Roads Less Travelled. Exploring New Connections Between Media Research and STS

The workshop brought together STS and Media Studies scholars in order to discuss less developed similarities and differences between the two fields. Despite looking for connections, the workshop revealed some fundamental differences and some common biases in the mutual appreciation. This diversity also expressed the internal pluralism within the fields, which pointed to fruitful connections to be specifically tailored to theories, methods, and cases. These heterogeneous perspectives sparked a mutual interest in new ways of combining of STS and Media Studies.

The workshop ((An international workshop at the University of Siegen, 5th & 6th February 2015. Organised by Cornelius Schubert and Estrid Sørensen as a cooperation of the DFG Research Training Group Locating Media (University of Siegen) and the Mercator Research Group “Spaces of Anthropological Knowledge” (Ruhr-University Bochum).)) was set up partly as a follow-up to the track “STS and media studies: Empirical and conceptual encounters?” at the EASST conference in Toruń in September 2014. The aim of both workshops was to trace the growing links between STS and Media Studies. The workshop in Siegen reported here was specifically targeted at looking beyond the mainstream of STS / media research encounters which, bluntly speaking, often consist of importing ANT vocabulary into Media Studies and of STS scholars looking at internet phenomena (cf. Boczkowski and Lievrouw, 2008; Wajcman and Jones, 2012; Thielmann et al., 2013; Gillespie et al., 2014). We wanted to question this division of labour and to look for connections less travelled, besides the beaten tracks.

Conference venue: the Artur Woll-Haus in Siegen

Conference venue: the Artur Woll-Haus in Siegen

Over two days, speakers and participants from Australia, Austria, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, and the UK discussed such diverse topics as media theory, the aesthetics of amateur photography, government IT infrastructures, credit cards, web videos and issues of surveillance and conflict in new social media. The heterogeneity of the cases and approaches highlighted the fact that Media Studies seem to occupy an even more diverse field than STS. Trying to bridge the two fields is thus a difficult, if not impossible task to undertake. It would force singular identities onto polyphonic fields. Instead, the workshop revealed that STS and media research overlap in certain areas of interest, both conceptually and empirically, such as in studies of infrastructures and media technologies. Paolo Magaudda (Padova) elegantly showed how user studies in STS and media research share a common ancestor in domestication theory (Silverstone and Hirsch, 1992) and the idea that the shaping of media and technology is hardly finished after they enter the user household (e.g. Oudshoorn and Pinch, 2003). Yet both sides tend to obscure this shared history in favour of purifying their respective approaches.

Somewhat unexpected by the organisers the workshop gave in many presentations rise to discussions of relevant differences between STS and Media Studies . By comparing approaches of the German media theorist Friedrich Kittler with that of Bruno Latour, Judith Willkomm (Siegen) elaborated how Kittler was primarily concerned with the “logic” of media, whereas Latour is preoccupied with their “logistics”. Despite their common interest in media, processes of mediation, and inscriptions, they undertake different analyses and ask different questions.

Sergio Minniti (Milan) argued that media archaeology focuses on subaltern and artistic practices of media use rather than re-tracing the development of a successful technical or scientific innovation in STS. In a similar vein, STS studies of innovation failures, like that of Aramis (Latour, 1996), usually do not take the subaltern position as a starting point, but argue from the perspective of (forestalled and unsuccessful) powerful actors. One theme that followed from this was that STS is often seen as only following dominant actors while at the same time not taking clear political sides in favour of suppressed minorities. This critique has been levelled at STS from Media Studies in the tradition of Cultural Studies. While usually tiresome to STS scholars, who feel this critique is utterly misplaced the exchanges at the workshop revealed that the discussion more than anything is about what counts as political, and in what contexts STS and Media Studies scholars can be granted political relevancy. STS scholars mainly argue with respect to the (sometimes invisible) levels of ‘doing politics’, i.e. of enacting decision making or making media technological changes. Media Studies scholars, on the other hand tend to count as political in a more distanced diagnostic sense – pointing out power differences in media technological arrangements. It became clear in the course of the workshop, that if we force both tendencies to their extremes, we risk creating the ‘essential’ differences between STS and Media Studies we sought to overcome, and which are hardly warranted given the internal diversity of both fields. Yet different perspectives remain and we should be sensitive to their boundaries.

Another striking difference between STS and Media Studies is the engagement with issues of war. In the evening keynote Erhard Schüttpelz (Siegen) articulated two divergent positions: On the one hand Media Studies were primarily born out of Communication Studies occupied with propaganda related to warfare. Kittler and McLuhan shared a common interest in military media technology. In STS on the other hand we find very few empirical studies on war and on military technologies (except for some prominent cases such as MacKenzie, 1993; Law, 2002), but indeed the proliferation of military metaphors along with a strong political rhetoric in order to draw attention to the conflictual nature of science and technology. The most obvious example of this is the science wars rhetoric.

The preference for asymmetries in media studies and symmetries in STS was mirrored in the presentations of Adam Fish (Lancaster) and Diletta Luna Calibeo (Brisbane). From a Cultural Studies background both engaged with visibilities in social media. Adam Fish analysed how Anonymous video producers see themselves in a war with Scientology and government agencies and how they are at the same time inextricably linked to commercial video platforms. Diletta Luna Calibeo elaborated how environmental activists may be framed as eco-terrorists in their struggle to create visibility for corporations’ environmentally damaging activities. These presentations also hinted at another difference between STS and Media Studies: the latter prefer situating their cases in a “bigger picture” of capitalism, whereas the former tend to look more closely at individual cases, and draw more modest conclusions.

That our attempt at exploring new connections between STS and Media Studies also brought their differences to the fore was one of the most insightful and unexpected results of the workshop. It showed that the search for novel links in many cases occasioned a re-tracing of boundaries between and homogeneity within STS and Media Studies. No simple equation can be made between STS and Media Studies. Yet, the distinction between perspectives is productive in focusing and specifying our discussions of science, technology, and media. If we look beyond the beaten tracks of collaborations between STS and Media Studies a plethora of new questions arise concerning media, technologies, and science, along with variations of more or less disciplinary ways of answering them. Despite the differences common themes and ancestors of STS and Media Studies came to the fore. They warrant their continued engagement, among others with issues of power and subversion, materiality and meaning, mediation and cooperation, design and use. STS and Media Studies undoubtedly (have to) share empirical fields and conceptual perspectives and both benefit from manifold cross-fertilisations. Continuing on the roads less travelled we need simultaneously to engage in purification work and in work of hybridisation: looking for the similarities as well as the differences between STS and Media Studies, for homogeneities as well as heterogeneities within and across their boundaries (some of which may be fluid), and from there to identify productive ways of collaborating and ways of fighting.