Thoughts on Legibility, the Coronavirus and Responsibility

By Kamiel Mobach

How many people are currently affected by the coronavirus, nobody really knows. Governments and their organizations are publishing figures every day, but this does not say anything about how many people actually carry the virus with them. Knowing this number accurately would be impossible, because the way in which such knowledge is produced is quite complex. In this post I will shortly illustrate that there is no objectivity in numbers. As an alternative, I will suggest the notion of ‘legibility’ as a view on what numbers can do for societies and governments. I will connect this concept to issues of responsibility and politics.

Figure 1: Cumulative increase of COVID-19 cases. Source: WHO (Accessed 22 March 2020).

The sudden, discontinuous increase in this graph on the 13th of February was the result of the Chinese government changing its definition of coronavirus cases to include people with symptoms who hadn’t been tested yet. The number of people who were being treated in Chinese hospitals did not change, but from this day onwards more of them were counted as ‘patients with coronavirus.’ More recently, many governments have stopped testing every person that has got symptoms. At the same time, most of them still publish numbers solely based on positive test results. Not testing everyone is justified by the fact of limited testing capacity. However, the continued publication of figures based on test results brings about unclarity about how many coronavirus patients there currently are. In the Netherlands, for example, the Dutch governmental public health institute reported 1135 cases on 15 March, while the country’s municipal health services said they estimated the number of infections in the country to be around 6000.

Statistical knowledge, like the figures just discussed, is an arena where practices of government and science are intimately intertwined. In his book Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott develops the concept of legibility to theorize this intertwinement (1998). The book gives a host of examples of how states developed formal knowledge categories in order to know more about their population. Examples include standardized measurements and weights, land surveys, mapping and building of cities, and census. Scott argues that the categories that the state uses to make things legible do not just describe how things are, but come to prescribe how people live, how land is organized and how people distribute and trade resources. However natural they seem to us now, surnames, as well as birthdays are artifacts of census practices imposed on our ancestors centuries ago.

In the current case of the coronavirus, the state has to impose means of categorization to define certain people as infectious, and to classify people into different categories of risk. The sudden increase in the number of coronavirus cases on the 13th of February is an example of how the state knows differently through different categorizations. There is a whole apparatus behind the numbers that get shown in the media. There are people who administer tests, labs that process them, administration that keeps track of the numbers, and in all these stages and links of the process, choices need to be made about how to proceed. This can result in certain people not being tested, for example because they have not been in a risk area in the past weeks. Moreover, what counts as a ‘risk area’ is changing almost daily. The limited capacity of testing means that there are assumptions at play in who can be defined as a coronavirus patient. On top of that, there are multiple ways to test someone: for example, there are tests that find molecular signs of infections, tests that look for antibodies against the virus, as well as CT scans of a patient’s lungs. There are certain standards agreed upon that are not the only possible standards that could have been chosen.

None of this means that coronavirus patients are a made-up category. Instead, the discussion of ways of knowing about the coronavirus shows that making knowledge is a complex practice. What I want to focus on here, however, is not the way in which single patients are categorized, but how knowledge is created about a population. In the case of the before-mentioned increase, the Chinese government had to justify measures it was taking to stop the spread of the virus. It could do this only by convincing the public, organizations, other lawmakers and foreign actors that the measures it was imposing were justified. The population became a patient that needed to be categorized in order to decide and justify what the right ‘medicine’ would be.

The justification of certain measures over others depends on how they are made legible. Using a method that results in lower numbers might inspire inaction, whereas using a method that results in higher numbers might inspire rash measures to contain the spread. Therefore, legibility provides two intertwined functions: it makes governments able to know about the people and things it has power over, and it provides justificatory measures for policies it decides upon. People and groups think differently about which measures are justified. As there are many stories going around about what is happening, how many cases there could be and what the governments’ next measures are going to be, it is hard to find a conclusive story to believe.

The statistics that governments and other institutions provide can help explain their choices. Inversely, which strategies of counting and categorizing are used also depends on the measures that need justification. And this depends on what we see as the thing that needs to be cured. Is it the disease in specific people? Is it the epidemic in a population? And if so, in which population does it need to be cured more urgently and about which places do we care less? Maybe it is a specific country’s healthcare system that needs to be held upright. To do this we could try to ‘flatten the curve’, i.e. spreading the cases of the disease over a longer time in order not to go over hospital capacity. Doing this, however, stands in contrast with keeping the economy running in the most profitable way. To let businesses survive the crisis, it would be better to lower the lockdown time. Instead, looser measures could be chosen for by propagating the notion of ‘herd immunity’. Governments could also support the economy, but to whom should they give their newly created money? Big businesses? Self-employed people? Small businesses?

Having these matters of concern in mind, we see that the statistics published about the coronavirus can respond to different worries and fears. This begs the question whether we should publish numbers about cases around the world, in specific continents, in specific regions, or countries. Which ‘unit of people’ we publish about and where we draw boundaries between these units stands in relation to the possible responses. Making the coronavirus epidemic legible, then, is not just something that has to do with abstract knowledge-making but is an act of responsibility towards certain concerns.

Choices have to be made here, though. We cannot be responsible to all possible concerns around the epidemic, because some of them clash. We cannot keep the economy functioning like it is and at the same time stop the spread of the disease. Moreover, attention to some concerns, like keeping the Austrian healthcare system functioning, draw away attention from others, like the spread of the virus in refugee camps. On the other hand, a concern for situations farther away from home might be linked to concerns about one’s own region if thought through properly. European governments were quite inattentive to the situation in China when the virus did not spread to Europe yet. The way in which the situation evolved shows that such inattention is no option in our globalized societies.

Taking these thoughts into account, it is important to demand public access to the way in which figures about the pandemic are being created. On the website of the Austrian ministry for social affairs, for example, the government publishes how many people have been tested and how many of those tests were positive. The website explains that a test is conducted when a ‘health officer’ reports a potential case of the disease. This does not explain which decisions this officer should take to decide whether a potential patient is going to be tested. It is important that such information is made available to evaluate the justifications that governments use to implement certain measures. When governmental authorities show certain graphs to justify their measures, we should know what these graphs show, whether the shown in- or decrease in cases represent patients in hospitals, tested patients, or an estimate of the number of patients.

It will be very interesting to witness the discussions on what is worth a proper response and what is not during the rest of the pandemic and during its aftermath. The outbreak has opened up cracks of social inequalities that have been unethical, if not outright dangerous to societies all over the world. When people do not have access to healthcare, for instance, the disease spreads faster. If people are forced to keep working while they are ill or at risk of getting ill, they will take more risk and possibly spread the virus. If hospitals are incentivized to compete on a ‘health care market’, they will increasingly push away extra capacity to deal with emergency situations. Moreover, we will see for which populations governments are willing to take measures and spend money and for which they won’t. Which economical actors will get compensation for the production capacity lost in the past weeks and which won’t?

Another big question confronting us is how the current crisis will affect the attentiveness to future threats that are further from home. This is connected to the insight that in a globalized world, it is impossible to hide and protect your own while leaving others to their bad fortunes. How do the processes of making the coronavirus crisis visible and the swift responses to it compare to how the climate crisis has been made visible over the past decades? What about research on social inequality? It seems that making something legible does not directly translate into action from governments and society. Nonetheless, the way in which we make these threats visible, where we draw the boundaries between units of analysis such as populations, will have big effects on the measures taken in these future crises.

I want to thank Ruth Falkenberg and Isabel Frey for their very helpful critique and suggestions.

Kamiel Mobach is a PhD student at our STS department researching the co-production of the scientific and sociopolitical identities of the ‘European Organization for Nuclear Research’ (CERN). He is interested in the historical evolution of notions such as ‘fundamental research’ and ‘objectivity’ as well as their sociopolitical functions.

STS Cities – Planning – Infrastructure: Sensorial Infrastructures (Part Two)

By Marvin Alexander Heine

…I open up my eyes and see dozens of humans, young and old, in pleasurable selfindulgence deeply immersed in their phone. With a certain skepticism I watch a tastefully attained man, a father, holding his infant child. The child watches a shrill cartoon on one phone, while the man scrolls with his thumb over the display of a separate phone. This little instrument compartmentalizes, isolates and trains the perception of this defenseless creature. Smartphones bring everyone back to the safety of their home, the comfortzones, the satisfaction of online-shopping, fast-food-information, and simulated human connection(1). They are distant, objective facts, signifiers of a self-referential necessity, constantly transforming and conjuring by proudly proofing their own point. But most of all, these little, black objects that gently touch and smoothly caress the skin, – are hygienic, clean and sterile. Smell-less as they are, havens from the chaos of sensory information, they offer refuge and oblivion. Forget realism, – this is capitalist sensualism, – hyperaestheticized. I smell the disturbing taste of red-bull, deodorants, perfumes, textiles, a burger. I think someone just farted. This is life, teeming bare life. It is the same everydayness which is positioned as pathological above and below. So we let it fade away and replace it with an anosmic cube (2), white hygiene, offering a mesmerizing flow of information and disinformation to the sensorially deprived, culturally homogenized human of the 21. century, who’s subjective sensibility was cultivated and brought into being by the absent, the image, – by the disciplinary repetition of the mantra of commodity. We partake in the creation and approval of tautological, cannibalizing socio-economic virtualities, realms of products, self representation and immediately satisfiable desires. The train carriage empties, station by station. The rumbling and clattering of steel in motion gains fidelity, the noises reconfigure, I sense difference, grain, particularities. The rhythm smooths the thorns of noise.

Across from where I sit, a few seats further, facing me, garmented in a strikingly vivid Indian sari, I see a cheerful, beautiful woman, performing little dances, making funny faces and blowing kisses, dedicated to the little child in the baby stroller in front of her. The warmth and love she emanates is intense and radiates in pulses trough our train compartment. I have to smile and at one point I cannot hold it anymore and I laugh out loud. So here I sit, alone, dressed in a black hoodie. Next to me, not able to see the mother with her child, sits a young woman in my age, who’s attention I attracted. I feel her curious gaze on me, while I have to smile more and more broadly. When I look at her, from the corner of my eyes, I see an even, interesting face, revealing myriads of micro-expressions simultaneously. She reminds me of someone, – someone who makes me happy. Her eyes are filled with fire, almost blazing, – blue fire and pitch black lashes. There are only us four left in the carriage. The mother, her child, the woman next to me and me. The rhythms fade into each other. Like a Spanish guitar’s husky music. My whole body is filled with happiness, thanks to a mother’s play with her child. My feelings in turn contaminated the woman next to me, who is laughing too – and so here we are, transforming this space with solidarity and warmth. The air is sweeter, the colors brighter. This unexpected subversion of stereotypes, this theater of promise and desire for face-to-face contact, renders this space incomplete, in the making, let’s us script this place as it did script us before (3). New constellations of meaningful relations, new bodies of resonances, – a new rhythm, only for a short duration, and yet undeniably present, has been imprinted, echoing and reverberating into every corner of this space, this chaotic, smelly, noisy realm of the inbetween.

Bridges in Spittelau, Vienna. 2019. Taken by the author

Everydayness, celebrated, in the constant process of becoming and transforming, creates moments of eurhythmia, alignment, potential and change. Of course, small encounters like these are necessary elements of the bigger rhythm, the rhythms of the state and of commodity and suffering. And yet, being surprised, being part of a hopeful improvisation among people, – sensing the poetics and potentialities of exchange, of micro-gestures, is a small revolution (4). All we need is, – more of it. Much more, – until this machine we’re sitting in, those networks, the whole city and every drunk, monk, dog and smartphone is infected by it, by an idea, the idea of creation and multiplicity, of decentering and diversity. I exit the Bridges in Spittelau, Vienna. 2019. Taken by the author train. I feel a little bit dizzy. I walk and walk, not knowing where to or why. But the sky seems brighter and the passerby’s faces seem more lively. Suddenly I realize that my path led me straight to a graveyard.

The air tastes like metal and mountain water. Where I am standing, with my eyes closed again, I am sensing and sniffing in the scents of fresh ploughed soil. It is quiet. I hear the wind playing in the trees, and every now and then there is a numb „donk“ when a chestnut hits the ground. I take a deep breath and open my eyes. I am standing in the center of an empty, wide square with seven narrow paths branching away from it. This area has the size of 2,5 km2, it is larger than two of Vienna’s districts combined and if one takes a closer look at the maps, it becomes obvious that this place is a labyrinth. This is the second largest Graveyard in Europe, designed by famous architects to give the dead a comfortable place to rot. They did a great job. I feel oddly alive and save, walking over the bones of three million viennese. „A schene Leich“. That’s what people use to say here. A good looking corpse. The people living in this city have the same morbid humor today as they had in 1874, when they dug up the earth to bury Jakob Zelzer, the first one among millions to be buried here. I take a look at the lighter in my hand: a giveaway-present, and in white letters it says „Bestattungen Wien“. I have to smile. I light up a cigarette and walk towards to setting sun in the west, which will probably lead me towards the buddhist cemetery, – and then the jewish cemetery. I really like it, that in this place the remains of human beings from every confession, culture, origin lie next to each other, laughing about the past and the present, and the ridiculous reasons the living bash their heads in over supposed ethnic and religious differences (5).

I enter a narrow pathway which is beautifully framed by an alley of glooming yellow and lilac autumn trees. The golden leaves that cover the ground crumble gently under the sole of my boots. There are 330.000 tombstones and at this moment every single one throws a growing shadow. The sun-cycle, and a thousand graves, – an enormous choreography, perfectly synchronized. In this charming city, – where the main problem in the summer time seems to be the question, if the subway-trains should be automatically aromatized with zitron-perfume (6), around 44 people are dying per day, – and 40 of them end up here, at the Wiener Zentralfriedhof, right beneath my feet. And that, my friend, is the bill. You have to pay 2,500 to 4,000 € to get disposed. But you had a whole life to work hard, spend your nights drinking and moaning, you deserve something better. Here, we have this beautiful shiny coffin for you for only a little extra-charge. No? You want to get cremated? We can do that! But if you want to take the urn home, we have to check in, and see if you placed the little casket in a delicate and solemn manner. What? No! That’s not a joke. That’s actually the law. A few days earlier, when I was having a tour through the central funeral building, I had the morbid pleasure to have a look into their „showroom“. You can get your remains bedded on the finest silk, or your ashes pressed into a diamond. When you are old you cannot work. You don’t earn money. You cannot spend it. You’re outside. They are making you invisible and hide you. And you are helping, because you are so damned ashamed to be useless. You are like one of those DELL laptops from 2007. A waste of resources. Redundant. Right until you made your last breath. Now, my friend, you are finally of value again (7). We throw a funeral-party for you, with the best wine from Niederösterreich. We buy a little sculpture of some divine person and take the second most expansive tombstone. My dear dead friend from Vienna, do you even realize how many jobs depend on you?

Deers on graveyard-grounds, Vienna. 2016. Taken by the author

A strange sound awakens me from this imaginary dialogue. I am standing between two rows of graves, all of them overgrown with dark-red ivory. Behind one of them I see a pair of hooves disappearing. At first I don’t really believe it. I heard about the twenty deers living on this graveyard, but…Very slowly I place my feet on the gras, walking carefully closer, – and there is, in fact, a deer. The deer is eating the flowers from a grave. I like the attitude. Suddenly the deer is shaking it’s head very ambitiously and ends up looking at me. Behind a maria-statue a second deer appears. Hello Mr. and Mrs. Deer. After an awkward moment of silence8 these obscenely graceful creatures keep eating the flowers. I grew up wandering through forests and there was no deer daring to get so close to me. But in my forest they shoot deers on regular basis. On this graveyard no deer died since the mid-1980s. I follow them for over an hour. Every now and then a plane is flying extremely loudly over our heads. All three of us freeze when this happens. The Airport Schwechat, which was build seven decades after the Graveyard, is close. Thus, it is not allowed to let more than 14 balloons fly into the sky from these grounds. A graveyardguide told me that 15 balloons are enough to seriously confuse a pilot. That was a peculiar detail. I say thank you to my new friends and leave them be. I walk to the forest-graveyard, sit down on a tree-trunk, right next to a little burning candle. Everything around me looks like a forest clearing, – but looking closer I see a teddybear, little self-made boards with names written on them. For some reason it is not creepy. I light up a cigarette and watch people in the distance walking by. Then I see two young persons appear close to me. Every now and then they exchange a few sentences. They seem to be happy. They drink and smoke and lough and brood, and then they are investigating this tree, and then that plant. Explorers! Everyone, everything, our whole culture and economy rejects the notion of dying. They try to absorb it, to simulate it, to repress it. And here we are, on the grounds where so many people are buried, joyfully taking dying for granted, in the middle of a city, surrounded by highways, fiber-glass-cables, invisible communication-networks, by water and subways-trains, emergency response systems, advertisement-jingles, – and ghosts. (This was part two of a two part essay. Part one was published on this blog last week.)

Marvin Alexander Heine is a master student at the department of sociology at the University of Vienna. He is deeply interested in the senses, their phenomenology, mediations, and politics. Currently he is writing and filming his master thesis about the influence of the urban acoustics on processes of socialization.


(1) Amin & Thrift argue, that „the everyday rhythms of domesticate life have rarely counted as part of the urban, as though the city stopped at the doorstep of the home. But domesticate life is now woven routinely into the urban ‚public realm‘. How else are we to interpret the rise of home-working and teleshopping, and ‚public‘ involvement through the consumptiopn of goods, television, the internet and the growing exposure of domesticate life in chat shows (…)“. (Amin & Thrift 2002: p. 18)
(2) The Anosmic Cube, as it is articulated by Drobnick: „(…) smooth surfaces and geometric perfection point not inly to an intolerance of the olfactory, but to a distrust of the organic, of the sensual, of anything alluding to the realities and controversies of the external world.“ (Drobnick, 2005: p. 267)
(3) Blok & Farias argue, that „the urban built environment has been cast as a text that is written and read by different urban actors in different ways“. (Blok & Farias 2016: p.568)
(4) Lefebvre argues, that „by fully reinstating the sensible in consciousnesses and in thought, he (the rhythmanalyst) would accomplish a tiny part of the revolutionary transformation of this world and this society in decline.“ (Lefebvre 1992: p. 26)
(5) For more information on the escalation that happened upon the opening of Zentralfriedhof in Vienna see Bauer (2004)
(6) For more information on spraying incense into Vienna’s subway carriages see Walker (2019)
(7) „Violent death changes everything, slow death changes nothing, for there is a rhythm, a scansion necessary to symbolic exchange: something has to be given in the same movement and following the same rhythm, otherwise there is no reciprocity and it is quite simply not given. The strategy of the system of power is to displace the time of the exchange, substituting continuity and mortal linearity for the immediate retaliation of death. It is thus futile for the slave (the worker) to give little by little, in infinitesimal doses, to the rope of labour on which he is hung to death, to give his life to the master or to capital, for this ‘sacrifice’ in small doses is no longer a sacrifice it doesn’t touch the most important thing, the différance of death, and merely distils a process whose
structure remains the same.“ (Baudrillard 1993: p. 71)
(8) „The animal looks at us, and we are naked before it. Thinking perhaps begins here.“ (Derrida 2006: p. 29)


Amin, A., & Thrift, N. (2002). Introduction & The Legibility of the Everyday City. In Cities: Reimagining the Urban (pp. 1-30). Cambridge: Polity.
Baudrillard, J. (1993). Symbolic Exchange And Death. Sage: London.
Bauer, W. (2004). Wiener Friedhofsführer: Genaue Beschreibung sämtlicher Begräbnisstätten nebst einer Geschichte des Wiener Bestattungswesens (Kultur für Genießer). Wien: Falter Verlag.
Derrida, J. (2006). The Animal That Therefore I am. New York: Fordham University Press.
Drobnick, J. (2002). Volatile Architectures. XYZ Books, Toronto.
Farias, I. & Blok, A. (2016). STS in the City. In C. Miller, et al. (Eds.), Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (4th Edition, pp. 555-582). Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Lefebvre, H. (1992). Rhythmanalysis. London: Bloomsbury.
Walker, S. (2019). Passengers incensed: Vienna adds perfumed trains to €1 a day travel.

STS Cities – Planning – Infrastructure: Sensorial Infrastructures (Part One)

By Marvin Alexander Heine

It is the 11th of October, 2019, in Vienna, Austria, and a little more than a dozen human beings, all young and more or less healthy, stand in front of a huge, dusty machine. Their heads are covered with colorful helmets, and, even though it is rather early in the morning, underneath those helmets one can spot faces that are wide awake and thirsty for knowledge. In their culture, these promising animals (1) seek to become scientists, they are hopeful, and eager to change the world for the better. They take notes, hold up their recorders, ask specific, appropriate questions and listen carefully to the answers given by an enthusiastic tour-guide. This machine they observe, is part of a bigger machine. It’s like one organ of a larger organism.

The guide explains carefully and passionately the purpose of those metal-structures, their history, their transformation and economic implementation. The hall they’re in is very large and every sound in here reverberates and echoes for quite a while. The south-wall is completely covered with windows and one can see the eery sunrays through the dusty air. This machine consists of tubes and turbines and connection pipes, like calcified veins (2). Those sophisticated creatures keep walking, secretly taking pictures, protocoling every single detail in their notebooks. Strange staircases lead the cohort into the heart of this nonhuman metal cyborg (3), which is a building in itself.

The sheer complexity of this structure is overwhelming, to the extend of being boring (4). All this seems like a metaphor, a little model which represents society, or a nervous system. Yellow pipes for gas, blue for oil. Or was it the other way around? Our tour-guide tries to convince us, that we are confronted with an active energy plant, – a very modern one even, one that supplies 730.000 households with heat and electricity. Every now and then someone with a blue collar rides by on an old, loud bike, – like an extra, a bystander. This is, supposedly, an incineration plant, which works almost entirely with burning waste, – and therefore, – our guide incessantly repeats it, this plant is on the forefront of environmentally friendly energy production. A few decades earlier, he continues, there were dangerous symptoms of pollution and destruction, forest dying, sicknesses, etc. But improvements, using waste as energy, renouncing coal, changed a lot. If the politics would give more subsidies, if industries would improve their vision and if consumers would change their behavior, incineration plants like this one could be the future.

The students skeptically look around. There is still this scent of an old library or a museum in the air. The planet’s human population has doubled in the past 50 years. In that same period, the size of the global economy has quadrupled, and global trade has grown tenfold. Humans have significantly altered seventy-five per cent of the land. Over 85 per cent of wetlands have been lost. Approximately half the world’s coral cover is gone. In the past ten years alone, at least seventy-five million acres of forest have been destroyed. More than 7,000 underground methane gas bubbles are about to explode in the Arctic. We’ve emitted as much atmospheric carbon in the past thirty years as we did in the previous two centuries of industrialization and massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic floodings are reported on a daily basis, forcing hundreds of millions of people to flee regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought (5).


And almost everyone still believes, that „if we all unite“ then we can still prevent the environmental apocalypse. Especially when we change our own „consumer behavior“. Well, why not? It is a first step, and if it’s true, that this energy plant is not just a museumpiece, than it is a manifested symbol of an alternative approach for natural and artificial coexistence. And to be honest, this species had millions of years to develop a wheel, and now, confronted with the destruction they caused, like ignorant children that didn’t know better, they have only 30-40 years to change EVERYTHING, or being forced to adapt to a new world. So energy plants like these, even though they might not actually prevent an immanent catastrophe, are, considering the circumstance, surprisingly progressive and inspiring (6). The tour has ended. The students swarm out, in every direction, towards busses, trams, machines to live in. Still in thought I walk towards a close-by train-station.

I don’t have to ease my pace, sidestep or use my limbs. This wall of glass welcomes me, it opens up and leads my way. As if by magic, and politeness, a friendly mechanic instinct detected my approach and cautiously reacts by opening up a door. The temperature changes, the air is dry and warm and filled with distant scents: Something sweet, like popcorn, – oil and meat. I smell kerosine, metal and dust. Transpiration of skin, restlessness and anxiety inexorably evaporates from a socio-technical body in motion. Sluggish machines, like lethargic little elephants, reluctantly suck in the wrappings of fastfood, flyers and printed advertisements. Showcases, seductions, a shiny flicker of light. I rest and observe and let myself be immersed by a car commercial. Those happy childreneyes, their motionless hair in the wind, /freedom/, a promised adventure. Next to it, barely dressed in dark-red lingerie, a female, whispering the colors of love, Baisser Volé: Cartier.

After a while, their unvoiced expressions change. They urge me to move on, to go to work, not to disrupt the flow, because I can’t afford them, only dream of them. A few steps forward and I get swept away by a current of bodies. Click-clacking shoes, fragmented announcements, distorted pop-music, leather, denim, wool: an intricate sound of movement, of routine, of busy bees buzzing around their hives. With a generic movement I validate the ticket and turn around (7).

Trains in Spittelau, Vienna. 2016. Taken by the author



Relentless, seamless streams of humans arise from, – or disappear in the underground’s gullet. Standing on the right side of the escalator, I hold on to the handrail and surrender, like everyone else around me, to the raw and efficient trans-human metabolism of urban public transport systems. As I descend, the appearance of things changes, their references to social reality, their cultural framework. White Noise. Sterile but warm. I cannot hear the cars anymore, the supermarkets, the sing-song from the coffeeshop. The rhythms that lay hidden above, now impose themselves upon my senses. Waiting. To dislocate. Departure in four minutes. Where am I? In-between. Only in those quiet minutes while waiting for a train I can clearly see the city (8).


I sense cyclical repetition, infinite itineraries, discontinuous lines of flight, a kaleidoscopic urban world. Each station linked into a greater uniform identity. Even down here, in this submerged and hidden non-space of the urban, where everyone is standing still, – I sense a thousand and one movements, bacterias, human hearts and disconnections. The platform releases subliminal vibrations, slowly intensifying, – and then I smell and feel the invisible wind being pushed through the tunnel. Joining the pressure in my ears the noise of steel and heaviness grows closer and stronger, instinctively alerting my body, – and then this monster of a machine, a cyborg city in itself, decelerates right before my eyes. An acoustical trauma for everyone who has never heard a subway approaching. I see myself reflected by the moving train, – a hypnotizing stop motion sequence, – until this mindless metal worm finally stops and yawns and coughs and vomits out passengers. After a mechanic choreography of giving way and entering and keeping distance and an impersonal face, I push away a populist tabloid paper, sit down and close my eyes.

A short moment of quietude followed by a signal as sharp as knife. I see red flashes of light through my closed eyelids, hear wheels forcefully grasp onto the rails and abruptly clickshutting doors. Zwish, Klonk. One hears and sees those trains start up, pull forward, but how? And Why? Those trains and the generatively multiplying networks they are part of are veins rooted beneath us, secretive symptoms of clandestine structures, constantly on the verge of breakdown. No one is really in charge (9). They are accepted as truly facts as rivers and lakes are (10). An ungraspable whole. And at the center is me, listening with my body, blindfolded, with my senses in evenly suspended attention. I hear de-centered recurrent patterns, relations of immediacy, the rippling and rising of voices. A concatenation of rhythms, acousmatic ghosts (11) of presences, time both broken and accentuated. Smells that overlap, irritate and vanish, – someone’s breakfast, someone else’s dinner. Everyone on this train is living out an individual itinerary, going to work, getting home, to the library, the bar. These itineraries, subjectively lived, endow this train with reality. And yet, everyone is conforming according to a certain social code, in the comfort of collective morality (12). The moving subway oscillates as a shadow, a mirror of the terrestrial, reflecting back on those spaces as they are charged by cultural and ideological forces (13)… (This was part one of a two part essay. Part two will be published on this blog in the following week.)

Marvin Alexander Heine is a master student at the department of sociology at the University of Vienna. He is deeply interested in the senses, their phenomenology, mediations, and politics. Currently he is writing and filming his master thesis about the influence of the urban acoustics on processes of socialization.


(1) Derrida, in his lecture „the animal that therefore I am“ refers to Nietzsche when he says „man is a promising animal (…) an animal that is permitted to make promises.“ (Derrida 2006: p.3)
(2) Kaika M., for example, states: „Cities are dense networks of interwoven socio-spatial processes that are simultaneously human, material, natural, discursive, cultural, and organic (Kaika 2005: p. 23).
(3) Lancionne and McFarlance, when discussing key contributions of the urban political ecology (UPE) state, based on Haraway’s cyborgs and Latour’s hybrids„that the urban cannot be separated from the biophysical, and that the city is a key place for the reconfiguration of socio-natures“ (Lancionne & McFarlane 2016: p. 4.)
(4) Star begins her article on the ethnography of Infrastructure by stating, that many „aspects of Infrastructure are unexciting“, and that the scientists should explore the „embedded strangeness, a second order one, that of the forgotten, the background, the frozen in place“. (Star 1999: p. 377ff)
(5) To find information on the acuteness off our environmental’s catastrophe one could read Wallace-Wells article „When Will Climate Change Make the Earth Too Hot For Humans?“ (Wallace-Wells 2017), or Jonathan Franzen’s „What If We Stopped Pretending?“ (Franzen 2019).
(6) Hommels discusses the problem of urban obduracy, and why changing embedded urban structures proves so difficult: „Once a technological frame work is established, it will guide the ways of thinking and interacting between actors.“ (Hommels 2018: p. 211)
(7) “In front of the bank automat I had to act as a generic individual endowed only with an individual pin code; pressed against the barrier on the pavement I was a mechanical force weighing against another mechanical force; in front of the traffic light I became a reader of signs, capable of understanding a prohibition;[…]” (Latour and Hermant 1998, plan 33).
(8) Sadjic argues, that „this new species of city is not an accretion of streets and squares that can be comprehended by the pedestrian, but instead manifests its shape from the air, the car, or the mass transit railway.“ (Sudjik 1992: p.297)
(9) One of the nine properties of infrastructures, according to Star is, that infrastructure „is fixed in modular increments, not all at once or globally“ (Star 1999: p. 382), and that this kind of de-centralization doesn’t allow for one determining control-system.
(10) Cronon, referring to the invention of railroad systems in North America, states that trains seem „less as an artificial invention than as a force of nature.“ (Cronon 1991: p. 73)
(11) „The acousmatic is a sound heard whose origin we do not see.“ (Labelle 2010: p. 14)
(12)„Transgressed or not, the law of the metro inscribes the individual itinerary into the comfort of collective morality, and in that way it is exemplary of what might be called the ritual paradox: it is always lived individually and subjectively; only individual itineraries give it a reality, and yet it is eminently social, the same for everyone, conferring on each person this minimum of collective identity through which a community is defined.“ (Marc Augé 2002: p. 30)
(13) This reminds of Foucault’s definition of heterotopia, that has „the curious property of being connected to all the other emplacements, but in such a way that they suspend, neutralize, or reverse the set of relations that are designated, reflected, or represented by them.“ (Foucault 1998: p.178)


Augé, M. (2002). In the Metro. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Cronon, W. (1991). Preface & Rails and Water. In Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (pp. xiii-xxiii & 55-93). New York: W.W. Norton.
Derrida, J. (2006). The Animal That Therefore I am. New York: Fordham University Press.
Foucault, M. (1998). Essential Works of Foucault 1954–1984, Volume 2, Aesthetics. London: Penguin Books.
Franzen, J. (2019). What If We Stopped Pretending? Retrieved from:
Hommels, A. (2018). Re-Assembling a City: Applying SCOT to Post-Disaster Urban Change. In M. Kurath et al. (Eds.) Relational Planning: Tracing Artefacts, Agency and Practices (pp. 205-228). London: Routledge.
Kaika, M. (2005). Preface: Visions of Modernization & The Urbanization of Nature. In City of Flows: Modernity, Nature, and the City (pp. 3-26). New York, NY: Routledge.
LaBelle, B. (2010). Acoustic Territories. New York: Continuum.
Lancione, M. & McFarlane, C. (2016). Infrastructural becoming: sanitation, cosmopolitics and the (un)making of urban life at the margins. In A. Blok & I. Farias (Eds.) Urban Cosmopolitics (pp. 45-62). London: Routledge
Latour, B., & Hermant, E. (1998). Paris: Invisible City. Paris: La Découverte. (Virtual Book: [Sequences: 1 Traversing + 4 Allowing] http://www.bruno– paris/english/frames.html).
Star, S. L. (1999). The Ethnography of Infrastructure. American Behavioral Scientist, 43(3),377–391.
Sudjik, D. (1992). The 100 mile city. Harcourt Brace, San Diego.
Wallace-Wells, D. (2017) The Uninhabitable Earth.

STS – Skills, career Trajectories and Stories

By Florentine Frantz

When you study medicine, you become a doctor. When you study law, you become a lawyer. But when you study STS, what do you become? The answer to that question is not straight forward, but it is a pressing one, for current and future STS students. Therefore, my colleagues from the STS Austria Council, Max Fochler and Helene Sorgner, Martina Merz, and I decided to organize a workshop titled “Skills, Career Trajectories and Stories”*. Many students from both Austrian STS Master programs (University of Vienna and University of Klagenfurt) as well as a handful of PhD students attended our event in early December. In this blog-post, I want to share my reflections on the event.

Impressions from Jessica Mesman’s Keynote speech ©Maximilian Fochler

Skills – “You might not be aware of what you know”

You might not be aware of what you know – was one of the major takeaways from Jessica Mesman’s keynote speech. She repeatedly highlighted that STS people are often not aware of their own skills. Still, knowing what you know may be critical when thinking about careers. Many of the skills we acquire throughout our studies are seemingly invisible and become tacit intellectual tools. However, they are valuable assets in many different working environments.

STS people think differently about reality. STS students, who might be attracted by the shining buzzwords of Science, Technology or Innovation, will soon learn that STS people have distinct and critical perspectives on them: Science is understood not as a value-free search for truth, but as a complex socio-technical assemblage, full of practices, cultures and meanings. Moreover, science is never decoupled from society, but it is always embedded within specific contexts and co-produced with them. Technologies are in STS not understood as passive artefacts, but as active and political non-human actors. Innovation is never just technological innovation but always social innovation too, in how it is collectively imagined and in how it changes society. We often think about the same concepts as other people, but we think differently about them. We approach them with an intellectual sensibility that aims to recognize tacit assumptions, values or political and social dimensions.

This particular perspective on reality also is mirrored in how STS people approach problems. On the one hand, they are problem analysts, who don’t start with quick fixes. They open problems up trying to understand the underlying complexities and entanglements between actors before they propose solutions. On the other hand, STS people engage in counter-intuitive reasoning, in how they open black boxes and think outside boxes. Jessica, for instance, works with the notion of exnovation instead of innovation. Thus, she thinks about what we can learn from what is already there to improve, rather than fostering innovation, where new things are deemed necessary to improve a situation.

In our increasingly complex technoscientific worlds, it is often not enough to look at challenges only from one angle. That’s why STS education covers a wide range of disciplinary inputs, including sociology, philosophy, feminist studies, political science, anthropology, or the history and philosophy of science, which should give us the intellectual tools to grasp what’s going on in the situations we study.

But also, in who does STS, we see wide-ranging interdisciplinarity. While bringing the multidisciplinary perspectives together may be challenging in the first month of an STS Master’s program, it is definitely worth it. The capacity to look at things from different angles makes STS graduates not only good bridge builders in future jobs but also creates an attentiveness for how to deal with the intertwinedness and the complexity of the world, and to embrace a diversity of perspectives as desirable.

Moreover, we are often not aware of the advanced social and general skills we learn. We learn how to ask questions and strategies for answering them. We learn how to present and communicate our results and gain argumentative resources. We learn time and project management. Just because there is no “Soft-Skills” label attached to it, it does not mean that there are no soft-skills being trained.


Impressions of the “Living Books” sharing their stories © Maximilian Fochler

Career Trajectories & Stories

Besides awareness of skills, it helps to have some ideas in mind of where people go and what people do when they do STS and get paid for it. Here, we can, of course, refer to wider job categories such as reflexive technology assessment, consulting, STI policy, science education, research funding agencies or journalism. Nonetheless, we thought it would be fascinating to have real people telling us about their STS career trajectories. Thus, we invited 6 STS alumni as “Living Books” to our workshop, who can tell us their stories of what and how they worked after having pursued an STS education.

None of our guests had foreseen their career-trajectories after having completed their studies. We heard about fortunate coincidences, of a back and forth between jobs or about prolonging jobs because too many new projects came up. Still, they all described how the skills they learned in STS are important in their everyday work. In particular, being sensitive to build-in assumptions and the capacity to get the bigger picture. Moreover, some of them reported how they developed their STS perspectives further throughout their occupational life. You probably haven’t mastered STS 100% once you get your Master’s degree. You learn rather how to look at the world, and the more you see, the more you can understand and question it

You will hardly find any STS jobs which are explicitly looking for graduates wearing the “Science, Technology, Society” label. But, looking into the required qualification of many jobs, you will most likely see that you are well trained for a variety of jobs carrying other labels. Still, it can sometimes, be challenging to illustrate your skills to your future employer and show what you are capable of doing or how you are capable of thinking. In particular, because googling “STS” in Austria might yield results about a famous Austropop band with the same name. However, it can be helpful to illustrate what STS does by providing your own empirical work in the form of theses, articles, blog-posts or seminar papers.

Impressions of the “Living Books” sharing their stories © Maximilian Fochler

Also, not every STS course of studies, even within the same Master’s programme, is the same. At the University of Vienna, students are free to choose between different research specializations and thematic courses within them. It allows students to develop their individual interests regarding the manifold relationships between science, technology, and society further. This influences, of course, which topics we think more or less about. But, as Jessica reminded us STS people are trained as specialized generalists. We get specialized in how to look at the world, but we are not limited by where to look at. Hence, rest reassured, just because you write your thesis on one topic doesn’t mean you can never do anything else again.

Concluding, I want to stress, drawing on Jessica’s talk, that just because “We are always critical in STS. We are never just applauding”, we should not be overly critical when it comes to our own skillset. Even though there is no stereotypical career path as it is the case with many other lines of education, this does by no means mean that there are no jobs for STS graduates. We get trained a wide range of valuable skills, which we can apply in a myriad of ways, be it in working environments or in life more generally.

* At this point, I want to thank my co-organizers for being a dream-team organizing committee.

Florentine Frantz is a PhD student and researcher at the Research Platform Responsible Research and Innovation in Academic Practice, working in the project Borderlands of Good Scientific Practice. Her main research interests lie in studying the dynamics of contemporary academia as well as how and which socio-epistemic and institutional configurations matter for doing research, in particular doing ‘good’ research.

Telling stories differently: A selection of STS (related) podcasts

By Ruth Falkenberg

The podcast is a quite popular form of storytelling. What approaches are there in the field of STS that use this medium, thus telling stories in a different format than what we are used to? (Image licensed under Creative Commons)

As STS researchers, we constantly examine how knowledge is produced as well as disseminated, we inquire into the ways in which stories about science and technology are told and shared. In telling our own stories, we usually stick to established and commonly accepted forms of academic communication – we give conference presentations, we write papers for peer-reviewed journals, and already writing a blogpost like this one seems to be a refreshingly different form of engagement. Yet why not tell our own stories in more radically different ways?

The importance of rethinking the ways in which we tell our stories has been highlighted by STS scholars such as John Law, who in his book After Method encourages us to open up academic research and writing more to creativity and departures from the normativity of standard methods, in order to allow for grasping and enacting a wider range of realities. Being more directly concerned with practices of storytelling, also Donna Haraway frequently invites us to think about ways of ‘storying otherwise’.

One form of story-telling that enjoys quite some popularity – and that is increasingly used for the dissemination of information about science and technology – is the podcast. For me, the podcast is an interesting medium that allows to tell, approach, and receive stories in different ways. Thinking about calls like the one by Law to open up our own ways of storytelling, I started to look out for approaches in the field of STS that use this medium. In this blogpost, I want to present a selection of the variety of interesting podcasts that I came across during my search, amongst which some are recommendations from my colleagues here at the Vienna STS department. Not all of these podcasts have been produced by STS scholars, but they all touch upon issues related to our field of inquiry, open up new perspectives, and tell stories in ways that are a bit unlike than what we are used to.

An interesting example of an STSy podcast is the “How To Think About Science” series in which David Cayley talks to and about various philosophers, historians, anthropologists and sociologists of science, among them many familiar voices from the STS community, including, for example, Steven Shapin and Simon Shaffer, Bruno Latour, or Brian Wynne. As an STS scholar, one will not find all too radically new ideas here, yet the series is definitely a valuable opportunity to listen to some STS stories in a different format than usual. Moreover, while the podcast series is framed as a look at science as an institution rather than STS per se, it still seems worth a recommendation for people outside of our own field who want to engage with some introductory STS perspectives without having to read lengthy academic papers.

How to think about objectivity in a time where we are confronted with claims about “fake news”? This is one of many questions addressed in the podcast on “The Invention of Objectivity” featuring Peter Gallison and Lorraine Daston. (Image licensed under Creative Commons)

Another thought-provoking introductory piece to some STS ideas is a podcast on “The Invention of Objectivity” with Peter Gallison and Lorraine Daston, hosted by the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. Coming rather from a history of science perspective, it may equally be worth a recommendation to students at the beginning of their careers in STS and as well to people who want to engage with science and its often taken for granted assumptions in a critical and reflexive manner.

A podcast that engages with more concrete issues surrounding technoscience and its relation to the societies we live in, is produced by the Bergman Klein Centre for Internet and Society who publish fishbowl discussions or other events in a podcast format. Here, one can follow conversations of “leading cyber-scholars, entrepreneurs, activists, and policymakers as they explore the bleeding edge of the internet and technology, democracy, law, and society”: The discussed topics range from algorithmic bias in resume search engines employed in hiring processes to broad issues such as how technology can be governed.

In contrast to this rather unconventional podcast format, the Digital Sociology Podcast by sociologist Christopher Till utilizes a more classical interview style, featuring conversations with various scholars who deal with digital culture and society in different ways. It is also worth scrolling further down the archive of this series, which started out with podcasts focusing specifically on Digital Health/Digital Capitalism. Personally, I would particularly recommend episode three featuring philosopher of technology Tamar Sharon who talks about her work on self-tracking and the quantified self.

Addressing a much broader and less academic audience, the podcasts of the Freakonomics series deal with “the hidden sides of everything” (thus not only but still often focusing on science and technology). While the series is not made by STS scholars or focusing primarily on STS topics, the hosts often take things apart in a quite critical manner, and definitely offer though-provoking viewpoints. Dealing with topics that range from 23andMe (a direct-to-consumer genetic testing company) to “How the Supermarket Helped America Win the Cold War”, the podcasts offer interesting opportunities to encounter (critical) perspectives on science and technology provided by people from other fields than our own.

Similarly, also the 99% invisible podcast is not explicitly devoted to STS topics, but in dealing with the unnoticed aspects of (technological) design and architecture in the worlds that surround us, it often offers quite STSy viewpoints. The podcast’s episodes usually focus on a specific example of design and often feature interviews with architects, various kinds of experts, or people who have been influenced by the design – thus including both designer as well as user perspectives.

The last two podcasts I want to mention here may come closest to the idea of specifically sharing STS perspectives with a wider audience. One of these has recently been launched by STS scholars Shobita Partasarathy and Jack Stilgoe. In their podcast, they aim to challenge what they call “The Received Wisdom” about science, technology, and politics by talking to “thinkers and doers” from various domains and places. In doing so, they indent to reach audiences beyond our own academic field, to engage with people “out in the world” and specifically with those actually involved with science and technology. Setting out with these – from my perspective – quite promising goals, the first episode of the podcast already addresses one of the most pressing issues of our time – climate and tech activism in the context of the global climate crisis.

Last, a captivating podcast series produced by the Munich Centre for Technology in Society in the context of a seminar hosted by Ruth Müller. Quite in line with the thoughts that motivated me to write this blogpost, relating to how we can broaden our own ways of sharing and disseminating our stories, the seminar’s aim was to engage with the genre of the podcast in order to develop new practices of storytelling, specifically aiming to put questions of responsibility, sustainability and socio-ecological justice centre stage. The different episodes then deal with questions ranging from “What does it mean to drink a coffee “to go”?” to “How do scientists deal with questions they might never find an answer to?”.

Overall, while the collection of podcasts that I have presented here is certainly very selective, it may provide an impression of the various interesting formats that already exist out there in which one can listen to STS-related stories. I hope that this overview may serve as a stimulus for some who read this – for the own consumption or for recommendations to others, but especially also as an encouragement to maybe try out ourselves such different forms of sharing the knowledge we produce with wider audiences.

I want to thank all my colleagues from the Vienna STS department who provided me with very interesting and valuable inputs on my search for STSy podcasts.

Ruth Falkenberg is a PhD student at the Research Platform Responsbile Research and Innovation in Academic Practice. She is interested in cultures of knowledge production and valuation practices in academia, particularly in the context of contemporary neoliberal regimes of research governance. Her dissertation is part of the project Valuing, Being and Knowing in Research Practices, which investigates how valuation practices and processes of subjectification are entangled with strategic decisions in researchers’ work.

Science may be self-correcting, but what about the scientific journals?

By Kaya Akyüz

Science and self-correction: Where are the journals? (Image licensed under Creative Commons)

In 2008, a group of political scientists published in the journal Science a study with the title Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits [paywall]. This article suggested that there are differences between conservatives and liberals in how they blink and sweat in response to images shown to them. As it happens with many articles published in Science and Nature, the research received considerable media attention and still does. At a time liberal and conservative voters seem to be more polarized than ever, interest in possible biological differences between the two groups is unsurprising. But, is an article in the prestigious journal Science enough to assume the existence of such physiological differences between two political groups? It seems not.

Recently, other scientists tried to reproduce the 2008 study and were unable to confirm the findings. The interesting part is not that their results do not corroborate the initial study, but they also failed to get these results on the journal Science, which had published the original research. The researchers describe the response they received from Science: “About a week later [after the submission], we received a summary rejection with the explanation that the Science advisory board of academics and editorial team felt that since the publication of this article the field has moved on and that, while they concluded that we had offered a conclusive replication of the original study, it would be better suited for a less visible subfield journal.” Despite the authors’ protest, the journal rejected to send out the submission for peer review and did not take further action regarding either the original paper or the reproduction effort.

“Science is self-correcting” is a foundational assumption that contributes to the image of science and the authority of scientific knowledge. How does science self-correct? Sociologist of science, Robert Merton would have responded: By tackling similar kinds of questions as a community of disinterested individuals driven by organized skepticism. However, there are a few problems here: Academic journals do not value reproductions and replications of research as much as novel articles. Therefore, trying to validate research findings often becomes a risky effort since the resulting publications are rarely deemed original enough by journal editors as this case also suggests. Who would waste time for something they cannot publish? Afterall, scientists, among other things, want to advance their careers through publications as the infamous motto “publish or perish” suggests.

Failure of the self-correction mechanisms has at least two consequences, especially in the case of high-profile journals such as Nature and Science. First, through media attention, the study continues to reach large publics, who might assume it to be a verified claim, agreed upon by the scientific community even when the opposite may be true. Second, other scientists take the not-yet-reproduced or not reproducible studies as “facts” and do further research on that basis, which may turn entire fields into vicious circles. Once a knowledge claim gets published, especially in prestigious journals, it is difficult to prevent its spread even when the claim no longer holds (or the article is retracted). For instance, research has shown that more than thirty thousand articles in biomedicine were conducted with cell-lines contaminated with HeLa cells, making the findings mainly invalid. Although the contamination has been known for a long time, these thirty thousand articles are still cited in new research, the claims being repeated in half a million articles.

The fact that Science and Nature reach large and varied publics make them important for scientists and other members of the society. These journals have published numerous research that have become or contributed to seminal articles, methods, textbook content or new technologies. The past cases of failure to recognize groundbreaking research, such as the citric acid cycle that gave Hans Krebs a Nobel prize, and the push to be at the frontline might be driving these journals’ publication decisions. However, doesn’t their importance make these journals, or any other journal, responsible for giving at least the same opportunity to scientists, who claim published findings do not hold to scrutiny? Aren’t the academic journals responsible to correct the knowledge claims that they propagate? At a time we increasingly think and talk about responsibility in science, shouldn’t we think of ways to ensure that the most prominent journals have to abide by the tacit rules of science?

Linked symmetry in publishing. The current publication practices create an asymmetry between controversial, unexpected, eye-catching research and the follow-up articles that are critical of initial findings. While the original research gets a broad audience, the replication efforts rarely do. In an ideal symmetrical practice, journals that publish an article should be responsible also for publishing the replication/reproduction efforts. Even when the replication effort is published in another journal or platform (such as OSF), the original article should be linked to such success(es)/failure(s) of reproduction. (Image licensed under Creative Commons)

If the reproducibility crisis[1] has revealed one thing, that is the need for change. Continuous growth in science necessitates rethinking the traditional peer review and publication practices. In the past, the print journal format would not have allowed direct links between the original article and its replication. In other words, finding the original article would not lead to replications, but finding a replication would lead to the original article. However, online systems like Crossref could be a solution linking the original research to all such efforts of replication, whether failed or successful, which may in the long run redistribute the rewards, such as citations, that often fall only on the original article. This means, even when a journal decides not to publish a replication of research it has previously published, it should at least be responsible to link the original article to the replication effort. Such a transformation in academic publishing may disturb the power imbalances etched into the system and bring new incentives for doing replications.

This blog post is not merely about a replication effort and Science’s rejection to publish it. It is about a systematic issue that needs to be discussed further. As the story I started with continued to unfold on Twitter, it also revealed that other scientists have tried replicating similar seminal articles to no avail. Scientists should not be learning about unconfirmed findings through PubPeer or social media and certainly they should not get blocked by editors for opening up issues to the public. Increasing “impact factors” by publishing “hot” research but leaving the responsibility to propagate the results of replication efforts to journals with limited reach is a status quo, but not responsible practice. If academic journals and their editorial boards are to continue having the gatekeeper role, they should not be privileged to expand their power through an asymmetrical publication practice that does no good to science, especially at a time alternatives are technically feasible and available.

The author thanks Maximilian Fochler for his valuable feedback as the reviewer of this blog post.

[1] Reproducibility/replicability crisis is an umbrella term for recent observations that in many fields, previous research findings are often not replicable. One interesting case is from psychology, where researchers have been identifying numerous genetic variations that were associated with depression. Recent research [paywall] has shown with larger sample sizes, hundreds of associations do not hold, turning an entire field into a house of cards. There are various meta-level replication studies, often with similar results, such as this major Science paper [paywall] on top articles in three psychology journals, discussed in detail here. The reproducibility crisis is possibly broader than yet observed.

Kaya Akyüz (@KayaAkyuez on Twitter) is a PhD student and uni:docs fellow at the Department of Science and Technology Studies, University of Vienna. Having finished his bachelor and master’s studies in Molecular Biology and Genetics at Bogaziçi University, his current research is on the dynamics of making and unmaking a new field in science through the case of genopolitics, an emerging research field at the intersection of political science and genetics.

Why should a Master’s student go to EASST conference?

By Artemis Papadaki Anastasopoulou

Wondering and wandering at the Ecohub of Lancaster University, where interesting encounters took place. (Picture by Naoki Matsuyama)

Anna Tsing writes how indeterminate encounters shape who we are. We are all contaminated, as “purity is not an option”1 and multiple indeterminate encounters give us form and life. They are indeterminate because there is no direct control of their outcome; it is life in precarity at its finest. However, despite this absence of control, we can and, as I argue, should position ourselves in time-spaces where such encounters can happen – e.g. conferences, as I discuss in the following, along my experience of attending the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST) Conference in Lancaster in summer 2018.

Exactly there, I not only had the chance to present some of my own work, but also got to experience multiple indeterminate encounters with people, topics, paper programmes, spaces and ideas. In the two following brief episodes, I touch not only on the meetings with people I would never had the chance to interact with otherwise, but also on the process of finding one’s own personal interests in the STS archipelago. Therefore, these are written accounts of encounters that deeply shaped my understanding of STS as discipline and of my own way of being in and out of the STS community.

Above all, I want to encourage Master’s students to go to such conferences, to position themselves in spaces in which such encounters can happen. In Lancaster, I could not fail to notice the low number of Master’s students within the conference crowd. “Why are there so few Master’s students attending this conference?” – that was a question which I kept coming back to whilst and after being there. Exploring and discussing this phenomenon with a colleague at post-doc level, he mentioned that he too did not attend conferences when being a Master’s student, simply because of not perceiving himself as part of the community. Giving a systematic answer to why Master’s students don’t attend conferences is beyond the given scope, but drawing on my own experience I briefly want to explore some reasons why I believe Master’s students should attend the EASST conference, and also touch upon the practical issues that might restrict them from doing so.

Beyond heroines and heroes

It’s 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 25th of July, and I am in front of Lancaster University’s Catholic Chapel, where a group of people are gathering for the ‘Meeting Soil’ excursion. The registration desk is not open yet, so no one is wearing name tags. As we head to the Ecohub garden and the permaculture grounds we are asked to communicate in small groups about who we are, why we are here, but also how we feel about being there. I was excited! What a great conference opener, encountering new people in a garden just to talk—first names only, not much academic talk, just talk.

Later in the afternoon, I am sitting in a panel discussion. In front of me are my own STS heroines and heroes, many of whom who I know only by reading their name tags. I was enthused. Having had read their work in my first semester, I felt like knowing them a little. The feeling was great, but I didn’t get to speak to them. On the other hand, I spoke to many other people whose work I had never read. I spoke with a person who is teaching design students, a librarian from Mexico and a PhD student who is doing fieldwork in India. At these conferences, there are many people whose work you have read in your studies, and they become important to you. I was looking forward to seeing them and listening to their talks; but I realised that the conference wasn’t only about this. It was also about all the other spontaneous meetings and encounters you would never otherwise have had. In particular, about all the people you wouldn’t have heard of or talked to otherwise.

On making decisions

The moment I got in my hands the conference programme I felt overwhelmed. SO MANY PANELS! Who should I see? The programme was 300 pages long and I needed to make decisions quickly, based on a very practical question; As I couldn’t go to all of them, I had to choose. This process of filtering invoked a reflection on my own interests, forced me to explore them and to ask myself: which panel will you go to now? Further, it helped me to reflect on my own research and what I feel connected too, but also assisted in seeing what other areas I am interested in. Hence, I left with a sense of security for what I want to pursue (at least in the near future) – the conference functioned as a filter through which I became more focused, grounded and content.

In the past, I have had many discussions with other students about our academic paths. STS offers so many interesting avenues of study that, when choosing a Master’s thesis topic or a PhD topic, it is easy to feel restricted by the need to pursue just one topic. There is a loss involved when you are interested in so many things but have to choose just one. At least, this is a feeling that I have had many times. For me, the conference offered a space where I could navigate my several interests and get the chance to explore them further. I got to hear talks and discuss them with people, see what they are currently working on, coming to understand if I could see myself researching these topics and approaches.

Of course, while there are many good reasons why Master’s students could benefit from conferences and their indeterminate encounters, there are also a number of obstacles potentially in the way of them being able to do so. These days, being granted a visa can be a problem faced by academics, Master’s students included. From personal experience, I know at least one person who couldn’t join the EASST conference due to visa issues. Finance can also be a considerable barrier, despite fee waivers being awarded to applicants. Are both Master’s and PhD student’s considered to be in the same category when fee reductions are considered? PhD students often get funds to go to such a conference whilst Master’s students don’t; so categorizing these groups as the same may disadvantage Masters students. However, such issues touch beyond the EASST conference and beyond the STS community as such.

Food-for-thought and collaborative survival

Taken together, these comments are offered as food-for-thought, for practices of inclusion within the STS community. The STS scholar and activist Max Liboiron writes about running a feminist environmental science lab, in which the values of equity (not equality) and humility are the center2. Could STS conferences turn into spaces of resistance? Could STS conferences become the mushroom of Ana Tsing’s book that gives us new imaginations for collaborative survival? Perhaps it is too much to ask from a small field of STS, but for now one thing is sure: Master’s students have much to benefit from attending such conferences, just as much as the field of STS has to benefit from such students being there: they help building the community, challenge the traditions and assist in creating new spaces for an ever-expanding field.

  1. Tsing AL. The Mushroom at the End of the World?: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press; 2017.
  2. Liboiron M. How to titrate like a feminist. Accessed May 31, 2019.

This blog post was originally published in EASST review. However, the version at hand was overworked by the original author, featuring additional theoretically-based reflections.

Artemis Papadaki Anastasopoulou is a PhD student at Department of Science & Technology Studies at the University of Vienna. Her academic interest lies in the political dimensions of materiality with a focus on the case of plastics. Additionally, she cares about issues of inclusion and community building within STS and beyond.

About Aluminium

by Sonja Steinbauer

Can we cope with the can we cope with the can we cope with the can… (‘Cans fuzzy drinks’ by HD-Images, Lic. under CC0)

“Whether jeans buttons, ceiling lights, beverage cans, coffee capsules, rooftops, cars or airplanes – aluminum is an integral part of our everyday lives. But what we always like to forget is that the raw material aluminum comes from the earth and its extraction strikes deep wounds in the landscape”, Global 2000 stated this year. Aluminium is the third most common element in the earth crust. It is an integral part of our everyday life and is used in construction industry, cosmetics or medicine. Nonetheless, this material has recently become the focus of critical investigations due to possible health risks or its mining conditions. This ambivalent views about aluminium were central in the STS-course “Science in Society Laboratories”. In the following poem, I describe the investigations my research group and I made during this seminar about aluminium and its implications concerning environment and health.

Aluminium, aliminium what a glittering material,
or just a killer in serial?

How to deal with it, how to cope,
is there any hope?

As this seems to be a rather complicated case, it
was often assessed,
and is here further addressed.

The theme was outspread through television,
science and news,
rightly, cause there are many connected issues.

Like possible health risks or environmental problems,
to name just some of them,
these are assessed further in this poem.

Let’s start by the Enviroment,
medial this topic is often completly absent.

Many indigenous people are threatened by mining,
experiencing personal tragedies.

Crop failure, polluted water and toxic bauxite are
problems going on,
in fact, to name just some.

But what do the companies do, what do they say,
to the people standing in their way?

We build you hospitals and give you streets,
but that’s not fitting to the peoples’ needs.

Communities not based on that,
causing social problems and therefore being a

Curing diseases they have caused,
their greed cannot even by NGOs or laws get

So there is only one thing to say,
dear companies, stop the greenwashing right away!

And the other ones to react are who,
or better said, what can we as consumers do?

Of course, less consumption means less production,
but the consumers reaction shouldn’t be the only

Production processes in this case are very foggy,
and the consumer side alone really groggy.

National and international Actions need to be set,
so that goals concerning a better future can be met.

But the environment is not the only issue that needs
to be discussed,
giving an overview on possible health risks is a must.

Some say breast cancer and Alzheimer’s disease,
stimualted by aluminium, would increase.

This is among others connected to aluminium in
a question concerning consumer and production

Antiperspirants were discussed the most,
is the aluminium in it the toxic if overdosed?

But what do scientific researchers say,
can they give a path or lead a way?

Studies are rare,
to make statements, they often don’t dare.

Scientific standards getting disregarded,
like studies with only two participants, to name a

Only one assessment of humans was ever made,
and accumulated to the body aluminium still has an
uncertain fate.

The less problematic aluminium seems to be in food,
if taken up that way, it gets digested just the normal

But concerning skin absorption or injection,
nobody can really declare the body’s reaction.

Furthermore, this uncertainty lets risky decisions
people not getting vaccinated in a row.

These determinations being taken,
even if the positive effect predominate, people
come on and waken!

Immunology said it’s unlikely for the named
that aluminium can cause it or increase.

Multi-layered indeed are Alzheimer’s’ and breast
as many scientists will answer.

But only if aluminium does not have a direct effect,
does not mean that the body doesn’t react.

If you are already ill indeed,
caution about aluminium is what you need.

If you have serious problems with your kidney,
too much aluminium can be deadly.

If you have breast cancer to name a specific,
aluminium can work as xenoestrogen, which
stimulates the cancer to increase.

But by all these uncertain believes,
what about alternatives?

Concerning cosmetics, it is clear,
aluminium free products are on the market, if you

Especially alternative adjuvants are not even rare,
but companies don’t want to pay the fare.

To that theme I just say: Come on,
with safer options everybody would have won!

Alternatives definitely need to be staged,
and research due to uncertainties engaged.

Aluminium is a multi-layered theme,
concerning environment and health to name the
topic supreme.

As this poem is nearly past,
I make some statements at the last.

Aluminium production needs to become safe,
mandate mining companies to behave.

Better alternatives need to be chosen,
developments not because of financial issues frozen.

Research needs to be stimulated
and not unavailable knowledge simulated.

The theme aluminium is complicated indeed,
but with the right decisions, for fear there is no need.

Sonja Steinbauer is a master student at the Department of Sociology at the University of Vienna. Because of her other educational experiences (Bachelor in African Studies and Oriental Studies, Master in Theatre-, Film and Mediahistory), she was attracted by the interdisciplinary course “Science in Society Laboratories”, where she had the chance to encounter ‘the health risks of Aluminium’ together with students from various fields and get an insight into cross-curricular Research. Find more Information on the “Science in Society Laboratories” course on our website:

Dr. Naturelove or How I learned to love the National Park

by Diana Peutl

The side-arms of the Lobau floodplain are host to a vivid interplay of flora and fauna (©MA49, via

“If a bear sees me naked, you can’t get jealous” is what Linda Belcher explains to her husband in the episode ‘A River Runs through Bob’ of Fox-financed cartoon series “Bob’s Burgers”, which takes the animated family onto a weekend trip to a National Park. Having most of my conceptions regarding the world beyond my personal experience forged by such instances of Anglo-American media culture, child-me was quite disappointed to learn of the absence of bears and wolves in Austrian wildlife. However, through years of school field trips to zoos, parks, recreational areas, and protected zones – as well as by bearing in mind ‘problem bear’ Bruno’s fate – adult-me had acquired a notion of Flora and Fauna as not necessarily shaped by what is communicated as desirable, but what is decided to be practicable. Hence, National Parks as institutions seem to me as situated right in-between those two rationales, having to carefully balance vast abstract concepts of ‘nature preservation’ and concrete pragmatic approaches in their practices of work. In the following, I want to delineate how the excursion to the Lobau National Park ‘Danube Floodplains’ against the backdrop of the STS-course Environment, Risk, Society – Science, Technology and Nature in times of the Anthropocene” by Dorothea Born gave me the most-recent opportunity to reflect upon my own conceptualization of ‚nature‘, as well as enabled me to zoom into the everyday practices of work at play in ‘doing’ and ‘narrating’ a National Park.

Last April, we started our visit to the National Park ‚Danube Floodplains‘ just outside its borders, by being welcomed in the so-called ‘National Park House’. Consisting of a cinema, bureaus, lavatories and an outside playground, this place seems to play the role of a communication hub, fostering exchange between visitors and park managers. Our tour began with two Park rangers separating the waiting multitude into our course group and a class of pre-schoolers, each getting different outlooks on their respective tour programs. Without further ado, we were led into the projection room to start our excursion into the National Park by strolling down a cinematic path.

In hindsight, this image film facilitated the most acute immersion into the institution’s self-depiction our tour could offer. While the trees on the nearby Danube Island do not differ noticeably from the ones located in Lobau, the insight provided by personal accounts of the guiding national park manager varied strikingly from the triumphant mood-setting offered by said PR-language-riddled welcoming video. From a conceptual angle, I would argue that these differing communication styles point us towards practices of work crucial to the localized understanding of how ‘nature’ and its ‘preservation’ is to be handled within and by the National Park Danube Floodplains: While ‘doing National Park‘ in terms of enabling its continued existence consists of administering complex relationships of legal bodies, consultation/decision processes, public attention, and labour power, ‘narrating National Park’ caters to more romantic and heroic concepts than mere brand management and is thus appealing towards an emotional dimension.

In order to be seen as worthy of protection, elements of ‘nature’ like specific species or territories need to be noticed as well as advocated for – if a species goes extinct and nobody notices, has it ever existed? Imaginaries of responsibility, maybe even reparation of humanity’s megalomaniac abominations against its feeble environment may act as motivation for preservative aspirations. After all, a national park is man-made like everything one works on with (a) certain intention(s) in mind. Referring to David Demeritt’s overview on constructivist conceptualizations of ‘nature’, I’d like to accentuate the option “of understanding ‘nature’ as an ontologically contingent and socially constructed phenomenon” (2001, p. 37).

Tracing the political effects of (de-)constructing preservative areas such as ‘national parks’ from this very understanding, one has to carefully consider the following questions: Who communicates how and what about the construct ‘national park’? How do these speech acts then touch upon practices, power, decision-making and institutions? And where and why is it about ‘nature’ as essence, as a “linguistic [opposition] to that which is said to be cultural, artificial, or otherwise human in origin” (Demeritt, 2001, p. 32)?

The deconstruction of ‘being’ into ‘doing’ is a practice of enabling and empowering by installation of contingency. Looking back upon the many points leading up here in favour of a pragmatic approach to political notions of environmental protection, it is not my intention to negate the affective and/or imaginative dimension at play. Rather, I want to pinpoint utopias and desires, respectively their role as complementing methods of constructing contingency, as a fruitful realm for further research in the context of National Parks and beyond.

Diana Peutl is an undergraduate student at the Department of Sociology at University of Vienna. Having spent her late teens managing projects in the field of international youth exchange/regional sustainability, Mag. Born’s course ”Environment, Risk, Society’ at the Department of Science and Technology Studies was her first time to look at ‘nature’ in an academic setting.

Genomic privacy: The point of no return for “anonymity”

by Kaya Akyüz

Should genomic data in genealogy or personal genomics databases be used to simply catch a criminal or for similar purposes? Picture by Thierry Ehrmann (Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Recently, I have learned that a genetic genealogy platform had been used by the US justice system in order to find a serial killer. My genome was one of the hundreds of thousands on this platform that allowed the investigators to spot the killer and as users of the platform, we have learned about it only after the press reported on the issue. Should genomic data in genealogy or personal genomics databases be used to simply catch a criminal or for similar purposes?

We are giving out data all the time willingly or unwillingly, knowingly or without even noticing. Our faces and license plates get recognized by cameras on streets, consumption habits are recorded, GPS signals are tracked and many more. Sometimes this is for “the public good” as in the case of surveillance for security and often it is for commercial purposes. However, the majority of these different forms of data collected resemble each other in that they originate from an individual: individual´s behavior, preferences, environment or social network. One other form of data that is increasingly produced in large amounts is genomic data in the numerous databases that function as biobanks and repositories for genetics research. The genomic data landscape also includes direct-to-consumer (DTC) genomics companies (e.g. 23andMe) to which millions of users send their spit to learn more about their traits, ancestry, health risks and biological relatives.

Everyone has a unique genome and when sequenced, it can be converted into a text of approximately 3 billion characters with four letters: G, C, T, A. Genome as data is different than other types of personal data because it does not simply originate from an individual, but bits and pieces shared by many different people come together through reproduction. While all humans carry almost the same genome sequence, the remaining minuscule differences increase as one moves away from the closest relatives to distant relatives, including each and every one of 7.5 billion people on earth. This way, genomic information allows an individual, e.g. an adoptee, to identify unknown biological relatives; however, it also means that an individual can never be anonymous unless all (close) biological relatives of the individual anonymize their genomic data. I will exemplify this with the controversial case mentioned in the beginning and explain why there is a need for urgent societal discussion about what “personal” data means and who is to decide, when we consider the human genome.

Along with genome editing in human germline using CRISPR-Cas9 technology, the most controversial biotechnological application in 2018 is probably the identification of the Golden State Killer, who is claimed to be responsible for 13 murders and numerous rapes in California in the 1970s and 1980s. Although the DNA had been collected from the crime scenes, the perpetrator had not been identified because his profile was not in the databases. With the help of the genetic genealogist Barbara Rae-Venter, named one of the ten people who mattered in 2018, the US justice system opened the doors to a debatable practice. The investigators produced a genome profile of the Golden State Killer from decades old crime scene material and then they uploaded it to an “open access” genealogy platform: GEDmatch. Customers of different genealogy companies (i.e. 23andMe, AncestryDNA, FTDNA and others) have been uploading their raw genomic data to GEDmatch in order to identify biological relatives that are in the databases of other companies, without needing to buy their services. The authorities used this opportunity to identify the closest relatives of the suspected perpetrator and tracked back the suspect through constructed family trees and common ancestors to a person, who happens to be a former police officer: Joseph James DeAngelo. And this is only the beginning. According to Nature and the New York Times numerous cases are underway with a similar approach. A rapidly growing cottage industry is emerging between genetic genealogy and criminal investigations without a chance to publicly discuss what this means for the ordinary individual, her genomic data, privacy and anonymity, especially considering that this system is amenable to many uses beyond identifying serial killers. As long as there is a biological sample and the identity of the owner is to be found, the system visualized below would serve the purpose.

The steps involved in identifiying the killer. Infographic by the author, Kaya Akyüz.

How was the suspected Golden State Killer identified using an open genealogy platform? With a simplified visualization of the process, here I show how shared ancestral genomic variations (noted with colors) allow finding links between an unidentified individual (using left tissue, in this case from crime scene, but possibly from a door handle, a glass etc.) and self-identifying individuals on an open genomic database without knowledge of either.

Identification of a notorious criminal does not leave enough room to discuss the ethical considerations around the use of ordinary individual’s genomic data; besides, who would (dare to) be against a system that allows to track down a serial killer? If it were not for the lax policies of GEDmatch regarding the use of genomic data of its users, the Golden State Killer had not yet been identified. After all, there are numerous databases that are bigger than GEDmatch, but a similar search in these would generally necessitate a court order due to policies of these public or private institutions. As a person, who has his genome data on GEDmatch since many years for genealogical purposes, I find it ethically unacceptable that law enforcement agencies uploaded crime scene material and used hundreds of thousands of profiles to find the relatives of the criminal, followed links through their lives, all of which took place without the users of the platform being informed.

The controversy seems to have become a breaking point in our understanding of genome data and anonymity. Science reports that a sample that encompasses only 2% of the American adult population (only four times that of GEDmatch) would allow 90% of Americans to be identified even if they have no genomic data in any database (60% is already identifiable with GEDmatch). This means uploading one’s own genomic data to such a database with real name or similar identifiers is no longer a mere personal decision unless the individual accepts being a “genetic informant” in searches that may lead to stigmatization of innocent individuals, risk legal protection against discrimination or even out the identities of distant relatives, who may be a sperm donor, an undercover agent, an “anonymized” individual who took part in a biomedical study, or just a person who drank from a glass in a restaurant followed by a stalker.

Waiting for individuals to anonymize their genomic data seems to be an option out of this problematic path. However, this means that those who decide not to anonymize their genomes, decide at the same time not to allow their relatives to anonymize themselves. If we are concerned about our anonymity, we have to push forward global regulations that encompass all platforms, companies or biobanks to remove identifiers attached to genomic data such as names and last names, year or place of birth, at least in a way that protects anonymity unless there is a court order. Otherwise, this is the end of anonymity as we know it. The post-genomic future holds numerous risks along with opportunities and we have to be aware that seemingly personal decisions are made on others’ behalf, often unbeknownst even to the person making the decision.
So the question is, is it “my genome, my decision” or “our genome, our decision”?

Kaya Akyüz is a PhD student and uni:docs fellow at the Department of Science and Technology Studies of University of Vienna. Having finished his bachelor and master’s studies in Molecular Biology and Genetics at Bogaziçi University, his current research is on the dynamics of making and unmaking a new field in science through the case of genopolitics, an emerging research field at the intersection of political science and genetics.