Energy Transition in the wild: an Excursion to Seestadt

Anna Pillinger, Stefan Lasser, Harrie Mort, Tzu-Min Chang (photo), Anne Beaulieu and participants of the course “Energy and Big Data: Transition and the informational turn in Energy.”  University of Vienna, Summer Term, 2018.

On a crisp Friday morning the students of the seminar class “Big Data and Energy: Transition in the Informational Turn in Energy” at the University of Vienna and took the underground to the end of the line, emerging in a part of Vienna that even few Viennese have ever seen. Our destination was the Aspern Smart City Research (ASCR) demo centre at Seestadt, where we hoped to gain an insight into how energy and big data were being brought together and perhaps see some of the concepts and issues raised in the seminar in action. In the seminar, we discussed how data seems to be everywhere in contemporary society, including energy.  Precisely because of this ubiquity, it is important to consider how data is created and used, and how it circulates, so that we can understand the implications for the energy transition, whether in the business sector, private and public life. The intersection of energy and big data also has a physical dimension, and exploring this was part of the motivation for our excursion.

An exploration of the materials on the ASCR website and a brainstorming session in class led to a set of questions on three main areas of interest:

  1. The aims and technologies that are at the heart of the ASCR projects
  2. The experience of a smart neighbourhood and the material culture of its vision of the energy transition
  3. The role and function of the demo centre

These sensitising questions were to direct our gaze and our inquiries as we explored the demo centre.

Experiencing a smart neighbourhood

How did this visit enable us to experience a smart neighbourhood? Our tour of the demo center was divided into two parts. In the first part of the tour, we were shown into a rooDSC_4670m where a model of the district occupied most of the space. Our experience of the smart neighbourhood in this case was predominantly considering the various elements as our tour guide pointed them out. In the course of her explanations, the guide taught us to ‘see’ the model, noting the elements that distinguished the already built portions from those that were virtual and yet to be built. On only one occasion was there a link with the outside world, where she pointed out of the window at a crane which was engaged in constructing one of the more iconic buildings: a skyscraper to be made almost exclusively of wood. No windmills or solar panels were apparent in the model, leading us to question the tour guide about whether energy was visible in this landscape; however, our guide enforced a strict division between spatial/planning issues and energy, and this question was not to be answered until we entered the other room: the energy room.

This room was set up almost as a mirror image to the model display. In the previous room, we had surrounded the neighbourhood, whereas in the ‘energy room’ we were surrounded by the displays. Here, everything was surface: the walls were covered with texts and screens and lights, and even the floor was used to display elements of the projects. Neither space emphasised interactivity. In the energy room, the only interactive element was a vertical drawer that could be ‘pulled out’ from within a dividing wall on which different users were presented. This revealed the floor plan of a typical dwelling on which, the sensors and home energy management systems were drawn.

The focus of this part of our visit was the need for housing in Vienna, with further attention being given to the desirability of creating neighbourhoods in which people could both live and work, reducing mobility needs. The ASCR project aimed to further reduce individual commuting by limiting parking spaces, providing outstanding public transport connections and implementing shared bicycle plans.

Typical urban planning elements were part of the presentation, such as density and parking allocation, the combination of recreation and employment opportunities, and the multi-cultural infrastructures such as an multi-faith building.

The Aims and Technologies of the ASCR Project

Innovations and Business Models

The main goal of the ASCR is improving energy efficiency, which allows us to begin to relate this endeavor to the narratives of energy transition that are outlined in the book “After Oil” (Szeman & Group, 2016). The fact that it is a public-private partnership, with the emphasis on “private” raises questions about the dynamics of innovation driven by large corporations. Siemens is the main actor in the partnership and this seems to be reflected in the research, which is inscribed with a corporate logic: research is to lead to prototypes and new business models, which will in turn fuel the energy transition. Most of the envisioned improvements are assumed to be realizable through two main strategies: the introduction of smart infrastructures (e.g. for trading energy), which would require regulatory changes in order to be rolled out on a large scale, and the introduction of smart devices (e.g. smart washing machine which automatically chooses the best time, energy-wise, to run). The promise of smart grids to contribute to efficiency was once again put forth (Beaulieu, 2016). To test this, available components are integrated into real-life housing in the neighbourhood. After solving engineering challenges and implementing quality assurance algorithms, the use and interaction between these various innovations are tested, forming the prototypes for new products and services. With regards to pursuing this kind of innovative research that relies on new types of data, the importance of monitoring data quality was also emphasised as a ‘lesson learned’ in the early phase of the project.

Smart Users

The projects in the demo are divided into several research areas: Smart Building, Smart Grid, SDSC_4678(1)mart User and Smart ICT. One of the most intriguing to us was that of the Smart Users, who were to be engaging with the smart technologies as they were rolled out. Residents were enthusiastic about participating in the project; in fact, more wanted to participate than could be accommodated The majority saw participation as a way to contribute to a more sustainable future, so given the level of enthusiasm, how did the ARSC aim to ensure that the inhabitants behaved in a “smart” way? One technique to be explored wills be Gamification, meaning applying game mechanisms in non-game contexts and, in doing so, encourage the users to contribute to energy efficiency. Currently, the modulation of user behaviour is restricted to offering different energy prices at different time points; however, in the future a more sophisticated version could be developed. This triggered some of us to think about a possible scenario, where households get scored on their consumptions and neighbours try to outdo each other. One could not deny that this might have a positive effect on the energy consumption; however, the cohabitation and solidarity of the inhabitants of this Smart City might suffer. It has already been observed that tensions can arise within households, upon the introduction of home energy management systems (Hargreaves, Wilson, & Hauxwell-Baldwin, 2018)(Hargreaves, Wilson & Hauxwell-Baldwin, 2018) so it is more than likely that similar dynamics could arise between households, dynamics that are reminiscent of the episode ‘Nosedive’ of the dystopian series Black Mirror.

A Space of Innovation

The greater context of energy systems and regulations, including the market reforms of the 90s and first decade of this century, provided useful background to understand how a special space for innovation and experimentation has been created in this district. Experimenting with batteries, one of the aims of the ASCR Project, is only possible in a context of exception to European regulation, where energy producers (Wien Energie) and network operators (Wiener Netze) are actually allowed to work together. Interestingly, other boundaries, such as the rules forbidding cooling technologies in subsidised housing in Vienna had not yet been circumvented, preventing experimentation with the floor heating system, for example. It was interesting to see that the EU was easier to convince than the municipality of Vienna!

Function of the Demo Centre

Our final area of interest was the function of the Demo Centre and how it acted as an interface between research, novel technologies and different publics. They play a particular role in proving new technologies, in engaging and configuring users, familiar subjects of research within Science and Technology Studies(Rosental, 2013)(Bherer, Gauthier, & Simard, 2017). Such spaces created visions for technologies, inviting us to embrace them. We were mainly invited to see and learn from the materials presented, and from the brochures we could take home with us. We learned from our guide that the majority of visitors are international business people, many of whom worked for Siemens and had a distinct interest in the prototypes. Other visitors hailed from the World Bank or from the EU, with the occasional group of students, though, as our guide insisted after facing over 30 questions, none of them came across as being as driven and engaged as we were.

Reflections on the Visit

Any self-respecting STS activity involves a moment of reflexivity and our excursion was no exception. Reflecting on the visit, we wondered about the degree of localization of the ASCR demo centre. Could it basically be located anywhere, given that we were only presented with representations of the developing site? Or would integration of the demo centre with the actual site might reinforce and enrich the demo function? City planners and STS scholars would stress the importance of context! (Felt, 2013) Perhaps the placelessness is meant to help emerging innovation seem ‘mobile’, potentially applicable anywhere, in the global field of interest of Siemens, energy companies and policy-makers.


Beaulieu, A. (2016). What are smart grids? Epistemology, interdisciplinarity and getting things done. In A. Beaulieu, J. de Wilde, & J. Scherpen (Eds.), Smart Grids from a Global Perspective: Bridging old and New Energy Systems. Springer.

Bherer, L., Gauthier, M., & Simard, L. (Eds.). (2017). The Professionalization of Public Participation (1 edition). New York, NY: Routledge.

Felt, U. (2013). Keeping Technologies Out: Sociotechnical imaginaries and the formation of Austrian national technopolitical identity. Retrieved from

Hargreaves, T., Wilson, C., & Hauxwell-Baldwin, R. (2018). Learning to live in a smart home. Building Research & Information, 46(1), 127–139.

Rosental, C. (2013). Toward a Sociology of Public Demonstrations. Sociological Theory, 31(4), 343–365.

Szeman, I., & Group, P. R. (2016). After Oil. Edmonton, Alberta: Petrocultures Research Group.


In memoriam Abby Lippman

On Friday 27 April, a memorial was held at Concordia University to honour the life and work of Abby Lippman. While I couldn’t attend, I did wear trainers on Friday, with a nod to what was her footwear staple, decades before this became fashionable. Trainers fit her life–Abby liked to run things. Important things. McGill published a short summary of her many achievements. Her leadership, her will to make a difference, can hardly be underestimated.

Abby gave me my first job as a research assistant at McGill in 1992, when I was just finishing my BA, and boy what an apprenticeship that turned out to be! She taught me so much about the entwinement of knowledge and power and the significance of feminism for women’s health. And about writing clearly! We stayed in touch for many years and she was always curious as to where my research was taking me. Such a driven, committed woman. I find it hard to do justice to just how much she taught me and to  how deeply her example shaped me, as an academic. I will miss her, and whenever I do, will try to emulate her commitment to a better, fairer world.


Zwemloop 2018

The first race of the season!

In the run up to this  event, I spent an hour or so in a great little cafe thinking through my goals for this race. The location was actually part of the exercize: Spaak is a newish cyclist hangout in Groningen. Henrieke Wijnsma, one of organisers of the Women on Wheels event I attended last May (the day I first saddled a racing bike and caught a glimmer of a possible cycling future) is the main figure at Spaak. So that place had warm fuzzy associations for me, even before I tasted their delicious coffee and baked goods.

Spaak is definitely a place for cyclists–really, your bike is also welcome inside the cafe–and I didn’t quite dare go there until a colleague from the philosophy department, whom I suspect never had an athletic thought in her life, took me there for coffee, this being conveniently close to her office. So, part of the exercize was to overcome my feeling of not really being athletic, of being an aspiring but somewhat hopeless candidate, of being at best a wannabee runner/swimmer/triathlete. Going to the ultimate place for sporty types was a step on the road to feeling legit about this tri-thing. Cultivating this feeling of legitimacy was  connected to my goal for the zwemloop: not to be scared! Or, positively formulated as mantras should be:



During my Spaak session, I  looked at my training and test runs/swims, my racing speeds at this event last year, and my tempo and ‘time in zones’ during my last race (4 Mijl), and came up with some indicative figures as to what I could expect to achieve on each part of the event, and which paces I would need to hit to achieve them. I made the goals very explicit and documented for myself why I thought they were doable. I also planned what the day of the run (late afternoon start) would ideally look like, in terms of fuel, rest and warm-up. So the Spaak session amounted to strong cognitive input, concrete planning and hard work on the emotional side of performance.

In the week before the race, I visualised how the day would go, prepared a check list, implemented Sal’s golden tip of elastic shoelaces, and practiced my transition a few times.

This combination of different kinds of preparation –my Spaak session, visualising, practicing–combined with some mantras in the run up to the race worked extremely well. I channeled any stress or apprehension into the phrase ‘I’m excited about this’, carving out an alternative groove to ‘I’m scared shitless but making myself do this anyway’, which is what has got me through events in the past. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy the hard work during the event, I felt incredibly strong throughout, ending with a massively fast sprint.  I ended the race more than 2 minutes below the time I was aiming for privately and more than 4 minutes below the time I had shared with others as my goal.

So it looks like I found a better use for all that energy that used to go into worrying.

Other noteworthy elements of the race were

  • total discombulation of my body as I moved from swimming to running (all kinds of weird bodily feedback going on, perhaps from having eaten cheese a bit too close to the event). Luckily it all eased after about 3-4 minutes, as my body got used to vertical effort.
  • Running sockless was not nearly as uncomfortable as I expected–no chafing and no blisters.
  • Racing without glasses went fine, though probably explains some of the squinting on the photos.

It was also interesting to note that the things I was scared about in the past (throwing up, having to stop and walk, getting a DNF next to my name, looking like an out-of-shape middle aged woman with silly pretensions, ending the race at a snail’s pace) also came up in the course of the event. But I was able to simply consider them very briefly and think ‘maybe this will happen, we’ll just see’ or ‘ that might happen, but it’s not happening now–right now I feel great and am running 10 seconds under my goal pace without any pain’. Somehow,  these fears were there but didn’t get any traction on me last Sunday. That was certainly the most delicious outcome of that day and I’ve been on a high since.

(A cherry on the sundae was scoring in a friendly water-polo match against an all-male team on Monday night Image result for female strong arm emoji.)

Perhaps it was a one-off, and there was some happy, lucky combination of factors that made me perform to this level. But the new fearless groove, that feels real and robust. I want to visit that again.



A new project with CWTS

In April, I will start a new project at the CWTS, the centre for science and technology studies at Leiden University. It will focus on increasing the impact of the work of the centre and the project will run for the rest of 2018.

I will write more about the objectives of the project in the coming days. These will further build on existing outcomes from research and evaluation activities, and optimize their impact with existing and new stakeholders. Concretely, this will mean starting up several activities, shorter and longer term initiatives, and variously involving individual researchers or the entire institute.

Among other activities, I will set up

  • a showcase to demonstrate the expertise at CWTS to academic and non-academic partners
  • meetings to discuss how different projects can have different ‘impact profiles’
  • workshops to develop ‘impact skills’ and reflect on what it means to have ‘impact’
  • work sessions on design, communication and form in relation to impact

The project will start with a kick-off seminar on Thursday 19 April. This will be the occasion to explain existing plans for the project and to brainstorm about additional activities that would help the CWTS’ work have more impact, in more ways.

Can’t wait to get started on this exciting mix and putting my energy and talent to work in Leiden: creating new connections, stimulating people to develop new aspects of their work and enhancing capabilities in this great group.


Bonne fête mon chat!

What a milestone. For you, legal adulthood. For me, tipping from parenthood into co-adulthood. Don’t misunderstand the term: you will always be my child. You will always be the only person who ever was my baby. This birthday highlights that my role will be shifting from carer to supporter, and that I am no longer the one who has the most to teach you. That has probably been the case for a little while now, but this milestone is a good moment to let that thought sink in.

Not that the learning has been a one-way street. I recall a conversation, when you were maybe 4 years old and expressing some impatience with how obtuse I was,  in which I replied that children spend a long time with their parents because parents really have a lot to learn from them. Eighteen years on, I don’t think I’ve fully been cured of all my shortcomings, but you’ve undoubtedly helped me along. In the coming years, it will be distance-learning, but I promise I’ll be paying attention.

We’ve come a long way. On your first morning, the midwife asked whether you had weed (prissiness even extends to midwives in Britain–I was once asked to ‘spend a penny’ in the course of a clinical prenatal visit). Oh my, I thought, even that biological function can’t be taken for granted. That was a degree zero moment for me; this is the place we start from. And now, look at you: the world is your oyster. Or maybe it has been for while. (Yes, you’re right,  I’m not the quickest to realize these things.) You were tuned in, from the time you were pointing out cranes from your pushchair and perking up your ears hearing the sound of sirens four blocks away… and it was also coming, when you were barely 13 years old and it seemed to me that, while some of your schoolmates didn’t dare cycle to the other side of town, you, on the other hand, could be dropped in any European city, and you would simply make your way home. And it was getting pretty clear when you decided you might as well camp out in the wilderness rather than on camping sites while trekking in France last summer, having experienced the oddness of pitching your bivy sack between the motor homes. Now, in the run up to your 18th birthday, you’ve decided to wait another month to renew your passport, having figured out that you won’t have to bother with documents for parental consent after the 17th of March. It wouldn’t surprise me if you were living on another continent, a year from now. Or maybe it will be two blocks away. But you’ll be doing it on your own terms and living your own life.

This eighteenth birthday is also a good time to say that even though you thrive and move on, I will always be, enthusiastically, devotedly, and probably now and then, embarassingly, your biggest fan. Your curiosity, you talent for teaching and coaching, your ability to be sensitive to others without being sentimental or nosy about it, your humor, your internal moral compass andfelix sense of justice, your generosity and helpfulness– I wish it on the world and I’m so proud, so privileged to have been a part of it, with my great love as co-parent. Among the many passions, intimacies and relationships that will cross your path, I hope you will also know such shared parental joy.

Life will not always be easy. Your recent accident is proof of that, dashing all your planning and training of the past year–but not your hopes and aspirations, and that is how I know you will prevail. While I dearly wish you had not had to deal with this,  these past weeks have been the occasion to see how resilient you are and how much support those who know you are willing to give.

Finally, I hope your penchant for junk food will not spin out of control. But otherwise, I’m really not too worried.

Merci à tous ceux et celles qui t’ont aidé à grandir, à Bath, Buckingham, L’Ange-Gardien, Moncton, Houten, Groningen, Ottawa, Thurso, Zeist, Amsterdam, Emmen, Nieuwkoop, Utrecht, Paraza et Haren, à Trois-Saumons et Minogami. Bienheureux ceux et celles qui vont te connaître.

Live long and prosper.

Pi Day Report

Full of dedication these past weeks, I’ve been doing serious research into the world of Viennese patisserie. My criteria were 1. Delicious-looking, 2. New  and 3. Chocolate. Though for the sake of number 2, I sometimes skipped the 3rd criteria. The photographic evidence demonstrates the diversity attained:


Also discovered, as a result of this exercise:

Portion size: pieces of cake are about 40% smaller than you would encounter in North America and even somewhat smaller than you what would get in the Netherlands. Because of the quality of ingredients and flavours, I was never left wanting another bite.

Time to browse: not once did I feel rushed in my perusal of display cases. No one, on either side of the counter, sighed impatiently at my thoroughness in inspecting the wonders on offer. It would seem people here understand that this kind of decision has to be carefully made, and that sometimes that takes a little time.

Respect the pie: no matter how many pieces or shapes I purchased, the patissière always managed to have the precisely appropriate container on hand and took great care in packing them up so that they arrived in perfect condition at their destination. This was achieved through combinations of a handy box with a handle/a wide-bottomed paper bag/an expertly-crumpled piece of paper (waxed tissue paper in this case, something I haven’t encountered before).

Cake infrastructure: the apartment where I am staying came somewhat summarily furnished in the kitchen department (one pan, one pot, four dinner plates) but was still equipped with the essentials: cake plates and cake forks.

Sugar and skin: While I’ve worked off the butter by putting in about 20K steps a day, my skin is begging for mercy from the sugar and I’m inclined to listen. So there might me one more farewell pastry just before I leave next week, from the master listed below.

Top address so far: Fruth (chocolaterie Patisserie au Marche), Kettenbrueckengasse 20.


The fifth discipline

Given the current trend to include strength and conditioning as the fourth discipline in triathlon (see an article on this part of training for the Dutch national triathlon team in this month’s edition of Transition), I’ve decided to document the overlooked fifth discipline: stuff.

Scuba diving is nothing in comparison; triathlon really involves a large amount of stuff!  About 8 months into this adventure, having worked hard to fit all the training into my schedule and develop new  routines, I’m facing up to the little discussed fact that the material culture of triathlon requires a substantial chunk of time and energy.  (And money–but I’m not going there for now.) This dawned on me a couple of days ago, when I spent half a day reorganising my closet, in order to make room for and optimize the clothing portion of the triathlon stuff. And that’s only the textile department.

So what is the fifth discipline all about? First, you need to figure out what you need and prioritize the purchases. Granted,  this is something that website, blogs and magazines do talk about–but it is only the beginning!!! Even expose-style, let it all hang out, nitty-gritty accounts of starting to tri (including this hilarious read) DO NOT TELL YOU THE TRUTH ABOUT THE STUFF.  So in the coming period, I’m going to be doing some deep, embedded research as to why has this aspect of triathlon is not more explicitly discussed: Why the conspiracy of silence around the triathlon stuff?

You’ve been warned, major revelations follow.

This first step of figuring out what you need means delving into the nearly endless possibilities–the cost of triathlon stuff seems to be highly variable,  and it appears that for each item, there is a range to chose from that covers orders of magnitude, going from 20 to 200 euros or from 200 to 2000, from 2000 to 20 000. What does this mean in practice: while I’m pretty sure that I don’t need a triathlon bike worth 20 000 euros,  should I go for the cheapest option? Or will I outgrow that too quickly and should I invest in an upper lower-range model? There’s a few evening’s worth of internet research going into that one. Then there is the ordering, receiving delivery, sizing issues and potential returns. So there you have some substantial information gathering, shopping, decision-making, and logistics of deliveries and fitting required by the stuff.

But– and I know I’m repeating myself– this is only the beginning: once your stuff, in the right size, has come in, you have to find a place to store it. Think cleaning out the shed to make room for yet another bike, go to the municipal solid waste disposal facility (“la dompe” as we use to say when I was little), and install some sort of hanging system so that it will be stored reasonably out of the way of the rest of the family.

Phew. Well done.

But these are necessary one-offs, you might say, investments that are part of starting up a new sport.

And you would be wrong.

Because this carefully selected gear needs to be cleaned, maintained and repaired. So, sticking with the bicycle example, you need degreaser (biodegradable), cleaner, oil (pick the one for wet conditions, this being the Netherlands). And a super handy contraption to clean your bike chain–the contraption also needs assembling and cleaning, make no mistake. A kit to change flats (tire irons, CO2 cartridge and spare inner tube) that all fits into a special streamlined bag under your saddle (how do I secure that on precisely?) so that you can have this stuff at hand during a race. Yes, we’re a few instructional youTube videos further.

Need I go on? A laundry rack for the fine hand-washables has now become a permanent fixture in the bedroom. There is half a shelf in the kitchen reserved for water bottles. A largish basket in our entrance hall holds various bits of equipment needed on the way out (helmet, fluorescent bits and bobs and reflector bands, ziploc for the phone, special earphones) as though that part of the house isn’t already cluttered enough.

To end, here is a picture of some of the recent stuff, some visual evidence so you don’t have to take my word for it. Granted, this is for someone tri-ing in a relatively cool climate. Not like my cousine d’Australie who can do it all wearing a singlet, a cap and a pair of shades. Oh, and probably three kinds of sunblock.


No wonder triathlon doesn’t seem to be short of sponsors!



Eating problem, continued

I’ve been researching and reading up on how to solve my eating problem. It seems that this eating dilemma is going to be resolved–surprise surprise–with a golden third way. I should not either increase the baseline or compensate the calories as I go, but rather do both. This means two changes in my current eating pattern:

  1. adjusting my diet to the increased level of activity overall (so from 1200 to something like 1300 calories a day) and
  2. incorporating a habit of recovery nutrition after heavy workouts, paying attention to both hydration and refuelling.

Some of the frustration I have been feeling was based on the fact that I’m hitting the boundary of how much time and attention I want to be spending on this triathlon thing… On the other hand, I don’t want to undermine the hours I do spend training by not feeding myself properly or have those episodes of low blood sugar where I wake up beyond famished and barely make it downstairs on wobbly legs.

So it seems that the above moves can help me avoid all three of these inconveniences. Eating more means adjusting the routine (increase in daily calory intake), and with a good set of post-workout snacks, I can tackle the recovery nutrition too.

I’ve been going through my cookbooks (including the Feed Zone Portables) and my little book of recipes to select some staples to tackle the recovery nutrition. I feel I need a few more options –and once found, will list these in a post– to nail that part of the triathlon challenge.

BTW: I have now officially registered for the Groningen Speedman (1/8th distance) in June, will probably do the ‘zwemloop’ (500m swim+ 5 km run) in April and am considering another longer event for September.



Trump, Brexit, the earthquakes in Groningen, interdisciplinarity in energy research, the poor showing of the Netherlands in the energy transition–this collection of glocal issues has recently spurred me to think and write about our systems of knowledge and how they come to matter. One the threads in this series of reflections has been the importance of techniques of calculations. They sustains a ‘valuation’ imaginary of truth, one in which the possibility of calculating return on investment is the leading logic (see this blogpost).

Where the preferred question about knowledge is how much value does it add, then calculation becomes indispensable.

In Verran’s classification, dominant types of truth are articulated, and these help us to see motifs in everyday practices and in the dynamics of institutions. At the same time, such types are never pure, and there are always areas of tension or of hybridization between ways of knowing–especially when knowledge is set in the context of human interactions.

A recent book by Maarten Derksen* addresses  such interfaces and the skills needed to reconcile calculative logics to other modes of knowing and to other kinds of truths. In this book-length study of myriad social technologies, Derksen shoHistories of Human Engineeringws how tact can be deployed and provide relief from ambivalence about calculation. Interrogation techniques, social psychology experiments, or principles of scientific management can best be applied using tact; the implementation of a technology is performed as an artful tuning of abstract rules or approaches to the exquisitely particular interaction with an individual.

Given modern sensibilities about the uniqueness of individuals, the incommunicable essence of our subjective experience and the private nature of our phenomenological trajectories, we tend to be ambivalent about social technologies and their implication that people’s buttons can be pushed, as though they were machines. Tact is both a means to address the reluctance to use a calculating approach to dealing with people (especially face to face), and the magic sauce that makes a social technology work. I find this approach especially interesting because it identifies a conjunction where there might be an articulation between techniques of calculation and the arts of listening.

*Full disclosure: Maarten and I will be celebrating 20 years of enduring conjugal bliss on 15 July 2018.

Derksen, Maarten. 2017. A historical study of tact: Histories of Human Engineering: Tact and Technology. Cambridge University Press.








Post-truth and other truths

In the aftermath of the American elections, discussions about knowledge and truth have been framed by concepts of post-truth and alternative facts. Even among those of us who consider themselves experts in the processes of truth-making and knowledge creation, this framing has stirred things up, reactivating old fault lines in the STS community (see the Sismondo vs Collins exchanges in Social Studies of Science).

There are many other, very insightful, discussions. For me, Helen Verran framed it best of all, in her examination of post-truth governance, which she recently summarized in a presentation at the ETHOS Lab, IT University in Copenhagen.

Verran characterizes post-truth governance as one of three imaginaries of truth. One of these, post-truth governance, is based on an epistemology of market values, rather than on ontological truth. In the post-truth imaginary, what matters, the knowledge that is sought out and produced and evaluated, is knowledge that will inform on the opportunities for return on investment.

This framing helps to understand the place of instruments and techniques of calculation and their dominance in global institutions that direct capital flow–whether for the alleviation of poverty, the energy transition of the survival of refugees. Think of the World Bank’s decision-making processes, think of the UN environmental agency’s evaluations, think of the procedures of EU funding for research. What is calculable can be valued–in all senses of the world–and if it can be valued, it is the kind of knowledge that can be funded. In other words, it is the kind of truth worth investing in.

For Verran, it is opposition to this line of reasoning that characterises many of the populist politicians who denounce the logic of calculation. When calculation takes on overly abstract forms, when the measures become too far removed from lived experience, when metrics are pursued within hermetic systems, a sense of alienation follows. What counts seems irrelevant to what matters.

These are the circumstances in which people appear to be ‘tired of experts’, to pick up on a particular polemic that arose during Brexit campaigns. Think for example of rebellions against technocratic approaches to visas and the appeals for pardons for long-time residents of the Netherlands: their rich, meaningful lives lived here “don’t count” in the visa and asylum procedures; the relationships and identities shaped by the many years spent in a community don’t seem to matter.

imaginaries of truth

To return to Verran, and her useful framework: she puts forth that there are currently three co-existing imaginaries of truth, each with their own knowledge-making technologies, political embedding and institutional supports:

  • correspondence theory of trust (abstract objects are derived from physical objects) (this is where Collins et al are most comfortable)
  • coherence theory of trust (there is no indexing; the focus is on coherence within a system. The IT world is an application of this, insofar as coherence with a system forms the basis for evaluating programming rules. (Sismondo tends to this view)
  • grounded theory of truth: empirical facts reveal themselves; truth is an event.

She invites us to consider that we, as critical scholars, can translate between these imaginaries, but that ‘something happens’ when we do and that we should pay attention to this. What is lost-gained in translation?

This framework and its implications are well-articulated in Verran’s lecture and well worth a watch, especially given the focus on the prevalence of coherence theory of truth in the epistemology of IT–while giving a talk at  ITU. It is also worth noting that these distinctions are eminently relevant in the current context, but not so new:  Haraway set out grounded epistemology in in her manifesto years, some decades ago.

What triggers me most in this lecture is the suggestion that translation may be not only a necessary step, but also a productive one. Verran warns us of the need for skills to translate and invites us to pay attention to what might happen when we do this translation. If we are to understand such translations, and if we are to see truth as an event unfolding on the ground, then we must also have expertise to apprehend this. This expertise lies not mainly in techniques of calculation but in the arts of listening.

A video recording of Helen Verran’s talk can be found on the Ethos Lab website.