Hard to pick out themes from today’s papers, but a thread running through all but the roundtable was that of ‘governance’. I must have heard it used in so many different ways, relating to so many different contexts, that while it was rarely the explicit focus of the panels I attended, it was relied upon as a variously interrogated explanatory tool, rather than an analytical concept, or phenomenon to be studied itself. The way in which Woolgar interrogated the mundane aspects of governance in the closing plenary talk made me wonder whether, like speed cameras or recycling in our everyday lives, it runs the risk of becoming implicit in our analyses too?
- 2.2.13 Life Sciences in Asia
- Lunch: Roundtable- A Turn to ontology in STS
- 2.3.15 Science and Regulation Co-constructed
- 2.4 Plenary
- 2.2.13 Life Sciences in Asia
1) Temporalization of Risk Society; social science perspectives
Margaret Sleebolm-Falkner spoke against inclinations to project other societies ‘back in time’, using the term ‘temporalization’. She drew attention to suggestions that countries, such as china where she works, were ‘running behind on ethics or norms’, and went on to show how China has copied international regulations and in relation to oocyte and embryo donation. Her research involved visits to laboratories and interviews with around 40 people who do stem cell research, including regulators.
Her approach was based on what she called ‘co-eval’, meaning being in the sme time. It is a matter of perspective that observes risk as something that is discussed in the same framework of time but experienced from different histories.
Sleebolm-Falkner then took her audience through four different framings of what ‘risk’ might look like, from the technoscientific to the symbolic and post structural. Each telling of the tale was accompanied by examples from fieldwork, which illuminated the way in which different castings could be seen to operate, or not, in the Chinese context.
From China the panel moved to Singapore, with
2) Singapore Biopolitics: Bare life in the City-State
a paper given by Catherine Waldby. The focus of her presentation was the recently built life sciences knowledge park known as ‘biopolis’.Waldby claimed that this new building crumbles big analytic platforms with biotech companies, governance bodies, advisory HQs and research laboratories beign in the same place. Thus, it brings together basic research and analytic expertise. According to Waldby, Biopolis is indicative of the general investment in life sciences, and, following Thrift, she argued that it is also representative of an experimental post Fordist knowledge economy. Based on a relentless search, these economies manipulate and valorize the body in modes termed ‘experimentality’.
Waldby went on to look a Biopolis as three kinds of experiment, an experimental space, an experiment iwht citizenship and an experiment with the invitrio life of the nation.
Dealing firstly with the site as a ‘space’ of science, Waldby suggested that it was not just an accumulation of expertise on behalf of the Singaporean state- to act as a magnet for international research, but it is also a site of innovation. Drawing on Ong’s analysis in Neoliberalism as Exception she also suggested that this site as an example of the ordering of the Singaporean population through the marketing of citizenship. Not only are citizenship packages being offered as though on a market, but the citizenship Singaporean population is also shifted in that it is offered up as a target for research, being made up of a broad spectrum of south Asian peoples. Finally, following on from the point about citizenship and population, experi-mentality with the life of the nation was addressed through the issue of the materials that a nation marketing itself as a good biomedical research destination will require. These bodies become subjects with a value, to be banked in biobanks, exemplary of the ‘ethnic surrogate for Asia’.
3) Cracking the Code: The Rice Sequence(s) and the Taming of Food
The final paper in the panel took a slightly different approach to the theme of life sciences, charting the development of the project to sequence the rice genome.
Lyndal Halliday examined globalization, innovation and networks in the publication record and geopolitical machinations of this research. Her argument traversed the interesting public/private divides, spatialities of globalization, local/global engagements, and politics in and of a place.
- Lunchtime Roundtable: A turn to Ontology in STS? Ambivalence, Multiplicity and Deferral
This session over lunch followed on from an Oxford meeting in June 2008. Held in a horseshoe round, with the panel up front, the format allowed for members of the audience to put questions and responses to the panelists. The session would probably have made a lot more sense had I first read the papers here
which are a fascinating exploration of the terms ‘ontology’ and ‘turn’, with papers taking quite different approaches (sometimes productively, sometimes not) to the question of what ‘ontology’ was doing, resurfacing as it is, in the literature. A similar divergence of threads and opinions was discernable in the all-too-brief roundtable, centering primarily on whether we ought consider ‘ontology’ or ‘ontologies’, a question that has already been thoroughly explored in Philosophy. ‘Turn’ was also interrogated, since it suggests something before and something new. It was suggested that we were turning from epistemology to ontology, and Mol commented that “turns should be used and cast away”. Sterling also observed that to ‘turn’ one must rotate or navigate according to an internal geography, or geometery, whereas a move was placed the axis of change outside.
A stream on STS engagement with philosophy also emerged, which could do with a more thorough airing. This it may get, because it is hoped that the conversation will carry on online – see http://stsontology.wordpress.com/
- 2.3.15: Science and Regulation Co-constructed
1) Opening up the Epistemology of Judicial Gatekeeping: Newman vs. Motorolla Inc (2003) David Mercer
The first paper was given by David Mercer, a case study of the legal case Newman v Motorolla. It is a potentially massive case, because it again posits a link between brain cancer and mobile phone use. However, as Mercer pointed out, nobody has heard of it. The thrust of the paper was directed towards the linkages between science and legal proceedings, through public knowledge. Questions suc as the role of law in informing the public, and also of keeping issues out of public view were implicit. What was accepted as evidence, and how to research a case such were raised as problems. Mercer suggested that unless a researcher accesses the transcripts as well as the judgements, they are leaving themselves open to being accused of methodological weakness. Overall, though I enjoyed the quickfire presentation, I could have done with a little more context – something which would have also helped the presentation. For example, while references were made to the longer term modulations of concern/panic over the health risks of mobile phones, it would have been useful to have these drawn out, and the example of Newman and Motorolla placed in that timescale. This would have been particularly relevant given the comments which followed the paper, revealing that Mercer thought that the issue, and case itself, had the ‘capacity for a Lazarus’, by which he meant it was his suspicion that the health/phone link was about to be raised again. This feeds directly to questions surrounding the timing of research. Mercer said he had been treating this as an almost dead issue, so he could ‘get in there’ and ‘unpack’ the case. He had sent out his questionnaire following positive verbal responses, but has had no responses. This made me wonder about the terming of such topics ‘dead’ and ‘alive’, and the access issues that come with each. How, and whom considers an issue live? At what point does access become easier, and upon what criteria?
2) Can a Weapon be Immortal? Hugh Gusterson
We moved from phones to bombs with Hugh Gusterson’s paper provocatively entitled ‘Are weapons Immortal?’ Reporting on interviews and ethnographic research among employees of the los Alamos and ? nuclear weapons plants in the USA, Gusterson went on to answer this question in the negative. So, why aren’t weapons immortal? The main theme of the paper was the transfer of knowledge. The feeling amongst the nuclear weapons researcher he worked with was that unless junior researchers had first hand experience of making and testing bombs, the knowledge of how to do so would be lost. Gusterson alluded to the special-ness of this knowledge, but didn’t, in this presentation, explore the nature of how it is thought to be transmitted, the details. Perhaps he isn’t allowed to. But he moved the paper on to the fascinating logics at work among the engineers. Nuclear weapons come in to a strange category of ultra quality work which will never (we all hope) be used. So, the engineers who work on nuclear weapons consider themselves on a higher moral plane than those who work on conventional weapons. Indeed, they think it would be immoral to work on weapons designed to kill people. It is better, in this logic, to design those which exist to deter.
However, in 1992, the ‘lives’ of these nuclear weapons designers changed radically, as George Bush senior ended nuclear weapons testing. The paper revealed the impact of this as ‘traumatic’ for bomb designers, since without the ability to test, they can not be ‘sure’ of their bombs, or make more. So the researchers have become gerontologists – they study the decay of the weapons they built, and had trust in. As parts decay, the ability to replace them lessens, due to factors such as new manufacture regulations, different materials etc. The fear of the designers is that with their 92 generation will die the knowledge of how to make bombs, as it has already been proven (through shuttles) that it is possible to lose the plans, and also be incapable of reverse engineering a device.
From his voice, it is evident that Gusterson has lived in the US for some time, but there is an English base to his vowels. He didn’t speak about the challenges of gaining access to such a potentially sensitive plant, or the time period over which this work has been conducted – to pick up on the theme of timing of research.
It was a strongly ethnographic paper, showing the uses of (presumably) long term involvement with informants, following their lives.
3) Tropical Medicine Research Practices in Brazil Encounter the Animal Rights and the Animal Welfare Groups: the Articulation of Science and Society in Oswaldo Cruz Foundation
The third paper was by Pinto Filipecki, Saldanha Machado, Klein and de Oliveria Teixeira, and addressed disparities of legal control over scientific research across Brazil with specific focus on the health ministry’s ‘Fiocruz’ medical research centers. The presenter pointed out new collaborations, partnerships and committees that were opening up across the country, as its laws developed inspired by the US and UK. It was pointed out that practice often does not relate to legislation, rather comes from the detailed guidelines that are issued, along with publication networks. Sheila Jasanoff asked whether a good way to test these questions was to see whether there were any cases of testing that could have been done elsewhere being transferred to Brazil, and if so, for what reasons? What were the issues around cost, informed consent in theory and in practice? Is there in effect, a sort of rendition in place?
- Plenary Session : “Acting” with “Innovative Technologies”
Full lecture theatre, the ‘human flag’ of the diversity and vitality of STS. It’s a good thing she didn’t know how tired some of us were, or how ‘diversity’ was about to be raised in the following STS moves South sessions.
Christine Hine opened the session with an example of “acting” through publishing. The innovative technologies she had studied, system biologists taxonomizing and digitizing their results, there is reference to the past. Her book examined the politics of this process (digital versus physical archives) and revealed through publication the depth of reflexivity in the community she studied, referencing ‘when they read what we write’. One of her points was that our actions are always in concert with others, so making strange the session title of ‘acting with’ – we always have. Acting alone is an illusion.
Nelly Oudshoorn followed, with her own work on ‘innovative’ telemonitoring technologies, which enable diagnosis, monitoring and treatment of illness at a distance. They challenge existing modes of interaction between health care professionals and patience, since both parties are made ‘invisible’ to one another. “A co-presence replaced by a tele-co-presence” , which Oudshoorn described as a changing mode of interaction affecting how we observe, discipline and know bodies. Her paper focused on comparison between users and non users, in order to extract narratives of self care, compliance, resistance and compulsion involved in the integration of this new technology into the lives of patients. She also focused on the different relations ewteen body, technology and self which emerge, suggesting that this repacement, or replication of self-care through an ‘innovative technology’ was not a neutral move. For users, bodies became objects for technology, experts and themselves, and were always accessible to the experts through the monitoring systems. For those who did not ‘use’, their bodies remained objects for themselves and medical experts but in a different time frame, without technology as mediator.
Lucy Suchman, in her paper Subject Objects, entertained the masses with Mertz, an MIT robot designed for social interaction, or a ‘worldly robot’. The video is available here
Suchman explained how those interacting with the robot reframe it as object for their shared confusion, as they are robotically subjectified by Mertz. She also played a video of the creator of Mertz, and asked how this relationship, and the relationship between Mertz and those from whom [it] learns can be cast as a process of ‘becoming with’. Considering the robot’s capacity to ‘learn’ from those it interacted with, as well as questions of what the robot is doing as it recruits huamns to model socially situated learning, Suchman explored the limits and ontological implications of this perception of world making. Who is “acting with” whom here?
The panel finished off with Steve Woolgar, who turned the title of the panel on its head. Rather than looking at ‘acting’ ‘with’ ‘innovative’ ‘technologies’, Woolgar chose to consider what it might mean to ‘act with’ the mundane technologies that permeate our everday lives. Through examples in which disruption acted as a revelatory tool, Woolgar examined what he called mundane forms of governance, from traffic lights to airport security checks. The project, with Dan Neyland, examines increasing regulation and control in relation to everyday objects and ordinary tasks, in order to lay out possible implications in relation to regulation of behaviour.
He first addressed the mundane/innovative divide, and suggested that what he was doing was a typically STS move – turning categories upside down, ensuring they are not revered by cutting them down. The mundane, he argued, is much more pervasive than the innovative, and therefore more consequential. One model of governance which occurs by holding persons, and things, accountable. However, this, argued Woolgar, retains certain assumptions about agency which through his project he sought to disrupt, interrogating at each stage “who, which and what is governed by what, which and whom”.
The examples of disruption, experimentally set up to explore the above research question, included the liquids rule on aircraft, an example of traffic lights failure in Oxford, and a website purporting to be a portal to a speeding database.
The first point raised in relation to liquids on aircraft was that it is the relationship between objects and their persons which is increasingly under tighter and tighter control. Monitoring operates to ensure that relation is constantly assessed – is your bag in the right place, did you pack it, is it close to you etc.
Woolgar et al chose to test the detailed rules on liquids which airports carry a copy of, everyone abides by, but nobody actually knows or reads (let alone remains connected to the reasoning behin the rules now in place). One is only a ‘responsible traveler’ if one complies, with ‘nothing to hide’. Compliance here is overturned, and what lies beneath is not an interest in the rationale for the law, since nobody can explain why it exists. Provocative, brave even, conversations with security officials over why 120 ml was different from 100 ml, and repeated attempts to get at the why resulted in failure.
The second example came from a morning in Oxford when one of the team was on their way in to work. Coming across a city center intersection, he found that the traffic lights were out (not working) but noted that curiously, flow of traffic was greatly improved. He went up to the roof of the department building and videoed the traffic for a few minutes, returning later in the day to repeat the exercise once the traffic lights were working again. Woolgar played both videos, suggesting that redistribution of accountability was behind the difference.
The third was a website which appeared as an image databank for photos taken by speed cameras. It claimed that if you typed in your car numberplate you would find out if there were any records for your vehicle. Woolgar put his wife’s number plate in. It said there was one violation, in Cambridgeshire, and offered the picture. When you clicked on the picture, there was a cartoon, pulling a face, telling you you’d been ‘got’. Woolgar reported that this website had made the rounds in the UK and been very popular, based on a fear about what you know and what others know about you – the implicit belief that all this information (about you and your objects) is out there. Feedback pages on the website were overwhelmingly positive, amused, appreciative of the ‘joke’.
As such, governance in his words, becomes the ‘continuous recursive intertwining of ontologies and accountability’. His experiments, he said, were not primarily motivated by a desire to bring about change, indeed, he did not consider them a very successful way to do that. The point was rather to emphasize our own thinking around these matters, and the reliance on categories that allows such patterns of governance to operate successfully.