fredag 21 oktober 2016

“I have no use for useless PhDs” (paper)

A call for papers (cfp) for a workshop on "Uselessness" was circulated at my department some time ago. The full name of the workshop is actually "Unnecessary, Unwanted and Uncalled-for: A Workshop on Uselessness" and I believe the cfp might very well be the best-written cfp I have ever read. It's almost impossible to 1) have a pulse, 2) be researcher and 3) not have ideas go off like fireworks in your brain when you read it. I can very much recommend that you read it!

The cfp was sent by my colleague Leif Dahlberg and I thought it represented an opportunity to (for the first time ever) write something together with him and the result is (at this point) a 300-word abstract, "“I have no use for useless PhDs”: Interrogating the notion of uselessness in techno-scientific culture". We will find out already 10 days from now if we are invited to the workshop and we are then expected to submit a paper by January 15. That paper will be circulated among workshop participants before the workshop takes place at the end of March in Amsterdam. The worskhop is organised by the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis.

Here's the abstract we put together for the workshop:

“I have no use for useless PhDs”: Interrogating the notion of uselessness in techno-scientific culture

Leif Dahlberg(1) & Daniel Pargman(1, 2)

1) KTH Royal institute of Technology, School of Computer Science and Communication (CSC), Department of Media Technology and Interaction Design (MID)
2) KTH Royal institute of Technology, VINN Excellence Center for Sustainable Communications


What is the understanding of uselessness in contemporary techno-scientific culture? We investigate this question through interviews with three high-powered, prominent professors at Sweden’s oldest, largest and (arguably) most prestigious technical university, KTH Royal Institute of Technology. The goal for all activities at KTH (research, education, public outreach) at all levels (students, faculty, management, leadership) is to cut the slack, to be goal-oriented, to perform and to deliver. While these values are part of the background techno-scientific culture at KTH, these particular individuals perform above and beyond what is to be expected and have proved themselves to excel in various activities that are valued and rewarded at KTH and in society.

At KTH education is mainly organised in professional Bachelor and Master’s programmes, and although both teaching and research is multidisciplinary as well as interdisciplinary, the university only has one subject area, Science of Technology (Teknikvetenskap). The vast majority of research conducted at KTH is applied, and often conducted in collaboration with the public sector or with private companies. The research typically aims at developing concrete, tangible products and services. This techno-scientific culture employ “usefulness” and “impact” as key criteria both for motivating actors and for how activities are evaluated. It goes without saying that in such an environment, which in several ways is characteristic for Swedish society at large, uselessness becomes a highly problematic notion. In contrast to many other knowledge cultures where the search for (new) knowledge has a value in itself, at KTH (new) knowledge is predominantly measured in terms of its instrumental usefulness.

In our interview study, we found that this instrumental way of thinking affects the attitudes and value systems of prominent actors in complex and sometimes contradictory ways. Although subscribing to a basic utilitarian outlook, the significant role of the unnecessary, the unwanted and the uncalled-for is manifested in various ways, both privately and professionally as well as in terms of formulating research questions, in scientific methodologies and through concrete research practices.

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