Privilege, techno-optimism and changing the world

Some thoughts by Noam Bergman on EASST 2018

The EASST conference is the European biannual conference on science and technology studies (STS) – the study of how society, politics, and culture affect scientific research and technological innovation, and how these, in turn, affect society. It is a good place to hear a variety of interesting and unexpected viewpoints, and 2018 was no exception.


One of the first talks I heard was by Jonnet Middleton. Far from a usual conference presentation, this was an autobiographical story dappled with social science; it was one of those unusual talks that makes you glad you came along. As a PhD student, Jonnet wanted to engage in the act of mending, pledging not to buy any new clothes and wanting to fix things herself. She visited, and later settled down, in Cuba, eschewing first world privileges for a significantly more precarious life with limited infrastructure and safety nets. She’s shed many of our common Western habits as well, explaining she’s been online for 24 hours… in the last year. This was her first paper and public speaking event in several years, and might be her last, as she does not intend to stay in academia. Almost too inspiring!

That was one of many discussions around the roles of research and researcher, both in and out of conference sessions. I was taken aback by one particular comment. Alena Israel presented a paper about a local and (temporarily) successful struggle against hydropower dams on the River Marañón in Peru. A discussant said there were many studies of hydropower plants being built, with similar economic and political analysis, and this was not interesting. He insisted the interesting thing was what you did with it, specifically how you advanced the relevant theories. This is a standard social science approach, requiring novelty in theory, not just a good case study, but to me it misses the point. Hydropower plants have become increasingly controversial. Is destroying part of natural Amazonia worth the carbon emissions it saves? Would the power produced help local populations, or the Brazilian mining industry? Important, substantial questions. The case study is interesting in itself, while I find furthering theory for its own sake meaningless: I don’t research sustainability to advance theory, I do it to advance sustainability.

Technology, research and activism

There were also many discussions around technology, from the humble smart meter to global geoengineering. I was especially interested in the question of smart technology and what it has to offer. Can we move from techno-economic, top-down drivers of smart cities, to bottom-up, people-centred models? I would have said no, but I was impressed by Gregory Trencher’s talk on how the smart city narrative inspired people in a small Japanese city to tackle endogenous social challenges developing their own techie initiatives. I continue to doubt that smart homes will give us convenience and comfort, which are elusive, moving targets defined by consumerism; and even the hype about energy savings has been questioned.

I came to the conclusion that I am not so much techno-sceptic as I am an ‘anti-techno-optimist’. There is an underlying assumption in public discourse – and sometimes in research – that technological development (i.e. ‘progress’) is inevitable, benign, and the key to solving all our problems. The techno-optimism shone through strongly in quite a few presentations, although questions and private conversations with their authors revealed that actually, many shared my ‘anti-techno-optimism’ approach – that just wasn’t the question they were researching, or they had neglected to mention that this was going to be compared to less ‘smart’ methods. But these things need to be said, these narratives challenged.


Image by Joe Brusky (CC BY-NC 2.0)

At the opposite end of the sustainability spectrum, my own paper was a study on the fossil fuel divestment movement and its impacts. I enjoy researching activism when I get the chance, although it takes me back to a familiar dilemma. We are facing the slow unfolding of environmental catastrophe, of which climate change is the greatest symptom, but not the disease; it is the fever that could kill the patient. Is my research, in fact, advancing sustainability, or merely advancing that amorphous knowledge base that academia treasures? If I want to promote sustainability, to play a small part in reversing or slowing this trend, is academic research the best route? Or is it better to invest more in activism, opposing destruction while building alternative communities and systems?