Selling the Social Sciences

“If it weren’t for all of you I would have lost my mind at my job.” Its a familiar refrain that I hear at lots of small conferences and, occasionally, on Twitter backchannels. Its an amazing compliment to hear that your weak tie with someone means so much, but its also an immensely troubling prospect. Hundreds (maybe thousands?) of highly trained professionals have serious misgivings about their professional associations, their home institutions, and maybe even their life’s work. I had heard variations on this theme most recently this past week when I helped out at the (really, really cool) Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace Conference hosted here in Troy, New York. The conference was attended by an array of people: engineers, educators, activists, and social scientists like myself. Some people worked in industry, others in academia, and a significant portion worked for NGOs like Engineers Without Borders. And again, I just want to reiterate: No single person said the exact phrase above, and I certainly don’t want to (mis)characterize any of the attendee’s personal feelings about their jobs or work. Rather, what I witnessed at ESJP is more accurately characterized as a feeling of “coming home.” Think of it as the positive side of the same disaffected coin. This anecdotal trend was in my mind when I read this Seattle Times articleabout social scientists finding new and inviting homes in tech companies. Are social scientists finding better intellectual homes in industry than in academia? Or am I connecting two totally separate phenomena? Is it just the pay? More to the point: can social scientists do more and better things for the world working in Silicon Valley than the Ivory Tower?

The Brilliance of Silver Spring #f2c

It’s as if a TED conference smashed headfirst into a hackathon and then fell into an NGO strategy summit. CEOs sit next to non-profit employees and eat boxed lunches as a dominatrix(@MClarissa) presents a slide on teledilonics followed up by a garage hacker-turned-million dollar project director quoting Alexis de Tocqueville. It is a supremely uncanny experience that all happens within the confines of a movie theater (and, later, a sushi bar). This is what one can expect when they attend the Freedom to Connect conference (#f2c) held in Silver Spring, Maryland. The conference is meant to bring “under-represented people and issues into the Washington, DC based federal policy discussion…” I left the conference feeling generally good that there are people out there working to preserve and protect open infrastructures. I just wish that team were more diverse.

Read more on Cyborgology.

Overcoming Tote Bag Praxis

The TtW12 Twitter back channel. Photo by Rob WanenchakTheorizing the Web 2012 was great. Everyone involved did a bang-up job. I certainly learned more in a single day than I usually do at weekend-long establishment conferences. I have said a lot about conferences (herehere, and here) as have fellow cyborgologists (SarahNathan, and PJ). All of these posts have a common thread: academia is changing, but conferences seem out of date in some way. They are needlessly insular, they rely on hefty attendance fees that are increasingly cost-prohibitive,  and they rarely take advantage of social media in any meaningful way. The relative obduracy of conference styles come into high relief once they are compared to the massive changes to institutional knowledge production. Universities have adopted many of the managerial practices of private companies. They are also acting more like profit-seeking enterprises: putting massive resources into patenting offices and business incubators, hiring less tenure-track teaching staff, and employing armies of professionalized managers that run everything from information technology services to athletic facilities. Conferences, on the other hand, have seen few innovations beyond what I call Tote Bag Praxis. 

Read more on Cyborgology.

#TtW12- Theorizing the Mobile Web

This weekend I'll be at the University of Maryland in College Park presenting my work on mobile phones in Ghana. This is an amazing conference hosted by the Cyborgology editors Nathan Jurgenson and P.J. Rey. I'll be joined on the "Theorizing the Mobile Web" panel by Jason Farman, Katy Pearce, and Jim Thatcher. Cyborgology has a full write-up with our abstracts. Mine is reproduced below.

“Finding it ‘Otherwise’: Culturally and Geographically Situating The Practice of Texting”

Social constructionists and actor network theorists consistently claim that assemblages of technosocial systems are historically contingent or otherwise –to varying degrees- arbitrary. In other words, things could have been another way. The main criticisms of this these programs have been a lack of critical focus on power distribution and the influence of institutions. Rebuttals focus on the “seamless web” of social action that provides no clear beginning or referent for analysis. We must be satisfied with identifying the salient characteristics of relevant actants and working outward analytically, and forward historically. I contend that the statement “it could have been otherwise” belies a lack of sufficient comparative analysis. There are cases where it was, in fact, otherwise and from this comparative analysis we can find a basis for talking about power.

Over the course of two weeks I conducted over two-dozen interviews with patients, caretakers, administrators, and pharmacists in and around a government hospital in the city of Kumasi in central Ghana. My goal was to set up a text messaging system that helped Ghanaians find pharmacies that sold condoms. In the course of asking questions about privacy, frequency of phone use, navigating urban environments, and contraception, I also learned something about the culturally situated nature of large sociotechnical systems.

Mobile phone technology plays a much different role in Ghanaians lives than in Americans. Investigating these differences tell us something about the power relations embedded in western and non-western cell networks. The cell phone plays a much different role in Ghanaians lives than in Americans. In Ghana, the cell phone takes the place of the home phone and internet-enabled computer. (A tendency that we are only just now seeing in America.) In this comparative analysis, we can parse out meaningful relationships between sociotechnical networks and draw conclusions about what makes networks useful and powerful

Some Reflections on #4S2011

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.

Read More at Cyborgology

Theorizing the Web Conference

I'll be attending the Theorizing the Web Conference 2011 at the University of Maryland on April 9th. I'll be on the titular "Cyborgology" panel with some really awesome people. Its going to be a really great panel. If you have some time that weekend, and live within a $30 trip to the DC area, you should totally come. 

The abstracts for the four panelists are currently up on the Cyborgology blog. But if you're feeling a little "tl;dr" then let me just give you an elevator pitch. Have you ever felt unfulfilled by the media's portrayal of twitter, facebook, and mobile computing platforms? Does the phrase, "facebook revolution," in the context of the recent populist revolts, make your cringe? If you have always yearned for an intelligent conversation about what Facebook is doing to our world, this is it. 

While we're on the subject of conferences, I also wrote a short reaction to the national GK-12 conference that was held in early March. You can read it here.