Below is a partial transcript of the introductory remarks I gave at the Technoscience as Activism Conference held in Troy, New York and hosted by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute from June 26-28, 2012. The conference was funded by the NSF’s GK-12 Fellowship Program.
I almost never read my presentations but we’re short on time and there’s a lot of stuff that I want to share with you and I don’t want to miss anything. Publicly reading an apology for reading in public is an apt metaphor for what this conference is about, or more precisely what it is a response to. When I approached Dr. Ron Eglash about putting on this conference I told him I only wanted to do it if I could make the conference reflect the kind of politics espoused in the presentations. I don’t want to invite a bunch of brilliant people to Troy, who want to talk about democratizing science and technology, and keep them in a single room all day. Troy should benefit from some of your unique experiences, and the people of Troy have done some amazing things that I think the visitors will enjoy and appreciate.
Too often, I (and probably many of you) have engaged in what I like to call “tote bag praxis.” We acquiescence to the institutional norms that reproduce expensive conferences that all look and act the same, and –perhaps- even make us think about our work in predictable ways. We think about our work in terms of how we are going to share it, so it bares out that we must occasionally reflect on how we engage in that sharing.
The usual conference model works for most scientists, but for those of us that are concerned about democratizing science and technology we should be on the lookout for new approaches to the traditional model. This is not to say we should abandon the traditional conference model all-together. There must be times when colleagues come together and talk shop with each other. But, as privileged academics, maybe we should find ways to keep the door a little bit more open, and the room just a little bit more inviting. Everyone in this room is committed to open collaboration with communities, and I hope that these next three days will encourage you all to question how we can democratize the conference.
This conference is a sort of experiment. It is a modest contribution to the wide range of activities and events that make up citizen science and democratic technology. This conference not only welcomes non-career academics into the room, but also encourages academics to get out of the room, and into the streets. That is what Thursday afternoon is all about, but more on that later. If you’ve had the unique honor of hosting a conference, you know that universities and professional associations are complex beasts that rarely do as they’re told. You also know that each conference has its own unique sets of problems and each hosting institution has its own idiosyncrasies, such that even the most straight-forward conference is met with some kind of resistance by one thing or another. That being said, I think there are a few characteristics that many institutions have in common, that stand directly in the way of democratizing the conference.
For example, imagine if universities devoted as much resources to local economies as they do to global industry. Would if they stopped making no-bid, noncompete contracts with corporate food service providers, and nurtured a market for locally owned restaurateurs and grocers? Most of the food you will have this week was made possible only through deft political and bureaucratic maneuvering. The default at RPI, as it is at most universities, is expensive and corporate. The preferred vendors list is mostly big box stores and chain hotels meant to be paid through credit card transactions. Everything that you picked up at registration came from Office Max. Had we bought it anywhere else, reimbursement would have been much more difficult. These sorts of mundane roadblocks are not insignificant. They do the daily work of enforcing the aspects of academic capitalism that put economic pressures on individual academics, while filling the pockets of companies. The cost of conferences could be much lower and more manageable, if universities stopped thinking about them as money-making opportunities, and start thinking about them primarily as opportunities for development and increasing the prominence of their faculty and students.
While a lot is being said about the complex relationship of industry, government, and academia, and what it has done to the cost of education, I rarely see a thorough treatment of the informal costs of graduate education. Not just fees and tuition (which are steadily climbing) but also the unwritten expectations that if you want to truly stand out as a young scholar, you will have to pay for conference trips and supplies out of pocket with hopes of being reimbursed before your credit card bill comes in the mail. This conference has suffered directly from this sort of arrangement. We are missing talks from around the world, which could be here, if higher learning institutions prioritized face-to-face collaboration across borders. It was really striking to see almost everyone who registered for the conference say that they needed travel assistance and that their host institution was unlikely to help. Competition for young academics is rising, but I do not see many departments increasing travel budgets or even recognizing that slow reimbursement processes are enough to prevent young scholars from traveling and purchasing needed supplies. We are in danger of adding yet another barrier to poor and working class people entering higher education.
I offer all of this as a provocation and I hope that, over the next few days we can reflect on the conference itself as technoscience as activism.