This site collects some of my work and thinking on Science and Technology Studies (STS). It serves as a portfolio for my Certificate in Science, Technology, and Society Studies at the University of Washington.
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The Politics of Urban Technologies
A brief account of my intellectual journey with STS
Years before beginning my PhD I began a fixation with the question of how new technologies shape urban life. The field of STS has illuminated and expanded my concerns, giving names and frameworks to my intense but inchoate feelings towards the dynamic between emerging internet and mobile computing practices and the familiar urbanism I had come to love. Not only has STS has been essential in sharpening the intellectual contribution of my own doctoral research, it comprises the body of thought that I believe has the most to offer to my home discipline of urban planning.
In my initial application to the UW’s PhD program in urban planning, I expressed a concern with “the growing share of the urban environment that is highly prescriptive, optimized for efficiency, and conceived at a scale that corresponds to its backing capital rather than its human occupants.” Such critiques of the engineering and financial paradigms shaping built environments are well established in urban studies, but I suggested a parallel trend in the more recent emergence of ubiquitous digital technologies:
“Like the re-orientation of cities around the automobile over the past century, the present revolution in information and communication technologies presents opportunities and challenges to the social capabilities and character of cities. The migration of personal and commercial transactions to virtual spaces is likely to redefine the role of physical space in unanticipated ways. … Meanwhile, the pervasiveness of mobile devices has meant that encounters with the city are increasingly mediated by opaque algorithms and a small screen. I am eager to undertake research to illuminate where these technologies enhance the social power of urban space, and where they stifle it.”
When I look back this statement and on the initial explorations of my PhD work, I see two major developments in my thinking: attention to materialism and to agency. Both of these have been enriched by my engagement with STS. First, although I was always uncomfortable with language of separate “virtual” and “real” worlds that characterized much internet discourse from the nineties and aughts, I nonetheless fell into the trap of seeing digital and physical as somehow competing in a zero-sum game, rather than co-constituting one another in a more complex mediated relationship. Second, I see in my early thinking traces of a kind of technological determinism, in which a new technology produces some social impact, whether for good or for ill, among people who more or less helpless to stop it. While I was intent on showing that technological impacts were harmful rather than utopian, it was through STS that I came to a more nuanced understanding of how such outcomes are not preordained. Instead, attention to the agency of people in using technologies in their own messy ways is needed to explain both the successes and failures of sociotechnical change.
In my first year at UW, a chapter by the geographer Stephen Graham (2004) began to redirect my thinking on both of these points. Reacting to the dominant discourses proclaiming the leveling and emancipatory effects of digital media and the “death of distance” brought by advanced communications technologies, he points to the persistence of space and materialism. Further, he takes issue with accounts of technology that are
“based on a general, and uncritical, use of the metaphor that cities would simply be ‘impacted’ by new communications technologies in the same way as planets are impacted by asteroids. In all the above accounts ICT technologies were portrayed as arriving from ‘out there’, as a transformative ‘force’ or ‘shock’ hitting the fabric of urban society.” (p. 10)
Discovering this kind of thinking in urban studies was a relief. Oh good—we aren’t really going to be subsumed into a world of screens after all, we aren’t just the passive adopters of the tech wizards’ latest gizmo-based visions. Only later, however, did I come to realize, first, that the powerful rhetoric of ubiquitous digitization and of technological determinism persists in contemporary urban debates, and second, that STS had already been challenging these narratives for decades. This opened a door for my doctoral work: applying ideas from STS’s critical engagement with technology to the work of urban planning. Classic work in STS since the 1980s has shown that the envisioning, development, adoption, and use of new technologies do not obey any laws of nature, but are social phenomena situated in historically contingent circumstances. Work at the intersection of STS and media studies has grounded abstract thinking about data and information in the geographically and materially situated world of cobalt mines, server farms, and distribution warehouses. Both of these ideas fit nicely within actor-network theory (ANT), which is focused on the particular and the relational. In my own work, ANT is a tool for complicating or resisting the grand narratives of political economy and structural determinism.
After spending a the first year or two of my doctoral studies frustrated to find little critical engagement with technology in the discipline of urban planning, my introduction to STS, through Prof. Gina Neff’s “Theories of Technology and Society” class in the Communication department, was a turning point. Two themes—the digital’s informational and material qualities, and the dynamic between agency and affordance in accounting for a technology’s use—emerged as the guiding themes of my studies. More specifically, materialism has guided my methodological approach, influenced by Actor Network Theory and phenomenology, to ask where abstract ideas are made concrete and observable in artifacts and behaviors. Agency, especially with respect to the autonomy on people using digital technologies, has guided the political aims of my research. By pointing to how “users” of technology are simultaneously producers of those technologies, their cities, and their own lives, my work reveals a groundwork for action and resistance. As STS has taught us, the particular sociotechnical arrangements we observe today could have been (implicitly could still become) otherwise.
This portfolio is a collection of and reflection on my engagement with these and other ideas in STS.
- Graham, S. (2004). From dreams of transcendence to the remediation of urban life. In Graham, S. (ed.) The cybercities reader. Routledge.
- Science, Technology & Society Studies in Action
- Theories of Technology and Society
- Space, Technology, and Society
- Theoretical Foundations for Information Science