practices left a second question hanging on the where to place focus – on the enactment of routines, on the maintenance of routine, or on moments of change to previously stable routine?

 

Courtesy of the author.

 

If the two underlying themes above centred on the role of materials in terms of their relationship to sociality and on how or where to focus on them, the third raised a simpler (albeit prior) question on what to consider as material. For some speakers, the notion of material was simple – it involves physicality. For example, Mandy de Wilde’s separation of material and social was only possible because the unit of analysis involved physical artefacts (solid walls, built structures, and smart meters). For others, the distinction was less clear-cut e.g., Toke Christensen and Els Rommes, Matthew Hanchard, and Shivat Jhagroe, with materials including virtual artefacts such as social media platforms, digital maps, and web applications. Here, whilst physical devices are used to facilitate or mediate access, the unit of analysis is more complex. Similarly, for Jens Lachmund and Richard Twine materials were far more slippery too. Focussing on veganism, Richard Twine described materials as both the assembled products (including packing and distribution chains) as physical artefacts and as the outcome of institutional systems of socio-material arrangement – classifying and ordering consumables into formal taxonomies. Meanwhile for Jens Lachmund, an extended discussion of urban gardening practices led to a focus on the production of public space as material, and rights to the city. In doing so, he highlighted a deep socio-materiality on the ways in which engagement with public space is culturally framed and enacted both by participants and policy-makers e.g., the differentiation between the terms “community member” in the UK and “citizen” in Germany.

Whilst there were far more nuanced discussions in our track, the three underlying themes and questions raised provided ample theoretical impetus for future collaboration. We synthesised the questions through fruitful discussion, however the timescale of the conference and the distraction of so many other great tracks to attend left the group with a great deal of promising work left to do. Exploring how material should be treated when researching social practices is a large question to address. Both arguments for the separation of social and material, and against it, in favour of mutually constitutional socio-material arrangements are valid. Future collaboration, no doubt drawing on a growing body of literature on post-humanism, will bear this out. Meanwhile, a more epistemologically driven question of where to locate the site of study when accessing practices in the flux of everyday life requires thoughtful expansion too. As the track talks demonstrate, research can be focussed on the moment of enactment of a practice, the ongoing maintenance of routine, or moments of disruption. The relative strengths and limitations of each remains to be drawn out in more depth. More importantly, a third question remains to be addressed on what to consider as material and on how to approach slippery materials such as web 2.0 applications. In this respect, the conference provided space for researchers focused on a succinct and similar topic that may not have collaborated or even entered dialogue otherwise. The track itself however, can take the conference as a starting point for more engaged dialogue and not as an end in itself. In this, both the conference and the track were a resounding success.

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

The frame of a study shapes the portrait of a technology

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

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

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

 

Beyond the single-site study

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Talking Between the Panels: Coffee and Lunch Breaks at 4S/EAAST, Barcelona 2016

‘I wonder if you have a minute,’ said one delegate reverentially to another obviously senior delegate, as I walked past them to the table with the chocolate croissants during the afternoon coffee break on Day 1 of the 4S/EASST conference in Barcelona. I was fortunate enough to have been scheduled to present on the morning of the first day, and that gave me the time and space to be pondering about things other than my own presentation for the remaining three-and-a-half days of the conference. For someone who was attending the 4S/EASST meeting for the first time, and to be honest, a little tentative about a presentation in front of a global audience of academics and peers, this was a welcome space to sit down, gather my thoughts and get a perspective on all the happenings around the CCIB – The Barcelona International Convention Centre.

One of the highlights of the conference for me, not counting the big one of my own session presentation, was the breaks between the panels for coffee and lunch. As everyone poured out of their various sessions, engaged in animated debate, it was the perfect opportunity to eavesdrop on several interesting conversations, join into impromptu discussions, and maybe have an academic disagreement or two over several cups of steaming coffee.

The 4S/EASST meeting in Barcelona during the months of August-September 2016 also came hot on the heels of my PhD submission, making it a celebration of sorts. Suffice it to say, I knew this was going to be fun. I had my paper ready, I had prepared my discussion points, and I was hoping to meet people who could give me great leads on postdoctoral positions. I boarded the flight from New Delhi with undiluted enthusiasm, and I am thrilled to say, I was not disappointed.

This was my first time at such a large conference. And it is not often that I get to go to an international STS conference and present to my peers. Since my work is on technology and cricket (a sport played in very few countries), I spend a lot of time in conferences explaining the nuances of cricket and how it connects to the theories of Science, Technology and Society as a case study. It usually takes me a while to explain that my work attempts to explore the influence of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and television on the sport of cricket—specifically the Indian Premier League (IPL), the construction of the spectator, and the transformation of cricket into a platform. I contend that the IPL, in both scale and scope, was primarily developed as India’s first ‘sporting platform’ rather than a cricket tournament. And critical to the assembling of the IPL has been the roles, influences, and potentialities created by a range of ICTs. So, when I do get to go to an STS conference (especially one with an entire track on sports and technology!), I am actually more enthusiastic and elated than I care to admit. Primarily, this gave me a great opportunity to meet other scholars, interact with academics, and to listen and learn about our field of work.

During the conference, there were wonderful, thought-provoking sessions (my own track included); I met senior academics who were extremely helpful, and made new friends who work on similar and totally different fields. However, an important part of the conference I found myself looking forward to on all three days were the breaks; the spread was sumptuous, the conversations were free flowing and the idea bubbles bobbled around with both senior academics and first timers taking part animatedly in the discussion.

As I sat on the floor in the main lobby (because there was no seating arrangement of any kind) trying desperately to connect to the internet and look up a reference I wanted to share; I overheard a group of four doctoral scholars planning to do something innovative and fun in a presentation together for a conference to be held in 2017. As the large file loaded on my slow computer, I realised from my unauthorised eavesdropping that this was the first time all of them had met (they were from three different countries) and had hit it off instantly. I really hope that their collaboration came through and I run into them again…

The breaks were scheduled around the sessions with one big lunch break in the middle. The coffee breaks were half hour sojourns, at strategic times throughout the day, where everyone winded up the discussion that was concluding in their respective sessions. True to the adage that a good conversation can only be fruitful over an excellent beverage, academics mingled around agreeing and disagreeing with each other over the panellists’ views, their own thoughts and the general state of things while wolfing down those delectable chocolate croissants. Those breaks that did not serve coffee came as a surprise and a disappointment every day, even though we knew to expect them. As one professor sarcastically remarked on day 2, were the organisers unsubtly hinting that academics drink too much coffee for their own good?

Even the strict coffee code, where you were warned that wolfing the spread could only start at the allotted time, triggered academic analysis and we wondered if there wasn’t a post-colonial feminist aspect to these strict coffee vending rules. As a group of Indian women scholars from different universities in USA, Europe and India reached for the food tray one morning, and a strict looking server ticked us off roundly, we couldn’t help but wonder how he would have reacted to a different, more senior group doing the exact same thing. This led to a more serious discussion on eurocentricism in digital studies; and how scholarship from the global south fit in within the larger STS scheme of things. But we remained, I am happy to report, undeterred. Keeping one eye on the clock, we continued to mingle from five minutes prior to the magical half hour, cooking up an appetite for enthusiastic discussions.

The lunch break, usually from half past twelve to mid-afternoon, was an opportunity to sit down, take a breath and assimilate the thoughts garnered during the sessions and the plenaries. A time of contemplation, this ninety minute period offered a chance to rest, satisfy hunger pangs, cement paper-writing partnerships, conclude conversations, or even steal a quiet siesta under the shade of the trees dotting the landscaping. Lunch was a picnic affair on the little hillock outside the CCIB halls, empty in the mornings but full of activity during lunchtime with academics sitting on the grass, chilling, mingling, sharing food and gossip, making evening plans and laughing about the many interesting titbits going on around them. The downside to taking a siesta in the sun on the grass was that one missed out on the several extraordinary events scheduled around the lunch break. There was an EASST members meeting, the presentation of the 4th edition of the STS Handbook, an interactive round table on ‘Does STS have Problems?’, book launches, business meetings, and what have you. It was commonly acknowledged that it was impossible to attend all the sessions one wanted to. Expected jokes about Time Turners and science fiction were widely cracked and politely laughed at.

One of the other interesting aspects of the conference was the Mentor-Mentee programme. I had the good fortune of being both a mentor and a mentee and this was a great learning opportunity for me. To meet younger scholars and attempt to help them on their track as a Mentor and taking tips from senior academics as a Mentee was a wonderful experience… I enjoyed meeting both my Mentor and Mentee and I spent most of my lunch hours meeting with one or the other of them. We spoke about everything from the challenge of interdisciplinary research and the problem of academic silos to details of each other’s work and recommending interesting readings to each other.

To me, the heart of any conference is always the informal discussions outside the box of strict conference scheduling. This was usually initiated at 4S as conversations during the breaks and carried on in full flow over the food packets at lunch. It’s always fun to be introduced to someone who would invariably know someone else who was part of a conference that you had also attended, and immediately get clued into the gossip of academia.

The spectacle of a serious discussion complete with animated hand waving and gesturing at disagreements between groups of people were all fun to watch and laugh about. The best part of these is that sometimes they can result in collaborative books, the seeds of which are invariably sown in these animated discussions. It was in one such coffee break that we had a conversation that has now bloomed into an Indo-French partnership on digital studies. I am happy to report that those meetings over coffee resulted in a concept note that we wrote out the very next day, and we hope to have at least two workshops in the coming year to kickstart a collaboration on digital studies from a global south perspective between scholars from India and France.

Friday’s second Keynote Plenary with Isabelle Stengers provided much fodder for discussion on the final day. While one academic appeared to have been blown away by her erudition, another seemed to have found it, to put it mildly, underwhelming. As all three of us met at a coffee vending machine on Saturday, I found myself involved in an animated disagreement between both scholars. While they didn’t let me get a word in edgewise, I couldn’t simply leave either, because both sets of arguments appeared to be addressed towards me. A sticky situation could have emerged, but was remedied by the appearance of a student who wished to consult the more senior academic on the important matter of a recommendation letter. I took the opportunity of the diversion to put an end to the conversation, and slip away to a session on digital subjectivities.

There were lucky breaks too. By the third day, we got wind that we could get free lunches at the venue, even if you had not registered previously. Intelligence from a senior academic revealed that lunch coupons could be procured at the registration desk. Suffice it to say, those of us whose registration waiver did not cover lunch were very happy. The breaks were also a time to call or Skype family and friends at home across continents and time zones or to meet other people and make evening plans. And since, for some inexplicable reason, there was no wifi or any other form of internet access in the presentation rooms, the only way to be connected was to head to the registration area. Much time was spent on the first day in figuring out good hotspot areas to get optimum wireless access, where the conference SSID would maintain a steady signal and the network would be stable enough. The running joke was that if such a spot also had chairs to sit on, we would have found the mythical El Dorado. By the second day, a group of us figured out that the best place for work was in the basement below the registration desks, right outside the restrooms in that area. At least we would be close to the loos, we commiserated with each other. Not quite El Dorado, but it would do.

As I come to the end of my musings about the conference, I find myself smiling at the memory of a friend who tried unsuccessfully for ten minutes to worm into a group having a conversation with Prof. Langdon Winner just to be able to tell a friend back home he had. My last memory of the conference is a group of us laughing at that friend, walking out of CCIB with promises of keeping in touch and extra conference bags. I really enjoyed the conference sessions and the opportunities the conference provided outside the plenary halls. It was a time of great networking, making collaborative friendships and soaking in the atmosphere of an international conference. Indeed, it was a joy to attend and I hope to come back again in the future to renew and relive these wonderful memories of 4S/EASST Barcelona- 2016.

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

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

New frontiers of health: mHealth and self management of disease

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

 

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

 

Emotional quantification: happyness as a measure of progress

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

 

Digital Subjects in online spaces

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

 

Conclusion

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

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Self-monitoring and health 

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

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

 

Data-meaning

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

STS and data science: Making a data scientist?

STS perspectives on the unfolding data revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Data practice, data science

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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