lördag 5 maj 2012

National STS Meeting

I'm on the KTH Science, Technology and Society (STS) mailing list and that is how I found out about Daniel Svensson's seminar about the sportification of cross-country skiing which I wrote about in March. Most of what the KTH STS people at the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment do is (naturally) of slightly peripheral interest to me, but now and then really interesting stuff turns up.

There is for example a seminar this coming Monday that I would like to go to, but I'm the chair of a meeting that will convene at the same time and that I naturally can't skip. The STS seminar treats industrialization, the upgrading of infrastructure in England in the mid-19th century and its effects on villages and communities ("[It] tells the story of how Britain built the first nation connected by infrastructure [...] and how technology caused strangers to stop speaking. [...] By 1848 the primitive roads were transformed into a network of highways connecting every village and island in the nation and also dividing them in unforeseen ways."). The seminar is given by the historian Jo Guldi and is backed up by her recently published book "Roads to power: Britain invents the infrastructure state". My take is that this talk/book sounds very interesting, but should preferably be contrasted with the even more interesting but yet-unwritten book "Roads to poverty and despair: Greece and the melting away of the infrastructure state". I'm primarily interested in the first story ("Roads to power") in order to understand the second, unfolding, and as-of-yet unfinished and thus-untold story.

Anyway, the topic of this blog post is not STS in general, but the national STS meeting I went to at the end of the week. I went because (parts of) the program seemed interesting, but also because the meeting was held at KTH (I would not have travelled to another city to participate in this event). In fact, I had to skip parts (half) of the conference because of other committments.

I felt like an outsider at the meeting. I'm interested in the general questions and I knew some of the people who were there, but I did feel unable to ask good, piercing questions. I was like a layman who didn't know the key references, models and vocabulary. Here are some reflections about the event:

- Anna (STS Ph.D. student with an interest for science fiction and especially cyborgs) mentioned that I was one of the few persons who now and then goes to listen to seminars at other (her) departments. That is flattering and partly - but only partly - right. Even though I can't attend the seminar above, I have been to no less than two seminars at the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment this term. More specifically, perhaps my role in such a process can live up to the idea behind this picure:

That is, to loosely connect different people and groups. That is, I am in this context a "weak tie", tying different clusters together. Well, I could have been that weak tie, except that I don't really know the STS people good enough (yet). Still, there doesn't seem to be that many of people who really do cross boundaries in academia. At least it seems like most don't.

- That also made me realize that I am nowadays very problems-oriented. I have a vision of the future of society and I am, based on this, interested in any person, any book or article, any seminar and any odd piece of knowledge that can help me uncover and illuminate effects and consequences of this vision. I think this is very different from most researchers who dive into a (sub-)discipline and a relatively limited set of problems and then try to "solve" those problem with only (or mostly) theories, methods and tools from within that discipline.

- Observations like these (above) sound harsh, but became easier to observe when you pop in to a meeting with people from another discipline. Their problems sound interesting at a general level, but when people dive into their respective presentations, you're lost or quickly loose interest. You're thinking "ok, that might be interesting if you have a special interest in this thingy, but how is this relevant to something else, something outside of this specific (sub-)discipline?" You oftentimes come to the conclusion that it isn't. Or perhaps it is, but you can't see the connection.

- Some meetings might purport to, but not live up to the ideal of being about the unconditional and free exchange of ideas. Sometimes a group can have a (legitimate) interest to turn "inwards", to work at strengthening the group's identity. Robert Putnam refers to this as working on the group's "bonding capital"- as apart from the "bridging capital", building bridges to non-members and the surrounding society. This was after all an STS meeting and I'm a bit of an outsider in that context.

- The highlight of the event was for me the finishing keynote lecture by Alf Hornborg, "Technology as Time-Space appropriation". I heard him talk 8 months ago (and wrote some about it at that time). He portrayed himself as something as an outsider at this event, having stopped going to STS conferences some 20 years ago when he felt that they didn't really give him what he was after. I personally think Hornborg is great. Interesting, provocative, counter-intuitive but still convincing. What sucks is that several of his recent books (Routledge Studies in Ecological Economics) cost 100 USD - and then some more.

Hornborg correctly states that technology is a religion to many people in our society (both left, right and green). He then criticizes and undresses this notion. His idea is that technology (and money) "mystifies" unequal exchange and exploitation of other, poorer people's time and land. Poor people in the global economy grow things, or take care of our e-waste (land use), and they also spend many hours (time) producing stuff that we consume (at the farm or in the factory). We unequally exchange the fruits of their labor for the value-added fruits of our labor, and we come out atop in this unequal exchange of our time against theirs and our land against theirs. Money-wise, they more or less export as much as they import. But time-wise, they spend a lot more than they get, and the same is true land-wise and resoruce-wise. They send valuable resources (gold) to us and we give them plastic beads in return. Everybody is happy, even though we really have cheated them. Ok, so we're not talking about sending them plastic beads, but instead iPhones (that they have manufactured themselves in the first place - but the profit still goes to Apple Inc. and western shareholders). iPhones unfortunately quickly loose their value and will be thrown on the trash heap in just a few years, while the raw materials (iron ore, oil, copper, gold, silver, platinum, palladium) have the potential to be made into anything. Entropy-wise, they are suckers and economy-wise too, since it's us becoming rich (based on their resources). The effect is that through the mystical magical fetish of money and technology, we get to use their time and their land to "prop up" our economies and our levels of affluence and consumption:

"The great empires of the world were built thanks to gold mines, not atop them. It's the little mercantile nations with their cohesive political systems and fierce navies that have looted the big feudal ones paved with rubies." (Source: NYT article).

Hornborg also has the audacity to ask if "labor-saving" technology really replaces slaves and the lowly paid maids of the previous century or if it just displaces them and removes them from our sight? Are the Chinese factory workers of today (manufacturing our vacuum cleaners and washing machines) really better off than the maids that serviced our middle-class households 100 years ago? To Hornborg, technology and money are two sides of the same coin and (advanced) technology "happens" (is produced and used) at those places in the world that are affluent. The poor might have a tractor (foreign aid, let's say), but they don't have the money to buy diesel for it, or the skills to fix it if there is a problem, or the money or the infrastructure to order and get spare parts delivered if something gives out. And so on. Where there is money there is (advanced, working) technology, and where there is technology, their is money.

- Finally and all in all, I sort of regret that I didn't go to the May 2-4 4th ICT and society conference in Uppsala instead. But even though Uppsala is "next door", that would have been a bigger thing to organize (being away for whole days etc). Attending the STS meeting was "low-maintenance". I could pop in and out and sit and work some (write this blog post for example). And my friend Jörgen went to Uppsala, I hope I will get the opportunity to pick his brain about the conference afterwards.

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