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4S Preview: Counting by Other Means

Sarah Kember and Alex Taylor

04 August, 2016

We are publishing a series of posts highlighting some of the tracks on the program of the 2016 4S conference, which will convene jointly with the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST) in Barcelona, August 31-September 3. The theme of this year’s 4S/EASST conference is “science and technology by other means.” For more information on "Counting by Other Means," please see the track page. - Ed.


Tick… tick… tick.

Beneath us there is a ticking, the ticking of a computational count that winds its way down to the next interrupt. This counting joins up a web of surprisingly static things—an internet of sensors and input devices. But, below, the operations are lively; data of all sorts and at every perceivable scale are combined and mined to report, forecast, and act on a dizzying array of possibilities. Pacemakers, cochlear implants, smart watches, activity monitors, smart homes, transport systems, power grids, traffic lights, communication systems, logistics, cashless payments, emergency services, surveillance systems, space stations—everywhere, an unending amalgam of algorithmic systems that keep our bodies and spaces ticking.

Yet, as the sequential and relentless count keeps ticking, how and where exactly do the agencies that pulse through these computational systems entangle with our own? Where do substance and system conjoin, or ‘intra-act’ (Barad 2007), to enact the bodies, spaces and worlds we share in common? What capacities are afforded and ‘authorised’ (Despret 2004) through such worldly becomings—with their obdurate logics of efficiency and rationales organised by numbers? And how do they give shape, perhaps, to a different kind of critter, new varieties of “trans-corporeality” (Alaimo 2012), generatively figuring different worlds of numbers (Verran 2001)? Who and what else might come to count in this proliferation of counting?

Following their own hunches and leads, humanities and social science scholars have been grappling with such questions by working through their own examples of this “regime of computation” (Hayles 2005). Katherine Hayles started early with her writings of a ‘universe’ where “computation… is taken as the ground of being.” (1999: 34). Since then, many of us have sought to account for beings of this sort through all manner of substances (Fujimura 2011; Kruse 2013; Taylor et al. 2014); bodies (Crawford Lingel and Karppi 2015); practices (MacKenzie 2003; Beer 2015); places (Kaika and Swyngedouw 2000; Kenney 2015; Kitchin Lauriault and McArdle 2015); (infra)structures (Jackson and Barbrow 2013; MacKenzie 2015); and politics (Miller 2005; Nelson 2013; McQuillan 2015). Although disparate, what this mixture of work might be seen to point to is an uneasy uniformity of time-telling, a structured time that is enacted via the computational count and that configures a peculiar set of relations between life and labour. The count collapses life as labour-time, constituting it in terms of quantified metrics, performance and productivity.

Critically examining these relations between time, the count, and forms of life/labour, our research might also be seen to point to more careful and caring imaginaries of who and what could count in/through computation. With what we would want to call a “feminist time-telling”—that is to say, one that thrives not in the singularity but promiscuity of time-telling—we find the possibility for alternate encounters with the ubiquitous count. The alluringly singular, teleological organization of time is disrupted through anomalies raised by such things as redemption, regression, repetition, and rupture (Felski 2002: 21). Surfaced are the multiple bodily, political and ethical entanglements and becomings, the temporally bound ‘processes of mediation’ (Kember and Zylinska 2012), in computational regimes. The count, then, is ‘geared towards measurably enhanced productivity, performance, transparency and efficiency’, coincidently ‘core values of neoliberalism’ (Kember and Zylinska 2012). Likewise, we find it intensifies and extends the reach of gendered biopower by enforcing an alarmingly regressive portrayal of women’s labour in/of time. Yet through the hopeful but modest stories we tell about the lively complications, we show a care for difference and how it might be given space amidst the counting.

“The problem is” as Grosz relays in her conceptual refiguring of feminism, materiality and freedom, “… how to enable more action, more making and doing, more difference.” (2010: 154). Our two session track is designed to provide a forum where topically diverse works like those above might mingle, and possibly intermingle, to enliven new interconnections and mutations that make a difference. As well as offering a moment in which we might interrupt or make a cut along the lines of counts and computation, we invite possibilities for frictions, laughter, experimentation, (dis)agreements, and generative refigurings of where we might go with all these counts—where we might reimagine who/what really could count amidst this counting. A counting by other means.


Track Contributors:

Kate Crawford – NYU/Microsoft Research

David Benque – Royal College of Art

Paul Dourish – UC Irvine

Kat Jungnickel - Goldsmiths, University of London

Steve Jackson – Cornell University

Sarah Kember – Goldsmiths

Lucian Leahu – ITU Copenhagen

Jessa Lingel – University of Pennsylvania

Andrian Mackenzie – Lancaster University

Alex Taylor – Microsoft Research (@alxndrt)

Amanda Windle – London College of Communication


Alaimo, S. (2012). States of Suspension: Trans-corporeality at Sea. Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 19(3), 476-493.

Beer, D. (2015). Productive measures: Culture and measurement in the context of everyday neoliberalism. Big Data & Society, 2(1).

Crawford, K., Lingel, J., & Karppi, T. (2015). Our metrics, ourselves: A hundred years of self-tracking from the weight scale to the wrist wearable device. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 18(4-5), 479–496.

Despret, V. (2004). The Body We Care for: Figures of Anthropo-zoo-genesis. Body & Society, 10(2-3), 111–134.

Felski, R. (2002). Telling Time in Feminist Theory. Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, 21-28.

Grosz, E. (2010). Feminism, materialism, and freedom. In, D. Coole & S. Frost (Eds.), New materialisms: Ontology, agency, and politics, 139-157.

Kaika, M., & Swyngedouw, E. (2000). Fetishizing the modern city: the phantasmagoria of urban technological networks. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.

Kember, S., & Zylinska, J. (2012). Life after new media: Mediation as a vital process. MIT Press.

Kruse, C. (2013). The Bayesian approach to forensic evidence: Evaluating, communicating, and distributing responsibility. Social Studies of Science, 43(5), 657–680.

Fujimura, J. H. (2011). Technobiological imaginaries: How do systems biologists know nature? In M. J. Goldman, P. Nadasdy, & M. D. Turner (Eds.), Knowing Nature: Conversations at the Intersection of Political Ecology and Science Studies (pp. 65–80). London: The University of Chicago Press.

Hayles, N. K. (2005). My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts. London: University of Chicago Press.

Jackson, S. J., & Barbrow, S. (2013). Infrastructure and vocation: field, calling and computation in ecology (p. 2873). Presented at the CHI '13: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, New York, New York, USA:  ACM Press.

Kitchin, R., Lauriault, T. P., & McArdle, G. (2015). Knowing and governing cities through urban indicators, city benchmarking and real-time dashboards. Regional Studies, 2(1), 6–28.

McQuillan, D. (2015). Algorithmic states of exception. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 18(4-5), 564–576.

MacKenzie, D. (2003). An Equation and its Worlds Bricolage, Exemplars, Disunity and Performativity in Financial Economics. Social Studies of Science, 33(6), 831–868.

Mackenzie, A. (2015). The production of prediction: What does machine learning want? European Journal of Cultural Studies, 18(4-5), 429–445.

Miller, C. A. (2005). New Civic Epistemologies of Quantification: Making Sense of Indicators of Local and Global Sustainability. Science, Technology & Human Values, 30(3), 403–432.

Nelson, D. (2013). Yes to Life= No to Mining': Counting as Biotechnology in Life (Ltd) Guatemala. The Scholar & Feminist Online, 11(3). Retrieved October 15, 2015, from

Kenney, M. (2015). Counting, accounting, and accountability: Helen Verran's relational empiricism. Social Studies of Science, 45(5), 749–771.

Taylor, A. S., Fisher, J., Cook, B., Ishtiaq, S., & Piterman, N. (2014) Modelling Biology – working through (in-)stabilities and frictions, Computational Culture 1(3).

Verran, H. (2001). Science and an African Logic. London: University of Chicago Press.

Backchannels / Projects

Descriptions of current work—the makings and doings—of STS scholars across the globe. This includes individual work, as well as collaborations between / with academics, practitioners, and policy makers.