Law on fish ponds and multiplicity


“A salmon is … ?” that is the ontological question. 

In this free paper, Jon Law addresses practice and theory, and he does it nice and slow with great care to unpack the context of this paper and the broader fields he contributes to, chiefly, of course, Science and Technology Studies. 

Of all people, of course, Law can direct readers through the maze of ANT, but does an even nicer job than usual. For example, regarding theory as coterminous with practice (rather than an appreciable divide):

… And that is the problem when we start to talk about ‘actor-network theory’, or indeed ‘theory’ tout court. Theory including ANT sounds – and often it is – formulaic. It is as if it were there, sitting in a box fully formed, waiting to be applied whole and ready.

Then he shifts gears and moves to “animals,” … “But let me come to the question of actor-network theory in a different way by thinking about how it relates to animals.” He reminds readers that the differences between people and things like animals is not “natural” so much as the difference is an effect of their relationality (and an important step away from “human exceptionality”). Instead of studying scallops (like Callon in 1986), Law studies farmed Atlantic salmon in Hordaland in West Norway. Still, scallops are not irrelevant: “Starting with a focus on multiplicity, I consider how ANT started to put entities such as ‘animals’ back together again after the 1986 relational storm. This, then, is an exploration of strategies for reassembling objects within the ANT tradition.”

I won’t ruin the concluding remarks for readers, but suffice to say, he concludes trying to answer the basic ontological question: “A salmon is … ?”

Obama on infrastructure and business retention


President Obama links infrastructural improvements to business retention, specifically, that unless American start to improve the country’s infrastructure, which will require Congress to discontinue divisive austerity-politics, or else we will continue to lose businesses abroad as they pursue higher-quality infrastructure for their business needs.

Perhaps this is a pathway that will result in some of the changes that are much needed. Whether this linkage is true or not (i.e., whether infrastructural improvement is linked meaningfully to business retention) is essentially unimportant; whether it results in actual political or economic change seems to be the only operant quality of concern given that truth in politics seems at most a tertiary concern for a generation of politicians.

Appropriately, Obama gives the speech near The Governor Malcolm Wilson Tappan Zee Bridge, the crumbling cantilever bridge spanning the Hudson River at one of its widest points. 

Book Symposium on “The Materiality of Bureaucracy” in HAU – Journal of Ethnographic Theory

For those of you that are interested in the machinery of governance there is a wonderful book symposium in HAU – Journal of Ethnographic Theory. HAU is:

…an international peer-reviewed, open-access online journal which aims to situate ethnography as the prime heuristic of anthropology, and return it to the forefront of conceptual developments in the discipline.

HAU – focus and scope

I know there are many new peer-reviewed, open access online journals out there and sometimes, lets be honest, their quality is dubious. But HAU is really cool, the research is very empirical, the book symposiums very enlightening, and their recent “classics” series is totally fascinating.

The symposium is on Michael Hull´s “Government of Paper”, in itself an interesting read. Here is the list of contributions, check it out!

Book Symposium – Government of paper: The materiality of bureaucracy in urban Pakistan (Matthew Hull)

Materiality, materialization PDF
Constantine V. Nakassis 399–406
Matthew Hull and ethnographies of the state PDF
Katherine Verdery 407–10
The question of the political: Thinking with Matthew Hull PDF
Naveeda Khan 411–15
Travels among the records: Some thoughts provoked byGovernment of paper PDF
Justin Richland 417–20
Paper as a serious method of concern PDF
Stephen M. Lyon, David Henig 421–25
Reflections on dysfunctional functioning in the political economy of paper PDF
Michael Gilsenan 427–30
On signatures and traces PDF
Béatrice Fraenkel 431–34
Messy bureaucracies PDF
Akhil Gupta 435–40
The materiality of indeterminacy . . . on paper, at least PDF
Matthew S. Hull 441–47

It is in contemplating the impossible that one distinguishes advancing from declining societies.


China Daily has reported that China is planning to build a high-speed rail from China to the United States.

A tunnel from the Bering Straits to Alaska under the Pacific Ocean is the proposal.

If the Channel Tunnel is a “Chunnel” (the 50.5-kilometre rail tunnel linking the United Kingdom, with Coquelles, Pas-de-Calais, near Calais in northern France, beneath the English Channel), then is this is this Ocean Tunnel … an “Oceannel” of maybe Oceaunnel”?

Brazilian infrastructure: Boom to nothing


A disheartening reality-check for the infrastructure boom in Brazil, now reduced to rubble and rust. While we have often discussed infrastructure as a basic economic good, inferior or incomplete infrastructural development may very well have the reverse effect.

These pieces from NYT’s Nadia Sussman, an eery video, and this companion piece from NYT’s Simon Romero (Photographs by Daniel Berehulak), a combination written and visual story, paint a vivid image of a nation striving to build the massive infrastructures similar to those of other nations, but at a time of stagnant and non-existent government budgets, all of which comes on the heels of planning for the World Cup in June, just a couple months away from the time this post goes up. We wrote about the economic impact of similar Olympic stadiums and even a bit on how we might think about their copious infrastructural leftovers.

The article reads:

The growing list of troubled development projects includes a $3.4 billion network of concrete canals in the drought-plagued hinterland of northeast Brazil — which was supposed to be finished in 2010 — as well as dozens of new wind farms idled by a lack of transmission lines and unfinished luxury hotels blighting Rio de Janeiro’s skyline.

Economists surveyed by the nation’s central bank see Brazil’s economy growing just 1.63 percent this year, down from 7.5 percent in 2010, making 2014 the fourth straight year of slow growth. While an economic crisis here still seems like a remote possibility, investors have grown increasingly pessimistic. Standard & Poor’s cut Brazil’s credit rating last month, saying it expected slow growth to persist for several years.

Retrospective on “The Carceral”


A chapter of Michel Foucault’s famous 1977 Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975, Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la Prison) is titled “The Carceral.” In a few brief notes, I reconsider the chapter in light of contemporary discussions and literature.

As with so much of Foucault’s work, the chapter starts with a rich, seemingly (but not really) unorthodox example, in this case, the official opening of Mettray, a location where “disciplinary form at its most extreme” was born. Utilizing nearly every form of traditional organizational forms — the family, the army, the workshop, the classroom, and juridical ordering techniques —  such that those “young delinquents condemned by the courts” (as well as, I will note, boys charged, but acquitted, and yet were imprisoned as an alternative to “parental correction”) were to be overseen by “technicians of behavior; engineers of conduct, orthopaedists of individuality.”

As you can see from the quotes, Foucault’s language holds nicely to this day, even if post-foucauldians in governmentality studies have “cleaned-up” the ideas so much so that now we rattle-off “voluntary self-regulation through myriad disciplinary techniques,” it is worth remembering that, earlier on, we used to have to learn what Foucault meant from writing that did not give way to bullet-point-like writing or textbook-like bold terms sitting like warts in our prose. That said, some of the prose does not really hold over time as well as his language choices. When I first read Foucault, I recall his work being mind-blowing and yet, at some level, impenetrable. My colleagues would say something like “this is not sociology as usual,” and while I agreed with them back then (perhaps out of fear — Foucault readers often loved him dearly and not “getting it” was something you would not normally want to reveal in public, which I think now Foucault would have laughed about), now that I have some distance from my initial readings, it is easy to see why Foucault was not sociology as usual: it is not sociology. I do not mean it does not belong among the sociology canons; I mean that it was never “just” sociology; his work always struck me as historical, political, social, etc. but that it was simply not possible to reduce it to any of them. At any rate, I return to the retrospective.

Of course, the penal systems were famous for meticulous notes; “a body of knowledge was being constantly built up from the everyday behaviour of the inmates,” such that in the toughest of prisons, at the hardest of times, surveillance always implied: “I shall note the slightest irregularity in your conduct.” These two quotes, juxtaposed in the above sentence, give you also a sense of Foucault that I only notice now. I used to think that he was a dynamic writer, for a historian (I used to think of him this way); however, now, having done some professional writing, I see that Foucault is a master of shifting registers. He switches effortlessly between gigantic abstractions that seem to swallow-up the entire carceral world, for example with a quote like, “a body of knowledge was being constantly built up from the everyday behaviour of the inmates”; however, moments later, he reduces his voice to a nearly personal tone, as if whispering to the reader (without breaking eye contact, I imagine in my mind’s eye) shifts registers to tell you, the reader, what an person might have heard, as a prisoner, and in these moments, you are both, for example, “I shall note the slightest irregularity in your conduct.” You get the feeling Foucault might have, upon uttering this line, paused for effect. As a matter of style, I will take this form of writing over the bullet-points and bolded-terms, but the executive summarizing of texts into carefully constructed abstracts and sound blurbs (like those that post-foucauldian governmentality studies scholars have reduced Foucault to) seem to win the day in our times.

While all the discussion of discipline, training, and then self-discipline is positively lovely to read, I was stopped dead in my book at this line: in a discussion of supervision and being supervised, “[a] subtle, graduated carceral net,” Foucault writes, “with compact institutions, but also separate and diffused methods, assumed responsibility for the arbitrary, widespread, badly integrated confinement of the classical age.” I have no recollection of reading that line before; however, reading it now, its like a curio box of how the work has been up-taken into contemporary sociology: the emphasis on “[a] subtle, graduated carceral net” feels like the precursor for discussions of networked stateness; having the net replete “with compact institutions, but also separate and diffused methods” serves to underscore that Foucault was not an anti-institutionalist, but that institutions were “separate” (or distanced both practically and analytically) from the “diffused methods” upon which much (if not most) discipline is rendered; from there, we get a feel for jurisdiction as a key mechanism for control and knowledge production (which, for example, Andy Abbott’s work is a cool off-shoot as well as Tom Gieryn’s) when we read the net of institutions carefully divorced from the methods of everyday discipline, “assumed responsibility for the arbitrary, widespread, badly integrated confinement of the classical age.” The sentence, as it were, and for me only in retrospect, twinkles like a curio box of Foucault’s lasting legacy.

Another matter warranting some re-consideration is how sloppy Foucault is and how this general sloppiness is neatly pasted-over by his vivid word choices. For example, in an incredibly sloppy historical gloss of the origins of the prison, we get a paint-by-numbers tour of yesteryear, seeing “colonies of poor, abandoned vagrant children,” those boarded-up “almshouses for young female offenders” whose mothers exposed them one too many perversities, backbreaking “penal colonies” for young men often acquitted but condemned to reform through labor, “the institutions for abandoned or indigent children” as well as “orphanages,” what was left of the institution of “apprentices,” or those “factory-convents” where young girls would tally-away under circumstances of voluntary confinement, and if all of those beautiful and tragic pictures of yesteryear were not yet enough to bully the reader into agreeing not to disagree with the fine points raised by Foucault, we now get bombarded by “charitable societies, moral improvement associations, organizations that handed out assistance and also practised surveillance,” and now I am too exhausted to continue this German machine-gun of corollaric  examples. Still, a point is to be made here, because we have all seen this technique before (some of us, in our own writing), this “exhaust the reader with colorful examples” technique (I am, myself, routinely guilty of this); however, until reviewing Foucault again for my students in social theory today, I had no idea that I was doing this, as if a scholarly mimeograph machine, in the tradition laid-out by Foucault (although, and it would be fitting, perhaps Foucault was copying somebody else that either I don’t know about or whom has been lost in time).

Those are just a few thoughts, having returned to Foucault’s D&P after a number of years.

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Google Glass Goes Public: Not Exactly A Revolution


Stef’s piece on “seeing” targets of drone strikes (as well as the metaphorical infrastructure that holds some of those practices together), along with some other posts are about seeing like a military, I cannot resist but to share this piece on google glass failing miserably. Marcus Wohlsome writes about it for WIRED magazine; also, if you recall, Mat Honan wrote a great piece before the end of last year, “I, Glasshole: My Year With Google Glass, which was a fun read too; still, some of you will remember Stef’s post about wearable technology and empathy for the other, if only because of its attention on “Glance,” which is an app for google glass (or smart phones) to observe you having sex with other people while they observe themselves having sex with you.

On the topic of google glass and its public sales: CBS reports that reception from the public was “cool” at best (and not the cool kind of “cool” either); the spin at USA today is that google glass “sold out” (so long as you only count the sales of white rimmed google glass, although there is a nice irony in using “sold out” there); and, of course, chief of overstaters these days (what has happened to this previously decent news source!) CNN reports that this is the dawn of a new age in wearable technology, hallelujah! (although, admittedly, it is on the opinion page … how couldn’t it be.) Still, the CNN piece is more interesting that it might appear at first blush. For example, it reports on a dress that becomes transparent when the “user” is aroused … using this might be a tough reality check for some folks.


The Trouble with Gas Pipes


It seems that every time you turn around, especially with me living in Pennsylvania, I heard about our grand future with natural gas. USA TODAY heralds “U.S. forecasts natural gas boom through 2040” or the Economist asking about natural gas “Difference Engine: Fuel for the future?” to which the obvious answer is: “Two things are clear, though: there is a lot of natural gas out there; and it is extremely cheap. In both electricity generation and road transport, it will be a hard act to beat.” I could document more and more examples, but it is hardly necessary because my main point is not about natural gas. It is about natural gas pipes.

The New York Times has put out, in the last month or so, a number of pieces about failing gas pipe infrastructure in our nation’s major cities. The piece readers are probably the most familiar with is the March 23rd piece “Beneath Cities, a Decaying Tangle of Gas Pipes,” a terrific piece by .


Underneath the bustling streets of New York, “6,302 miles of pipes transporting natural gas” and they are crumbling; chief concern, of course, have to do with leaks, and “Leaks, like the one that is believed to have led to the explosion that killed eight people in East Harlem this month, are startlingly common, numbering in the thousands every year, federal records show.”

Thus, as we grow more dependent on our plentiful natural gas reserves, danger will follow: “The chief culprit, according to experts, is the perilous state of New York City’s underground network, one of the oldest in the country and a glaring example of America’s crumbling infrastructure.” There is a super-cool graphic available here:


New York, though, is replacing their pipes as quickly as any city in America, but other cities are not; “Baltimore is on track to replace its pipes in 140 years, while Philadelphia will not be done for 80 years.”

What’s interesting and alarming about these sorts of issues has to do with the wide distribution and sheer scope of the problem; leaks are bound to happen, so they are predictable; however, the location of a leak is simply unanticipatable. The solution: these companies rely on users! “Utility companies now largely rely on the noses of their customers to alert them to danger. The gas that flows through the network of pipes under the streets is naturally odorless, so a compound known as mercaptan that smells somewhat like rotten eggs is added.”

Another piece comes from the editorial page and falls under “opinion”; “Warning: Gas Leaks and Aging Pipes.


The first comments come from ARMOND COHEN, Exec. Director, Clean Air Task Force, and mainly frames the issue as one of national security: “This is a matter of national public safety, a priority for protecting the climate and an opportunity to create jobs, and must be immediately addressed at all levels — by state utility regulators, by the Environmental Protection Agency and by other federal agencies.” The second comments are even more interesting, COURTNEY CARROLL, a resident of New York, tells the average resident what to expect if there is a leak. “One way to increase vigilance in spotting gas leaks is to look for damaged vegetation like dead trees, dead grass and dead shrubs.” I like this idea of enrolling the missing masses to monitor infrastructure; maybe we need an app for that! Seems like an obvious university project for students or something that communities, if they want access to upgraded piping, could commit to … of course, the ironies hurt: as soon as residents get new infrastructure, that is precisely when we start to “forget about it”.

The final piece “Under the Streets, a Lurking Danger” adds some balance and redirects the discussion toward government. Aging pipes have NOT yet been identified as the cause of the East Harlem gas explosions, they remind us. Also, the real battle is on the hill: “Congress can give momentum to two Senate bills sponsored by Senator Edward Markey, a Democrat of Massachusetts, which seek to hasten the replacement of old, leaking natural-gas pipelines nationwide.” Let’s see if the combination of government action and local citizen action get us through to the future with natural gas…

Critical Infrastructure and Climate Change


Sometimes things juxtapose themselves. Dmfant wrote a reply about a terrific piece now available on-line, free, as an mp3. Backdoor Broadcasting Company’s academic broadcasts currently host access to the file, which is from:

The Political Life of Things: A One Day Workshop at The Imperial War Museum, London, UK; Nick Vaughan-Williams (Warwick) & Tom Lundborg (Swedish Institute of International Affairs): There’s More to Life than Biopolitics: Critical Infrastructure, Resilience Planning, and Molecular Security

The piece is about critical, self-healing infrastructure, and, of course, require this discussion requires significant use of the “human/non-human” distinction, if only to dash them to bits. Well, while this piece is years old, Dmfant just posted it in response to a previous post about an upcoming event.

There is a piece in the New York Times today about the third time that world scientists united in order to provide a broad response to the public about the realities of climate change. How these two pieces appear to be linked together so nicely is a claim made Tom LUndborg about how the linguistic turn in political philosophy has distracted us, on the whole, from the “social” concern over materiality and a full-fledged research base of studies on infrastructure. Tom goes further, though, claiming that the linguistic turn has made it much more difficult to be fully critical as theorists or, conceivably, as government agencies or even public citizens to take the next step … although, that is where the radio show ends.

PACITA’s 2nd European TA Conference


PACITA’s 2nd European TA Conference

The overall aim of the conference is to take stock of and support the exchange on TA capacities throughout Europe. Following the successful meeting of researchers, TA practitioners, policy makers and civil society organizations at the 1st European TA Conference in Prague in March 2013 we look forward to continuing the fruitful discussions and networking at the 2nd European TA Conference in Berlin. The Conference is organized within the framework of the four-year FP7 project PACITA (“Parliaments and Civil Society in Technology Assessment”). Generally, the PACITA project and the Conference define “Technology Assessment” in a broad sense. TA comprises methods, practices and institutions for knowledge based policy making on issues involving science, technology and innovation, including TA-related fields such as Foresight, Science and Technology Studies (STS) and research on Ethical, Legal and Societal Aspects (ELSA) of science and technology.

We submitted and we’ll let you know if we get a spot (along with some invitations).

Here is our submission:

Session Title: The State as a Concept In Practice

If it is necessary to reflect upon concepts that support democratic problem solving and decision making, then no concept is more important or central to this aim than “the state.” Over the last decade, scholars in science and technology studies (STS) have developed an innovative and useful model for understanding the state. In particular, they show how the state is an academic concept — a theory, to be specific — that is used routinely in the everyday practices of contemporary Continue reading

Diagnosing Bridge Collapse


New York Times has a nice retrospective video on the “collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis in 2007 killed 13 people and focused attention on the state of bridges across the nation.” As a native Minnesotan, this event is one of the moments I look back and can easily pinpoint my growing interest in infrastructure, especially, infrastructural decay as a major present and future concern in the US and beyond.

Surveillance Infrastructure Novel


As weird as it sounds, that’s what “The Watchers” is, but it is also written by Shane Harris who has something of an academic/journalistic background, which the subtitle “The rise of the American surveillance state” clarifies.

The concept developed, the surveillance state, is not really developed for use in theory, but it does seem to have applications for the general public as a (new) way to think about these issues (that Foucault cued us to long ago). Likewise, the book is written in a novelistic style even though it is based largely (if not entirely) on first-hand accounts from people Harris has interviewed. Makes for an interesting discussion: is it worth using the novel format to learn empirical truths about the state, or does the style/format reduce the “weight” of the argument?

I don’t know, but the more our ideas here get in congress with dmfant’s, I wonder if “more useful” is not always better provided “still true” is the baseline.

Disaster art?


I was in Anapolis, MD, last weekend and saw something that I thought was a bit odd (above): disaster art. At first, I was stunned; how could a place celebrate (but potentially profit) from local disasters? How would that appeal to tourists? In this case, of course, its an image of flooding after a hurricane where the infrastructure of the harbor is damaged and, in may cases, submerged.


“Why would folks want pictures of broken infrastructure?” I thought. And that’s when my art history training came in and I had a “duh” moment. Disaster art — fictional and non-fictional — has been common for centuries. See, for example, this blog post about sunken ships or this one featuring a number of examples of fictional disaster art.This pintrest board sums it up nicely, saying disaster begets creativity, and includes a number of other obvious pieces of this puzzle like disaster memorials and post-disaster reassembly work like art from tsunami rubble in Japan. I’d also be remiss not to include the massive amount of disaster art in video games, for example, post-apocalyptic games like the Fallout (below), Gears of War, or Halo series.


Still, people’s love for depicting ruins is far older than all that. I’m thinking, in particular, of the many depictions — often with a romantic feel — of derelict Greek temples or statues like this image (contemporary, lame, background wallpaper) or this painting of the Colosseum (from the second half of 17th century).


Seems we love our ruins, after all.


Using search engines to teach reading


Interesting development in Alabama:

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (Feb. 27, 2014) – An Internet search engine developed specifically for schools by two University of Alabama in Huntsville professors is being tested as a way to increase reading abilities in challenged students and help motivate intellectual development in gifted students, while saving schools money on textbooks.

Check out the full story here.

The long shot heard round the world


Well, not exactly around the world. President Obama asks for a tax increase on gasoline to improve American infrastructure … only, it is not a gas tax, it is just another corporate tax, according to a NYT report. Obama appears to be using commonsense; if you like to use roads, then we need to pay to upkeep them … only that is what scares me because commonsense on the hill seems to have left the building a decade (or more) ago.

Infrastructure: The New New Deal


Following government discussion of whether or not investment in infrastructure will or will not improve the economy and boost job growth seems like a no-brainer for the STS crowd (i.e., as a rich topic for discussion); however, to the best of my knowledge, this is relatively rare to find in the pages of our journals (even if the insights we could glean may very well have helped such dire governmental circumstances).

Eduardo Porter, writer for the New York Times “Economic Scene” section, recently wrote a piece on infrastructure. The piece, “Confronting Old Problem May Require a New Deal,” provides readers with the predictable ‘public’ perspective on the relationship between employment and infrastructural development painting the all-too-familiar picture that more of the former requires more (investment) in the latter. This is hardly  new. During times of economic strife, low investment in (even crumbling infrastructure) further diminishes job growth on a grand scale (which we’ve discussed with regard to Germany, the US, and the austerity-infrastructure relationship).

Porter takes us on a tour of political and economic history, showing readers that this relationship may not be so clear-cut. For example, Keynes predicted — thanks to technological efficiencies, improvements in management, and so on — a persistent level of unemployment is inevitable. A solution is investment in infrastructure, and such discussion, Porter reports, go a ways back:

In “Freedom From Fear,” his history of the United States through the Great Depression and World War II, David Kennedy notes that fears that what Keynes called “technological unemployment” might become a permanent feature of the labor market, especially among the less skilled and the elderly, date back to the administration of President Herbert Hoover.

The inability or complete failure of the American government to produce enough consensus regarding new programming as aggressive as those of FDR’s era has lead to concerns and fear that we are on a path toward permanent employment stagnation.

However, at this moment in history, it may not be possible, even if the political will did exist, to invest in enough infrastructure to get us out of this mess. In the 1970s,  a failed job stimulus plan (similar to Obama’s failed plan) showed Americans that, and we’ll go to a Harvard specialist for this:

“It works best if you hire people that would not otherwise be hired, to do something productive that is not already being done by somebody else,” said Lawrence Katz of Harvard, formerly chief labor economist in the Clinton administration.

Katz goes on:

“Long overdue infrastructure investments would be a good place to start, coupled with funding for positions cleaning parks and the like, which could help disadvantaged workers like the long-term unemployed.”

And then Porter intercedes:

Not every unemployed worker may be qualified to build infrastructure. But many might. Today, there are 1.5 million fewer jobs in construction than there were before the financial crisis six years ago. Plenty of unemployed workers out there know how to build things.

Only, we don’t need house-builders, we need re-construction, de-construction, and renovation. Perhaps that is not so unlikely to be fulfilled; after all, the cost of borrowing money is low and the amounts of money needed for such massive projects is available, but it simply will not — no matter how many libertarians tell me so — be done if not by the government. My intuition is that large firms in the US that use such infrastructure with regularity would only step-in after it all far too late … we are getting closer by the day, after all. The last serious investment in nation-scale infrastructure might very will be during the Great Depression.


A new direction in political sociology?


These are the proofs for a new paper/article that I’m working on. The piece is based-off of a few new books in political sociology, which I review, tie-together, and then admittedly and self-servingly I use them to suggest that a little STS would help matters out in political sociology. It is a bit academic in places, somewhat nit-picky, but I tried to keep the tone at least a little playful.

Andrew Barry and the Function of Transparency


A lesson in the function of transparency: In Andrew Barry’s masterful new book Material Politics: Disputes Along the Pipeline he goes to great lengths to consider how “transparency” is employed, in this case, the voluntary pursuit of transparency as a means to rationally improve the experience of oil companies as they pursue transnational oil pipelines (for Barry, it is the BTC).

The basic rationale is simple. Instead of dealing with complaints, usually about environmental concerns (i.e., endangered species, etc.) or issue of public interest (i.e., land rights, etc.), the firm could offset those concerns, thus, front-loading as a means of obviating them completely from the process if only they could be transparent enough and maximize front-end accountability. As he writes, his expectation, which was consistent with the expectations of oil company elites at BP, was that:

transparency might … foster informed and rational debate while limiting the scope and intensity of controversy (182)

The manifest function of transparency appears to be an outward attempt to improve the public appearance of accountability and to intentionally limit or reduce the controversy downstream. This seems fully logical: transparency is a means to reduce controversy; to rationalize a process to the point that it appears that everyone is consenting after the fact. Such a logic is, for nearly anybody under the thumb of transparency, assessment, and accountability measures and measurements, something to concern yourself with; that transparency of assessment suffocates the hard discussions rather than engaging or enlivening them.

However, transparency has a latent function too; a function that is cause for hope. Barry warns us:

while limiting the scope and intensity of controversy [is anticipated], this does not occur as anticipated. For as the case of BTC demonstrates, the production of information — in the form of the evolving archive [the host for all matters transparent at BP regard the BTC] — had the effect of multiplying the surfaces on which disagreements can incubate and flourish (182).

Now, there are host of other arguments of vast utility in this wonderful book, but this one sticks out because of recent discussions about assessment, accountability, and transparency in higher education. What Barry makes nakedly plain is that transparency is really a process of deciding what to make present (i.e.,public and transparent) and what to make absent (i.e., not public or transparent, but not identified as meaningful un-present). Thus, transparency is not a thing; it is a (strategic) process of showing and telling as well as hiding and obscuring. However, the hope that shines through — and I am hopeful about this — is that the real solution is right there, in front of us, if know how to look for it. The key is to see assessment and transparency as processes and engage them so that you see them as a whole because only when taken-together will the absences be apparent, and it is with these absences that we might multiple the much needed discussion and discourse surrounding the transparency, accountability, and assessment that so often impose themselves on our contemporary work lives.

Actually doing something with sociology


Making New York a better place through sociology? Apparently, it can be done. In 1975, Fred Kent (a former student of the wonderful W. Whyte) created Project for Public Spaces. His job? Take time-lapse films of public urban spaces with an eye to improve them. Better than any theory would be massive amounts of data. After all, rather than over-generalize Putnam’s “bowling alone” or agree too hastily with Turkle’s “alone together” thesis, he might be able to just study a spot and improve it with data and experimentation.

Kent challenges Turkle, in particular, stating that her sometimes casual observations about connection are simply no replacement for time-stamped, time-lapse data on human interaction. What’s missing, he says, is historical perspective. To avoid nostalgia for the past and the inevitable retrospective bias and attribution errors as we “remember” the past, we just need data and rigor.

Kent found some of Whyte’s old footage with an eye to recreate the research to achieve a time-place-specific reproduction for sake of comparison. Here is what he found:

… mobile-phone use, which Hampton defined to include texting and using apps, was much lower than he expected. On the steps of the Met, only 3 percent of adults captured in all the samples were on their phones.

People may decry human disconnect, but, according to Kent, 3% does not make sense as a rough count for the social armageddon that we are supposedly heading toward thanks to too much texting. Instead, he research reveals that people are more public, that is, they hang-out in public more than they did during the previously captured time period that Whyte recorded. Kent also noticed one big change: more women, many more of them. As he (nicely) puts it:

Across the board, Hampton found that the story of public spaces in the last 30 years has not been aloneness, or digital distraction, but gender equity. “I mean, who would’ve thought that, in America, 30 years ago, women were not in public the same way they are now?” Hampton said. “We don’t think about that.”

See NYT story about all this here.

Empathy for the Other through wearable tech?

My last post in December was a reflection on technology and politics.  How can we understand the connections between technology and politics, especially given that technology is generally understood as a tool of humans—either neutral as a mirror to our desires and interests, or as evil and uncontrollable progeny of humans as Creator? Think of the Cylons, Skynet, or Arnie as the Terminator. If politics and technology become entangled and rife with ethical issues and ontological angst at multiple levels what about bodies and technology?  What I think of as the “materiality of technology” is another topic that is buzzing through the webs this month….

Two things caught my attention along these lines: Oculus Rift and Google Glass.  Of course, neither of these wearable VR and computer platform, respectively, are new this month, but there has been some heavy rotation on the interwebs.  I guess I could add that I suspect the new Spike Jonze film “Her” has brought quite a few of the underlying issues about technology and our relations with technology to the surface.  Sexuality and intimacy and how they are enhanced or stymied by our tech are always top concerns.  Rightly so, of course, as more often than not plain old low (or old) technology comes along with them: misogyny, racism, sexism, criminality, etc. More broadly, the discussion in the case of “Her” has centered on our need to sexualize technology, to “weirdly” sexualize: is it “homage to form” when we assign inanimate objects gender stereotypes–as Isha Aran points out in her Jezebel essay–or a more disturbing and continuing desire to objectify and create subservient subjectivity for women?

Somewhat counterintuitively, I think that the two products above incorporate a need to both remove material barriers to our technology while creating new ways to materialize, or sexualize, this technology.  Ultimately, it may be more about sensualizing our experiences with technology, not necessarily sexualizing them.  They seem to represent a deep desire to remove “things” from between our bodies and our computers and information (mouse control, monitors, keyboards—ways of externally interacting with computers) with intuitive body controls. Think Robert Downey Jr. in Ironman (watch this) or Tom Cruise in Minority Report (2002). The drive is to interact with our information in radical new ways–in ways that mimic how we manipulate “things” in the world.


Minority Report (2002) 20th Century Fox/Dreamworks Pictures (Remember how this movie blew our minds?  Especially when we found out that this was all kinda old tech?  And now we don’t need those silly gloves.)

This is added to an anxiety that technology is altering or complicating or potentially harming our relationships with others and ourselves.  While we want technology to operate seamlessly, we are wary of its possible pernicious effects.  This is not necessarily unfounded from a bodily point of view.  We are mammals; we need contact with other mammals to mature correctly and to be happy and healthy. Babies need skin-to-skin contact and the elderly who live with a partner, or dogs and cats, tend to live longer than those who live alone. This is not necessarily reductionist thinking, just a biological understanding of limbic connections. Ultimately, we are pack animals. Playing WoW all night and day might be unhealthy for lots of reasons—many of which aren’t necessarily the fault of technology.  Isolationist behavior in any form tends to be damaging if taken to an extreme.  This brings up the other reason I chose these two examples: another impulse that wants to use this wearable tech and less interface to share and swap experiences with others for greater understanding of perspectives other than our own.  To be able to see into the pot and past the steam, as Wittgenstein wrote, of another’s mysterious inner world.

More specifically, I want to discuss two applications of Google Glass and Oculus Rift, and in one case, a hack of these two pieces of technology. Let’s return to firstly to Google Glass.  These are wearable google interfaces to simplify your interaction with information and devices; they are wearable smartphones.  They allow a user to move away from a screen and use the technology without breaking contact with the “real” world.


Sex with Google Glass is a recent app created that allows the wearer to watch and record sex from various angles.The wearer can also sync the glasses with lighting, music and to the Kama Sutra for “ideas”, for example.  It is private and all recordings are deleted after five hours.  Although Google has a strict anti-porn standing, this isn’t exactly watching porn–it’s sharing in its creation, perhaps? Sex with Glass can also allow couples to trade places and see what the other is experiencing.

This brings us  to Oculus Rift.  These are virtual reality goggles, originally funded through Kickstarter, and just out with the “Crystal Cove” prototype.  This prototype is the latest in immersive gaming and virtual experiences.


BeAnother Lab is using the Rift to allow users to experience what it’s like to swap gendersto investigate embodiment, and issues like “Gender Identity, Queer Theory, feminist technoscience, Intimacy and Mutual Respect.” This is part of the The Machine to Be Another Project.  From the website:

More than individuals, we are part of a social collective called humanity. As members of this collective, the perception of our own identity is based on our relation with other people and our social environment: how people see us, how we do act and interact with them, and what self image we project to this society and to ourselves. As part of this collective society, it is clear the importance of understanding the ‘Other’ and ‘Each Other’ to better understand ourselves. This artistic investigation plans to use the recent neuroscience approach of ‘embodiment’ and apply it to investigate the perception and comprehension about the Self based on the comprehension of the “Other”.

While I am not enough of a tech follower to have an educated opinion on the specs and lifespan of these platforms,  what I find most intriguing are these examples of the application of these products.  They seem to be highlighting the desire to be able to experience what another sees and feels; to see through their eyes.  This is an interesting empathic impulse for tech and one that bears further watching and investigation.  If technology is never neutral, as I argued, in the last post, what are the opportunities we have for freedom and ethics within this medium?  If the medium is the message, how do these applications transform the material world?

For those thinking about “ding politik”…next time… the Internet of Things. A future where everything will have an IP.

Limn (4) on Food Infrastructures

Limn (“Limn is somewhere between a scholarly journal and an art magazine”), edited by Stephen J. Collier, Christoffer M. Kelty and Andrew Lakoff, just published its fourth issue on food infrastructures. Here is the opener, check it out:

Issue Number Four: Food Infrastructures

edited by Mikko Jauho, David Schleifer, Bart Penders and Xaq Frohlich
This issue of Limn analyzes food infrastructures and addresses scale in food production, provision, and consumption. We go beyond the tendency towards simple producer “push” or consumer “pull” accounts of the food system, focusing instead on the work that connects producers to consumers. By describing and analyzing food infrastructures, our contributors examine the reciprocal relationships among consumer choice, personal use, and the socio-material arrangements that enable, channel, and constrain our everyday food options.

With articles by Christopher Otter, Franck Cochoy, Sophie Dubuissson-Quellier,  Susanne Freidberg, Heather Paxson, Emily Yates-Doerr, Mikko Jauho, Kim Hendrickx, Bart Penders and Steven Flipse, Xaq Frohlich, David Schleifer and Alison Fairbrother, Javier Lezaun, Michael G. Powell, Makalé Faber-Cullen and Anna Lappé!

via Issue Number Four: Food Infrastructures | Limn.

Abandoned Places


Abandoned places. Stunning visuals.

I am of the mind that abandoned places have something, analytically, to contribute to infrastructure studies. Once you click the link, you’ll see that the producers of this compilation (not sure how many pictures are truly “there’s”) suggest with the opening lines that this is something about what the entire world would like without people, which is sort of a pseudo-apocalyptic comment on global warming, the end of days, and curiosity about “a world without people” (anymore — or this documentary about life after people). The first lines read:

These real life ruins offer an eerie glimpse into a world without humans. Their dark walls inspire a sense of wonder like I’ve never felt before.

This should surprise no one. Perhaps the thought experiment is a good one for students, but generally thoughtful people don’t have to let their minds wander/wonder too far to know what a world without people would look like as our infrastructures remain slowly giving way to the elements.

What else might infrastructural relics like these tell us? Surely, it is fair to say that they would teach us something new every time we returned to them. However, one of the points that these might tell us, which archeologists and anthropologists have claimed for more than a century (and quite longer, I would guess), is that infrastructural remains indicate more than just “people” were here. Many of these remains (pictured above) are not ancient, either, so we don’t need to impose meanings on where these structures came from or how they were used in antiquity. These are contemporary ruins that sit precariously alongside “life as we know it” now. The point? Some, but not all, are state projects, meaning, of course, real people on the ground ultimately produced the structures that “remain,” but the attributional source of the work is a non-human entity called “the state” … these are pieces of evidence that the state exists somewhere, somehow. How to harness that insight for state theory would be a great bridge to infrastructure studies (and infrastructural relics might also be a nice play on literature for infrastructure studies that would sort of be like the relationship between STS and disaster studies, although, there is something really nice about a slow decay as compared to a momentary boom found in most disaster studies — exceptions, of course, exist).

Teaching STS: Teaching that time does not exist


Times does not exist. At least, we think time does not exist.

According to Ferenc Krausz at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, time is unlikely real.

Efforts to understand time below the Planck scale have led to an exceedingly strange juncture in physics. The problem, in brief, is that time may not exist at the most fundamental level of physical reality.

Check out the original Discovery reading here. It is an easy read and would do well if presented students in-class to read on-the-spot and then immediately discuss it. It has worked well for me to get at issues of “reality” in a surprisingly concrete way. Admittedly, this might seem like a no-brainer for long-time friends of social constructivism. Still, time is generally a great concept for an STS class, especially issues of “standards” and so on. We’ve discussed it once before on the blog here.

One of the comments is particularly nice for students to chew on:

This article was written in 2007, and I am responding to it and commenting on it in 2013. Why? Because “time” doesnt exist.

Also, of interest: notice that you have to raise time as real to tear it down as not real, signifying the significance of real-time for understanding the un-realness of time.

Infrastructure is politics by other means


Spent the morning reading Petrostate by Marshall Goldman, and look what I find in my news feed: “Ukraine receives half price gas and $15 billion to stick with Russia.” Reminds us all that infrastructure (and control over infrastructure) is politics by other means. As Goldman mentions in the book (I’m paraphrasing): Who wants/needs nuclear weapons, when there is no mutually-assured destruction to curb the use of petroleum and natural gas!?

Stef wrote something about this recently too, but not about pipelines. Along these lines, I’m in the middle of reviewing Andrew Barry’s new book (about pipeline infrastructure and politics from a geography angle) for Science Technology ans Society (the EASST journal).

New Journal coming: Big Data & Society

Our friend Evelyn Ruppert at Goldsmiths is editor and founding editor of a new open access peer reviewed journal that is in the making. We have met Evelyn the last time at 4S in San Diego where she contributed to our “State Multiplicity, Performativity and Materiality: Current STS Research on State and Stateness” sessions with a great talk on “Peopling Europe”. She is also known to many for her co-lead on the Social Life of Methods theme at CRESC.

Big Data & Society (BD&S) is an open access peer-reviewed scholarly journal that publishes interdisciplinary work principally in the social sciences, humanities and computing and their intersections with the arts and natural sciences about the implications of Big Data for societies.


The Journal´s key purpose is to provide a space for connecting debates about the emerging field of Big Data practices and how they are reconfiguring academic, social, industry, business and government relations, expertise, methods, concepts and knowledge.


BD&S moves beyond usual notions of Big Data and treats it as an emerging field of practices that is not defined by but generative of (sometimes) novel data qualities such as high volume and granularity and complex analytics such as data linking and mining. It thus attends to digital content generated through online and offline practices in social, commercial, scientific, and government domains. This includes, for instance, content generated on the Internet through social media and search engines but also that which is generated in closed networks (commercial or government transactions) and open networks such as digital archives, open government and crowdsourced data.  Critically, rather than settling on a definition the Journal makes this an object of interdisciplinary inquiries and debates explored through studies of a variety of topics and themes.


BD&S seeks contributions that analyse Big Data practices and/or involve empirical engagements and experiments with innovative methods while also reflecting on the consequences for how societies are represented (epistemologies), realised (ontologies) and governed (politics).

viaBig Data & Society: About the Journal.

Door to Hell, 42 Years Later


Proverbial “Door to Hell”, Derweze, Turkmenistan: Check out a video here.

The Door to Hell is a natural gas field in Derweze (also spelled Darvaza, meaning “gate”), Ahal Province, Turkmenistan. The Door to Hell is noted for its natural gas fire which has been burning continuously since it was lit by Soviet petrochemical scientists in 1971, fed by the rich natural gas deposits in the area. The pungent smell of burning sulfur pervades the area for some distance (Wiki).

Not the first time we talked about disasters on the blog. For example, about how Google worked in Japan post-Fukushima disaster to use Google-cars to help find missing persons. About how the intersection of infrastructure studies and disaster studies will likely grow in future years. More recently, we featured “Philip Mirowski’s Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste … an important and distinctive contribution to debates around the politics and economics of the economic crisis”.

Acting in IR?


Recently, Jan and I completed a new paper about how the material infrastructure on states (and our actor-network state idea) might figure into contemporary theorizing about international relations. In particular, we are in the process of contributing to a book about the “human element” in IR, and the resulting paper now can be read, but it is only in draft form.

Check out the paper here or here; we do some of our earliest work on “state multiplicity,” play with decentering the human in IR, and we also dabble with non-scholarly state theorizing.

4S deadline was last Friday; we submitted


Here is our session proposals for 4S in Argentina next year; hopefully we see you there. I think leadership at 4S will select the sessions it wishes to host in about two or so weeks.


First name: Nicholas J.
Last name: Rowland
Co-authors: Jan-Hendrik Passoth
Session Title: STS and “the state”
Session Description:

Consistent with the general theme of the conference, “Science in context(s): Souths and Norths”, we encourage 4S and ESOCITE scholars researching the emerging intersection of STS and “the state” to submit their work. This jointly-held meeting affords us the unique opportunity to balance South/North perspectives on both “the state” and STS, which is a rare opportunity indeed, and will be the source of a rich discussion among participants.

We anticipate hosting a series of papers in a series of “Open Panels.” In particular, we are hoping to find papers that give rise to new dialogues and exchanges on the following four topics:

1. Empirical cases of “the state” as manifest in infrastructure or in everyday life: New and exciting work in infrastructural developments offer fresh perspectives and cases to reconsider dated theoretical approaches to understanding what the state is and what they state is becoming. Likewise, a new line of research in “the state in everyday life” offers a perspective no less fresh that gets at mundane experiences and routine activities that either bring us closer to the state or fend us off from it. How these differ in the North/South divide are of prime concern.

2. Empirical cases of “the state” as manifest in material or in environmental arrangements: State formation has been a perennial question in state theory. However, as scholarship develops, the old theories of the state, which emphasize war-making and international treaties, have given way to new research on the practical aspects of state formation, as in, how do you form a state. Chief concerns in this area are material activities associated with state formation and, crucially, environmental concerns related to forming states in the first place and sustaining them in the long run. Again, how these differ in the North/South divide are of prime concern.

3. Where is the state and where is not the state? State absense/state presence: This topic emerged organically from the last 4S meeting in San Diego, and while it is new to us and is far more experimental than the above themes, we consider it of vast potential. One way to re-think the state is to ask where it is and where it is not. Are there new boarders emerging between states? Are there areas inside of the traditional territorial zones that bound states where the state simply does not appear to be present? Is it possible that the state is present even in its absence, under certain conditions? We don’t know the answers to these questions; it is the most “open” of the open panels.

4. Theoretical approaches to the state and state theory: No doubt, state theory has odd and deep roots in the Northern tradition of scholarship. Ideas that need to be challenged. We anticipate this coming from two directions if we are sensitive to STS and the state. First, in the North, fresh perspectives on the state are emerging through the lens of STS. Second, in the South, fresh perspectives on the state already exist as alternatives to traditional Northern scholarship on the state (and, of course, STS shapes these discourses too).

Please consider sending your abstracts to our set of open panels. The multiple panel format ensures a sustained audience and prolongs the discussion of our work far beyond a single paper or a single panel.

Is STS a bordello or cabinet of wonders?


This is based on some ruminations over the last year, which I’ve mentioned a while back casually and which our now full-time blogger Stef Fishel discussed more recently.

Here goes: Is STS a bordello or cabinet of wonders? (I write in the plural because Jan-H. and I were writing this together)


… we recognize the unorthodox and outlandish agency of “nonhumans” like scallops, microbes, Portuguese sea-going vessels, and British military aircrafts. In fact, the way we just listed those example case studies into the minutiae of STS scholarship is more telling than it might immediately appear. You see, STS is populated by intriguing micro case studies, and, from a far, STS appears to outsiders like a “cabinet of curiosities.” Because our research is punctualized into individual case studies, and these case studies were so routinely juxtaposed with one another during the era of great edited volumes of the 1980s, a look back through history of STS research is akin to opening the door to a cabinet whose contents were filled with every manner of wonderful and ornamental trinkets that somehow capture the grandeur of other worlds even in their miniature size. Also, because this cabinet was populated  during the Science Wars, its contents are all the more precious, and, in retrospect, to this day provide a sense of nostalgia to the scholars who filled it, marking the discoveries they had made, as they passed it down both as a gift and a challenge to the students they trained.

Also, in STS, however:

Before we are accused of fickle sentimentality for our academic home, our cabinet of curiosities might just as well appear as a “bar à hôtesses” to some insiders sickened by the excesses of postmodernity, or the bitter, personality-driven, concept-oriented turf wars over aurthorial copyright that have come to typify STS <FOOTNOTE: At feverpitch in the early 1990s, … collins yearly / latour callon etc.> and, to this day, distract the field from sharing any semblance of unity with regarding agreed-upon phenomenon to study as a group, all of which might spell the end of STS in years to come. Thus, calling our cabinet a bordello might be warranted in certain company.

*This post was largely inspired by Fabio’s early characterization of STS as a “cabinet of curiosities,” which has, since I first heard it, stayed with me. As he put it, STS is:

very anti-normal science. You end up with a cabinet of curiosities than a deep and precise knowledge of a specific issue.

**The picture is from:,d.dmg&psig=AFQjCNFDvgagsuepOr4mm7V0rPzbL4qZCQ&ust=1384557853106096

The EASST meeting in Torun, Poland, is now accepting session tracks


The EASST meeting in Torun, Poland, is now accepting session tracks for those who would like to propose some productive sessions (or unproductive ones too, I suppose).

Link to the call for sessions is here, and December 16 is the deadline.

December 16: Proposal for convenors and thematic tracks deadline
January 2014:Communication to the convenors of acceptance of
January 31 2014: Call for submission of abstracts with the final track list included
March 28 2014: Deadline for abstracts submission
May 16 2014: Communication of acceptance/rejection of abstracts to authors and opening of online registrations

Surely, I will try to attend this meeting so friends in state theory and related issues of infrastructures, please do let me know if you’ll be there/submit!

About the conference

The EASST conference 2014 addresses the dynamics and interrelationships between science, technology and society. Contributors are invited to address the meeting’s theme of ‘Situating Solidarities’ though papers on any topic relevant to the wider field are also welcome.

The theme of ‚situating solidarities’ addresses asymmetries of power through a focus on material, situated sociotechnical configurations. Heterogeneous networks of actors are stabilised to different degrees through complex negotiations.  Rather than seeking universal abstractions the theme asks questions such as: What do the chains and networks of asymmetries look like? How do they travel? What do they carry? Do asymmetries translate to inequalities? What are the solidarities that shape the practices, artifacts and ‚know-hows’ in situated material contexts?

Political and ethical engagement is a central concern for a view of science as changes in collective practice, rather than as individual contemplation. How should STS observe or influence the raising and erasing of social and technical asymmetries in everyday life? What do the ‚situated solidarities’ of dealing with asymmetries and inequalities look like? Can STS contribute to the work of solidarising to connect asymmetric agents, places, moves and networks to weaken inequalities and change hegemonic relations?

A more detailed call for tracks will be available on the EASST website and circulated on Eurograd shortly.

The city of Torun is located on the banks of the River Vistula.  It has an extensive medieval town centre which is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The university and the city provide a great location for the EASST 2014 conference.

Interdisciplinarity, crisis, and the future of academic institutions

Since the 2008 financial “crisis” (and it’s hard to keep calling something a crisis when it continues for 5 years), tenure track jobs have fallen by about 40%.  Many with PhDs are jobless, on welfare, working in tenuous positions, trying to find work in different sectors, or moving from one job to another—be it an adjunct position or more steady multiple year teaching contracts. Admittedly, the job market has been constricting since the 1980s, but now, there are fewer  jobs elsewhere to mitigate the effects of fewer academic positions.

I have been relatively lucky in this market compared to some.  I have had two positions since earning my PhD that have treated me with respect, decent wages, and health insurance.  These were harbors in the storm that many of my friends and cohort have not been lucky enough to find.  That said, I have racked up hundreds of dollars in fees to my dossier service and spent countless hours over the last three years preparing job letters and sending dossiers to potential employers. This has netted me two campus interviews and one phone interview.  In the meantime, I teach introductory courses to bright-eyed freshmen, take care of my family, research and write in whatever time I have left.

The personal financial troubles of visiting professors and adjuncts are compounded by the larger constriction of university funds. The 2008 crisis devalued endowments and investments for many universities.  While used to fighting for funds and support, humanities, social science, and interdisciplinary departments found themselves fighting for survival within their universities.  Funding was cut to many programs, and in some cases, entire departments were suspended. Technologies like MOOCs and machine graded essays moved in to fill in the gaps between fewer professors and tuition income pulled in by larger classes.  In some cases, both visiting and tenure track professors create online classes that threaten to replace them in subsequent semesters.

The important question for me—as the vagaries and cruelties of this new post-employment academic market have been addressed in nearly all ways elsewhere— is how this affects junior scholars who are attempting to craft an interdisciplinary research career in this tenuous and competitive market.  I have spoken of cabinet of curiosities in earlier posts as a way to imagine IR, but how does this measure up when hiring departments want people doing “real” IR?  What does this mean more broadly for projects that cross or question disciplines?  Research projects that grapple with the interconnected, global, rhizomatic, and immanent world filled with hybrid forms, spaces of flows, and networks are more crucial than ever. Does this new environment suffocate these important research plans?

So, perhaps getting jobs is harder in this market, but what about the future of the university with fewer tenured professors and (perhaps) fewer interdisciplinary humanities and social science projects? Traditionally, the university has been a space for intellectuals to speak subversively without fear or reprisal—especially important is job protection.  An adjunct or visiting professor will likely not even have the time to be a public intellectual.  There is no research leave or course buy out with grant money.  In fact, we are here to teach the classes for tenure track and tenured professors while they pursue their research careers.  They loan us their offices and we fight for time and space to do our own work while teaching, and, more often than not advising and serving the institution that offers visiting professors multiple one-year contracts. But this seems to me as part and parcel of the bigger problem looming over academia as an institution: neoliberal business practices imported to the university uncritically and whole-heartedly by a burgeoning administrative class. The safe space of the university is disappearing and it is unclear what will follow. In theory, I might be okay with a long term teaching contract with little to no research requirements, but what about the public intellectual who should be engaging with civil society and sharing publicly funded research?

The students certainly suffer under this new system, but this may not seem apparent to the students at first.  This is not to say that visiting and adjunct professors are “easy,” in fact, this seems to work in the opposite.  Visiting professors bring new research, disciplinary rigor, and generally plan their classes with the goals of the department and the university in mind.  Young undergraduate scholars may not have the opportunity to create long-term mentoring relationships with their professors, or even more simply, cannot choose them as their department advisors.  Long term, will they be able to request letters of recommendation from their overworked tenured advisor who teaches classes of 250 or from a visiting prof that now works at a different institution? Maybe two or three different places?

The open questions with which I would like to end: What will the university as an institution look like in the next decade or two?  Will tenure still be an option?  What departments will ascend in this neoliberal future?

Goldiblocks: Gender and engineering meet


Anybody interested in gender, engineering, or infrastructure, especially, meta-issues, like training students in the sciences and engineering and all the related gender issues:

Check out this promotional video.

Golidblocks! This is a smart idea. There is a ton of literature about how women select out of the sciences and engineering, some of which is good work and some of which borders on the sexism it supposedly only describes; however, this angle, related to children’s toys and parenting strategies … just might be one of the smartest thing “done” in that line of thinking/concern.

If you’re teaching STS and you cover gender issues, a discussion of this might be useful.

It also reminded me, hauntingly, of this: when Barbi used to say “Math class is tough” … ugh.

Reflections on Health Infrastructure


Screen capture from NYT:

The role of infrastructure in the current controversy about the Affordable Care Act.

As is well documented in national newspapers, America is finally trying to create a national health care insurance program. However, the bill is being hotly contested on the hill and some are even calling resistance to the program blackmail on a national level because every effort to fund the government for another year has been made contingent on defunding the national health care program that some call “Obama Care.”

The twin issues of policy battle and the introduction of national health insurance are further complicated by infrastructural concerns. They are two fold:

1. The race by tech companies and the government to use information technology infrastructure to support one of the bill’s primary objectives: offering citizens a platform for researching, selecting, and then purchasing health care insurance programs. The goal is to reduce cost and make program costs competitive, all of which will hypothetically benefit the citizen. However, support — in this case, the support of information technology infrastructure, not political support — has been slow to come into existence.

The Affordable Care Act has been contentious, confusing and abstract, but that might change on October 1 when states are required to launch websites where people can chose among different health plans.

In addition to the basic support of the program other technologies are being added to this melange of health technologies such as biometric bracelets to let your employer know how you’re doing at any given moment.

2. The prototype for the online support of the health exchange network mentioned in 1 is not friendly to non-English speakers. Apparently, the government is so worried about rolling-out the website on-time that they have not been able to offer the service in Spanish.

On Thursday, the Obama administration announced two new delays in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, saying small business and Spanish-language online enrollment services in federally run exchanges would not begin on Oct. 1 as planned, Reuters reports (Morgan, Reuters, 9/26).

This has happened even though, as is even posted on the White House website:

Today, an op-ed from President Obama is running in major Spanish-language newspapers across the country. The op-ed discusses the benefits of the Affordable Care Act for Latinos and announces the release of a new Spanish-language version of –

The op-ed is running in ImpreMedia’s print publications (including La Opinión in Los Angeles and El Diario La Prensa in New York) and online properties, all of which have a monthly reach of 9.3 million adults and monthly distribution of nearly 11 million.

Obama’s op-ed is, in contrast, available en español.

These two issues remind students of infrastructure that Law and Latour were correct all those years ago in saying that technology is “politics by other means,” although in a slightly different light. Routinely, the implementation of political aims is contingent on technological infrastructure, its development, and maintenance over time.

Sexy Infrastructure?

For an academic blog writer, a story like this might come once in a lifetime.

Listening to the radio on the way home from a day at the University, I heard a phrase that had never occurred to me before: “sexy infrastructure.”


Feast your eyes on this; Griefswalder Straße looks so great from the rail stop.

Jim Rose, American journalist and novelist, is responsible for “Governors Want Federal Funds For Infrastructure” which features the following comments:

Governor ED RENDELL (Democrat, Pennsylvania): We have a legitimate crisis with these bridges. They’re not sexy. People can’t see them. Almost nobody driving on I-95 saw the crack in that pier. Most of you did. And it was pretty darn frightening. And we have got to get about doing this.

Excuse me? Sexy infrastructure? Bridges, by candle light? Watch your language, Ed, there might be children around. The idea of sexy infrastructure really got me thinking…

However, there is more to this than one might, at first, imagine.

Infrastructure assets such as utilities, toll roads and airports are attractive to financial bidders like banks and pension funds because of their stable cash flow despite having lower growth rates than other private equity opportunities.

However, not everyone agrees on the general level of sexiness with regard to infrastructure. Long time proponent of seeing infrastructure as anything but attractive, anti-sexy infrastructure writer Cheri Rae from the Santa Barbara View calls infrastructure the “not-so-sexy part of government work.”

At any rate, I’ll never take questions like “how’s your plumbing?” or comments like “you have nice roads in Pennsylvania” the same way ever again …


“Nice trains!” … “Are you flirting with my infrastructure, sir?”

Cataloguing our microbial roommates

On the NYT site this morning I ran across an interesting video entitled “The Jungle Indoors” and a companion article “Mapping the Great Indoors.” Subtitled “Getting to Know Our Microbial Roommates,” the article and video discuss the ecology of our homes.  Humans are an indoor species spending as much as 90% of our time indoors, and ecologists have become interested in learning about these intimate relationships that have gone unnoticed thus far.  How do humans “colonize” the places we live and how can understanding these relationships lead to better health are the main questions behind this study.  What I find infinitely intriguing is that this study (and studies on the microbiome in our guts and skin) are generally reported with a sense of wonder and even awe at the magic of these relationships:

“But as humdrum as a home might first appear, it is a veritable wonderland. Ecology does not stop at the front door; a home to you is also home to an incredible array of wildlife.”

If, as Weber wrote, we have lost our sense of enchantment with the modern world, these morsels remind us that this may not be entirely the case.  Plus, it opens up discussions about our built environments and structures, along with what it might mean to live together with all kinds of “roommates.”

Peer Schouten, at it again!

We introduced Peer back in March … well, his paper presented in last year’s 4S meeting at the Copenhagen Business School (and subsequent ISA meeting at London School of Economics) is now in press!

Check it out; its an alternative answer to traditional interpretations of “failed states” in conventional IR research, and, of course, the alternative to orthodox social contract theory appears to be ANT (or, at minimum, ANT can draw our attention to alternative explanations … or, better yet, help us to understand the infrastructural underpinnings that make explanations possible, like those used by our friends in social contract theory [although their friendships seem oddly contractual]).


Cheers, Peer!

Oh, he even mentions as much in the acknowledgements:

Further thanks to the following people for comments on a previous draft of this article:the editors Graham Harman, Maximilian Mayer, the participants in the panelOn States, Stateness,and STS: government(ality) with a small “g”?, Society for Social Studies of Science & European Association for the Study of Science and Technology Annual Conference, Copenhagen, October17-20 2012, and participants in the Millennium/Theory Talks workshop at the Millennium Annual Conference, London, October 20–22 2012.

Homeopathic Infrastructure: Machiavelli on Infrastructure

Recently, an old dissertation fell into my lap and I’d like to tell you about it. I asked my work study to find basically anything about the state and state theory for Jan and I’s book “The State Multiple,” which we are writing now. Well, the dissertation was from 1988 by Michael Soupios, now a storied professor at Long Island University here in the states, where he’s being teaching for three decades and more. His 1988 dissertation from Fordham *(he has multiple PhDs) is titled “Human Nature and Machiavelli’s Homeopathic Theory of State” wherein he tackles the basic quandary set forth by Machiavelli.


Quoting the dissertation:

The terms “homopathic” or “homeotherapy” are of medical origin and refer to a form of treatment in which an element similar to the causative agent of a disease is itself used in attempting a cure. It is precisely this approach that we find offered in Machiavelli’s political formula.

The dissertation goes on to explain how Machiavelli’s vision of humans was basically that we are a bunch of decrepit liars and thieves and, thus, deserved to be treated with as much manipulation and self-service as we would impart on others. Call this, let’s say, a Hobbsian antidote to the crisis of the commons and the natural order of man, although Michael Soupios refrains from the comment (good to stay on topic in a dissertation!). We are not to be ruled and governed by a force that helps us to repress our baser instincts and then choose to be together non-violently as a form of supra-self-interest (sort of like a dynamic where we cooperate just long enough to compete, like children playing nearly any game), and, instead, we see Machiavelli’s view that you treat like with like, or his homeopathic view of states. Michael Soupios tackles fear and force, fraud as an instrument of the state, and creative conflict within the state before setting his sights on how this approach could even be instantiated as a model for International Relations.

The dissertation is fascinating and essentially well-written. Now, this view of politics is politics by political means, if you will. Since this writing, STS has entered the discussion of the state, perhaps foremost by my friend and ally in state theory, Patrick Carroll, who, in his many written works, shows how the state, as we know it (i.e., as an actor, a macro entity capable of action, etc.) is a falsehood of sorts and instead the state is made-up of all things stately such as people, bogs, trees, and all the measurement techniques used to make the state’s ‘self’ register in formal documents of statehood and statecraft. For Patrick, the state is constructed and environmental rather than iconic and abstract; material rather than conceptual.

So, with enough force, could Michael Soupios and Patrick Carroll be collided with enough force to make the argument: if one model for the state is homeopathic (i.e., Mach’s), and if one model for the state is material, then could we have a hybrid theory, a homeopathic-material theory of the state?

If that is the case: what would the infrastructural equivalent of homeopathic statecraft look like? I don’t yet know, as I’ve only just completed the dissertation read, but it seems like a viable option forward if one wants to engage the cocktail of normative and empirical claims-making that is contemporary political theory.

Infrastructuring the City (and its Leftovers)

A few months ago we had a discussion (here and here) about olympic stadiums and the fact that they are the products of large infrastructuring projects that remain long after the project is over. That was an eye opener — at least for me: it seems as if our (STS) focus on stability and material durability is biased; we tend to think that by building buildings we build a world of things that stand for us, our wishes, dreams, prejudices or our moral classifications. The whole “politics by other means is going into that direction. And the ruins of the olympic stadium in Athens (the 2006 one, not the antique one turned into a soccer stadium) reminded me that durability sometimes is a burden: what is build in steel and concrete is going to stay unless we “deconstruct” it. And even then the marks of it stay, leftovers are hard to avoid. Two days ago now I saw this:

A city divided by light

A city divided by light (Photo by Chris Hadfield, Source:

After 23 years,the city of Berlin is still divided — infrastructurally. On the one hand, a lot of the western part of the city still has gas lights: a relict of the cold war era where gas was easier to manage because it can be made from coal and storing or even delivering that was easier than providing electricity in times of a lock-down of the city surrounded by the GDR. But that is not the reason for that: To increase efficiency (and officially to avoid “capitalist/imperialist wastefulness”, I suppose) the GDR changed their preferred system of electric lighting to Sodium-vapor lamps (with a warmer and darker light), the FRG continued to use Mercury-vapor lamps (with that bluish lucid light). So: leftovers of projects of infrastructural politics, but not disturbing ones like politically incorrect street names, memorizing ones like memorials, problematic ones like the Athens olympic stadium. But mundane ones. There in every corner, unnoticed. What do they tell us?

(Installing) Order restored

ReconstructionWe are back to normal, at least in technical terms. It is a strange thing to notice, but even a blog on infrastructure can have infrastructure issues. Posterous, our old home, has announced that after being acquired by Twitter they are shutting down at the end of April. Unfortunately the rats were leaving the sinking ship, producing all kinds of hickups  and dropouts, forcing us to leave in a hurry.

But we are glad to announce that we managed the transition! Thanks to Nicholas for carrying each post individually to its new home — and that from today on we are accessible again both via our temporary URL and our beloved old URL We will keep both up as long as we see traffic coming in through them.

Some issues are still to be dealed with — author mapping for example, but that is work for the following weeks. While we are fixing these issues and tweaking the new design as well as the new machine: Are there any features, any functionalities that you as readers and commenters missed on the old installing (social) order? If so, please let us know, we will try to make them a part of the new installing (social) order!