In June, the United States Food and Drug Administration has approved a new weight-loss device: AspireAssist. The device is surgically inserted into the abdomen and allows patients who have failed at losing weight by other means to drain ingested food from the stomach. After eating, users go to the toilet, plug in a tubing set into a tube that leads to the stomach, and “aspirate” (or, less prosaically, pump) up to 30% of their meal into the toilet.
“And what can I do here?” people ask me curiously one after another, eyeballing a mountain bike standing upright in front of a computer screen. I am in the lecture room of the Department for Science and Technology Studies (STS), University of Vienna, which is filled with people, technological objects, and further installations about RFID chips, artificial intelligence, and visions of reproductive medicine and self-driving cars. It is a Friday night in April 2016, the so-called “Lange Nacht der Forschung” (i.e. Long Night of Research). This nation-wide biannual science communication event invites diverse publics to interactively explore current research at more than 250 institutions. With its interactive installations, the STS department aimed to spark discussions about how technologies affect and shape society, bodies, everyday lives, and futures. While that only partially explains the bike standing in the room, read on to learn how challenges in planning my installation contributed to its realization.
by Pouya Sepehr, Maresa Barbara Wolkenstein, Helene Sorgner and Marilen Hennebach
New technologies have given governments an unprecedented means to access personal information. In order to ensure that all people can seek information and express themselves freely, there must be reasonable checks and balances on governments’ ability to access, collect, and store individuals’ data. Both security and freedom can be protected, but only through balanced laws and policies that uphold human rights. Surveillance happens at many levels: It can be eavesdropping programmes of foreign and local governments, it can be commercial corporations on a global scope, it can be more or less institutionalised and it has many different aspects, reaching from self-censorship to pleasure, from activism to fatalism. The question, though, is not so much if we mind but rather how and when we mind.
The revelation of NSA documents through Edward Snowden in 2013 had brought otherwise secret intelligence activities into the light of global attention. It has been shocking for many to realise that mass surveillance technologies are targeting civilian communication, including social media platforms. In fact, the era of mass communication has become the era of mass surveillance and hence, the question of personal freedom of expression has gained a technological dimension. The revelations have also shown that national security agencies have strong ties with giant tech companies which are willingly cooperating in giving access to information, proving that even civilians have “nowhere to hide” anymore.
“The top 10% of Austrian households own 61% of all real estate assets.” For a certain time, this statistical argument could be read in several newspapers, was taken for granted by some journalists and commentators, and was used as a strong argument for inheritance and wealth taxes. But how did this statistical argument get accepted, persistent and influential? Who or what was able and enabled to produce it? And who or what is accountable for this statistical argument?
For the last question, the answers provided by the textbooks of empirical research I read as student of Sociology at the University of Vienna are quite clear-cut. If produced methodologically correct, numbers and statistics represent reality objectively (e.g. Diekmann, 2007: 23f) and due to this have authority, superiority and are politically neutral (Kreutz, 2009: 3). This notion stands in stark contrast to approaches in STS which point out the social, political and institutional quality of scientific methods (e.g. Desrosières, 2002; Kenney, 2015; Law, 2010).
Concepts and notions of innovation are societal and political battlegrounds. How strongly they imply imaginations about responsibilities between science and society becomes apparent when comparing notions of innovation in different socio-political contexts. In European policy contexts, innovation is mostly defined as technological innovation for the market, insinuating that its primary responsibility is to secure competitiveness, economic growth and jobs. With this market-orientation in mind, the vehemence with which the Indian government promotes “frugal innovation” as “sharply” contrasting with this “conventional approach” in its current Five Year Plan is striking. The absence of critical reflection in STS on this remarkable innovation concept is so striking that I want to open a discussion here.
While cross-border fertility travel has become an expanding industry, knowledge about its actual scope, structure, regulation and practices is still sparse. A workshop in April organized by members of the University of Vienna and the Hochschule Luzern met this situation head on by bringing together a diverse program. Scholars from all across Europe and with diverse scientific and institutional backgrounds came together to collectively explore vital questions about the cross-border fertility industry:
How is this industry stratified in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, class, able-bodiedness, and further axes of inequality? How does the rise of cross-border fertility industry and/or corresponding state policies affect gender relations? How can we assess these policies and developments from a gender and social justice perspective? And how should we understand and engage with this industry in the first place?
In the semester just passed, our department had the pleasure of hosting Alan Irwin. While he needs little introduction to those in the field, for those less versed in STS, Alan’s illustrious career spans over thirty years in which he has written extensively about scientific governance, risk & decision-making, policy and public engagement of science. Currently a Professor at the Department of Organization at the Copenhagen Business School, he has received multiple awards for his work and is even a Knight of the Order of Dannebrog.
During his visit to our department, I took part in his seminar entitled “Governing Socio-Technical Futures. Science, democracy and innovation in the 21st century”. Touching on many of his pet topics such as public engagement with science and technology and the enactment of democracy with regards to present-future relations, I felt Alan had a remarkable ability to really open up these issues to the class by highlighting contentions, questioning the roles of key actors in shaping these issues whilst also sharing with us his past experiences and case studies – it made for a very enjoyable and thought-provoking few weeks. At the core of his course was the basic argument that, whilst current actions shape the possible futures that await us, our sense of the future(s) profoundly shapes the actions we take today. In line with some of his previous work, Alan was especially concerned with the implications of future-present relations for scientific governance – with examples such as climate change but also innovation policy very prominent here.
Many of us privately or professionally interested in science think that healthy competition is what drives science forward. In current research policy and funding, this belief is so strong that competitiveness has become the central doctrine guiding the governance of research and of individual researchers.
But can too much competition also endanger the very aims we would like research to achieve, such as asking fundamental questions at the frontier of knowledge? This is what a group of high-profile life scientists, including a former editor of Science magazine, suggested in 2014 by warning that the current hyper-competition in the US life sciences may suppress “the creativity, cooperation, risk-taking, and original thinking required to make fundamental discoveries“ (Alberts, Kirschner, Tilghman, & Varmus, 2014, p. 5774).
But is science more competitive today than in the past, and if so, why and how? At least two main things have changed. First, in the late twentieth century, driven by rising societal expectations in the innovative capacities of research, many scientific fields have thrived and grown. The life sciences are a strong case here, but not the only example. However, this growth has happened much less in long-term institutional positions, but in a new form of the organisation of research work: project-based temporal employment. This has created a large generation of highly qualified young researchers competing for a basically stagnating or receding number of faculty positions. Second, the rise of new metric forms of keeping track and assessing scientific productivity has made competition seemingly more transparent, but also fuelled it. Impact factors, rankings and other indicator-based measurements do not only represent scientific work, they also shape it, as also Alex Rushforth and Sarah de Rijcke argue in a recent blogpost. Because they matter in competition they may also change the very nature of this work.
How do we make sense of the technoscientific worlds we live in? This question was central to a conference in Vienna in December 2015, which celebrated the launch of a new national association in science and technology studies, STS Austria. The conference brought together a diverse program exploring the many themes of interest to STS (and in the interest of full disclosure, I was one of the people responsible for that program). The founding of such a society is a good occasion for celebration, as was the diversity of cases and perspectives brought forward at the conference. Yet in the increasingly transnational context of both STS as a field and the technosciences it studies, what exactly were we celebrating? How to position an “STS Austria” in relation to technoscientific worlds that increasingly cross boundaries? As I hope to illustrate with some impressions from the conference, the thing to celebrate is both the vibrancy of the field in places where it finds firm footing and the openness to the great beyond such a solid base allows.
Every day I go to my office or the university I take the metro. I go to the station, get on the train and a few stations later get off to start my working day. It is an integral part of my daily rhythms and it shapes the way I move through the city. When I moved to Vienna, for a while the first question when arranging a meeting with someone was: What is the nearest metro station? To me the city existed not as streets or houses but as the network plan of Vienna’s Public transport system. Infrastructure is important for our daily lives. Yet, it is not always this visible for us. So what exactly is the role of infrastructures in our society and how do they shape the city and the social lives of users and operators of these infrastructures? Also, how is social structure affected if these important elements of urban life are changing or declining?
Since October 2010 Vienna’s Metro is operating at night on Fridays, Saturdays and before official holidays. While this is a major improvement over the transport possibilities via night busses, it also is a change in the rhythms of the invisible maintenance practices. For example, the trains that go at night need coordination and central oversight – changing the shifts of the personnel in the central station.