I’ll be honest, the “Science in Society Laboratories“ course threw me into the deep end. In the course, we discussed three different controversies and worked on them in interdisciplinary research teams. I would not have thought that social scientists and natural scientists could harmonize so well. The topic of nuclear waste disposal wasn’t my first choice in the beginning, but over time I came to appreciate the contribution my team was making. I only found my way into this topic because I was confronted with it. Nuclear power has received a lot of media and societal attention in recent weeks, but the topic of nuclear waste is still hushed up. I want to change this with this humorous poster because humor can also be a serious language. At best, I’ll be confronting someone else with it.
Marie Rathmann is a master’s student at the University of Vienna’s Department of Communication. She also works as a student assistant on the research project “Journalism under Duress: Risk and Uncertainty in a Changing Mediascape” at the Hans-Bredow-Institut in Hamburg. Her research interests are situated at the intersection of gender and media research. In the 2021/22 winter term, she participated in the interdisciplinary “Science in Society Laboratories” course run by the STS Department.
In February 2021, marking the first anniversary of the COVID 19 pandemic, Fredy, Andrea, and I newly arrived at the STS department. Well, not quite newly. After completing the department’s masters program, I was curious to finally get to know it “from the inside”. The three of us were warmly welcomed to the new office by our colleagues Bao-Chau and Sarah. Our office was in a building that was so new, not even all the construction workers had left yet (there was still quite a bit of hammering and drilling going on). I felt instant relief; good bye home-office, no more working at the kitchen table. And hello face-to-face interactions and office banter… As the following year has taught me (I dare say most of us), my experience of academic work in pandemic times simply does not live up to my initial, naïve imaginations of a spatially (and temporally) confined workplace. – Esther
Apart from excitement and nervousness, the overwhelming memory of my first few weeks as a PhD student in September 2020 is that of feeling uprooted. Within the first week, I was met by welcoming new colleagues (many of whom I would end up exclusively seeing on Zoom for the rest of the year), moved into a new flat, hot-desked in other people’s offices since the one I was allocated was still a construction site and ended up back in a makeshift workspace on my kitchen table as we all had to self-isolate. While this constant moving didn’t help with settling into a routine, knowing what is expected of a new PhD student, or finding one’s place within a large and yet unfamiliar group of people, I began to realize that this rupture allowed me to suggest and somewhat freely practice my own understanding of academic practices. Ironically, while studying how infrastructures often become visible as they break down, I was experiencing it first hand. – Bao-Chau
Settling into our work environment at the STS department, we wondered how our evolving research designs and the way we connected with colleagues would be impacted by the uncertain circumstances of the pandemic. Even though academic work has arguably been digital by default for decades, it seemed to us that the current (ongoing) situation added an unprecedented dimension, where the spatial and temporal confines of the workplace were blurred and working from home had become the new normal. To us it felt like the rules and rhythms of academic work were at a critical juncture – no longer in total disruption as they were at the beginning of the pandemic in spring 2020, but not yet calcified – a sort of uncharted territory for us to settle into, explore, and shape for ourselves.
As a means of reflecting on these experiences, we – alongside our colleagues – initiated an autoethnography project where we would attend to how we, through the digital aspects of our labor, coexist, create workspaces (in our homes), and encounter our work environments and colleagues. The group involved in this autoethnographic project met several times over the next couple of months to document and jointly reflect on our digital work practices. Next to an interest in digital infrastructures and the production of scientific knowledge, the project is based on the conviction that attending to the mundane practices through which we navigate and balance our workplace and our homes (with partners, family members, and all), enables us to interrogate the nature of academic work, and perhaps find ways of doing it differently. Crucially, making our diverse living situations visible allows us to imagine and create a workspace that will accommodate our common grounds, needs, preferences, and our differences, since these are not always accounted for structurally and institutionally. Hence, in the project we draw on notions of care (Lindén & Lydahl 2021), attending not only to our practices of care but also critically examining them, taking into consideration how they have become necessary in the first place, and which (institutional) structures they support.
In this post however, we outline the autoethnography process from our perspectives as early career researchers and describe how the autoethnography has helped us find our place at the department and amongst our collaborators, as well as how it has shaped our sense of self as early career researchers. Rather than focusing on critical care (Martin et al. 2015) and institutional power relations that emerge from this vantagepoint, we use this blogpost (interspersed with ethnographic vignettes) to focus on how collaborative autoethnography as care practice has shaped our evolving researcher identities.
I think this autoethnography makes the work of arranging and curating what we write, collect, and think about in producing “data” really obvious. Our partial vision becomes particularly palpable when we compare the different aspects of (academic) labor we paid attention to and considered worth noting. Our living and working arrangements have such a huge impact on the things we attend to. – Esther
Being made to engage with one’s own, stay-at-home, sweatpants-wearing self and writing about the drudgery of home-officing, at first seemed to amplify Esther’s feelings of isolation. Luckily, meetings with fellow members of the autoethnography project gradually alleviated these anxieties; we realized that sharing and reflecting on the smaller and larger struggles of our everyday lives brought us closer together. Learning about colleagues’ care-work, relating to each other over back pain and infrastructural issues (like “how do I get MaxQDA to work on my home and my work computer?”), and becoming acquainted with the conceptual “glasses” through which each of us understood their work practices gave us a sense of belonging and shared identity, while the diversity of themes and practices complicated creating a linear, journal-friendly piece.
I’m still undecided as to how those observations, that were shared in this safe space we’ve created, will translate into an academic journal. In crafting our reflections into a coherent narrative targeted at specific journals I’m wondering what we’ll be front-staging, thereby reproducing what we think is suitable for academic publishing, and what we’ll backstage because it seems too personal to share beyond our group. – Bao-Chau
Given our diverse family, living and working situations and the realization that our collective reflections had gradually become impossible to detangle from our individual ethnographic observations, the thought of forcing our impressions into a linear narrative felt kind of insincere. Luckily, there is some sympathy for working with non-linear, experimental narration in STS. John Law for instance proposes to use a pinboard to collate empirical material around logics of ‘juxtaposition and difference’ (2007, 135).
The possibility to try alternative ways of writing excited us and reassured us that it is alright, sometimes even sensible, to not always force our thoughts into standardized genre structures, and that the occasional struggle with crafting a linear narrative didn’t disqualify the two of us as “proper” social scientists. Indeed, our fellow collaborators agreed that the pinboard analogy made emergent patterns and crucially discontinuities among our field notes visible. We became attuned to the way our different living situations imbued our idiosyncratic care practices that had become necessary to pursue academic work in pandemic times.
Getting to know each other
Getting to know someone quite intimately through digital words, images, practices, icons (like Fredy and I doing the ‘night shifts’ and seeing each other’s green Slack circles), before getting to know one’s mannerisms also made me think about digital identities and their embodiment – I now associate Sarah not only with her face and voice but also with her profile picture on Slack, for example. – Bao-Chau
As a side-effect of the autoethnographic observations’ care-sensitivity, we have understood that even mundane practices such as writing this blog-post or simply noticing common work-rhythms, made us feel like our academic (writing) practices were a way to get to know each other, our thoughts, habits, and values, and thereby helped us establish caring collegial relationships. As Bao-Chau once put it “doing autoethnography was performative as a method in shaping our group to be what it is today”; it also attuned us to the digital dimensions of knowing and encountering each other.
The exercise of deliberately writing down, sharing, and engaging with our diverse work habits and routines in group discussions and workshops gave us the opportunity to reflect on the kinds of caring relationships we want to foster as colleagues, and how we imagine liveable workspaces in academia. We also became acutely aware that this specific way of conducting research as a team, taking field notes, joint reflections, thinking theory together, and writing vignettes, was gradually blurring the boundaries between individual and collective sensemaking.
Practicing care in collegial relationships
The autoethnographic writing required a lot of vulnerability and honesty with ourselves and each other. Digitally sharing and communicating private situations, feelings, uneasiness, emotions and struggles added a whole new layer of emotional commitment to each other. – Bao-Chau
Reflecting on and appreciating care practices in academic work that tend to fall short of recognition, such as reviewing, organizing activities, sharing relevant information and calls, or cleaning up text and quotations, has made us attend to the often less visible labor (emotional, interpersonal, time commitment). As early career researchers these were pleasant revelations that reaffirmed our career choices. Both of us had been warned of exploitative and hierarchical structures, but now found ourselves pleasantly surprised to be in such a caring, liveable work environment.
While this collaborative autoethnography project is ongoing (with new members recently joining and a few publications in the works), we have found that it has simultaneously shaped our experiences and perspectives in the early phase of our PhDs. It has also encouraged us to further pursue our interest in reflexive methods by organizing a panel at EASST 2022 called “Making Liveable Worlds Through Reflexive Methods”, to which we have received a number of fascinating contributions dealing with issues ranging from reflexivity in the biosciences to caring through entertainment magic. Moreover, we have understood the value of continuously reflecting on the practices and skills we adopt in order to become what we perceive as caring, attentive, and collegial researchers. Apart from acquiring ‘lockdown literacies’ (Gourlay et al. 2020) to navigate the new challenges and constellations of pandemic living/working, we have also become versed in shaping caring work environments together with our fellow collaborators.
Gourlay, L., Littlejohn, A., Oliver, M., & Potter, J. (2021). Lockdown literacies and semiotic assemblages: Academic boundary work in the Covid-19 crisis. Learning, Media and Technology, 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439884.2021.1900242
Law, J. (2007). Pinboards and Books: Juxtaposing, Learning and Materiality. In D. W. Kritt and L. T. Winegar (Eds.). Education and Technology: Critical Perspectives, Possible Futures (pp. 125–150). Lanham: Lexington Books.
Esther Dessewffy is a doctoral candidate and university assistant at the STS Department. She researches the academic practices enacting simulation software for designing and understanding processes in the built environment.
Bao-Chau Pham is also a doctoral candidate and university assistant at the department. She studies the sociotechnical imaginaries that underpin the governance of Artificial Intelligence on the EU-level.
This is a story of how the latest technologies have changed our way of collaboration, and why this change is invisible. The center of this study is a mundane object. An object millions of students worldwide have encountered. They weren’t confronted with the very same object every single time but with different expressions of the same idea. We are talking, how could it be otherwise, of the seminar handout. More specifically we will turn our attention to multiple iterations of a specific handout issued by the Viennese STS department in the last eight years—the handout of the annual course “Risky Entanglements? Theorising Science, Technology and Society Relationships”.
Brief History of the Viennese STS department
It was the year 2010 when the Viennese STS department took another important step in its history. After the English-language MA program had been established a year earlier, the department moved from a classic Altbau in Sensengasse 6, where it had been located since 1988, to its modern location, the NIG (Neues Institutsgebäude) in Universitätsstraße 7.
Since its dawn in 2009, an integral part of the master’s program “Science-Technology-Society” has been the “case-based learning” approach. Newcomers are split into small groups and given an emerging topic in STS. Now it’s the group’s task to write a full-fledged research exposé that could (theoretically) be handed in in a real world situation. From zero to 100 in only one semester in a field not well known to all of the students. A challenging task but also quite rewarding when finished. Not surprising that this case-based-learning approach won the Teaching Award of the University of Vienna in 2014.
This cased-based learning phase consists of a bundle of seminars, lectures, tutorials and feedback sessions. One of the five core classes is the aforementioned “Risky Entanglements? Theorising Science, Technology and Society Relationships” first offered in WS 2009, this year taking place for the 14th time. The “Risky Entanglement” is one of the staples of the STS institutes. At the same time, the STS department had been in flux. After Helga Nowotny had founded the original STS department in 1988, Ulrike Felt became, after 10 years as an assistant, a professor in 1999. Maximilian Fochler became the second professor in 2012 and Sarah Davies has been holding a third professorship since 2020. Not to forget all the students, PhD candidates, postdocs, or secretaries who have worked at the institute over the last decades.
But not only has the staff changed but also technologies, societies, the zeitgeist. It would be of great interest to investigate the topics researched at this institute in the last decade. But it is also equally interesting to not just analyze the works of this institute but how those works worked; how work was done, and how the teaching was organized. All of this follows a key concept in STS called “symmetry”: the idea that reflexive modes cannot only be applied to a research matter but also onto your own research methods.
Here, we finally return to the handouts, more specifically the handouts of the core course “Risky Entanglements” from 2013 to 2020. Upon closer inspection, they provide insights into how digitalization has shaped the production of those documents. Even if not visible directly, those eight handouts represent a curve from a collective to a collaborative praxis of writing.
A handout—sometimes also called syllabus—is a staple of a student’s life. Its purpose is to comprehensively communicate what a given seminar is about, what is expected for the seminar sessions and how the seminar will be graded. From my personal experience in the field of humanities, I can tell you that there is a big variety of handouts. Some are very precise, others just create confusion.
You can say the handouts of the Viennese STS department were quite solid right from the start, like one syllabus from 2000 shows:
This proven design echoes in the first handout for “Risky Entanglements” 13 years later:
The design in general has become ever clearer, a department logo has been introduced and color is used to communicate even more effectively. The next iteration of the course one year later lands with a surprise. All the established information bits are still there but the text direction has changed:
“Corporate amnesia” and its solution
But why was the text direction and design changed? That is not that easy to answer, mainly because “corporate amnesia” (Arnold Kransdorff) is at play. This is a classic problem of “organizational memory” or of “tacit knowledge” (Michael Polanyi) to use an STS term. It assumes that for operating any institution—whether company or university—successfully, much more knowledge is needed than what’s in the manuals. Knowledge that might not even fit in a written manual and is thus at risk of getting lost easily. When people leave an institution, much of this tacit knowledge often leaves as well.
The idea of “corporate amnesia”, however, is much older than management literature. It has been discussed for a long time and has been problematized in many fields, for example, in the discipline of history. It was Jules Michelet, a patriotic French historian and popularizer of the word “renaissance”, who wrote in 1846: “My inquiry among living documents taught me likewise many things that are not in our statistics.” What he meant was that he was not only trusting the dead paper documents for his historiographies, but also seeking contact with “living documents”, that is humans. He made Oral History a staple of his analyses, also collecting French fairy tales.
Why the design was tilted is not exactly known, but it might have something to do with the media situation in 2013. Maybe the handout was not only provided digitally but was also printed and hung on the institute’s walls? What is more telling is that such a drastic design change was even possible. In 2013 there were 4 competing handout designs and even more variations at the institute, differing among staff members or guest professors (though the content structuring was pretty much the same throughout).
A disruptive change
This hotchpotch ended in 2015. Even though the lecturer for “Risky Entanglements” stayed the same, the design was adapted once again. From that point in time all STS handouts would follow a corporate layout that seems to have stayed unchallenged to this day. The only adjustment was that from WS 2015 to WS 2016 when the handout font was switched from Calibri Light to Arial:
This very last change seems to be the most neglectable detail of all but is in fact an indicator for the most disruptive change in handout preparation at the institute yet. It was in WS 2016 that the handout production was converted from offline to online. In previous years, word documents were sent between administration and lecturers for pinning down dates, contents and synopses. A tedious process that can be even more annoying if the two parties operate with different software versions.
In 2016 the institute’s administration started using a cloud-based service for the creation of the handouts. It seems like the seminar “Science, Technology and ‘the Law’” by Xaq Frohlich in WS 2015 was the test run for this practice and was subsequently adapted for all handouts to come. It makes sense: Frohlich was a guest professor, so communicating dates was more difficult than just walking to the office next door.
From collective to collaborative writing
But what is the disruption here? It was the switch from a collective act of writing—people work in the same handout but send clearly distinguishable versions around—to a collaborative act, where, at the end of the day, nobody can trace back what person contributed which part . Wikipedia, founded in 2001, is a prime example of collaborative writing (even if technically it is possible to trace every change made back to a specific user account).
That was the giant leap: from collective to collaborative. Simultaneous instead of linear. From server-bound to de-central. Internet instead of Intranet. This allowed organizational re-configuration. The cloud document can be shared with external lecturers, always allowing them to access the latest version without being constantly bombarded by the STS institute with edited work-in-progress pieces.
It’s a bit like Schrödinger’s cat on demand: If you want to know about current status you can access the online document. If not, you won’t know the latest version, or whether there is even a newer version available. And like Schrödinger’s cat, at one point in time the status’ uncertainty is resolved. The handout is finished. The cat is dead. Every new observation will deliver the same result.
 James P. Walsh & Gerardo Rivera Ungson: Organizational Memory, in: The Academy of Management Review 1(16), 1991 (pp. 57-91).
 Jules Michelet: The People, translated by C. Cocks, London: Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans, 1846, p. 2.
 cf. Kathrin Passig: Schreibende Staatsquallen, in: Dorothee Kimmich et al. (ed.): Verweilen unter schwebender Last. Tübinger Poetik-Dozentur 2015, Künzelsau: Swiridoff, 2016 (pp. 69-86).
Magnus Rust is a student at the Department of STS, University of Vienna, with a background in Cultural Studies and journalism. He is interested in historic developments of technologies big and small and their contemporary social ramifications.
Vienna is beautiful, not only because of the historic buildings or the many parks and green spots in the middle of the city (and many other things could be mentioned). One particular aspect that lends the city its special atmosphere for me is the abundance of theaters. On any given day you can go out to see tragedies or comedies, classical or modern plays, amateurs, or professionals on the “boards that mean the world” (to imperfectly translate Schiller’s phrase into English). So, what better thing to do after a long day of racking one’s brains about STS than to go out, attend a play and get the mind off heavy STS stuff.
Thus, one Saturday evening I find myself in line at the entrance of one of the many theaters. Now, in Austria, given the implementation of a vaccination mandate and the so-called “2G-Rules” (stating you either have to be vaccinated (“geimpft”) or recovered (“genesen”), one has to present a certificate to prove that one meets the access requirements. Much could be said about the logic of this way of controlling access (Deleuze, 1992) not only to theaters but also restaurants, bars and museums, but remember, at least initially, the goal of this visit to the theater was to get my mind off STS. Conveniently, the Austrian Ministry for Social Affairs, Health, Care and Consumer Protection has introduced the so-called “Green Pass App,” a digital app that stores all your Covid-19-related certificates on your smartphone so you don’t have to carry them around in the paper format that is issued at the vaccination centers (or at pharmacies, but more of that later) or find a pocket large enough to fit the rather unwieldy, yellow vaccination pass, mine issued by the World Health Organization (WHO). As the line moves ahead, I collect what I need to be able to enter: the personalized ticket, my ID card to prove that I am indeed the person the ticket has been issued to and that I am indeed the person whose name is stated on the vaccination certificate I am about to present, and my Green Pass App-equipped smartphone. Opening the Green Pass App, I am not greeted by the familiar green checkmarks underneath the QR-code which signal that, yes, I may access museums, theaters or bars and restaurants. Instead, I see two bright red boxes: My vaccination certificate has been invalidated. In disbelief I scroll down on the screen — after all, I was vaccinated for the third time only little more than a month ago and even with the rapidly changing regulation there surely shouldn’t be any problem, right? But there it is, in black on white: My Green Pass App claims I have only been vaccinated twice, the last time in the summer of 2021, thus the invalidation. All my pleas to the theater employees that my app is clearly lying and that there must have been some type of technical error because I have been vaccinated three times are, rightfully, to no avail — and thus I find myself, contrary to the intention of attending the play, thrown right back into the midst of current debates in STS.
Of seams and cyborgs
Given the contemporary proliferation of digital infrastructures, “seamlessness” has become a virtue. The multiple, (not only digital) infrastructures we are constantly attached to need to fit one another so that, for instance, we can easily and almost automatically link the results of our latest run in the park, self-tracked by one of the many apps that exist just for this purpose, to our social media feeds for our digital social networks to, literally, cheer us on or to link our sensing devices to our smartphones and the corresponding apps (Williams et al., 2020). Janet Vertesi (2014) has shown that this is a more or less tedious task of what she calls “aligining,” that is, finding more or less creative ways of making heterogeneous infrastructures compatible. Nevertheless, especially in digital infrastructures, seamlessness, thanks to technologies such as Application Interface Programming (API), may seem rather easy to accomplish and at times may even be invisible to the user of such infrastructures. In this sense, what is at stake in the denied theater visit portrayed above is twofold. On the one hand, in the rather classical STS move to look for controversies or situations of breakdowns, Vertesi (2014, p. 276) argues that “[m]oments when actors fail to interweave their many systems successfully can be analytically useful for revealing otherwise invisible infrastructural components essential to the task at hand and surfacing sociotechnical orders and tacit social relations to analytic view.” On the other hand, there seems to be more at stake than just the alignment of however heterogeneous technical infrastructures — in this case, among others, the infrastructures that make the vaccination campaign of the City of Vienna possible and the digital infrastructure involved in the certification of the vaccinations. Perhaps even more pervasively, alignment here concerns the relationship between the digital world and the real world, especially salient in the times of the pandemic (Coeckelberg, 2020). To successfully enter the theater, I should have been a “cyborg” (Haraway, 1985), which in this situation comes to mean the entanglement of a vaccinated bodymind and a digital app. Only this entanglement of the real and the digital world would have made me “vaccinated” in terms of the official 2G-Rules. Because the latter component — the functioning app — was missing, I might have been a vaccinated bodymind but this was insufficient to grant me the desired access (thus the hopelessness of my pleas to the employees). In turn, this makes visible an often taken-for-granted dimension of the cyborg as the interweaving of organism and technologies: the seams “between embodied consciousness and socio-material fields, flesh and machines and body and society” (Freund, 2004, p. 277).
The work to make digital health work
As Vertesi (2014) points out, breakdowns of interconnected infrastructures as a methodological point of departure unveil the social relations that are obscured as long as these infrastructures hold together seamlessly, including the work of (re-)aligning them. This is an especially salient insight for the contemporary efforts of digitalizing healthcare systems ongoing in many countries. These efforts often have the alignment of digital infrastructures as their core. They entail questions such as how the socio-technical alignment is possible, who makes alignments work and who is responsible for failures and the corresponding repair of seamlessness. Such sociocultural questions need to be considered carefully to get a fuller picture of digitalized healthcare. Existing research into telemedicine, as one particular form of digital health, shows that it indeed goes along with a redistribution of work. Work that may subsequently become invisible in formal accounts of medical practice but is crucial for the workings of telemedicine (Nicolini, 2006; Oudshoorn, 2008).
How did things work out or, rather, had to be made to work out in my case? The recovery of the seamlessness between the digital and the real world took a detour: I had to align the medical infrastructure of the City of Vienna, with the built infrastructure of the city, the small alleyways of Vienna’s Inner City, and the infrastructure provided by the Global Positioning System (GPS) to guide me the way to an emergency pharmacy that was still open on a Saturday evening. There, a pharmacist could luckily print out my vaccination certification. This was made possible by the alignments between the technical infrastructure of the pharmacy and the Austrian electronic health record that the pharmacist thankfully created by using my insurance card. This impromptu printout, at last, granted me access to the theater. The solution disclosed an alternative pathway and a corresponding different configuration of the digital and the real world: The moment of breakdown and the distributed efforts to find a resolution make visible a vast analog and digital infrastructure that exists in parallel with the Green Pass App. This infrastructure and the types of work it implies tend to remain hidden in the seemingly inconspicuous analog sheet of paper that I was then able to present to the employees at the theater (although the QR-code printed on top of the certificate provides a trace of the digital world as a constant companion). In turn, this also shows that for me, in this situation the interconnectedness of infrastructures has been boon and bane at the same time: disruptive when it failed at the theater entrance, enabling in the concerted effort to repair the situation and save the day after all. Dealing with these ambivalence(s) of seamlessness will likely be one of the major challenges in the digitalization of healthcare systems in the near future. The play, an adaption of a recent French movie, turned out great in the end, by the way; I only missed the first couple of minutes.
Coeckelbergh, M. (2020). The Postdigital in Pandemic Times: A Comment on the Covid-19 Crisis and its Political Epistemologies. Postdigital Science Education, 2,547–550.
Deleuze, G. (1992). Postscript on the Societies of Control. October, 59, 3–7.
Freund, P. (2004). Civilised Bodies Redux: Seams in the Cyborg. Social Theory & Health, 2(3),273–289.
Haraway, D. (1985). Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. Socialist Review, 15(2), 65–107.
Nicolini, D. (2006). The work to make telemedicine work: A social and articulative view. Social Science & Medicine, 62(11), 2754-2767.
Oudshoorn, N. (2007). Diagnosis at a distance: the invisible work of patients and healthcare professionals in cardiac telemonitoring technology. Sociology of Health & Illness, 30(2), 272-288
Vertesi, J. (2014). Seamful Spaces: Heterogeneous Infrastructures in Interaction. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 39(2), 264–284.
Williams, R., Will, C., Weiner, K., & Henwood, F. (2020). Navigating standards, encouraging interconnections: infrastructuring digital health platforms, Information. Communication & Society, 23(8,) 1170-1186.
Carsten Horn is a second-year master’s student at the Department for Science and Technology Studies. He also works as a researcher in the research project “ICU4Covid” at Department. His research interests are situated at the intersection of STS, sociology and philosophy. Currently, he is writing his master’s thesis on the regulation of digital health technologies.
To our great pleasure, and against the odds, the 20th annual PhD summer school took place (almost) as usual in June in the seminar center in Raach am Hochgebirge. Despite COVID-19, the department managed to create a safe space for its PhD candidates to come together, socialize, hike and engage in intense feedback rounds about ongoing projects. Thanks to rigorous abidance to the 3G rule (“tested, vaccinated or recovered”) and wearing FFP2 masks indoors, it was possible to maintain a secure atmosphere and mitigate the risk of contagion.
This year, the public health situation did not permit the of international commentators, who would have otherwise reviewed invitation papers submitted by junior researchers at different stages of their doctorate. Luckily, our very own Ulrike Felt, Sarah Davies and Max Fochler volunteered to fill in. In total, the participants and reviewers intensively engaged with fourteen papers, such as complete journal submissions that had already been handed in, dissertation chapters, and exposés of early-stage candidates.
As a newcomer to the PhD program and the summer school, I was impressed by the high standard of papers and feedback. I was particularly happy to get insight into the creative approaches the presenters had taken to resolve different questions and issues that had emerged during their ongoing research. I listened to feedback discussions between peers who brought an abundance of fresh and imaginative takes alongside a deep reservoir of research experiences. The diverse applications and combinations of theoretical concepts, different interpretations of analyses, and ideas about how to create a compelling narrative arc gave me a vivid impression of fellow students’ individual perspectives, sensitivities and approaches to research. Despite the passionate exchanges, the appreciative and respectful atmosphere nurtured the emergence of new, collectively assembled avenues of thought and a sense of familiarity.
Outside the seminar room things were equally exciting. Sharing the seminar center with a clown school (yes, I’m serious), left one or the other STSer questioning their career choices (apparently you can scream as loud as you want as a clown). After the feedback sessions, we would go on short hikes in the woods in search of Raach’s legendary donkey population (I’ve seen it with my own eyes). Despite STSers’ tendency to be critical of nature-culture dichotomies (Latour, 1993) and stable distinctions between rural and urban (Kaika, 2005), leaving the city for the countryside – complete with nature and “wild life” – turned out to be integral to our imaginary of a proper summer school. Long evenings together, dreaming about having cats or even mini-horses as emotional support animals at the department, and the occasional spritzer contributed to a fun experience that brought the department closer together – a much needed development after a year and a half of Corona induced isolation.
Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern (1. publ. ed.). Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Kaika, M. (2005). Preface: Visions of Moderniz ation & The Urbanization of Nature. In ?City of Flows: Modernity, Nature, and the City? (pp. 3-26). Routledge.
Esther Dessewffy is a PhD student at the department of STS at the University of Vienna, where she has recently completed her master’s degree. Her thesis on the political dimensions of different simulation methodologies for design in architecture is supervised by Sarah Davies. She enjoys ethnographic research and is looking forward to participating in teaching activities in 2022.
As Science and Technology Studies (STS) have become an established field of research and discipline they have also become a household name in large-scale technoscientific innovation projects. This has led to a multitude of calls for an “engaged STS,” which not only partakes in such innovation action but takes a normative stance in it. One area in which STS expertise has grown in influence is the intersection with the field of Urban Studies and processes of urban planning – for example in the manifold smart city projects currently carried out in many metropolises. Departing from the concept of “technical democracy” (Farías & Blok, 2016), the challenge STS is faced with here is the re-configuration of urban planning in ways that allow for “collaboration among laypeople and experts” (Farías & Blok, 2016, p. 539). In this brief essay, I want to argue that in order to re-think this challenge, STS may find a rather unlikely ally and learning partner in the design of urban games — games specially designed for and played in urban space (e.g. Big Urban Game played in Minnesota in 2003 or Cruel 2 B Kind). To make this point, I draw on an interview I conducted with a German urban games designer in the course of the seminar “Creating Urban Space – Invited and Uninvited Participation” headed by Andrea Schikowitz and Ignacio Farías at our Department.
Design and the Event
Drawing on Participatory Design (PD), a pragmatist notion of publics and STS engagement with participation, one of the major contributions of STS to Urban Studies has been a reconceptualization of what urban design and urban planning do: They no longer primarily aim at producing socio-technical artifacts but make a point of providing platforms for symmetrical encounters of experts and laypeople – the focus, in other words, shifts to infrastructuring participation, the design of platforms for participation (Corsín Jiménez, 2014). Situating themselves within this shift, Erling Bjögvinsson et al. (2012) understand their task as designers in the tradition of PD as the construction of a Thing (“Thinging”): the (re-)assembling of collectives of human and non-humans which serves as an infrastructure for novel encounters between these entities. The resulting associations and the human and non-human entities they consist of are not predetermined but emerge out of these encounters. Bjögvinsson et al. (2012, p. 108) describe this in terms of the “event”: Infrastructuring, they argue, “must deliberately design indeterminacy and incompleteness into the infrastructure, leaving unoccupied slots and space free for unanticipated events and performances yet to be”. The challenge for infrastructuring is, thus, to design for the event.
With the concept of the event and the subsequent challenge to design for events, we delve deeply into philosophical territory which warrants a brief discussion of one of the philosophical traditions the concept originates from. In the line of thought stretching from Whitehead to Deleuze to Stengers, “event” describes the “becoming together” of the entities that form an assemblage (Fraser, 2009): “the event is characterised by the fact that the interactions of its constitutive elements change those elements” (Horst & Michael, 2011, p. 286). Neither the identities of the elements nor the relationships between them are pre-determined. The event, moreover, is self-sufficient in that no external explanations can be invoked to explain the emergent assemblage. While it is out of the scope of a blog post to go into details of this conceptualization of the event or to discuss its relationship with other understandings of the event (e.g. on the line of Heidegger and Badiou), it becomes evident that “event” signifies the (temporary) suspension of one state of being, i.e. a specific arrangement of heterogeneous entities, for a new state to emerge. For Bjögvinsson et al. (2012), we can therefore define the event as the emergence of novel entities and the relations between them.
If “events are different from the states of affairs in which they are actualized” (Goodchild, 1996, p. 54, as cited in Fraser, 2009, p. 78) and, further, do not have an external reason, Bjögvinsson et al.’s (2012) notion of deliberately designing infrastructures for the event is at risk of a contradiction or, at least, a conceptual tension. As STS research has shown, infrastructuring is not a neutral act (Star & Ruhleder, 1996). Infrastructures afford some (participation) practices rather than others based on the choices made during the construction of the infrastructures by their creators – in this case, urban designers and planners – who are always situated in the current state of affairs (Bjögvinsson et al., 2012). This implies that what can emerge out of the infrastructures of urban planning, and thus the event-ness aimed at by Bjögvinsson and colleagues, is potentially limited by such choices. It is here that I want to propose that experiences and practices from urban gaming can contribute to our theoretical and practical engagements.
Urban Games as Improvisation Technologies
Urban games, to give a very brief definition, transcend the “magic circle” – the idea of a distinct time and space – that has traditionally been defined as characteristic of games and played in a threefold way: it goes beyond it spatially because the city as a whole is turned into a playground; it expands the temporal aspect because the boundary between play and non-play becomes fluid; it transcends the magic circle socially as the distinction between player and non-player is blurred as bypassers may (inadvertently) become part of the game (Montola, 2009). Moreover, urban game designers face many of the same challenges as STS-inspired urban planners and researchers, namely the need to accommodate (and intentionally trigger off) unforeseen events. As Mela Kocher (2018, p. 269) argues, urban game designers attempt to anticipate the actions of future players but there remain “blank spaces” that are only filled by the play during the game. Interested in this challenge, I asked my research participant what the role such events play in his design practice:
I often use the concept […] by Christopher Dell who is a music theoretician, improvisation of the second order which means planned improvisation. So I design into my games the need for improvising and intentionally leave free space for that.
Thus, the urban game is designed as an “improvisation technology” [Improvisationstechnologie] (Dell, 2014) and game participants are made to improvise and to bring into being what the designer has not foreseen. The event is not a byproduct of the design but an intentional component. Such events enact novel associations that would be otherwise unthinkable:
There’s a square over here where oftentimes alcoholics hang out and enjoy themselves. And there is a relatively large object that needs to be circled. I observed how a group that played there, a mix of students and punks, that was so much in the game that they just asked this group of old Polish and German alcoholics with whom they would never have interacted otherwise. And they were like, yeah, sure, and hey Herbert, come over, they need help. And then they were all holding hands and so the 21-year-old female students and the 50-year-old pissheads over there, stand together, hold their hands in order to circle that thing, and then, bye, we have to continue.
In the game described here, players have to “conquer” landmarks in urban space by forming a human circle around them. Due to the differing size of landmarks, groups of players may have to involve bypassers, making possible such unlikely alliances. In the event, the established identities of the constituents of such alliances are suspended; the boundaries that would have usually tended to foreclose interactions between students, punks, and alcoholics are dissolved for the moment to make way for collaborative engagements entailed by the need to improvise. However, this example also illustrates one of the challenges of event designing: How can the opening be sustained and the emerging association be stabilized? How can the temporary emergence of new associations be perpetuated? How can the return to the previous state of affairs be prevented?
This difficulty notwithstanding, it is the re-definition of the game as an improvisation technology that can help Urban STS to embrace and design (for) the event in participation processes. This way, or so I have argued, can the latent tension that is inherent to any attempt to deliberately design for the event be resolved: How can participants – laypeople and experts alike – be “encouraged” to improvise which, in turn, facilitates the formation of new relations and identities, the becoming of new urban assemblages (Farías & Bender, 2011)? Moreover, concealed beneath this argument, as a second audio track, as it were, runs the call for (Urban) STS to more thoroughly engage with urban gaming (a gaping lacuna as of now). In a symmetrical way, to conclude, both fields may learn a lot from each other.
Dell, C. (2014). Die improvisierende Organisation. In Die improvisierende Organisation. transcript. http://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.14361/transcript.9783839422595/html
Farías, I., & Bender, T. (Eds.). (2011). Urban Assemblages. How Actor-Network Theory Changes Urban Studies . Routledge.
Fraser, M. (2009). Facts, Ethics and Event. In C. B. Jensen & K. Rödje (Eds.), Deleuzian Intersections. Science, Technology, Anthropology (pp. 57–82). Berghahn Books.
Montola, M. (2009). Games and Pervasive Games. In M. Montola, J. Stenros, & A. Wærn (Eds.), Pervasive games: Theory and design (pp. 7–23). Morgan Kaufmann.
Carsten Horn is a second-year master’s student at the Department for Science and Technology Studies. He works as a researcher in the research project ICU4Covid. His research interests are situated at the intersection of STS, sociology, and philosophy.
One thing that students (and our non-academic friends and family members) are often curious about is the process of publication. How do researchers create texts, and what are the stages through which these texts pass before they become public? Having recently had chapters published as part of the anthology “Community and Identity in Contemporary Technosciences”, we thought our experiences might be illustrative – as well as relating to the themes of the book itself.
The book came out of a workshop that took place in February 2017 here in Vienna (which was in turn based on two conference panels in 2014 and 2016). Drawing scholars together from across the world, the discussions went so well that the organisers suggested that participants put together an edited volume based on the papers presented. They already had a connection to a book series – the Sociology of the Sciences Yearbook – so proposed working towards publishing as a part of this.
Many of the next stages were ‘behind the scenes’ to us as authors, as the editors – two of the scholars who had organised the workshop, including colleague and friend of the department Karen Kastenhofer – managed the reviewing process and negotiated with the editors of the book series. We submitted our chapter manuscripts in 2017 and received comments from an internal review by the editors. In 2018 we received comments from external reviewers and revised our manuscripts in response to these, until the reviewers were satisfied. Once all the chapters had been through this process and been accepted, the whole manuscript could be handed in to the series editors (in 2019). At this point we received a few more comments (including from a language editor), and made further small revisions. The book was formally accepted by the series editors in August 2019, and handed over to the publisher.
The publisher also sent the volume out for review, however, and requested some further changes. This process meant that we received proofs of our chapters – for double checking the final text – in November 2020. The editors received the final proofs of the whole manuscript in February 2021, and the book has now been published (and is available for free online!).
So: publishing can be drawn out across years, and involves many different actors. While this is not always the case (publishing a single paper in a journal can be a more streamlined process, for instance), we do think it’s interesting in the context of the themes of the book.
Both our contributions to the yearbook focus on the enactment of researchers’ identities as a malleable and precarious process rather than as a stable condition. We both argue that identity work is about bringing together individuality and collectivity in specific ways, which is ongoing and might differ across settings and situations. Being a ‘good researcher’ is performed through specific practices – and publishing is certainly a crucial practice through which contemporary researcher identities are performed.
We see many of the developments that the yearbook analyses – from acceleration of research to increased international mobility – reflected in the changing constellations and belongings of the authors during the publication process. The work on this publication took place in, was supported by, and contributed to different and changing institutional, disciplinary, and national communities over more than five years. The editors and authors who contributed to the Yearbook formed different communities and shared different belongings during the publication process.
For example, Andrea’s contribution “Being a ‘Good Researcher’ in Transdisciplinary Research: Choreographies of Identity Work Beyond Community” builds on research conducted for her doctoral project (in the frame of a larger research project) at the STS department of the University of Vienna, but when the workshop took place she was a guest researcher at the Institute for Organization Studies at the WU Vienna, financed by a scholarship. When doing the revisions of the chapter she was holding a postdoc position at the TU in Munich. She was still there when the final author description and corresponding address had to be provided. When the Yearbook was finally published, she had just started her current postdoc position, again at the STS department in Vienna, as part of Sarah’s group, who had become a full professor there in the meanwhile.
So, Andrea conducted different amounts and kinds of work for this chapter at different institutions, partly funded by third party funding, and colleagues from all these institutions provided feedback on different versions of the chapter (all of this finds expression in footnotes and acknowledgements). Further, this publication in its various stages (‘under review’, ‘accepted for publication’ or ‘forthcoming’) also to some degree contributed to Andrea’s becoming part of these different communities, as she put it on her publication list when applying for new jobs.
Yet, the final publication, dated 2021, is what will finally ‘count’, when academic productivity is more formally evaluated on the basis of publications (e.g. for cumulative dissertations, etc.).
The story behind this one publication interestingly mirrors Andrea’s analysis, in her chapter, of the spatiotemporal choreographies which enact academic identities, which go back and forth between different belongings and communities. We can also see that such unlikely things as a single publication (which appears as one discrete event on our publication lists and CVs) can contribute to continuity across these different belongings and to our identity work. For being a ‘good researcher’ we need to perform both at the same time: the (sometimes lengthy and cumbersome) process of publication which however allows us to form a researcher identity and togetherness with the other authors and editors, and with those who provide feedback, beyond institutional belongings; and publication as a discrete event and transferable commodity that gets affiliated with individual and institutional performance and on which we rely for mobilizing institutions to get jobs and grants.
But the story does not end here – this is where science communication sets in. After the official publication has been launched (which is of course also an instance of science communication), various authors announced the publication in Tweets (and re-tweeted them mutually), or over other individual or institutional social media platforms. We also wrote this blogpost about it, and some of us have and will use chapters for teaching. This relates to Sarah’s argument, in her chapter “Performing Science in Public: Science Communication and Scientific Identity”, that scientific identity work is also done through public communication. Such practices (in her study, participation in a science festival) are important not just for representing research and researchers in public, but for a sense of shared community within scientific collectives. Tweets about this book, for instance, may well be read by lay audiences, but also our fellow department members and other colleagues, helping to reinforce a particular imagination of who we – the authors – are and what we do.
So, a single publication experience can open up many dimensions of the practices involved in being a researcher in contemporary technoscience. While of course contributing to some of the more worrying developments in research, such as changing rapidly between short-term engagements or quantified evaluation, these experiences also provide mundane and often unacknowledged possibilities for togetherness and communication beyond a single community.
Davies S. R. (2021) Performing Science in Public: Science Communication and Scientific Identity. In: Kastenhofer K., & Molyneux-Hodgson S. (Eds.), Community and Identity in Contemporary Technosciences. Sociology of the Sciences Yearbook, vol 31. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-61728-8_10
Schikowitz A. (2021) Being a ‘Good Researcher’ in Transdisciplinary Research: Choreographies of Identity Work Beyond Community. In: Kastenhofer K., & Molyneux-Hodgson S. (Eds.), Community and Identity in Contemporary Technosciences. Sociology of the Sciences Yearbook, vol 31. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-61728-8_11
Andrea Schikowitzis a university assistant (post-doc) at the STS department, University of Vienna. Her research deals with the encounter of heterogeneous ways of knowing and possibilities for change. She has investigated this question by analysing various settings – such as transdisciplinary sustainability research, public governance, urban living labs and collaborative housing. Her current focus is on knowledge practices in urban planning and controversies, and on the intersection of digital and material practices therein.
The public discourse about climate change is often dominated with a line of argumentation that states that scientists ‘have done their job’ by providing the necessary scientific facts and that it is now the turn of politicians to act based on these facts. This division between the creation of facts and the actions following from them – or between science and politics – is a demarcation line that has been drawn deliberately, especially in ‘Western’ scientific and political cultures. And while this form of ‘boundary work’ (Gieryn, 1983) must be understood based on its historic legacy, it is by no means something that has to be this way.
The last years have spawned various examples where scientists have been speaking up in public, beyond their own scientific community, asking for a change in political policy and action or even taking actions themselves. To give just two examples: First, there is the initiative to ban ‘lethal autonomous weapon systems’ globally. This initiative by the Future of Life Institute specifically addresses the public and politicians to inform them about the potential dangers that such weapon systems could bring. The second example concerns the group Scientists for Future, that grew in solidarity with the Fridays for Future movement in various countries and has been vocal in calling politicians to action based on their scientific findings.
Both examples don’t sound out oft the ordinary from an STS perspective; past research has not only asserted that ‘science is politics by other means’ (Latour, 1993), but has also analyzed the history and becoming of the idea of an ‘objective’ science (Daston & Galison, 2021). Likewise, STS has observed how publics have redefined their own role in the process of generating scientific insights (e.g. Epstein, 1996). Despite these detailed descriptions of science-society relations the question how to take action on these issues was rarely posed by STS researchers.
From ‘matters of concern’ to ‘matters of action’: The Climate Walk
In the first quarter of 2020, a group of young scholars, including myself, came together facing the necessity to act on climate change. Most of us had been studying in different disciplines for several years, sometimes even more than one discipline – e.g. Development Studies, Ecological Engineering, Environmental Management, Environmental Sciences and Policy, Geography, Informatics, Political Science, Science and Technology Studies, Social and Cultural Anthropology, and Natural Resource Management. Despite the wide range of scientific practices and methods that we had been taught, we were missing a link to concrete action based on this knowledge and wanted to change this. For us, speaking in STS terms, it was about translating the obvious ‘matters of concern’ (Latour, 2004) to ‘matters of action’.
In this initial phase, we, at this time six people, were working hard to put together a first concept for a project that would bridge the supposed dichotomies of nature and culture; science and politics; discussion and action; creation and dissemination. Ultimately, the Climate Walk (www.climatewalk.eu) was born, a project that combines scientific research with educational elements through the use of various media and art formats. The main goal of the project is to engage with Climate Change – meaning its bio-physical dimension – and Changing Climate– meaning the diverse social and political dimensions it encompasses.
Image from Climate Walk
It is probably not a big surprise that a hike is at the heart of the Climate Walk: 12.000 kilometers through Europe, starting at the North Cape and leading to Cabo da Roca in Portugal over the course of 18 months. To be clear, this hike is not a publicity coup or a cosmetic hook to get people interested. It actually aims to counter the prevalent critique that the scientific community is acting out of a privileged position, that it is often urban and not close enough to the actual events and experiences of people. Hiking through Europe is thus an attempt to overcome, at least to reduce, this gap. Beyond this, walking is a way of getting to know people and landscapes – as a method for transdisciplinary research (Ingold & Vergunst, 2008) – but it also includes an activist message in itself: Other forms of movement and transportation are not only necessary but possible.
Scientific activism and activist science
Image by Eva-Maria Holzinger
Overall, we intend to shift attention to the ‘unseen places’ and the ‘unheard voices’ and give them a face and voice by means of the Climate Walk – also because we want to dismantle power structures in the existing discourse around climate change. STS discussions have not been quiet about the distribution of power in public discourse. In the context of methodological approaches, the idea that science needs to proactively include underrepresented actors in research and follow a ‘strong objectivity’ has been put forward, inter alia, by scholars like Sandra Harding (1992). This is exactly what we want to do and achieve with the Climate Walk. The project is thus also an attempt to rethink and to actually redo the role of scientists. We invite everyone – no matter if scientist, activist, educator, artist, or citizen – to get active and hike with us!
The Climate Walk will start on June 5, 2022, and everyone is welcome to join us on this journey for some time. You want to learn more about the Climate Walk?
Daston, L., & Galison, P. (2021). Objectivity. Princeton University Press.
Epstein, S. (1996). Impure science: AIDS, activism, and the politics of knowledge (Vol. 7). University of California Press.
Gieryn, T. F. (1983). Boundary-work and the demarcation of science from non-science: Strains and interests in professional ideologies of scientists. American Sociological Review, 781-795.
Harding, S. (1992). Rethinking standpoint epistemology: What is” strong objectivity?”. The Centennial Review, 36(3), 437-470.
Ingold, T., & Vergunst, J. L. (Eds.). (2008). Ways of walking: Ethnography and practice on foot. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.
Latour, B. (1993). The pasteurization of France. Harvard University Press.
Latour, B. (2004). Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern. Critical inquiry, 30(2), 225-248.
Timo Bühler is a Master student and researcher in the ICU4Covid project at our department engaging with the relation of digital technologies, social norms and values. He has been part of the Climate Walk team for the past year, working on the preparation of this pan-European science, education, and media-art project.
Investments into science have been politically coupled to so-called societal relevance. Even the Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), a producer of quite arcane knowledge about subatomic particles, likes to stress that spinoffs of its accelerator technologies have been of benefit to society. CERN insists that its laboratories were the birthplace of the Worldwide Web and that it aims to “build further links with industry in terms of the transfer of knowledge from CERN to industry” (CERN mission statement).
Commercial applications of CERN technologies have been a showcase for CERN’s value to society since the 70s, but more systematic efforts concerning technology transfer were set up around the 1990s: a Director for Technology Transfer was appointed, and CERN planned to strengthen its intellectual property rights. However – as I was told in an interview – it turned out that the resulting patents did not make enough money to cover the cost of the team managing those patents. The patented technologies were too specialized for widespread usage. Does that mean that the justification of research budgets in terms of technological spinoffs is a fallacy?
The answer might be found in a shift in discourse that followed soon after, renaming most technology transfer activities to knowledge transfer. After this shift, the commercial adoption of scientific technologies was emphasized less and patents were largely abandoned, even if only for financial reasons. What took the place of this linear conception of technologies being transferred to industry was an insistence on the value of training in science.
In public outreach, CERN still stresses how its technological achievements are relevant for society. But, in terms of economic self-justification, CERN now increasingly argues that its scientists have a range of qualities relevant for industry and society: they have experience with large collaborations, with working in an international environment, and they have the skill to adapt cutting-edge technology to problems at hand. Here, CERN seems to be following a line of argument similar to accounts of the value of tacit knowledge. To effectively argue that the (tacit) skills learned at CERN are being used in industry, it has set up an alumni organization. In this way, CERN can trace where its PhDs and Postdocs have ended up after their time at CERN.
Another initiative at CERN that illustrates this idea is IdeaSquare. Organizing projects and events that bring together business schools, industry, the European Union, universities and CERN scientists, IdeaSquare is geared towards sharing ways of thinking, designing, organizing and problem-solving. Here we see that societal relevance is not anymore conceptualized in terms of specific technologies flowing from science to industry, but in terms of a transfer of technological and organizational skills required to adapt technologies towards specific purposes.
This way of thinking might increasingly influence science policy in the future when it is brought to the attention of policymakers. An article in The Economist for instance, has argued that economic growth through innovation is a matter of fostering a group of “very highly trained locals” that can adapt available science and technology for commercial use, and that state spending on research and development should focus on the institutions and tools needed to foster such groups.
Following this line of argument, R&D spending might become a matter of managing flows of expertise and hosting sites where expertise can be practiced – a matter of human resources. However, this view on state spending on science might clash with dominant project-based models of scientific funding. If views on R&D keep developing in the direction outlined so far, their reconciliation with prevalent funding schemes will be an interesting battleground to observe.
Kamiel Mobach is a PhD student at our STS department researching the entanglements between different forms of ‘Europeanness’ and technoscience at CERN. He is interested in the historical evolution of notions such as ‘fundamental research’ and ‘objectivity’ as well as their sociopolitical functions.
Transnational infrastructures are today envisioned and promoted as solutions to various kinds of security risks and threats, in areas such as border management, surveillance, cyber-crime, or health diplomacy. At the same time, the unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic exposed once more the multiple controversies, problems and disfunctions around health, data and diplomatic infrastructures, through which European states seek to tackle insecurities brought by the virus. For example, when explaining its so-called “Security Union Strategy”, the European Commission argued that a “constantly changing security landscape” would require “tools, infrastructure and environment in which national authorities can and do work together effectively to tackle shared challenges”. (1)
During the online workshop Making Europe Through Infrastructures of In/Security (12-13 November 2020), an interdisciplinary group of scholars attended to infrastructures in the context of European policies and discourses of in/security. (2)The ubiquity and pervasiveness of security in our contemporary societies requires us to explore how infrastructures relate to the realities and imaginations of threat and risk as well as to the politics of fear and economies of insecurity. So, what exactly can or cannot be counted as an infrastructure of in/security? And, when is an infrastructure of in/security (cf. Star & Ruhleder, 1996)? When we organized this workshop, we wanted to probe into the multiple legacies and envisioned futures of infrastructures in and for Europe, as objects of political desire and promise (Larkin, 2013). At the same time, we found it important to revisit how infrastructures of in/security configure political practices and social values, include and exclude certain groups of users, as well as enact “Europe”, a concept that is essentially “contested and unclear” (Schipper & Schot, 2011, p. 205).
Materiality, Plasticity, Multiplicity
In five thematic sessions and a public panel discussion, the workshop thus set out to explore the relations and organized practices of infrastructures of in/security that are made through and for Europe. We discussed how their mutually constitutive relationship can be mobilized to unpack current technopolitical developments and the contemporary constitution and topographies of Europe. In inspiring conversations, infrastructures were analyzed as sites that both materially embed and reconfigure power relations, while signifying and encoding future(s) of in/security. The conversations during the workshop reflected the many ways in which infrastructures of in/security are designed, envisioned and assembled, and how infrastructures can (or must!) be thought of in their multiplicity to decode what is assumed to be “European”. Although we cannot do justice to all the different objects, agents and sites of security infrastructures that were presented and discussed, we like to briefly highlight two core themes that came up at the workshop.
First, how infrastructures draw together both material practices and social imaginations of (in)security, and allow to explore processes and practices of making Europe in their “conceptual plasticity and […] undeniable materiality” (Carse, 2016, p. 35). This became especially visible in contributions that dealt with the various transnational border and migration infrastructures, such as the ongoing buildup and technological expansion of biometric databases for the surveillance of migrants. Several presentations pointed to the massive material and social investments, at both local and transnational level, that aim to create and maintain “European” border infrastructures. Various “agents of infrastructuring”, from policy officials, agency representatives, maintenance and repair workers, to private industry actors, must here be continuously aligned, molding and altering infrastructure, to govern these machineries of inclusions and exclusion. In her talk at the Panel Discussion, Annalisa Pelizza enhanced this view by describing the data-based management of third-country populations on the move as contemporary forms of alterity processing. The identification and classification of “others” would hereby co-constitute emergent European orders, thus representing an arena in which the process of “infrastructural Europeanism” (Schipper & Schot, 2011) plays out in multiple and contested ways.
The workshop contributions also touched upon plenty of other large-scale infrastructures of in/security: the assembling of rockets, the making of cloud infrastructures, or the re-making of biosecurity facilities, which reflect broader visions and processes of European technopolitics and European (dis)integration. As Johan Schot argued in his keynote at the Panel Discussion, like the transnational construction of roads or railways, they contribute to the emergence of infrastructural Europeanism in the age of security. But they can also decenter powerful players such as the European Union by front-staging the multiple organizations, rules, procedures, standards across Europe (Kaiser & Schot, 2014, p. 4).
This brings us to a related, second observation: infrastructures might reveal what John Law might call “collateral Europes” (cf. Law, 2011)—its multiple reality as composed by distinct routines, discursive practices, material artifacts and institutions. Contributions at the workshop thus also drew our attention for example to the making of alternative infrastructures that contest or challenge both the social and material infrastructures of the state. Practices of infrastructuring, in this sense, do not have to simply power, but can also act as a way of placemaking that challenges, re-imagine and reconfigure hegemonic spaces. Almost inevitably, they pose the question on how infrastructures also enact alternative Europes. Inspiring discussion thus centered around the manifold attempts of “making Europe” in diverse infrastructural arrangements. In her keynote on infrastructures of non-knowledge, Claudia Aradau pushed this conversation further by proposing to add the vocabularies of disjunction, disconnection and decomposition in order to our established conceptual repertoire of assemblage, re-configuration, composition or association. To disjoin or to decompose infrastructure is not to exclude, destroy, eliminate or neutralize, as Aradau stated. The prefix ‘dis’ or ‘de’ can mean to render ‘apart’ or ‘asunder’. By rendering error and fake asunder, by taking truth and authenticity apart, these infrastructural disjunctions might then produce new hierarchies and social orders.
New old questions?
Throughout the workshop, some familiar questions recurred, proving once more relevant for future research on infrastructures of in/security. A much-debated issue concerned the visibility and invisibility of infrastructures. Much work in STS has not only illuminated the tendency of infrastructures to fade into the background and silently perform boundary and classification work, but also how infrastructures can become present and come to the fore, being exposed as grand public spectacles or technological failure. But what is our own role as scholars in rendering infrastructures of in/security visible, and when we define, trace, and criticize them in our work? An interdisciplinary gathering of scholars such as this one can pose these questions, but only provisionally reflect on them. What are the binding elements of this chain of association Europe—Infrastructure—In/Security, and how does our work contribute to these links and/or disconnections?
Infrastructures of in/security, explored as “dense social, material, aesthetic, and political formations” (Anand, Appel, & Gupta, 2018, p. 3), moreover allowed us to critically reflect on “Europe” and on the various moments, in which what is “European” either becomes visible or is silently inscribed into technologies and practices. As integral parts of today’s European technopolitics, infrastructures of in/security are as much sediments of the past as they are articulations of desired futures. We believe that a promising approach to unpack the different visions and realities of Europe that these infrastructures of in/security entail is to think of what Annemarie Mol (2002) described as “ontological politics”. (3) Infrastructures must thereafter permanently envisioned, performed or enacted, at heterogenous sites, places, and times, in need of constant negotiation and coordination. How and when does infrastructure stand for and materialize what visions and technopolitics of “Europe”? When do infrastructures of in/security contribute to linking and de-linking certain versions of Europe? Two days are never enough to arrive at answers to these questions but the workshop made it clear once more that there are promising avenues to be explored through interdisciplinary conversations on infrastructures of in/security.
Find here a video of the keynote presentations during the panel discussion.
(2) This workshop was jointly organized by the Department of Science & Technology Studies, the Department of Political Sciences and the Department of Sociology of the University of Vienna, in the interdisciplinary framework of the program “Knowledge, Materiality, and Public Spaces” of the faculty of social sciences. We would like to thank the participants for their thought-provoking papers and presentations during the workshop. We would also like to thank Annalisa Pelizza, Claudia Aradau and Johan Schot who gave the keynotes for a Panel Discussion, as well as Ulrike Felt for her moderation and role as discussant.
(3) In her book The Body Multiple, Mol attends to how different versions of atherosclerosis, different versions of this particular object, are handled in hospital practice. By showing how the different enactments of an object in different parts of the world need constant coordination to become a coherent object.
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Kaiser, W., & Schot, J. (2014). Writing the Rules for Europe. Experts, Cartels, and International Organizations. Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan.
Larkin, B. (2013). The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure. Annu.Rev. Anthropol., 42, 327–343. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-092412-155522
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Mol, A. (2002). The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. In Medical Anthropology Quarterly (Vol. 18). https://doi.org/10.1525/maq.2004.18.4.520
Schipper, F., & Schot, J. (2011). Infrastructural Europeanism, or the project of building Europe on infrastructures: An introduction. History and Technology, 27(3), 245–264. https://doi.org/10.1080/07341512.2011.604166
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Nina Klimburg-Witjes is a post-doc researcher at the Department of Science & Technology Studies, University of Vienna. In her work at the intersection of STS and Critical Security Studies, she explores the role of technological innovation and knowledge practices in securitization processes, with a particular focus on sensors, infrastructures and space technologies. Tracing the entanglements between industries, political institutions, and users, Nina is interested in how visions about sociotechnical vulnerabilities are co-produced with infrastructures of in/security. Among her recent publications is the edited volume “Sensing In/security – Sensors as Transnational Security Infrastrcutures” together with Geoffrey Bowker and Nikolaus Poechhacker (forthcoming 2021). The book investigates how sensors and sensing practices enact regimes of security and insecurity. It extends long standing concerns with infrastructuring and emergent modes of surveillance by investigating how digitally networked sensors shape practices of securitization.
Paul Trauttmansdorff is a PhD candidate at the Department of Science and Technology Studies at the University of Vienna. His current project explores the making of large-scale digital infrastructures in the EU border regime and is situated in the intersection of STS, critical migration studies and critical security studies. He is furthermore interested in studying the controversies and contestations around infrastructural developments and innovations, thereby bringing STS perspectives together with social and political theory.