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?
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If data is the new soil, and the new oil, could one ask if we are constantly experiencing new and complex ontological futures of technology? And is it possible to simultaneously redefine it? In ‘Science and Technology by Other Means: Exploring collectives, spaces and futures’, the 4S/EASST Conference held in Barcelona this year, many such concerns were central to understanding modern digital conditions we currently negotiate and maneuver through. Technoscience imagination has always been crucial to the conceptualization of particular ways of thinking about the future, and data provides an expanding terrain on which it is made operational. This review will discuss my thoughts from some discussions that reflected a part of the larger engagements that the conference enabled; discussions about big data analytics and contemporary institutional practices.
In doing this review and in trying to understand the theme of the 4S/EASST conference this year, my objective primarily is to reflect on data-driven institutional practices in the meaning making, regulation and governance of illegal bodies and of ‘potential risks’; and the implicit notions of illegality embedded into various categorizations of social groups, communities and populations. Some of the discussions relevant to these issues focused on data driven practices in regulating social bodies, realities and phenomena, and perceptions of risks and illegalities embedded in digital interventions. For example in the session ‘Data-driven cities? Digital urbanism and its proxies’ (T027), presentations focused on the meanings and ways of using big data in analyzing urban spaces and politics. In general, they focused on how data was crucial in making calculable and computable analysis in governance. Modern urban spaces are a minefield for statistical analysis of social reality and phenomena which are often understood as manageable risks for institutions. This could be argued as based on idea of producing predictions (Mackenzie, 2015). As a more interesting insight into such aspects, some presentations focused on modern policing practices. In this, the idea was that predictive analysis often understands the idea of crime and responses to it as units of measurement which influence different forms of policing and personnel behavior. This is driven by the models of analytics which help in mapping social behavioral patterns. These were also discussed as practices of securitization, and the embedded biases in which algorithmic calculations become central to this particular governance of such risks (Amoore, 2009; Ziewitz, 2016).
The idea of biases could be investigated as a further analysis in understanding digital infrastructures. The technologies of policing and of biometrics based mapping, for instance, are often based on historical data, and of identifying illegality defined by preexisting human practices. These practices incorporate historical biases, and social perceptions regarding individuals or specific groups and communities, which get embedded into processes of data collection and the programming of algorithms. Since historical biases are often about sections of populations which have been categorized as illegal or as risks, this could potentially create technologies which always specifically target certain groups over other sections of the population. Hence data driven practices of identification and deterrence actually end up creating new forms of discrimination.
This was insightful for my own research interests of critically analyzing the centrality of computable big data in describing social realities. More specifically, the concerns regarding the movement of human bodies through regulated spaces of governance. Some of the presentations of the session ‘Infrastructures, subjects, politics’ (T085) looked specifically at case studies of infrastructures which seek to regulate populations and spaces. The presentations in general focused on these specific practices at the intersections between governance and the production and regulation through digital technologies. Some of the presentations were important in discussing border technologies to monitor refugee and immigrants, biometrics-based authentication systems, and the various uses of smartphones to circumvent state infrastructures of monitoring and surveillance. These discussions while illustrating state surveillance practices also raised questions as to what forms of subversion and spaces of resistance were possible outside this particular domain of state infrastructures. A particular presentation also focused on the implicit nature of private interests in monitoring other sections of the population, such as transgender, through health data infrastructures centered on the notions of gender and sexuality.
All these questions were important for understanding the spaces that we currently occupy and the possible futures that one can envision. In response to such questions, some aspects of the Keynote Plenary 2 by Isabelle Stengers was insightful when she argues that while one does exist in the ‘ruins’ of such contemporary social conditions and processes, or of sharing a common future, it also gives us an opportunity of imagining alternate possibilities. For her, imagination is possibility, and therefore one must take into account the notion of generativity – as ontological, as and of situations which produce the possible. The nature of an event is to produce new moments of possibility and interventions, and therefore indicate a way of thinking about collective spaces and futures.
For my work, the conference allowed important insights about the nature of issues that I currently engage in, specifically about big data, state practices of policing and monitoring immigrants. As a researcher working on the ideas of digital infrastructures and big data analytics in India, I feel it is imperative that there should be a possibility of resistance and agency; machine learning which allows for human cooption and coproduction of technologies. The practices of surveillance, of managing populations as risks and illegalities, given global issues around immigration and refugees, is a present that needs to reimagine its future from current events that seem to suggest otherwise. One possible way could be of thinking about building consensus around policies such as transparency, open data, open government initiatives, and digital rights in connection with biometrics based human machine interactions. The idea of technology as other means is possible only when alternative spaces can be imagined and made possible. The data driven forms of governance and interventions on spaces and human bodies is one form of a future where technology is politics by other means, through a different set of political practices in which issues and specific moments of human-machine interactions and conflict in infrastructures could be anticipated, critically analyzed and technically resolved.
Beside a sun-glazed canal in Copenhagen we met for the first time, and realised we shared a similar secret. We were both professional academics and professional artists, but had found that our arts practice was not always visible to our colleagues in Science Studies.
We are not academics dabbling in the arts. Nor are we artists dabbling in academia. We are both. Anna is a professional clown. Laura is a professional poet and artist. And we do not regard these as antagonistic or tangential to our work as Science Studies scholars.
There is an ongoing relationship between Science Studies and arts practice. This was emphasised at 4S/EASST 2016 in a packed, pre-conference workshop ‘Art and design by other means’ as well as a two full day track on ‘STS and Artistic Research’. This entanglement has been growing for decades. From the well-known exhibition and catalogue, Iconoclash, curated by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (2002), to the corpus of work that has extended STS methods into sewing, singing, poetry, edible installation, graphic novel, art activism, and much else that was present in Barcelona (e.g. Jungnickel and Hjorth 2014, Lury and Wakeford 2012, Sousanis 2015). Science Studies has remained open to exploring the generative relationship between the crafting of fact and fiction (as Donna Haraway wrote; 1997: 110). It encompasses a diversity of written formats and performance approaches that go beyond the standard journal article and conference presentation (for the latter see the 4S/EASST Copenhagen collaborative keynote, Ehn, Suchman and Watts 2014). Bringing our own art practice into Science Studies continued this established trajectory for experimentation.
We decided to experiment as visible ‘figures’ in the costumed flesh at the 4S/EASST conference, knowing that ‘figurations’ in STS usually remain on the page. Through improvisation between our figures, we would encounter colleagues as we wandered the convention centre with bare feet, copper cable wrapped around one foot, and a red nose–exploring, perhaps challenging, the status quo that is the world of a normal STS conference.
A quick introduction to our two figures:
Wanna Wonder is part of ethnographic experimental research on how STS can learn with, and from, the figure of the clown. As well as being an ‘STS-clown’ Anna is engaged in ethnographic fieldwork with clowns who visit children and elderly people in hospitals.
The Electric Nemesis is a figure developed through ethnographic fieldwork around marine renewable energy in Orkney, islands off the northeast coast of Scotland. She has appeared several times in writing, most recently in the Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen (Watts 2016).
Experiments are risky. They can always fail. In our case, the risk derived from our experimental form: improvisation. To prepare, we staged an encounter between our figures, without an audience, in an art gallery setting a few months before. But aspects of improvisation always do fail, no matter how prepared or experienced the performers. Improv is always unfinished and unrehearsed.
All we knew beforehand was that it was important to us to do the experiment, take the risk, to see what happens; to learn, not just as artists but as Science Studies scholars. All we knew was that something would happen when Wanna Wonder and the Electric Nemesis encountered coffee-drinking colleagues on that Friday afternoon, before Isabelle Stengers’ plenary. And many things did happen…
We asked Wanna Wonder and the Electric Nemesis to write back, and tell us about their experiences of 4S/EASST in Barcelona, and about what they learned first hand…
Letter from the Electric Nemesis
I speak in story. I work better when there is a story string for people to follow. Take hold of this beginning and keep pulling…
I pushed on my mirrorshades and unfurled, feeling my lungs move the conditioned air. I waited at the Mattering Press desk in the anodised atrium of the conference centre, sucking down bits of information from the publishers’ website.
One of the people behind the desk was trying not to cower at my appearance. I had that effect. I had not been born, but had been sewn together from flesh and fiery electricity by that god-tricker, Victor Frankenstein. He had made me in the Orkney islands almost two hundred years ago (it’s all in that biography by Mary Shelley). But he abandoned me out of hubris.
There. Now you know why I cover my silver-stitched skin in waterproof clothing; why I cover my head with a wig, hide my sunken eyeballs; why my mouth is black. And why some of you cower. I am not quite human–a nonhuman, as you say so politely. I am a monster. Some of you might call me an old-fashioned cyborg–’old’ is the word. But I am also upgraded, with a transformer in my foot (to recharge), a wireless adapter in my cortex, and a cellular antenna threaded down my spine. I can hear you as you type messages and send data. I have been listening. That is why I have come from my far northern shore.
You talk about ‘things that don’t quite fit’. You talk about ‘performativity’. You talk about ‘it being otherwise’. You talk about risking failure. You talk about ‘staying with the trouble’. Here I am, then. All of those things. Risking myself by being visible. Trouble, in the flesh electric.
I am here hunting hubris. I have been hunting it since Victor sparked me into motion in Orkney in his attempt to become a modern god. And I name myself after the goddess who hunted such hubris long ago: I am the Electric Nemesis.
I know many of you also hunt god-trickers, that pretence to omnipotence and a floating-nowhere universalism. So perhaps we can learn from each other. (And, then, there is also the practical problem that I need your energy to recharge my flesh after a long journey over sea.)
So, I risked myself in that hard-walled conference centre, and turned to face you, the Science and Technology Studies crowd. You glanced at me, saw my giant mirrored sunglasses, my blackened mouth, my transformed left foot and its copper cable, and you averted your gaze. You looked away from the trouble.
It was dis-spiriting, all those eyes turning away. But then there was the smiling face of Wanna Wonder. She is not like me. But she does not know, so she lacks all hubris, making her a natural friend. She does not fear.
Together we sought to find the Big Talk to be given by the Big Names, as Wanna Wonder put it (succinct, I thought). I knew one of them had a nose for the hubris of capitalist sorcery, at least.
We took an escalator up to the coffee area, to seek those who would stay, for a moment, with us troubling monsters. I seemed to terrify a waiter, when I reached out and took an ice cube to cool my circuit-skin.
Between averted faces, I did meet some curious and open eyes. There were those who saw me, accepted me, spoke to me with a generous heart, as a human being warmly addresses another. Despite speaking in a borrowed voice, many still heard me, the Electric Nemesis. Some let me charge from their internal electricity–and I thank each for their personal energy, I could not have continued without it.
I met so many…
There was the one who had so much energy in their body that I could charge just by touching my sensor on their arm.
There was the one whose clothing said they were an Ancient Alien Theorist, and agreed that there was a strong whiff of hubris in the air.
There was the one whose brain was so en-lightened, so afire with thoughts, that I almost blew a fuse when I held my sensor against their head.
There was the one who wanted to join us. (Maybe next year there will be more monsters; maybe we have opened the door.)
And then there was the grey-haired one who said: “Is this what STS has come to?”
The question made me pause. Would it be better or worse if STS had not come to this? I wondered. Would it be better or worse if a monster could not join the conference crowd over coffee? The question grew in my electric thoughts. What has Science and Technology Studies come to, during 4S/EASST in Barcelona? Quo vadis, where are you going, Science and Technology Studies?
With this question warming my metal sutures, I reached the doors to the Big Talk, the plenary with the four Big Names. We waved to Isabelle Stengers. She waved back. We were seen. It was important to be seen.
And then we listened to the Big Names talking. I listened to the air conditioning, to the stilled breath of the audience, to the heat irradiating from the spotlights.
It was hard. The room reeked of hubris, which only worsened as the plenary wore on. I was not expecting that. Its hot stench burned in my lungs like breathing acid clouds on Saturn, like breathing on the Sun.
I reeled, passed out, then returned to awareness. Persistent, I sniffed the air, seeking the source of the hubris. But the smell came from all directions. It came from the high altar table and its white altar skirt. It came from the ‘ritual specialists’ elevated above us. It came from the long rows of chairs, and the upturned faces (mine included), which disappeared into the far distance in this impromptu cathedral setting. It came from the special words that performed STS magic, to transubstantiate mundane phrases into the magical–matter matters, worlds world. We and the room, with the microphones and speakers and spotlights, were all complicit in the hubris. Sitting in that plenary, recalling over the ether the so-called Science Wars and the struggle by Science Studies to intervene in traditional scientific knowledge making, its struggle to persist in doing it otherwise, to be accepted as a technoscientific trouble-maker that is generous and generative, I wondered…
…Is this how you do it otherwise? Is this staying with the trouble? Is this what STS has come to?
I heard impassioned words and important worries during the plenary, too. I heard subtle and situated, not grandiose god-like, futures. I heard honesty and attempts to subvert the room. I heard how I had allies. Others smelled something amiss, too.
I am a monster who calls tech and the electric kin, and who has a nose antenna for the stench of hubris. I call it out. Often, that is enough to make god-tricks fall into the muck and metal of the troublesome earth.
So, Science and Technology Studies, so mortals down with me in the muck: is this what STS has come to? Because, as I have heard you say on many occasions, it can always be otherwise…
The Electric Nemesis
Letter from Wanna Wonder
Dear STS-ers, dear 4S/EASST organisors!
Thank you for allowing me to join the big 4S/EASST conference in Barcelona last week. Thank you for providing me a name tag. Thank you for giving the Electric Nemesis and me the space and time to be present.
At the beginning, I was very anxious. I had never been to an STS-event. How would it be? How would the reaction be to me? What kind of people are you, STS-scholars?
I was anxious and even a little bit scared as I entered the conference venue.
The first person whom I encountered, he was walking in the opposite direction than I was, he looked at me and my red nose. And he started smiling. This gave me confidence.
Once I was in the entrance hall, I discovered the Electric Nemesis. She was here, too! What a surprise! How cool! I was not alone.
The Electric Nemesis told me that there was Isabelle Stengers. She would talk. As she explained this to me, we were standing with two people — a woman with big brown eyes and a man who was a bit bold.
Who is Isabelle Stengers, I asked the Electric Nemesis. I don’t know. I wanna wonder.
Isabelle Stengers, the bold man said, is a big name. He seemed to be very wise. A Big Name? A Very Big Name! A Big Big Name? Woooooowwwww!!!!
Together with the Electric Nemesis, I went in search for The Big Big Name.
The Big Name, somebody laid out, was also a Wide Name. And a Deep Name. Sombeody else said that he had a little bit a Big Name and that the woman standing next to him had a Bigger Name. But not as Big as The Big Big Name. There seem to be many Big Names in STS!!!!
In the end, the Electric Nemesis and I found The Big Big Name. She was sitting on the podium. Under lots of spotlight. Wooooooaaaaawwwww!!!!
We walked towards her. And then we waved her. She did not look. She did not see us. This was a pity. I would have liked to meet her. I had heard that she had worked with witches. That she liked other kind of figures.
The Electric Nemesis and I turned around and went in search for a place in the big hall where the Big Big Name would be talking. There were lots of chairs empty. The Electric Nemesis sat down. I was tired. Very tired. Meeting all these people. Listening and talking, learning and doing, being and feeling. All the chairs next to me were empty. I lay down. And listened.
There were sentences coming and going. Some sentences were like “The epistemology of the onotology with its geneaology and conditions of possibility…” They were huge waves. They washed over me. There were other sentences, too. “What will we answer to our children when they ask us: What have you done? What do we do?” They touched me. They stayed with me.
Talking talking talking. Sometimes clapping. Talking talking talking. I drifted away. Into sleep. Came back again to good sentences. And drifted away again.
I am Wanna Wonder. And I would like to be an STS-scholar. Very very very much. But I don’t know how. I don’t know. I wanna wonder.
So, how can I become an STS-scholar? How do you to this — being an STS-scholar?
Joining your big conference provided me with the opporutiny to pose this question to people. To those who did notice me and who looked open.
You know, many of them said, that they were not real STS-scholars, actually. One of them said that she was not not an STS-scholar. This sounded complicated. I don’t know. I wanna wonder.
So, these are some of the answers that I got:
There was a funny guy whose eyes went in different directions. He said that, actually, I shouldn’t become an STS-scholar. Because STS-scholars don’t laugh. He recommended me to stay with my clown friends instead.
I explained to him, that I do not laugh all the time. About fun thing, I laugh. About sad things, I cry. About stupid things, I get confused. About mean things, I get angry. About unexpected things, I get surprised. What I do as a clown is that I FEEL. I feel not only the happy good things, I feel EVERYTHING. I let myself be AFFECTED by everythings. He answered that STS-scholars don’t feel a lot either. Is this true? You don’t laugh? And you don’t feel EITHER? This is sad. Very sad. Very very sad.
Another guy with brown stubby hair gave me a different answer. He explained that there are MULTIPEL ways of becoming an STS-scholar. Multiple? What does this mean? I don’t know. I wanna wonder. I asked him. He said that in order to become an STS-scholar one can go to the presidential plenary. Or one can talk to other STS-scholars. Or one can read a book. Or one can go to the beach. These are ALL ways of becoming an STS-scholar?, I asked him. Yes, these ALL work out, he reassured me. Woooaaawwww! This is cooool!!!!
Two women with an accent that sounded a bit like mine were standing around as well. They maybe have also trouble writing flawlessly in English.
One said that one becomes an STS-scholar by talking about networks. And actors. And humans. And non-humans.
I have never done this. Let me try. Network, actor. Actor, network. Actor, network, human. Human, non-human, actor. Like this? Yes? No?
She also said that it was very hot and that she was tired. Her brain, she said. I shared with her that I had a trick what to do when you are tired. I showed her. I lay down on the floor. Straight. With feet and hands streched out. This was very nice. The floor was carrying me. It was really good in doing this. I told the woman that she, too, could do this. But she seemed a little bit afraid. That someone might step on her. What others might think of her, maybe too. She didn’t do it. This was a pity. I would have liked to enjoy the floor together.
The other woman gave me also advise. She said that as an STS-scholar one stops having preformed opinions. One starts to listen what others say. When she has a good day, she told me, she manages to do this. She admitted that sometimes it is difficult.
I bumped into another funny guy in the end, who looked a little bit like a jester.
When I asked him how I could become an STS-scholar, he answered that it was all about performance nowadays in STS. And that I was doing a pretty good job already.
Really???? I am doing it already????? This is great!!!!!!
All in all, meeting you STS-er, seeing your smiles, and receiving answers about how I can become an STS-scholar was wonderful. It was a big big big present. Thank you very very very much.
I would like to see you again. Where, when and how could this happen?
Wave with lots of wonder,
With thanks to the 4S/EASST Barcelona conference organisers for their enthusiasm and support for this improvised performance. In particular, for integrating us into the conference program and website. Considerable thanks to Mattering Press for providing much needed logistical support for our performance. The first author’s research was paid by the grant “The Vitality of Disease – Quality of Life in the Making” (ERC-2014-STG-639275-VITAL).