4S Preview: Here, there be future dragons…
Laura Watts, Max Liboiron, Phoebe Sengers and Kaiton Williams
05 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 please see the track page. - Ed.
It was May and the snow had only just melted on Fogo Island, Newfoundland. We met together for the first time in a salt box house, only a few meters from still-iceberg-infested sea. Some of us had to dodge caribou on the road.
Place matters to all of us. We chose to meet here, six hours’ drive and a ferry ride north of the capital of Newfoundland, because island edges like these are where we live and work. On such islands, far from the urban crowd, a different technoscience is done. The usual rules do not apply. Or they apply with unpredictable outcomes. Things go awry. Sensors are blown off rocky beaches or encased in ice. Technological 'disruption' has to be smarter than throwing West Coast futures at the wall and seeing what sticks. Going boom then bust could depopulate an island–and often has in the past. These places are on the real cutting edge. At the ‘real’ edge, the future must be otherwise to the high-tech mainstream. At the ‘real’ edge, an entrepreneurial engineer becomes a hustler.
Our islands are test sites for speculative futures, or SF, as Donna Haraway has named them. They are places where different futures are being tried. For example, Orkney (Scotland) is an international test site where prototype tide and wave energy generators are being trialled; Change Islands (Newfoundland) is seeking out local frictions in the new global sea cucumber trade, as a counterforce to centralising infrastructure that is pulling its people away.
In all our islands, the future is not an armchair debate. Speculative futures must be done now–attempted, at least. There is no time to dither, or wait for permission. Communities are fragile. Islands are depopulating. Wildlife is dying. Innovation becomes commonplace when the alternative is so stark. These attempts are sometimes marvellous successes, but also precarious and double-edged.
Sitting around the unvarnished kitchen table in our sweaters and hats, cradling tea and coffee mugs, we brought our island test sites together. We sat and told our best ethnographic stories, and the futures we cheered and sometimes feared. With islander practicality we tore up a paper bag to make labels, found masking tape in a toolbox, and turned the kitchen table into a story-map of our edgy world.
This is the map we will navigate during our session on Saturday at 4S/EASST in Barcelona.
Here, the high-tech future has to be cheap, has to be made from what is to hand, with whoever is at hand, and is still at the cutting edge. Technoscience at its most advanced, at its most edgy, is a trawler for ocean plastics, made for a few dollars using a pair of nylon tights.
The four of us will set sail in Barcelona, and tell eight short stories of technoscience futures from our islands. Our discussant, Lucy Suchman, will guide us with the weather. But then we invite you to step aboard our ship, take thehelm, and take us to your own islands.
We are looking for mutinous crew, cautious crew, quiet crew, and those on course for lateral side trips. We can sail to urban islands, concrete islands, bacterial islands–wherever the edge and its futures may be found; islands are not always separated by the sea. We invite those with stories to tell, and those who are good at listening and can sail in silent reflection.
Our session is collaborative, because we are interested in where the conversation takes us. We will sail together. We will sail to the edge. There it says: here there be future dragons… and, monsters have always made good companions in technoscience.
‘Islands on the Cutting Edge: Test sites for reimagining future technoscience’ (session T155) starts at 11.00, on Saturday 3 September, at Location 114.
Laura Watts is a writer, poet, ethnographer, and associate professor at ITU Copenhagen. She is interested in the effect of landscape on how the future is imagined and made in everyday practice. How might the future be made differently in different places? She has worked with the telecoms industry, public transport, and renewable energy. Currently, she is collaborating with people and places around marine renewable energy in the islands of Orkney, Scotland.
Max Liboiron is a scholar, activist, and artist. She is an Assistant Professor in Sociology, Geography, and Environmental Sciences at Memorial University of Newfoundland, where she directs the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), a feminist marine biology and technology laboratory that specializes in citizen science and grassroots environmental monitoring of marine plastics. Her academic work focuses on how invisible yet harmful emerging phenomena such as toxicants from marine plastics become apparent in science and activism, and how these methods of representation relate to action.
Phoebe Sengers is an associate professor in Information Science and Science & Technology Studies at Cornell University. She traffics between design, ethnography, and history to explore the politics of technology and to imagine alternatives. Her primary current focus is a long-term design-ethnographic and historical study of sociotechnological change in the small, traditional fishing community of Change Islands, Newfoundland, looking at how changing sociotechnical infrastructures are tied with changing orientations to time, technology, and labor.
Kaiton Williams is a PhD researcher in Information Science at Cornell University. He studies the role computers increasingly play in our articulation of our selves: how we understand who, when, what, and why we are. He focuses on the ideologies of these systems, particularly as they are deployed and debated in the developing world — areas that shouldn’t be viewed as in need of charity but instead as rich in a tradition of entrepreneurship and creativity, as places with designs, ideas, and indigenous knowledge that can inform and nourish the very meaning of computing everywhere. He also helps build tech apprenticeship programs for underrepresented communities at Floodgate Academy, and advises and partners with teams at Start-Up Jamaica.