I'm pretty bad at unpacking from conferences...

Unlike my fellow Cyborgologists, who are based in sociology departments, I am working towards a Ph.D in an interdisciplinary field called Science and Technology Studies (STS). The field emerged in the late 60s amongst (and directly influenced by) the environmental movement, the anti-nuke movement, and second wave feminism. Today STS is an established field with departments all around the world. The interdisciplinary nature of the field makes it difficult to have one single umbrella conference, but the closest we get is the annual Meeting of the Society for the Social Studies of Science, or simply “4S.” The conference has panels on a wide variety of topics including, “(Re)Inventing the Internet: New Forms of Agency“, “Evidence on Trial: Experts, Judges and Public Reason“, and “Reproductive and Contraceptive Technologies: Shifting Subjectivities and Contemporary Lives“. There are also two sister conferences that happen simultaneously at nearby hotels: The Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) and the History of Science Society (HSS). While the conference was enjoyable, and the talks were fascinating, I was left wondering if STS is up to the task of changing how we talk about technology, science, and innovation.

There is a lot to talk about, but I want to focus on a meta-level critique that I saw throughout the conference. Now, more than ever, it seems as though the insights of STS scholars are crucial to the major events of the day. Unfortunately, our work has not reached popular press, nor has it had a major influence on socio-technical policy. As I have argued elsewhere, STS has done a poor job of making its canon relevant to the times. This is part of a larger problem that Nathan identified, that of the Internet Anti-Intellectual. While business leaders have been busy churning out popular press books by the dozens, scholars of technology and science are caught up talking amongst themselves in expensive journals and dense books. The question remains: How do scholars gain control of the conversation on technology’s role in society?  I posed this question to E. Gabriella Coleman after her presentation in “STS 2.0: Taking the Canon Digital”. Her response was rather straightforward, scholars need to get into op-ed columns. We need to start writing for popular audiences in a big way. We also need to start experimenting with new forms of publication. She then reiterated a strong statement from her presentation: “We need to end the monopoly of the cultural pundit.” I think we at Cyborgology are ahead of the curve on this mission. Our overall project has been one of mainstreaming academic work by providing relatively short, readable, and (dare I say it) entertaining posts about science, technology, and society. Most bloggers would not say this, but speaking personally- I want more competition! I want more popular texts in the field of society and technology.

I’d like to end here with an XKCD comic that Dr. Coleman put in her presentation, to demonstrate social science’s relationship to science and technology in the popular imagination:


Comic from XKCD, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License

Randall Monroe’s depiction of sociology as somehow “impure” speaks to the popular concepts of objectivity and subjectivity. The natural sciences are objective windows on how the world works, and the social sciences sit atop these truths on a bed of subjective opinions and observations. Sociology cannot penetrate these core layers of meaning, or provide insights on how mathematics (for example) is the product of a social activity called knowledge production. In short, STS (and my own work on Cyborgology) have been trying to make one, very basic, statement:

With all due respect to Randall.


EDIT: November 07, 2011 19:04 EST- I made that STS reply cartoon back in April, and my advisor, Ron Eglash had replied to me in kind. With his permission I am including it below: