The Relevance of STS in Industry, Part 1: On Critique

Post April 5, 2017 10:56 pm

In conversations with several people in the general STS field, I have informally provided my perspective on the importance of philosophies from STS (and H and A, for that matter, our other component disciplines here) to the production of new technological artifacts. Among these sometimes unwitting interlocutors is Shreeharsh Kelkar, who suggested, perhaps a year ago, that I might post about these ideas. And it seems like it may be useful for myself and for others to put them into writing in a rather more concrete, if still informal, way.

Figuring out how to achieve this fusion of technological research and humanistic research is the central focus of my practice. Essentially, while critique has proved a deeply productive mode of scholarly work, and has created a flourishing field of science and technology studies interested in how and why and to what ends technoscience works, it has failed in a fundamental sense. Critique has failed to provide a clear route to alternative technosciences. While it is important for us to be critical, we must also face the inevitability that new inventions will be produced, with or without our help. This struggle is clearly outlined, for computer science at least, in Phil Agre’s Computation and Human Experience: engineering values things that work in practice over “mere” theories. One must make in order to matter. While this view may ultimately be unfortunate and shortsighted, simply proclaiming it so does us no good. There are good reasons to work with, as well as critique, the dominant paradigm. However, those involved in critique are often not equipped to do that making or inventing. Some are ideologically opposed to the project. And, nonwithstanding the relative valuation of books versus working technologies, our scholarly monographs rarely even make it into corporate boardrooms, let alone the desks of junior developers responsible for designing and implementing systems on a small scale. (One industry person I talked to recounted a conversation with an academic who asked what people in their organization thought about Chris Kelty’s work! It is no insult to Two Bits to suggest that they had, of course, not read it.) The few books that do manage to penetrate that far often do so by virtue of the existing connections of their authors. This is not a scalable or repeatable strategy for new scholars.

So what are we to do? I contend that there is a third way, between a dominant and highly reductionist technoscientific practice and a tradition of humanist critique whose powerful insights are too easily missed or ignored by that practice. We need an alternative, critically-informed technoscience that extends related interventions like design anthropology. It is my belief that this alternative will prove immensely valuable in the long run, but its value may not be apparent up front through the lenses by which success is currently measured. So to achieve it, we may need a guerilla-STS:  where we cannot enter directly and shape design and development, we may need to learn to smuggle our ideas in through the back door. In a series of posts to follow I will attempt to outline: 1) some interventions that STS can pragmatically bring to technoscience; 2) my ideas about how to support the value of that work; and 3) hopefully some concrete, disclosable examples. Stay tuned.


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