What are the politics of (the) future(s)? That is, what are the various political conflicts and formations associated with imagining and enacting futures — futures that are calculated through complex processes of projection and modeling, and futures that are collectively imagined as good, right, and attainable? And the inverse: what kinds of sociotechnical formations do we ourselves seek to enact or avoid—how does (or should) our research contribute to the piecemeal and cumulative production of futures? Further, how does the increasingly widely articulated sense of instability and uncertainty configure those processes of future making?
With these questions, we propose to create conversation and draw together knowledge about politics, technoscience, and worldmaking in the next EASST conference, which will take place in Madrid between the 6th and the 9th of July 2022.1
Prediction, anticipation and projection of events and circumstances yet-to-come are potent tools for ordering, building, enclosing, and modeling our present. STS scholars have long pointed out the role that science, technology and innovation play in this process. This topic is indeed not new, but the current moment of instability –of continuously compounding crisis– uniquely raises the salience of these questions, making them more urgent and visible than they otherwise might be.
As we pointed out in the conference theme, the current pandemic is not alone in disrupting human and non-human lives and livelihoods. The record-setting heat waves of summer 2021, along with unprecedented floods in Northwestern Europe, not to mention the medicane Apollo that recently hit Sicily, remind us that we are already well beyond the point of no-return in the climate crisis. These events come to unsettle our daily lives after a decade characterized by the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent recession and debt crisis, which propagated across the world.
This is a moment in which various modes of human interconnectedness are (re)constructed and made visible as sociotechnical systems at risk. Our hope is that the EASST conference in Madrid may be an opportunity to collectively consider the role of STS research in the contemporary proliferation of more or less articulated attempts to redefine problems, to set new agendas, to reframe challenges, and to produce new sociotechnical imaginaries to steer and order the uncertain present using the light of imagined futures.
We propose that these political processes deserve special attention in our scholarly community, because in these moments of crisis new opportunities may arise, and the proliferation of different, contrasting futures makes our present more open to previously inconceivable alternatives. In this endeavor, both our scientific gaze and our constructive participation are called upon to contribute, study and imagine, to cast light and be self-reflexive at the same time.
Accordingly, we are setting up a conference program that seeks to address these compelling issues in a dynamic and interactive way. In this short text, we have the privilege to share with the EASST community a preview of the conference events, with which participants will be invited to engage within and beyond traditional panel formats. Specifically, we have planned to host two plenaries and four sub-plenaries, in which we will share reflections, knowledge, strategies and concerns about what we refer to in the title of the conference as the politics of technoscientific futures.
The first plenary session, chaired by Carmen Romero Bachiller, will address the topic of the conference in a dialogical setting, where Amade M’Charek and Annalisa Pelizza will engage in conversation about the migration crisis at European borders. Amade’s analysis of forensic care work connects the lives of the people lost in the Mediterranean with broad reevaluations of former colonial domination and current extractivist practices. Annalisa’s work focuses on technological border control and the production of migrants as other in the EU. These issues have taken on new urgency under the COVID pandemic, accompanied by the increasing presence of extreme right political positions throughout Europe and the threat they pose to democratic ideals. Speaking from the vantage point of their scholarly work, this conversation will engage STS research through explicitly feminist and anti-racist lenses.
The subplenaries will then direct our attention to various sites at which technoscientific futures are under active contestation. Mario Pansera will chair a sub-plenary that takes up the debate about the future of growth and de-growth. Growing evidence of accelerating climate change and ecological destruction gives new force and urgency to the movement to advance knowledge and theory regarding alternative forms of economic order, and related questions regarding the relationship between technological innovation, knowledge production, and routinized modes of capitalist accumulation. Innovation has been, so far, framed as a way of transcending limits, thus functioning to legitimize infinite growth. Seeking to subvert existing assumptions about the relationship between innovation and growth, this sub-plenary will invite discussion about new narratives of collective well-being as well as new innovation practices and policies. Can we push the imagined scope of innovation beyond the technological, and consider patterns of cultural and institutional change, resilience, and revision that might support the continued flourishing of a wide range of planetary life forms? How might science and technology take shape in a system that is not based on the premise of endless growth? What policies, infrastructures and organizational forms are needed or are more likely to facilitate a post-growth innovation era? These are just some of the questions that will inspire and challenge us during this sub-plenary.
The climate crisis, of course, is not the only agent of destabilization acting on the contemporary landscape. The politics of technoscientific futures must also contend with important concerns about artificial intelligence and the mobilization of algorithmic tools in fields as diverse as healthcare, urban mobility and labor markets. A wide variety of social, economic, ethical and political issues have emerged along with this process of sociotechnical transformation. The use of algorithms and the accountability of developers, users and customers involved in their generation or adoption is progressively, and compellingly, dominating public debates. Mauro Turrini, Nuria Vallés (from the local organizing committee), together with Ulrike Felt (from the scientific committee) are preparing a sub-plenary on algorithms, prediction and narratives of futures. They will host a roundtable on the futures involved in the use of algorithms, promises, and emerging new forms of governmentality and resistance. Notably, this sub-plenary is conceived as a dialogue between academia and activist collectives of digital rights including but not limited to the automation of everyday life, population control, civil rights, the domestication of algorithms, and the construction of new imaginaries of collective life.
In times of crisis, as we know all too well, the politics of futures are not only imagined and performed through policy measures, political debates or technological innovation. Science fiction plays a key role: images and words invoking the future are often used by companies and governments to promote new products, such as medical treatments and devices, autonomous vehicles, and big science investments. With this in mind, the conference will include a sub-plenary on science fiction and science futures. Sally Wyatt, Michela Cozza and Nina Witjes will help us to investigate the complex and fascinating relationship between science and science fiction, where science fiction is often the source of inspiration for scientists and engineers, while science studies can be a source of inspiration for science fiction writers and artists. Addressing topics as diverse as the anthropocene, energy & climate change; datafication, AI space exploration & interplanetary travel; health, genetics & the enhancement/extension of human life, this sub-plenary explores different ways that speculative and science fiction (SSF) are used not only as a source of visions and imaginaries for scientists, engineers and others, but also as a method and device for STS scholars to engage with interlocutors during fieldwork and with wider audiences. Bringing together academic scholars, screenplay writers and artists this sub-plenary will stimulate the (individual and collective) EASST imagination through paying attention to, and engaging with, poetic, literary and artistic renderings of techno-scientific futures. The organizers have also announced a science fiction competition, the winners of which will be announced during the proceedings. Shortly, in these pages, we will open a writing contest in which participants can send short stories or poetry pieces about science fiction and science futures. The winners will get a symbolic prize at the conference and will have their manuscripts published in the EASST Review.
Finally, it would not make sense to talk about crisis, politics and futures without explicitly centering the perspectives of early career scholars, and seeking to address the tangle of intergenerational justice issues ingrained in the politics of technoscientific futures. Our final sub-plenary, organized jointly by Adolfo Estalella, Violeta Argudo, Esther Ortega (from the local organizing committee) and Sarah Rose Bieszczad (from the scientific committee) will address speculative ecologies. Their proposal reminds us that the current environmental and health crisis is not only revealing the constitutive vulnerability of our world, but also creating speculative spaces to identify and explore the possible. This process, though, cannot be decoupled from contemporary speculations about the many possible forms of our scholarly practice. How should our modes of research respond to the challenges of our time? How could we renovate our scholarly practices? This sub-plenary will address these questions, drawing in the concept of ‘speculative ecologies’, and focusing on those organized collectives that offer us the possibility to speculate not just with different futures but alternative presents too. Involving early career scholars from across Europe, the sub-plenary will not engage with the production of fictions or forecasts: on the contrary, it will focus on practices that are rooted in the present and resist the fateful future.
In the closing sentences of the conference theme, we suggest that a closer study of the dynamics by which the past and the present are known, and correspondingly acted on and re-described in the name of better futures, is an urgent task for our STS community. We also promise that the conference will provide a memorable opportunity for scholars across all the fields and areas of science and technology studies to rise to the occasion of collective destabilization to engage critically and creatively with the technoscientific politics of futures. We hope that these unique and inspiring moments of collective engagement and debate will help us to deliver on our promises.
Imaging a post-growth society: Science, technology and innovation beyond growth
Organizer(s): Mario Pansera (University of Vigo)
The feasibility and desirability of endless economic growth is increasingly being questioned by scholars and activists. While envisioning alternative economic models is key to assure the sustainability and wellbeing of present and future generations, few studies have analysed what might be the role of ‘innovation’ in a post-growth era. Innovating has become the imperative for the survival and expansion of any form of organisation. This sub-plenary starting point is that untangling innovation from growth is key to imagining a post-growth era. If growth is going to be unsustainable, we need new narratives as well as new innovation practices and policies that would accordingly also have to change and increase the scope of the innovation concept itself, beyond technology, into cultural and institutional change, and indeed social life and social order. The STS community has only recently begun to get involved in the debates about post-growth and de-growth. STS contributions may enrich the ways in which we imagine and configure STI systems, which are in turn crucial for enabling a sustainable future and an adaptation to the challenges of the climate crisis. But how science and technology will look like in a system that is not based, and doesn’t not rely, on endless growth? Under which conditions STI without growth would be able to flourish? What levels of technological complexity can we reach in a non-growing economy? What policies, infrastructures and organizational forms are needed or are more likely to facilitate a post-growth innovation era? Questions that have been so far rarely asked within STS and STI circles are now at the heart of what this sub-plenary will address.
Algorithms, prediction and narratives of future. A roundtable on the futures involved in the use of algorithms, their promises and their new forms of governmentality and resistance
Organizers: Mauro Turrini (IPP-CSIC), Ulrike Felt (University of Vienna), Nuria Vallés (University Autónoma Barcelona)
This sub-plenary is conceived as a dialogue between academia and citizen participation, as one of the privileged strategies proposed by STS, to build new narratives around the role of AI in our lives. For this reason, academics with different expertise and people from activist collectives of digital rights collectives are invited as speakers. For this reason, the session will be organized around a series of questions introduced by the discussant (and previously discussed with the speakers), on issues such as: the automation of everyday life, population control, civil rights, the domestication of algorithms, the construction of new imaginaries of collective life, etc.
Science Fiction and Science Futures
Methods, forms and norms
Gazing at the stars
Sally Wyatt (Maastricht University); Nina Klimburg-Witjes (University of Vienna) & Michela Cozza (Mälardalen University)
Speculative and science fiction are often sources of inspiration for scientists, engineers and in popular culture, while science studies can be a source of inspiration for science fiction writers and artists. Images and words invoking the future are often used by companies and governments to promote new products, such as medical treatments and devices, autonomous vehicles, and big science investments. This panel explores different ways that speculative and science fiction (SSF) are used not only as a source of visions and imaginaries for scientists, engineers and others, but also as a method and device for STS scholars to engage with interlocutors during fieldwork and with wider audiences. The aim of the sub-plenary is to stimulate the (individual and collective) EASST imagination through paying attention to and engaging with poetic, literary and artistic renderings of techno-scientific futures. Speakers will be invited to explore some aspect of the role of SFF in different domains, including Anthropocene, energy & climate change; datafication, AI space exploration & interplanetary travel; health, genetics & the enhancement/extension of human life. There are many different aspects to this, including how SFF shapes the hopes, promises and fears that appear in the discourses of research agendas, public policy, design, media, and education. The panel will be accompanied by a competition for short stories & poetry related to science-technology-futures (details for the competition will be announced by the end of the year and winners awarded at the EASST conference 2022).
Speculative ecologies for a vulnerable world
Organizers: Adolfo Estalella (University Complutense Madrid); Violeta Argudo-Portal (IPP-CSIC): Esther Ortega-Arjonilla (University Tufts Skidmore Spain); Sarah Rose Bieszczad (Leiden University)
With the current environmental and health crises revealing the constitutive vulnerability of our world, the creation of speculative spaces to identify and explore the possible is more urgent than ever. This move must go hand in hand with speculations about the many possible forms of our scholarly practice: how should our modes of research respond to the challenges of our time? How could we renovate our scholarly practices? In this sub-plenary we would like to address these questions drawing in the concept of ‘speculative ecologies’. There is a long-tradition in STS demonstrating that beyond the formal and institutionalized modes of knowledge production, there thrives in our societies modes of impure science and wild research that shows alternative ways to face the challenges of our world. Social movements, civic organizations, and organized collectives have taught us how to pose the challenging questions that our world in crisis needs. In this sub-plenary we would like to think with our counterparts, those organized collectives that offer us the possibility to speculate not just with different futures but alternative presents too for their modes of inhabitation offer other modes of engagement with the world. The speculative practice that we invoke is thus not engaged in the production of fictions or forecasts, on the contrary, it is a practice rooted in the present that resists the fateful future. We would like to open a dialogue about how different organized collectives engage with speculative ecologies. First, we are interested in those efforts whose practical engagement entails a form of speculation with different ecological relations: from activists of extinction rebellion to scientists that demonstrate how we can learn from nature to respond to the present challenges—just to give two possible cases. Second, we are interested in collective projects aimed at the renovation of our academic environment (or, in our parlance, the ecology of practices of academia), initiatives that create the speculative conditions to bring into existence alternative scholarly practices—from novel practices of evaluation for academic work to alternative modes of teaching or different ways of academic organization.
1 Please note: Due to the NATO Summit that will be held on the 29th and the 30th of June on the same premises we had originally booked for our conference, we had to postpone the conference by one week. The new dates are the 6th to 9th of July 2022, in the same venue. We apologise for all the inconveniences caused, but this had to be done due to reasons of force majeure.