Doomsday Arks

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With a trillion-ton iceberg cleaving from Antartica, and debate over the exact causes seems never to end, I wonder “what is the infrastructural equivalent of it?” 

One immediate answer is found the giant, offshore seed vault Svalbard (Norway), which was colorfully referred to as one of the “Arks of the Apocalypse” in the New York Times Magazine. The anthropocene stirs, no matter what the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) suggests, and seed banks are a fascinating reflection of this transition for so many reasons. 

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thesinkhole.org

130301151745-02-sinkholes-0301-horizontal-large-gallery*from: http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/28/asia/japan-sinkhole-fukuoka/

There is an odd combination of care and mockery with regard to infrastructure devoted entirely to sinkholes. Please, please go to thesinkhole.org and check them out. It is not a complex blog, but it is dead serious (for example, note that a number of the stories covered by the blog record casualties). A curious resource and one to keep your eye on.

End of Year Reflection

… while the topics associated with infrastructure were plentiful this year, one of them sticks-out and consistently lingers in my mind’s eye. It is a topic implied in what I saw again just today while scrolling through my facebook and twitter feed.

It is called a number of things, although, apparently, “ruin porn” is term that has come to encapsulate the phenomenon. For example, I saw it today: an abandoned Wizard of Oz theme park that “will haunt you.”

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Incentivizing “Repair” in Sweden

This is an idea worth reviewing — imperfect, of course, but something of this ilk should be developed, at scale. You can see reports on this all over now: the Guardian, CNN, Washington Post, BBC, and so on.

This comes on heels of much needed attention to maintenance, especially in terms of infrastructure, but with a new mechanism for incentivizing these behaviors on a wide swath of products, which re-articulates attention toward “demand” in a fresh way and away from “demand” as merely “voicing political concern” (which seems not to work, other than verbally). 

Sweden proposes tax breaks for repairing things, extra tax on unrepairable things.

Re-Using Nuclear Sites

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Logging and nudist colonies

It is an admittedly odd juxtaposition, but these two ideas landed on my desk this week. 

First, in an example of public participation in inquiry,Chornobyl’s urban explorers find evidence of logging inside exclusion zone” — logging glow sticks in the “zone of alienation” (thanks dmf). A group of “stockers” roams the zone of alienation and monitor it, and they have found some interesting things in their somewhat odd form of tourism. “The first time we saw forests and the second time it wasn’t there,” says Kalmykov. Chernobyl is having a birthday.

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Unintended Consequences Go Hog Wild

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If you find yourself teaching unintended consequences, consider this case “Radioactive wild boars rampaging around Fukushima nuclear site.” The animal population, which was previously hunted as a delicacy, has expanded dramatically (likely on account of nobody wanting to eat the radioactive meat); the hogs have pillaged the environment local to the Fukushima nuclear site, eating all manner of contaminated fruits and vegetables.

Infrastructure Collapse, India

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Collapsing bridges (again and again), this time a flyover under construction in Kolkata (Calcutta). “India bridge collapse: Kolkata rescue efforts under way,” “India bridge collapse: At least 23 killed in Kolkata,” “Kolkata overpass collapse kills 24; rescuers dig for survivors,” “India Kolkata flyover collapse: At least 20 dead,” and it goes on.

Uncommon Walking Tour of Bristol

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In a fascinating post about walking, Will Self offers an uncommon walking tour of Bristol. According to Self, “walking was the way to break free from the shackles of 21st-century capitalism.” Walking tours, sometimes also called pedway tours, are growing in popularity; pedways are pedestrian walkways and they can be both above ground and below; they are sometimes discussed as a form of ungoverned or unplanned civil engineering.

Self, who guides the walking tours, gets meta pretty quick; he “began with a brief introduction to the situationists – the Paris-based artists and thinkers of the 1960s who championed the concept of “psychogeography”, the unplanned drifting through an urban landscape to become more in tune with one’s surroundings.”

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Squirrels, Sharks, and Eagles, oh my!

While teaching STS, I was recently talking to my students about what constitutes an “internet attack.” The students arrived with clear examples in mind (and in hand, which was part of the assignment). The answers were primarily in the form of human-based hacking projects, and, as most of you know, they are abound. Giving the timing of the assignment, most of the cases had something to do with hacks against the US, hacks against power production facilities, and financial institutions.

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However, one student brought this: Sharks, replete with jokes about Sharknado as evidence of the prowess of the shark. Seeing as how a previous lesson was about ANT, with an emphasis on non-human agents as not-to-be-ignored agents in understanding social order, broadly speaking, this was a sign that at least one student “really got it.”

Another student brought in this: an eagle hitting a drone, hard.

Not a few days pass, and the blog’s oldest friend, dmf, sends me to a great website, half-serious, half-satire, CyberSquirrel1. The site is a terrific description of how our critical infrastructure is seemingly the most danger from other nation-states; however, the empirical materials do not seem to suss-out such an explanation; in fact, squirrels and other non-humans are responsible for more “attacks” than anyone else.

Makes for a great lesson if you want to find a fresh new way to bring infrastructure and the agentic role of nonhumans into the classroom in a way that is, to my mind, far better to the early discussions that Latour made about stop signs or door hinges.

NEW BOOK: Assembling Policy

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I am Sebastian Ureta and Nicholas has invited me to discuss my new (November 2015) book Assembling Policy.

Also, I owe a big thank you to MIT Press for publishing Assembling Policy!

For readers of the blog: Given past interest in Foucault, the origins of governmentality, and hybrid infrastructures, I thought the book would be of interest, seeing as how I mix classic STS with governmentality studies (among other things). I’ve published in The Information Society, Social Studies of Science, Organization, Public Understanding of Science, Urban Studies, and a few other places, if you’re curious about other work.

The case: I analyze the Transantiago, a mayor infrastructural policy carried out in Santiago, Chile in 2007 with utterly disastrous results. You can see the publisher’s overview bellow.

*I am happy to expand/comment on any of the book’s contents — please ask in the comments!

Publisher’s Overview:

Policymakers are regularly confronted by complaints that ordinary people are left out of the planning and managing of complex infrastructure projects. In this book, Sebastián Ureta argues that humans, both individually and collectively, are always at the heart of infrastructure policy; the issue is how they are brought into it. Ureta develops his argument through the case of Transantiago, a massive public transportation project in the city of Santiago, proposed in 2000, launched in 2007, and in 2012 called “the worst public policy ever implemented in our country” by a Chilean government spokesman.

 

Ureta examines Transantiago as a policy assemblage formed by an array of heterogeneous elements—including, crucially, “human devices,” or artifacts and practices through which humans were brought into infrastructure planning and implementation. Ureta traces the design and operation of Transantiago through four configurations: crisis, infrastructuration, disruption, and normalization. In the crisis phase, humans were enacted both as consumers and as participants in the transformation of Santiago into a “world-class” city, but during infrastructuration the “active citizen” went missing. The launch of Transantiago caused huge disruptions, in part because users challenged their role as mere consumers and instead enacted unexpected human devices. Resisting calls for radical reform, policymakers insisted on normalizing Transantiago, transforming it into a permanent failing system. Drawing on Chile’s experience, Ureta argues that if we understand policy as a series of heterogeneous assemblages, infrastructure policymaking would be more inclusive, reflexive, and responsible.

Co-opting Participation Infrastructure?

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Kenny Cuppers has a cool set of papers on the rise of shared “cultural centers” in major Postwar European cities. His is the first substantive chapter in a not-yet published book, which seems tailor-made for his research line, and which acts as a kind of companion piece for his published article “The Cultural Center: Architecture as Cultural Policy in Postwar Europe.”

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Infrastructural Lives, Reviewed

Add this one to your reading list: Steve Graham and Colin McFarlane have edited a book, which has just come out, Infrastructural Lives

Contributors include AbdouMaliq Simone, Maria Kaika, Vyjayanthi Rao, Mariana Cavalcanti, Stephanie Terrani-Brown, Omar Jabary Salamanca, Rob Shaw, Harriet Bulkeley, Vanesa Caston-Broto, Simon Marvin, Mike Hodson, Renu Desai, Steve Graham, and myself.  Arjun Appaduria kindly provided a thoughtful foreword for the book.

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Latour on Paris Attacks

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Latour on Paris Attacks: 

What is so discouraging about the terrorist acts is that our discussion of what motivated the operations is as insane as the acts themselves. With each attack of this nature, we restage the grand war drama, the nation in peril and the protector-state purporting to rise up against barbarity. This is what states do, we say: we should have a basic expectation of security, and the state should have the means to provide it. End of story.

But what makes the current situation so much more dismaying is that the crimes committed on 13 November have occurred within a few days of another event about to take place that involves tragedies of a different kind, ones that will require that we come up with very different answers to wholly different threats that have nothing to do with ISIS/Daech. I am referring, of course, to the World Climate Change Conference in Paris, the COP21, which we are now liable to deem less serious, less urgent than the police response to the bloody escapades of those machinegun-toting lunatics.

See the rest here and here.

Presentation: 4S, 2015

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4S 2015 Denver is our (Jan-H and I’s) presentation from, unsurprisingly, 4S 2015 (Denver), wherein we reflect on the trends and recurrent themes in our five years of organizing panels around STS, governance, and the state, which we are now calling simply “Social Studies of Politics.” We have a chapter summarizing a bit of this in “Knowing Governance,” but the paywall is steep, steep!

CfP: “The Platform Society”

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Call for Papers: IPP2016 “The Platform Society”

Location: Thursday 22 – Friday 23 September 2016, University of Oxford.
Convenors: Helen Margetts (OII), Vili Lehdonvirta (OII), Jonathan Bright (OII), David Sutcliffe (OII), Andrea Calderaro (EUI / ECPR).
Abstract deadline: 14 March 2016.
Contact: policyandinternet@oii.ox.ac.uk

This conference is convened by the Oxford Internet Institute for the OII-edited academic journal Policy and Internet, in collaboration with the European Consortium of Political Research (ECPR) standing group on Internet and Politics.

See full call here: http://ipp.oii.ox.ac.uk/2016/call-for-papers

IO: Infrastructure Observatory

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Infrastructure Observatory (IO) is a “community devoted to exploring and celebrating the infrastructural landscape.”

Their mission: “to render visible the oft-invisible guts of modern life, and foster chapters of enthusiasts around these structures throughout the world.”

The group recently came out with this pocket-sized waterproof book about “shipping containers and the corporations that own them” (The Container Guide, 2015). They also held MacroCity, a cool-looking group of critical panels and city infrastructure tours wrapped into one conference.

Their main page is a little with interesting photographs of urban infrastructure — check it out. As of right now (late 2015), they are — somewhat obviously — set in major metropolitan areas: San Francisco, New York, and London. However, I’d love to see, in the future, groups like this China, India, or elsewhere.

Decoloniality Mini-Conference

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CONFERENCE OPPORTUNITY: Decolonialty mini-conference (9 panels) at the Eastern Sociological Society Meeting, Boston March 17-20, 2015. Panels on a number of topics including “Decoloniality and the State” and “Beyond the ‘Human'”. If you do non-human/post-human, postmodern state theory or state modeling, and can connect to decolonial options/epistemic disobedience get in touch asap (submission is on Oct 30) (write me at: njr12@psu.edu).

We are happy to host newcomers to decoloniality as well as seasoned/experienced scholars. Please consider this an open invitation to join the important discussion about decoloniality and the social sciences. There may also be opportunities to Skype into the meeting so please do keep that in mind.

NatureCulture, Casper Bruun Jensen (Free On-line)

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NatureCulture is a new journal that is free on-line, which features articles from landmark STS scholars (Casper Bruun Jensen, Annamarie Mol, Christopher Gad, Marilyn Strathern, etc.), well-known in the networks of the Global North, alongside a fascinating group of STS scholars primarily in Japan (Mohácsi Gergely, Merit Atsuro, Miho Ishii, etc.).

The journal, after a quick perusal, is of high-quality. Rather than dense empirical work, the journal seems to feature relatively complex essays with a tone that shifts between conversational and erudite. Consider a great piece by Christopher Gad on the post pluralist attitude, an obvious nod to a previous work on the topic, another essay-form piece (Gad, C. & C. B. Jensen 2010. ‘On the Consequences of Post-ANT’, Science Technology & Human Values 35: 1, 55–80.).

While I cannot say for sure, the seeds for this project may well have been born from the 2010 4S meeting (held jointly with Japanese Society for Science and Technology Studies) … after all, Casper Bruun Jensen presented a paper title “Techno-animism in Japan: Shinto cosmograms, actor-network theory, and the enabling powers of non-human agencies.”

Pankaj Sekhsaria: Guest Blogger

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Pankaj Sekhsaria (doctoral candidate from Maastricht University Science and Technology Studies) will join us for the next month on the blog. You might recall mention of research on jugaad, but Pankaj’s work is so much more than that. If you review the academia.edu page, then you’ll see a substantial amount more about jugaad, including an engaging and well-read newspaper piece about the topic,  along with a piece in Current Science, India’s leading science journal, and there is also a chapter is an edited volume that is worth the read. Pankaj is also author of The Last Wave, a novel that is engrossing — I’m learning — and that was well-received on the topic of deforestation and, I think, finding meaning in a world ravened by capitalism’s insufferable appetite.

This is truly a joy to welcome Pankaj to the blog. Please join me in welcoming our guest.

Infrastructure Toolbox

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This is a useful resource for anyone writing about or thinking about infrastructure from a big name (Gupta) and a rising star (Anand), it is the notion of an “infrastructure toolbox.”

One of the bottom-line insights appears to be that STS has had an impact on general thinking about infrastructure, in particular, legitimizing the “social” study of it (think: infrastructure ethnography, which I’ve discussed before too, especially in relationship to jugaad). Thus, we ask, what does infrastructure mean, even metaphorically, for “theory-making?”

Here is the opening passage (and it is freely available on-line): 

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New Zealand Grants River Personhood

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Great ANT case for teaching: “New Zealand Grants River Personhood

Want to take it to the next level in the classroom? challenge students to understand how a person-like “state” (in this case, New Zealand) is apparently accorded the ability to do this!

Ask them, which is weirder, a river being a person or a state granting the personhood?

Pacification of Rio’s Favelas

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Infrastructure is often seen as a pivot-point for addressing social ailments, directly or indirectly. That is what you’ll read — that assumption fully addressed — in Mariana Cavalcanti‘s “Waiting in the Ruins” a book chapter in Infrastructural Lives. What social ailments? Anything in the way of establishing Rio de Janeiro as a world Olympic city.

Questioned is the rhetoric championed by proponents of the favelas pacification programs as a form of “state intervention” — finally! Continue reading

Anti-Crisis and Post-Crisis

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At fellow blog “Society and Space” a recent book is under review, namely, Janet Roitman’s Anti-Crisis (Duke University Press, 2014). This discussion dovetails nicely with some topics on Installing Order some weeks ago with guest blogger Peter Bratsis, wherein I was attempting to suggest that “crisis” is a concept that is sort of like a balloon with the air let out of it (or an “empty container” to mix some metaphors 😉 ), stating:

Living in a state of semi-permanent crisis can be construed as a license to do nothing. Fatigue sets-in. Apathy ensues. Inaction seems plausible.

In Luca Follis’s review of Janet Roitman’s Anti-Crisis we see something similar. This line sticks out:

But is this global state of affairs merely a reflection of a historical, empirical moment or is it an expression of the ease and haste with which we label events as critical (and by extension the way we approach the broader category of crisis)?

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On Revanchist Policy and Water Infrastructure

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In “Water Wars in Mumbai,” a book chapter in Infrastructural Lives, we learn an important lesson about infrastructure as a material-social entanglement, in particular, in relation to the poor: infrastructure — or the lack-thereof — can be used to subjugate the poor — thus, reproducing their impoverished state — but infrastructure also, with rare exception, binds the poor to the non-poor. 

This lesson dovetails nicely with Simone’s insights about postcolonial urban environment, and speaks to the fecundity of the chapters housed in the edited volume Infrastructural Lives. Continue reading

Simone on Infrastructure in Postcolonial Urban Environments

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AbdouMaliq Simone’s “Relational Infrastructure in Postcolonial Urban Worlds” is a book chapter in Infrastructural Lives, and provides a broader context for understanding the art of urban living with emphasis on adjustment, impromptu innovation (or “jugaad“), improvisation with focus on understanding the negotiated and lived experiences of individuals that inhabit these postcolonial urban “worlds.”

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Jugaad and the Workaround

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Jugaad is Hindi for “an improvised solution bom from ingenuity and cleverness” (De Vita, 2012: 21). Sometimes referred to as “frugal innovation,” jugaad is a way to think about most of the world’s experience with and approach to infrastructure, according to Vyjajanthia Rao (2015) in an essay featured in the edited book Infrastructural Lives. Defined as “innovative, improvisational urban practices and the objects they produce as temporary “fixes” or solutions to systematic problems,” Rao (2015: 54) notes that while the dominant “decay discourse” overwhelmingly depicts infrastructure as dilapidated and falling apart, this dominant discourse provides an almost too perfect foil for the conviviality and colorfulness with which jugaad is often celebrated with. 

ETHICS OF CELEBRATING JUGAAD

Celebrating jugaad, however, is not an innocent act, especially from the “outside looking in.”  Continue reading

“Infrastructural Lives: Urban Infrastructure in Context”

Line one of the foreword by Arjun Appadurai reads: “This timely book is sure to become a definitive work on the now growing literature on urban infrastructure” (xii).

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And Appadurai is not overstepping or overstating by saying as much. “Infrastructural Lives: Urban Infrastructure in Context” is edited by Stephen Graham and Colin McFarlane, both themselves big players in the academic discussion or urban infrastructure. McFarlane has a great blog, “cityfragment” that the book was recently showcased on. Some of the book’s materials are available on google-books here.

I’m reviewing the book this week, and will post commentary about it as I go.

Here are some thoughts and concerns about the foreword, and, thus, the project as a whole: Appadurai is an important figure for the burgeoning area at the intersection of sociology, anthropology, geography, political science, urban studies, and so on and so forth — many are invited to the table to dine on the topic of urban infrastructure. What makes this book extraordinary, Appadurai notes, is the approach:  Continue reading

3:1 — Post-Crisis (and back again) — 3 of 3

The notion of “post-crisis” that I opened-up this week with was meant to be a hard press against the post-crisis that I have often heard in discussions about “post-crisis economic planning” — that is, “after a crisis and now things are better” (which likely makes the likes of Naomi Klein retch, as Stef notes in her post). The notion that we are in a semi-permanent state of crisis raised to me the obvious question: does “crisis” really capture anything out of the ordinary? (and so have we exhausted the utility of such a concept?) Continue reading

Free PhD Class at Roskilde University

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Free 3-day PhD Course: “Criticizing Contemporary Technology: From Drones to Google Glasses and Self-Driving Cars” w/ Prof. Evan Selinger (RIT, USA)

Deadline for sign-up: Monday 20th April to Søren Riis, soerenr@ruc.dk

Relevant dates: 29 June 2015 (day 1), 30 June 2015 (day 2), and 01 July 2015 (day 3).

Background: Prof. Evan Selinger is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and the Media, Arts, Games, Design, Interaction and Community Center (MAGIC) Head of Research Communications, Community, and Ethics at Rochester Institute of Technology. In addition to publishing widely on issues in philosophy of technology in the standard academic sources, he has also written extensively for popular media, including places like The Atlantic, Wired, Slate, The Nation, Salon, and The Wall Street Journal. Starting September 2015, he will spend a sabbatical year as a Senior Fellow at The Future of Privacy Forum. You can find out more by going to Prof. Selinger’s homepage (http://eselinger.org/) and following him on Twitter @EvanSelinger.

Summary: In this 3-day PhD course, Prof. Evan Selinger gives a general introduction to the field of philosophy of technology and dedicates a day of presentations and discussions to three disputed topics: obscurity and privacy, automation and the ethics of outsourcing, and technology and public scholarship. The course is developed for graduated students across different disciplines: humanities, media studies, social sciences, IT and engineering.

If you’re in Denmark, happen to be in Denmark, or are close, write Søren!

 

Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank

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“A senior US diplomat said it was up to individual countries to decide on joining a new China-led lending body, as media reports said France, Germany and Italy have agreed to follow Britain’s lead and join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). A growing number of close allies were ignoring Washington’s pressure to stay out of the institution, the Financial Times reported, in a setback for US foreign policy.” from The Guardian.

Similar stories ran in most of the world papers — Telegraph, NYT, and so on — China wants to fund large-scale infrastructure projects in some of Asia’s poorest countries; the US views the move as a means to up-end the IMF and World Bank (institutions that helped to usher-in the world economy that we know today.

Infrastructure Making People in Europe circa 2030

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Two months ago the European Commission’s Mobility and Transport wing announced “Infrastructure – TEN-T – Connecting Europe,” an approximately €700 billion financial investment (into 2030), which is an extension of previous efforts to unite Europe infra structurally, where TEN-T means Trans-European Transport Networks. Continue reading

3:1 — On “Decoloniality” — 1 of 3

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“Decoloniality” is our topic for the week. It is immediately important to note that decoloniality is not the political process of decolonizing previously colonized nations (i.e., decoloniality cannot be reduced process of decolonization); decoloniality is not the academic study of living, thinking, and acting in a decolonized land or producing theoretical models of it (i.e., decoloniality cannot be reduced to academic research in post-colonial studies); decoloniality is also not the equivalent critique of modernity that post-modernity offers either (i.e., decoloniality cannot be reduced to post-modernism because post-modernism was/is a critique of Western modernity from the inside).*

In contrast, coloniality is what Walter Mignolo refers to as the “darker side of modernity;” the idea that modern science, modern capitalism, belief in progress, gargantuan architectural and infrastructural advancements (the brighter side of modernity, one might say) all brought with them a few genuine liabilities such as major justifications for colonialism largely based on selective understandings of Europe’s “advanced place in history” and the advent of scientifically based racial hierarchies. Obviously, this dates as far back as the Renaissance.

Coloniality is a logic. We think and act through it; the logic is undergird. It lasts longer than the colonized peoples of a colonized nation are no longer colonized. It is a logic of many things, many things good and bad, for example, a logic of selective intervention, selective classification, de-personalized knowledge, and so on (this is quite complex, so, to those interested, this list will expand as you read more). The impact is long lasting, as well. When a panel of men determine women’s access to reproductive rights, we can see the logic — not in the outcome, but in the very existence of of such a panel being legitimate in the first place; we might say this is the colonization of reproduction (which is not to say that discussing women’s access to reproductive rights is wrongheaded, it is only to say that the idea of intervening into such matters for women or on behalf of women is perhaps not so legitimate as it may at first glance appear). Likewise, when poor individuals living in cramped urban environs, and the “right answer” is to start a war on poverty and intervene into the lives of people, build a massive public housing infrastructure and then step away from such matters, we might say that this is the colonization of poverty. This sort of coloniality is perhaps the most obvious when indigenous knowledge about the environment and nonhuman inhabitants comes into contact with outside forces like the state, for example, in this herring fishery controversy featuring fish, bears, aboriginal peoples, police at fishing docks, and more (one of the more difficult parts of this case is that the fishing industry is not pressing for fishing rights in these waters off of British Columbia and scientists seem to have heard and support local indigenous knowledge on the need to leave herring alone in these fragile waters). So, this is something of the lasting logic of coloniality as might be apparent even now in our postmodern times, and the pillars of science, the state, modern medicine, and the like help to produce the long-lived “colonial matrix of power” (along with all the distinctions Latour is happy to point out regarding the split between human and nonhuman, man and beast, culture and nature, and so on).

The goal of the decoloniality project (writ large) is to “de-link” from the colonial matrix of power by as many means as are possible, and so far, this has mainly implied decolonial thinking and doing (i.e., epistemology and political praxis, respectively). The goal is to identify “options confronting and delinking from […] the colonial matrix of power” (Mignolo 2011: xxvii).

This week, I (Nicholas Rowland), Stef Fishel, and Mary Mitchell, contributed to a panel session about decoloniality at the Eastern Sociological Society’s annual meeting (in good old New Amsterdam … er. New York). This week, we will be talking about the cases we shared at the conference to give readers a sense of what STS might be able to offer this line of research and research activism which largely comes from the non-Westernized world, the Global South, and academically speaking from the humanities. Also, we are deeply indebted to those who presented in the panel and specifically to Sabrina Weiss and Alexander Stingl for overseeing and organizing the panels!

*As you might note the wikipedia page for decoloniality is marked at the top by a message claiming that it is not balanced and fair by wikipedia’s standards. Given what has been discussed about the colonial matrix of power, this is both a cautionary thought and possibly evidence for the difficulties of de-linking from the colonial matrix of power (especially the critique that the piece is not neutral, with the implied message “it should be neutral,” given that neutral can be used precisely to neutralize political or radical ideas).

3:1 — Experts Everywhere? Experts Nowhere? — 3 of 3

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Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink … 

Earlier this week, Jacob raised the provocative notion that “terrorism expert” was something of an oxymoron drawing attention to how supposed terrorism expert Steve Emerson made some irresponsible public remarks about the concentration of Muslim persons in a number of cities.

But Jacob also shed some light on how the very notion of terrorism does not lend itself to a clean/clear subject to be an expert in because terrorism, on the one hand, has a political dimension that can never really be excised to form a “pure” science (cough) and, on the other hand, terrorism is often in the eye of the beholder (or as Jacob said somewhere, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter). It all reminded me of some readings in my Social Problems class about terrorism – during class discussion a student (perhaps unknowingly) raised a really important question: “Hey, Dr. Rowland, does it matter that the author of this piece is not at a University and instead works for the government military complex?” (not a perfect question, obviously, but it lead to a great discussion, and, at times, a heated one). Returning to the crisis of expertise in terrorism: my hunch was that some serious traction might be gained by thinking about how persons in this line of work get said expertise during training – given that, as Jacob noted, certificates in this line of work are a dime a dozen – or what sorts of activities a person can be involved in – journalistic work with terrorists inside prisons, for example – that justify their expert status. On Monday, we were questioning the very possibility of an expert of terror(ism); the supposed experts, whom get a good deal of public and political attention, seem not to be experts in the scientific context that the term typically is used (thus, science is used in name only).

On Wednesday, while Jacob’s terrorism experts are rarely questioned and get tons of public attention, Stef’s climate experts are seemingly always questioned and get little public attention (at least, positive public attention, or they are pigeon-holed as participating in some grand debate about “warming”).

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So what makes Jacob’s experts – who reach ecstasy on a daily news show – legitimate experts and Stef’s experts – who cringe at the thought of a daily news show – illegitimate experts?

If Lyotard was right about one thing in “The Postmodern Condition” it was his commentary about scientific expertise, especially about how “old fashioned” scientific expertise was being gradually replaced a parallel somewhat pseudo-scientific enterprise that serviced capital interests (think business scholarship and that ilk) and the state (Jacob’s terrorism experts will do). The net result was a plurality of experts, but what Lyotard did not tease out (he was too busy indicating that this was undermining the grand narrative that Science worked so hard to erect over passing centuries) was that this gradual shift toward a plurality of expertises allowed for a whole new game to be played in public arenas: You could have your cake and eat it too, so to say, you could have your (essentially unquestioned) experts while simultaneously challenging the expert-status of some other expert on the grounds that they claim to be an expert. There is a split; a fissure. This crisis of science, as Jacob pointed out in a comment to Stef’s post anticipates my response: Mertonian norms have failed us under precisely the postmodern conditions we live in!

What do I mean by “water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink” as it applies to experts? My meaning is simple: The split in expertise means that experts are somehow all around us all the time, but none is to be trusted outright, unless of course there are other non-scientific reasons for doing so.

Consider the anti-vaccination controversy (or movement, though I shudder to call it a movement). Now, it is worth noting that this is nothing new – anti-vaxers have been around for nearly a century (as long as we’ve had vaccinations to be against, folks have been against them). While there is a lot of attention directed at the US these days – because of the thought link between vaccinations and autism (where “evidence doesn’t dispel doubts”) and the recent outbreak of measles at Disneyland – there have been similar international examples in recent history in Sweden, the Netherlands, England, Ireland, and so on. What is it that makes Jenny McCarthy expert enough for a documentary film about “The Vaccine War”?

My sense is that it is precisely the fissure between expertise in the name of science and other expertises in the employ of capital or politics that opens-up seemingly legitimate space to reroute a general sense of skepticism and then target it so that, on the one hand, we can make the calm, sober, and public claim that a climate scientist is biased on account of being an expert (i.e., those scientists can cook-up any data they want, or that they are in a staunch debate that will never be resolved showing that, in fact, they don’t “know” anything definitively anymore), and, on the other hand, we also make the calm, sober, and public claim that a terrorism expert is unbiased because all s/he wants it to protect the nation and “our way of life” (i.e., the terrorism expert is unbiased on principle account of being obviously biased toward his/her home country, a bias “I can get behind”). This compartmentalization of expetises in relation to how bias operates in public appears to be at play; a bold corruption of Mertonian norms.

Latour Workshop

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Latour saves the earth once again, this time, at a workshop. 

Bruno Latour and Environmental Governance

Call for Papers: submit abstracts by 16 March 2015
Workshop: 18-19 May 2015, Cumberland Lodge, Windsor, UK

Since the 1980s Bruno Latour has attempted to supplant the prevailing image of science by proposing a pragmatic and anthropological perspective. According to Latour, scientific practices forge ‘objective’ and ‘accurate’ knowledge that speaks on behalf of the world. Latour has written extensively on climate change and ecological politics, and on the challenges posed by the figure of Gaia for thought and for scientific and political practice. However, he has made limited reference to the specifics of the work carried out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and similar institutions involved in mobilising knowledge for environmental governance.

The IPCC is the leading international authority for the assessment of climate change. Formed in 1988 by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the IPCC produces reports that assess and summarise scientific literature on the physical science of climate change, adaptation and mitigation.

The two-day workshop takes as its starting point the idea the Latour’s work can be used to explain and understand the workings of environmental governance, using the IPCC as a prime example.

The first rule of math club is “You don’t talk about math club”

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In a peculiar turn of events, Shinichi Mochizuki, a mathematician from Kyoto University, is really peeved — maybe even more than a little irksome — that nobody will read and review his solution to the ABC conjecture. To date, no errors have been uncovered, and yet the proof remains unverified. His work sits in a scientific nether region; his work is neither falsified nor supported as truth.

Part of the concern at work in this controversy, we learn, is that the ABC conjecture (also known as the Oesterlé–Masser conjecture) gets its name from a simple equation — a + b = c — but the implications run deep in the mathematical community, especially that it provides answer to deep questions in the theory of numbers (number theory).

“[F]ellow mathematicians,” he claims, “are failing to get to grips with his work.” On balance, however, his proof is 500 pages long of extremely dense material. Mochizuki’s current strategy: Put the proof on-line and wait. 

The solution from the mathematical community is for him go on a world tour and share his proof in person. According to a New Scientist essay, however, Mochizuki’s refuses to share his work through a series of talks and lectures — I Will Not Lecture, he is all but saying. Instead, he is proposing to train a few scholars in his technique so that at least someone is able to review his work and determine if there are any errors. My understanding of the math community is limited, but I am fairly confident that this is seen as abnormal behavior among insiders.

I’d welcome some insight from the social studies of science community on this matter. The notion that some discoveries are, in effect, peerless — meaning, even seemingly equal peers in the scholarly community are unable to verify or falsify a truth claim — is relatively rare. Moreover, that Mochizuki won’t go on a “public tour” (let’s say) is also interesting because research in SSS has routinely shown that the frontier of math research is often a dynamic activity undertaken in person with others, which makes Mochizuki’s refusal all the more interesting.

The New Scientist piece chalks it up to pride. I can understand that. It is unconfirmed, but a few stories on Mochizuki indicate that it took him four solid years of work to complete this proof. Possibly, he expected to be warmly embraced by the mathematics community, rewarded, lauded, and raised-up as a public figure of math for the world. Who knows? Mochizuki won’t talk, so we don’t know yet.

This would be great to teach with: because his work sits in a scientific nether region; his work is neither falsified nor supported as truth, which makes this a good case study for teaching students about the philosophy of science, especially about the role of consensus among scholars as well as some more general notions of falsificationism and the work of the early logical positivists.

4S, reflections on Buenos Aires

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In this thoughtful blog post on CASTAC,* Luis Felipe R. Murillo (pictured, who is or was a grad student in anthropology at UCLA) reflects on the 4S meeting in Buenos Aires (this August) with special attention on the relationship between (American) anthropology and (nationality not defined) STS.

Some relatively fresh ideas include the notion of “fault lines” as a way to characterize cross-disciplinary work:

This is where we operate as STS scholars: at intersecting research areas, bridging “fault lines” (as Traweek’s felicitous expression puts it), and doing anthropology with and not without anthropologists.

The blog post reviews two sessions, mainly just relaying what was discussed and who does that sort of research, but the common thread pulled through all this description is an earnest inquiry into how do we do the anthropology/STS relationship and how should we do the anthropology/STS relationship. The piece closes with a somewhat haunting quote:

As suggested by Michael Fortun, we are just collectively conjuring – with much more empiria than magic – a new beginning in the experimental tradition for world anthropologies of sciences and technologies.

The blog supporting that post also has some cool posts about pedagogy and other research issues worth peaking through.

*Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing.

3:1–Postmodernity–3 of 3

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I have to admit, I wanted to post a blank page. Would that be post-Dada poetry in a post-paper world? I decided to save my cheeky response about simulacra and how this blog didn’t really get written for another time, and briefly discuss what “postmodernism” might mean in International Relations (IR).  Or at least, how I imagine the huge and varied response to high modernism that emerged in the last century in architecture and art most notably, finds its way to IR.

International Relations Theory is organized around these semi-fictional “debates” that may or may not have happened.  Certainly they were not debated in the usual sense, but the common understanding of our discipline comes from organizing it into a first debate where “idealism” took on “realism” (and lost); debate two between the “behaviorists” and the “traditionalists” (no clear victor), the third debate between the neorealists and, um, the rest, I guess (new theories attack! Go Marx! Go Bull!), and finally the great fourth debate the positivists and the post-positivists duke it out over methodology and the role of science in International Relations (by some accounts this is the really the third debate and we are still in it.  Just ask anyone with a critical project trying to present work at a conference or get a job in US without a bunch of wonky quant in your work).

So, here we pause and see if this fourth (third) debate is where we can locate the postmodern as such in IR. Not as a facile periodization around the word “post,” but rather as interpretive strategies and analysis that engage with modernity and the changes it wrought. Generally framed as “poststructuralist” or “post-positivist,” this type of analysis finds many sites in IR, especially those engaged in emancipatory or critical projects. Think of it less than a theory and more of an attitude. A perking up of the ears to marginalized voices and perspectives. This is a profoundly ethical engagement with the world. A postmodernist critique would want you to feel unsettled and challenged. To look at those common sense assumptions about the world “out there” and question how power operates in seemingly simple common sense assumptions. Oh, and you’d want to understand that power isn’t monolithic and traded in blocks by sovereign states by the pound, but rather seductive and productive and pleasurable….and intertwined with knowledge….

This returns us to methodology. For IR, the “critical turn” would encompass seeing knowledge as fractured and epistemological claims as dependent on relations of power. These claims are not “countable” or empirical as a positivist would understand it, but rather they wrestle with the “real” and what it means to shape the real into reality.

4S Newsletter Volume 02 Issue 03 (Summer, 1977)

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Quote of the issue: “On 26 August 1975 … fifty scholars assembled … [to] declare themselves members incorporate in 4S” (August 26th is 4S’s birthday!) Aarnold Thackray and Daryl Chubin, 1977.

Issue in brief (PDF is here: 1977 Volume 2 Issue 3 Summer).

  1. Editorial on the origins of the professional society — interesting,
  2. Preliminary program for the 2nd annual meeting — at Harvard University. You’ll also note that in the elections for members, the status hierarchies of old are all represented,
  3. Fact Sheet for 2nd annual meeting — $15 pre-registration; $20 at the door … makes me wonder what a 1976-2014 registration fee chart might look like,
  4. Thought and opinion section about citation research with an odd opening remark that I think might be about Latour’s 1976 presentation at 4S (but I can’t be sure),
  5. David Edge offers a retort — an excellent one — to the (at best peripheral) acceptance of quantitative (co-)citation analysis in the sociology of science. Well done!
  6. Commentary on the Psychology of Science, which is a field no longer in strong standing (to my knowledge),
  7. A piece on teaching STS in Papa New Guinea — interesting,
  8. STS in the Netherlands,
  9. Excellent reviews of about Zuckerman’s Scientific Elite (a text that challenged the idea that scientists needed to have their great breakthrough by 30, but a book that also did not necessarily support Merton’s Matthew Effect among elites … where it was thought to be strongest), and
  10. The closing pages contain the freshly revised charter.

This newsletter contains information about the origins of the society. According to opening editorial, in connection with the Montreal Congress of the International Sociological Association (who knew?), the earliest foundations of the professional society were laid and an informal committee was established in 1974-75. On 26 August 1975, 50 members assembled in San Francisco to ratify a charter for 4S. Apparently, the 26th of August is 4S’s birthday!

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4S Newsletter Volume 02 Issue 02 (Spring, 1977)

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Quote of the issue: “A new society resembles a new baby: all hope and weak sphincters,” (about the 4S professional society in 1977) Harold Orlans.

Issue in brief (PDF is here: 1977 Volume 2 Issue 2 Spring).

  1. The call for the second annual meeting (to be held in Cambridge, Mass.) is in here, but the real fun is in the “Thoughts and Opinion” section, which features:
  2. “Councillor’s Commentary: Nicholas Mullins”
  3. “On 4S: Harold Orlans”
  4. “The Internationality of 4S: Michael Moravcsik”
  5. “Retrospective TA: Ruth Schwartz Cowan, et al”
  6. “Letter to the Editor: David Bloor”

This newsletter (see the picture, as if it where signed by Trevor Pinch for us later on) is a nice historical piece. According to the council minutes, by January of 1977, 4S boasted 539 members (note to self: chart these). Council minutes also indicate that the professional society was still working hard to determine if a professional society journal partnership could be developed — candidates at the time were none other than the Social Studies of Science, Minerva, and Newsletter on Science, Technology & Human Values. I know that it is just part of training in STS, but we all develop early-on an appreciation for the question (roughly paraphrased here) “how did now-stable things get that way?” and (thank you chapter 7 of David Noble’s Forces of Production) “What roads were not taken?” … might be interesting, as a thought-experiment, to consider what STS might look like if the professional journal were Minerva rather than STHV …

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Law on fish ponds and multiplicity

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“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 … ?”