What does “generation” mean? This year’s Australasian STS Graduate Network conference (henceforth AusSTS2022) reflected on this theme as postgraduates and early-career researchers participated in a multi-sited gathering across Darwin, Melbourne and Sydney in Australia and Wellington in Aotearoa New Zealand. Founded in 2017, the AusSTS network has hosted these annual transnational workshops since 2019, in partnership with sister STS networks local to each “node”. Across two days in July, these nodes converged virtually for a morning keynote session before dispersing for their own programs of field trips and paper presentations. This review focuses on the talks and experiences had at the Sydney node, hosted primarily by the University of New South Wales on unceded Bedegal land. For the Sydney node, where 2021’s conference saw a rapid (yet successful) late transition to online conferencing, AusSTS2022 entailed what was (for many) a first in-person gathering of this community and an opportunity to experience the field trip postponed from the previous year.
AusSTS2022 commenced with an outstanding keynote lecture delivered by Professor Anne Pollock (King’s College London), hosted by the Melbourne node, which charted the exciting generative work of current feminist, antiracist and decolonial engagement with STS. The central theme was “critical hope” as generation – Paulo Friere’s[i] phrase which holds that hope alone is not enough but it is necessary as we engage with concrete and material struggles – which Pollock fertilised with Ruha Benjamin’s[ii] wonderful gardening and vegetation mantras. “We water what we grow,” Benjamin’s grandmother often said; that is, where we put our attention, energy and resources determines what will grow. Another Benjamin mantra, “bloomscrolling”, further captured this ethos of critical hope. “Bloomscrolling” is envisioned, not as an escapist counterpoint to ‘doomscrolling’ through the world’s bleakness on our social media platforms, but as a search for opportunities to flourish and to engage with the world in ways that are not defeating. Critique remains an essential nutrient – indeed, as Pollock rightfully asserted, “we need those searing indictments of our unjust world” – but the generative work surveyed focused on practical and hopeful aspirations. This was something of a return to the debates on critique, arguably formative for STS, and Pollock situated her charting in relation to the Latourian post-critique turn and the feminist scholarship of Sandra Harding[iii] and Donna Haraway[iv] that long predated it. But even Haraway’s call for an approach beyond “nothing-but-critique” in the seminal “Situated Knowledges” leans toward the abstract. How should feminist STS scholars live their everyday lives?
The contemporary scholarship that Pollock charted bears a more practical sensibility with an orientation toward the everyday and mundane – which critical disability studies, in particular, has spearheaded (see Aimi Hamraie and Kelly Fritsch’s “Crip Technoscience Manifesto”[v]). The everyday classroom setting figures as a generative site for both Pollock and Benjamin. For Pollock, being an insightful teacher needs not be at odds with being an insightful researcher, an idea which is a challenge to conventional wisdom that holds teaching as a burden that obstructs writing. Her latest book, Sickening: Anti-Black Racism and Health Disparities in the United States[vi], was conceived and composed with undergraduates in mind. Its case study structure – running from the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed black postal workers to Serena Williams’ near-death experience giving birth – skews the typical approach of foregrounding historical racism. Pollock posited that such narratives enable racism to be constructed as “a legacy of the past”, a lingering “residue”, which is too remote from students’ experiences and elides the agency and responsibility of present-day actors. Pollock capped AusSTS2022 with a book talk on Sickening at the Sydney node, expounding on the book’s themes and case studies; it presents a compelling argument for the promise of undergraduate-focused writing as “an as-yet-unrealised site of generativity for feminist, antiracist, and decolonial STS.”
The second day opened with an “intergenerational plenary”, hosted by the Wellington node, featuring Hana Burgess and Mythily Meher (both of Waipapa Taumata Rau-University of Auckland) and Billy van Uitregt (Te Herenga Waka-University of Wellington). The late Teresia Teaiwa[vii], whose “The Ancestors We Get to Choose” reflected on the enabling epistemic influences for her own foundational work, provided a platform for each thinker to reflect on their own influences in conversation with “generation”. Burgess posited that generations reach us back and reach us forward; we are meeting points between past and future generations. She argued for intergenerational vision that looks beyond the present, which would also entail a move away from Western conceptions of time as an arrow, framed in narratives of ‘progress’. Meher spoke of giving back to elders who have given us so much, situating this alongside a reflection on her own internalised racism, which had led her to a remove from her ‘Indian-ness’. The fractured feeling of community this produced was counterposed with a practising of hope in a feeling of connection with others and other generations. Van Uitregt also spoke of older generations – of his late mother and of how her yarns passed with her – and how to relate in generative ways. This entails a coming together to generate something that did not exist before and which, importantly, must move beyond transactional modes of relating. Together, the panel enriched and challenged conceptions of generation, generations and generativity, drawing on their personal experiences and ancestries to espouse ways of relating to pasts, presents, futures and landscapes.
Professor Abby J. Kinchy (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) concluded the second day of AusSTS2022 for the Sydney node with a brilliant public lecture on the generation, and generations, of slow violence through lead pollution. Kinchy opened with an account of how advocates for lead-based technologies story lead contamination as being of the past, that engineering and technological fixes have intervened and enabled a new role for lead within next-gen (and ostensibly “green”) technologies like solar batteries and electric automobiles. But our world is already “lead-saturated” and, once it has contaminated the environment, lead can take generations to break down – a reminder that generation can, alongside the critical hope and creativity covered elsewhere, also be fraught and hazardous. The “lead in my grandmother’s body” art-project, made in protest of the McArthur River mine in the Northern Territory, Australia, punctuates this point; we cannot pretend that lead pollution is in the past. So, Tinchy asked, “how can we reckon with past and present harms when envisioning next-generation technologies?”
Set against the narratives that would obfuscate the persistence of harms from lead pollution and contamination is the concept of “slow violence”. Rob Nixon[viii] conceptualised “slow violence” as “attritional catastrophes”, which are temporally and spatially indistinct, and thus are challenging to notice, communicate and story. Kinchy situated her work with community-based participatory studies of soil contamination as means to disturb the representational challenges of slow violence with lead. “Our Soil” engages in “do it together” soil study methods in Troy (NY), USA, and Arica, Chile, as well as producing toolkits (both testing devices and for organising) for other communities to participate. In Arica, alongside workshop findings, Kinchy introduced the “Mamas of Lead” group who challenge the slow violence of lead contamination that escapes its temporal constructions within policy, pushing for intergenerational justice. Meanwhile in Troy, modes of gardening once again figure as hope, in this case with the regeneration of contaminated soil through urban garden projects. But how can intimate interactions with soil be navigated when they bear the tensions of perceived contamination risk? Another critical factor with such soil regeneration is that it requires perpetual attention and care which, as Kinchy observes with Gray-Cosgrove et al.[ix], generally falls to those at risk of contamination or already contaminated, and therefore those subject to slow violence, not the polluters themselves. Without sufficient resources and support, practices of perpetual care necessary for soil regeneration are difficult to sustain.
The Sydney node comprised four presentation sessions where speakers had five minutes each to deliver their paper. Each session then turned to Q&A, where the papers were brought into conversation with one another and with the session and conference themes. Lingering was the theme of the first paper session and covered the lingering of tastes and smells, of once familiar but increasingly rare sounds, of affective responses to what is absent in our everyday surroundings, and of the “afterlives” of data collection. Ella Butler explored “aftertastes” – a problem within food science as cereal manufacturers grapple with a new historical moment (in the form of regulations and customer expectations of healthier products) and past inheritances (such as consumer memories of how cereal products taste across generations). Myles Oakey invited us to consider how song matters for the persistence of the critically endangered regent honeyeater; how we come to know song, as an object and artefact of ornithological knowledge, and how thinking song differently might generate new ways of attending and caring across species relations. My own paper considered the interweaving of affective responses to both home loss and environmental change following the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires in Australia. How might our sense of home be shaped by its more-than-human entanglements (such as the routine calls of local birds and bats or the familiar presences of trees nearby)? What role might memories fulfil in drawing to the surface ecological relations beyond dominant Australian narratives on home as that which separates us from nature? Katherine Kenny concluded the session with reflections on the “afterlives” of qualitative data for participants and researchers alike, asking what happens relationally and affectively for both when imagined futures of health and recovery do (or do not) come to be. Kenny explored this question through interviews with parents of children with cancer and their experiences of “precision medicine” put into practice.
The second session focused on Making and Remaking with an emphasis on the generation of new forms of care, labour and consumption as familiar sites, practices and roles are remade or reconceived. Zoe Elena Horn introduced Amazon’s Go and Alibaba’s Hema retail outlets – cashierless convenience stores that remain niche yet warrant serious attention. Through these case studies, Horn highlighted how the “automation format” can be reconceived in its mappings of automation as complex arrays of technologies, infrastructures, labour and algorithms to better trace their geopolitical and ideological dimensions. Jayson Jimenez reflected on his work with bonsais as “care”, a generative practice that centres ways of relating and responsibility that cannot be adequately described as “gardening”. It is an art of paying attention which, for Jimenez, prompts further reflection on what it means to attend to human-nonhuman relations at a time when the destructive impacts of human activities on the planet is being named “the Anthropocene”. Mia Harrison continued the focus on the doing of care in a study of Sydney-based healthcare workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Harrison unpacked the materiality of care environments – in particular, the hospital – as fluid assemblages of care materials that tended to complicate their conventional temporal and geographic boundaries as well as standard categories of “care” and “carer”.
The third session – Innovating – explored and speculated on how we come to know and how it is co-constituted with technology and socio-material context. Cobi Calyx presented how satellite imagery and environmental law have been co-produced over the past sixty years before taking a speculative turn. What might this mean for futures where remote-sensing technologies intersect with machine learning and artificial intelligence to visualise climate change? Amy Denmeade looked at the storytelling that becomes attached to emerging technologies which, in turn, materially shapes these technologies through informing notions of what is possible and desirable in design and regulation. In particular, Denmeade drew attention to the role of ‘generative metaphors’ within such discursive practices, which circumscribe particular ways of thinking about technologies that enable and foreclose policy possibilities. John Noel Viana concluded this session with a paper that preliminarily explored how changing circumstances tied to the Covid-19 pandemic in different parts of Australia variably shaped knowledge generation. This research is ongoing, as new viral variants emerge and spread, which in turn continue to shape the variable contexts that influence knowledge generation.
The final paper session spoke to the theme of Looking Forwards, in both reflection and speculation, covering new forms of conservation and energy supply and new frameworks that centre specific values in artificial intelligence development. Mardi Reardon Smith introduced Pam, a cattle grazier in far north Queensland, whose pastoral lease contains most of the known nests of the endangered golden-shouldered parrot. Pam’s complicated, seemingly contradictory relationship with these parrots while remaining economically dependent on practices that continues to threaten them, is generative for what Smith argued are messier forms of conservation that step away from expectations of ‘perfect’ or ‘pure’ solutions. Lizzie Crouch proposed “creative producing” as a new framework for inclusive interdisciplinary research. Crouch argued that for collaboration to be generative of inclusive outcomes – such as in art-science (interdisciplinary methods that combine scientific engagement and communication with artistic approaches) – an orientation must be adopted that centres values, ethics and politics while embracing disciplinary difference as “constructive friction”. Lorenn Roster reminded of the non-neutrality of technological design and decision-making with a focus on artificial intelligence-enabled systems. Roster highlighted how, in some entrepreneurial contexts, dignity-centred artificial intelligence development is being valued. Her paper explored some emerging questions around how these entrepreneurs negotiate spheres of responsibility and make space to reflect within what are fast-paced contexts for development and design. Sophie Adams concluded the session with a look at emerging forms of organising energy supply following Australia’s 2019-20 bushfires with an emphasis on powering remote and rural communities. Adams introduced two micro-grid case studies, a “coastal” and “mountains” one, and explored differences in community participation and sentiment around these as both emergency energy supplies and as alternatives to centralised models.
The Sydney node’s field trip was a visit to the Chau Chak Wing Museum at the University of Sydney – the trip postponed from AusSTS2021 due to Sydney’s Covid-19 Delta variant outbreak. The visit began with an app-guided museum tour/scavenger hunt which brought each team to a small juglet from Ancient Cyprus, a child-mummy called Horus, an art collection of optical illusions, and (my favourite) a dissectible mid-19thCentury French papier mache model called Gladys. We then re-convened for an objects-based learning experience. There were four tables, each with three de-contextualised ‘artefacts’ from which each team had to select one and compose a set of (non-analytical) observations about its materiality. After a few minutes, each team rotated to the next table, to continue the previous team’s work but only once their existing observations were used to identify the relevant object. The teams rotated once more, going through the same process of building upon the previous teams’ contributions, before finally being invited to engage in analysis. What is the object? What was its purpose?
This activity invited us to reflect on how knowledge is not constructed in a vacuum, how it is reliant upon and shaped by epistemological foundations built with others, not the transcendent brilliance of individual insight or even the exchanges of the final group who finished with the object. We can extend this further, to the decision-making (kept from us) behind which objects were placed and where, why certain objects were brought together and others not, and how they came to be held in the Museum itself both in terms of their material journeys and the epistemologies that construe these objects as ones worth holding. The objects, stripped of context and epistemological signposting, were all the more interesting for the setting, within an institution that conventionally coheres the relation between objects brought together and guides the construction of meaning and value. We finished by taking part in this construction ourselves; each team had to decide which of the objects – freshly identified and explained – on their table was most important and present our reasoning to everyone. My team’s choices: a reconstructed skeletal human foot, each bone separately pinned to a wooden board, identified with an index code leading to a scientific name; a wood-and-ceramic water filtration device (which we thought was some kind of slow-burn candle); or an antique abacus. What would you choose? Why?
[i] Friere, P. 2021. Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
[ii] Benjamin, R. 2022. Viral Justic: How We Grow the World We Want. New Jersey: Princeton University Press
[iii] Harding, S. 1986. “The Instability of the Analytical Categories of Feminist Theory.” Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 11(4): 645-664.
[iv] Haraway, D. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies. 14(3): 575-599.
[v] Hamraie, A. and K. Fritsch. 2019. “Crip Technoscience Manifesto.” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience. 5(1):
[vi] Pollock, A. 2021. Sickening: Anti-Black Racism and Health Disparities in the United States. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
[vii] Teaiwa, T. 2014. “The Ancestors We Get to Choose: White Influences I Won’t Deny.” In Theorizing Native Studies, edited by A. Simpson and A. Smith, 43-55.New York: Duke University Press
[viii] Nixon, R. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge: Havard University Press.