Science in climate action – Rethinking the role of scientists and transdisciplinarity in the context of climate change

By Timo Bühler

Keywords: #science #activism #climatechange


Science and activism – An irrevocable division?

The public discourse about climate change is often dominated with a line of argumentation that states that scientists ‘have done their job’ by providing the necessary scientific facts and that it is now the turn of politicians to act based on these facts. This division between the creation of facts and the actions following from them – or between science and politics – is a demarcation line that has been drawn deliberately, especially in ‘Western’ scientific and political cultures. And while this form of ‘boundary work’ (Gieryn, 1983) must be understood based on its historic legacy, it is by no means something that has to be this way.

The last years have spawned various examples where scientists have been speaking up in public, beyond their own scientific community, asking for a change in political policy and action or even taking actions themselves. To give just two examples: First, there is the initiative to ban ‘lethal autonomous weapon systems’ globally. This initiative by the Future of Life Institute[1] specifically addresses the public and politicians to inform them about the potential dangers that such weapon systems could bring[2]. The second example concerns the group Scientists for Future[3], that grew in solidarity with the Fridays for Future movement in various countries and has been vocal in calling politicians to action based on their scientific findings.

Both examples don’t sound out oft the ordinary from an STS perspective; past research has not only asserted that ‘science is politics by other means’ (Latour, 1993), but has also analyzed the history and becoming of the idea of an ‘objective’ science (Daston & Galison, 2021). Likewise, STS has observed how publics have redefined their own role in the process of generating scientific insights (e.g. Epstein, 1996). Despite these detailed descriptions of science-society relations the question how to take action on these issues was rarely posed by STS researchers.


From ‘matters of concern’ to ‘matters of action’: The Climate Walk

In the first quarter of 2020, a group of young scholars, including myself, came together facing the necessity to act on climate change. Most of us had been studying in different disciplines for several years, sometimes even more than one discipline – e.g. Development Studies, Ecological Engineering, Environmental Management, Environmental Sciences and Policy, Geography, Informatics, Political Science, Science and Technology Studies, Social and Cultural Anthropology, and Natural Resource Management. Despite the wide range of scientific practices and methods that we had been taught, we were missing a link to concrete action based on this knowledge and wanted to change this. For us, speaking in STS terms, it was about translating the obvious ‘matters of concern’ (Latour, 2004) to ‘matters of action’.

In this initial phase, we, at this time six people, were working hard to put together a first concept for a project that would bridge the supposed dichotomies of nature and culture; science and politics; discussion and action; creation and dissemination. Ultimately, the Climate Walk ([4] was born, a project that combines scientific research with educational elements through the use of various media and art formats. The main goal of the project is to engage with Climate Change – meaning its bio-physical dimension – and Changing Climate– meaning the diverse social and political dimensions it encompasses.

Image from Climate Walk

It is probably not a big surprise that a hike is at the heart of the Climate Walk: 12.000 kilometers through Europe, starting at the North Cape and leading to Cabo da Roca in Portugal over the course of 18 months. To be clear, this hike is not a publicity coup or a cosmetic hook to get people interested. It actually aims to counter the prevalent critique that the scientific community is acting out of a privileged position, that it is often urban and not close enough to the actual events and experiences of people. Hiking through Europe is thus an attempt to overcome, at least to reduce, this gap. Beyond this, walking is a way of getting to know people and landscapes – as a method for transdisciplinary research (Ingold & Vergunst, 2008) – but it also includes an activist message in itself: Other forms of movement and transportation are not only necessary but possible.


Scientific activism and activist science


Image by Eva-Maria Holzinger

Overall, we intend to shift attention to the ‘unseen places’ and the ‘unheard voices’ and give them a face and voice by means of the Climate Walk – also because we want to dismantle power structures in the existing discourse around climate change. STS discussions have not been quiet about the distribution of power in public discourse. In the context of methodological approaches, the idea that science needs to proactively include underrepresented actors in research and follow a ‘strong objectivity’ has been put forward, inter alia, by scholars like Sandra Harding (1992). This is exactly what we want to do and achieve with the Climate Walk. The project is thus also an attempt to rethink and to actually redo the role of scientists. We invite everyone – no matter if scientist, activist, educator, artist, or citizen – to get active and hike with us!


The Climate Walk will start on June 5, 2022, and everyone is welcome to join us on this journey for some time. You want to learn more about the Climate Walk?

Go to our website

Follow us on social media

Watch this short introduction video







Daston, L., & Galison, P. (2021). Objectivity. Princeton University Press.

Epstein, S. (1996). Impure science: AIDS, activism, and the politics of knowledge (Vol. 7). University of California Press.

Gieryn, T. F. (1983). Boundary-work and the demarcation of science from non-science: Strains and interests in professional ideologies of scientists. American Sociological Review, 781-795.

Harding, S. (1992). Rethinking standpoint epistemology: What is” strong objectivity?”. The Centennial Review, 36(3), 437-470.

Ingold, T., & Vergunst, J. L. (Eds.). (2008). Ways of walking: Ethnography and practice on foot. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Latour, B. (1993). The pasteurization of France. Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (2004). Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern. Critical inquiry, 30(2), 225-248.

Timo Bühler is a Master student and researcher in the ICU4Covid project at our department engaging with the relation of digital technologies, social norms and values. He has been part of the Climate Walk team for the past year, working on the preparation of this pan-European science, education, and media-art project.

Scientific Training as Economic Resource

By Kamiel Mobach

Mr Erkki Liiikanen visiting the assembly hall of the CMS detector (Source: CERN, 2003,


Investments into science have been politically coupled to so-called societal relevance. Even the Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), a producer of quite arcane knowledge about subatomic particles, likes to stress that spinoffs of its accelerator technologies have been of benefit to society. CERN insists that its laboratories were the birthplace of the Worldwide Web and that it aims to “build further links with industry in terms of the transfer of knowledge from CERN to industry” (CERN mission statement).

Commercial applications of CERN technologies have been a showcase for CERN’s value to society since the 70s, but more systematic efforts concerning technology transfer were set up around the 1990s: a Director for Technology Transfer was appointed, and CERN planned to strengthen its intellectual property rights. However – as I was told in an interview – it turned out that the resulting patents did not make enough money to cover the cost of the team managing those patents. The patented technologies were too specialized for widespread usage. Does that mean that the justification of research budgets in terms of technological spinoffs is a fallacy?

The answer might be found in a shift in discourse that followed soon after, renaming most technology transfer activities to knowledge transfer. After this shift, the commercial adoption of scientific technologies was emphasized less and patents were largely abandoned, even if only for financial reasons. What took the place of this linear conception of technologies being transferred to industry was an insistence on the value of training in science.

In public outreach, CERN still stresses how its technological achievements are relevant for society. But, in terms of economic self-justification, CERN now increasingly argues that its scientists have a range of qualities relevant for industry and society: they have experience with large collaborations, with working in an international environment, and they have the skill to adapt cutting-edge technology to problems at hand. Here, CERN seems to be following a line of argument similar to accounts of the value of tacit knowledge. To effectively argue that the (tacit) skills learned at CERN are being used in industry, it has set up an alumni organization. In this way, CERN can trace where its PhDs and Postdocs have ended up after their time at CERN.

Another initiative at CERN that illustrates this idea is IdeaSquare. Organizing projects and events that bring together business schools, industry, the European Union, universities and CERN scientists, IdeaSquare is geared towards sharing ways of thinking, designing, organizing and problem-solving. Here we see that societal relevance is not anymore conceptualized in terms of specific technologies flowing from science to industry, but in terms of a transfer of technological and organizational skills required to adapt technologies towards specific purposes.

Students brainstorming at IdeaSquare. (Source: CERN, 2015,

This way of thinking might increasingly influence science policy in the future when it is brought to the attention of policymakers. An article in The Economist for instance, has argued that economic growth through innovation is a matter of fostering a group of “very highly trained locals” that can adapt available science and technology for commercial use, and that state spending on research and development should focus on the institutions and tools needed to foster such groups.

Following this line of argument, R&D spending might become a matter of managing flows of expertise and hosting sites where expertise can be practiced – a matter of human resources. However, this view on state spending on science might clash with dominant project-based models of scientific funding. If views on R&D keep developing in the direction outlined so far, their reconciliation with prevalent funding schemes will be an interesting battleground to observe.

Kamiel Mobach is a PhD student at our STS department researching the entanglements between different forms of ‘Europeanness’ and technoscience at CERN. He is interested in the historical evolution of notions such as ‘fundamental research’ and ‘objectivity’ as well as their sociopolitical functions.

Making Europe through Infrastructures of In/Security. Notes from a virtual workshop

By Paul Trauttmansdorff & Nina Klimburg-Witjes

Image licensed under Creative Commons

Making sense of infrastructures of in/security

Transnational infrastructures are today envisioned and promoted as solutions to various kinds of security risks and threats, in areas such as border management, surveillance, cyber-crime, or health diplomacy. At the same time, the unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic exposed once more the multiple controversies, problems and disfunctions around health, data and diplomatic infrastructures, through which European states seek to tackle insecurities brought by the virus. For example, when explaining its so-called “Security Union Strategy”, the European Commission argued that a “constantly changing security landscape” would require “tools, infrastructure and environment in which national authorities can and do work together effectively to tackle shared challenges”. (1)

During the online workshop Making Europe Through Infrastructures of In/Security (12-13 November 2020), an interdisciplinary group of scholars attended to infrastructures in the context of European policies and discourses of in/security. (2)The ubiquity and pervasiveness of security in our contemporary societies requires us to explore how infrastructures relate to the realities and imaginations of threat and risk as well as to the politics of fear and economies of insecurity. So, what exactly can or cannot be counted as an infrastructure of in/security? And, when is an infrastructure of in/security (cf. Star & Ruhleder, 1996)? When we organized this workshop, we wanted to probe into the multiple legacies and envisioned futures of infrastructures in and for Europe, as objects of political desire and promise (Larkin, 2013). At the same time, we found it important to revisit how infrastructures of in/security configure political practices and social values, include and exclude certain groups of users, as well as enact “Europe”, a concept that is essentially “contested and unclear” (Schipper & Schot, 2011, p. 205).

Poster of the event

Materiality, Plasticity, Multiplicity

In five thematic sessions and a public panel discussion, the workshop thus set out to explore the relations and organized practices of infrastructures of in/security that are made through and for Europe. We discussed how their mutually constitutive relationship can be mobilized to unpack current technopolitical developments and the contemporary constitution and topographies of Europe. In inspiring conversations, infrastructures were analyzed as sites that both materially embed and reconfigure power relations, while signifying and encoding future(s) of in/security. The conversations during the workshop reflected the many ways in which infrastructures of in/security are designed, envisioned and assembled, and how infrastructures can (or must!) be thought of in their multiplicity to decode what is assumed to be “European”. Although we cannot do justice to all the different objects, agents and sites of security infrastructures that were presented and discussed, we like to briefly highlight two core themes that came up at the workshop.

First, how infrastructures draw together both material practices and social imaginations of (in)security, and allow to explore processes and practices of making Europe in their “conceptual plasticity and […] undeniable materiality” (Carse, 2016, p. 35). This became especially visible in contributions that dealt with the various transnational border and migration infrastructures, such as the ongoing buildup and technological expansion of biometric databases for the surveillance of migrants. Several presentations pointed to the massive material and social investments, at both local and transnational level, that aim to create and maintain “European” border infrastructures. Various “agents of infrastructuring”, from policy officials, agency representatives, maintenance and repair workers, to private industry actors, must here be continuously aligned, molding and altering infrastructure, to govern these machineries of inclusions and exclusion. In her talk at the Panel Discussion, Annalisa Pelizza enhanced this view by describing the data-based management of third-country populations on the move as contemporary forms of alterity processing. The identification and classification of “others” would hereby co-constitute emergent European orders, thus representing an arena in which the process of “infrastructural Europeanism” (Schipper & Schot, 2011) plays out in multiple and contested ways.

The workshop contributions also touched upon plenty of other large-scale infrastructures of in/security: the assembling of rockets, the making of cloud infrastructures, or the re-making of biosecurity facilities, which reflect broader visions and processes of European technopolitics and European (dis)integration. As Johan Schot argued in his keynote at the Panel Discussion, like the transnational construction of roads or railways, they contribute to the emergence of infrastructural Europeanism in the age of security. But they can also decenter powerful players such as the European Union by front-staging the multiple organizations, rules, procedures, standards across Europe (Kaiser & Schot, 2014, p. 4).

This brings us to a related, second observation: infrastructures might reveal what John Law might call “collateral Europes” (cf. Law, 2011)—its multiple reality as composed by distinct routines, discursive practices, material artifacts and institutions. Contributions at the workshop thus also drew our attention for example to the making of alternative infrastructures that contest or challenge both the social and material infrastructures of the state. Practices of infrastructuring, in this sense, do not have to simply power, but can also act as a way of placemaking that challenges, re-imagine and reconfigure hegemonic spaces. Almost inevitably, they pose the question on how infrastructures also enact alternative Europes. Inspiring discussion thus centered around the manifold attempts of “making Europe” in diverse infrastructural arrangements. In her keynote on infrastructures of non-knowledge, Claudia Aradau pushed this conversation further by proposing to add the vocabularies of disjunction, disconnection and decomposition in order to our established conceptual repertoire of assemblage, re-configuration, composition or association. To disjoin or to decompose infrastructure is not to exclude, destroy, eliminate or neutralize, as Aradau stated. The prefix ‘dis’ or ‘de’ can mean to render ‘apart’ or ‘asunder’. By rendering error and fake asunder, by taking truth and authenticity apart, these infrastructural disjunctions might then produce new hierarchies and social orders.

Image licensed under Creative Commons

New old questions?

Throughout the workshop, some familiar questions recurred, proving once more relevant for future research on infrastructures of in/security. A much-debated issue concerned the visibility and invisibility of infrastructures. Much work in STS has not only illuminated the tendency of infrastructures to fade into the background and silently perform boundary and classification work, but also how infrastructures can become present and come to the fore, being exposed as grand public spectacles or technological failure. But what is our own role as scholars in rendering infrastructures of in/security visible, and when we define, trace, and criticize them in our work? An interdisciplinary gathering of scholars such as this one can pose these questions, but only provisionally reflect on them. What are the binding elements of this chain of association Europe—Infrastructure—In/Security, and how does our work contribute to these links and/or disconnections?

Infrastructures of in/security, explored as “dense social, material, aesthetic, and political formations” (Anand, Appel, & Gupta, 2018, p. 3), moreover allowed us to critically reflect on “Europe” and on the various moments, in which what is “European” either becomes visible or is silently inscribed into technologies and practices. As integral parts of today’s European technopolitics, infrastructures of in/security are as much sediments of the past as they are articulations of desired futures. We believe that a promising approach to unpack the different visions and realities of Europe that these infrastructures of in/security entail is to think of what Annemarie Mol (2002) described as “ontological politics”. (3) Infrastructures must thereafter permanently envisioned, performed or enacted, at heterogenous sites, places, and times, in need of constant negotiation and coordination. How and when does infrastructure stand for and materialize what visions and technopolitics of “Europe”? When do infrastructures of in/security contribute to linking and de-linking certain versions of Europe? Two days are never enough to arrive at answers to these questions but the workshop made it clear once more that there are promising avenues to be explored through interdisciplinary conversations on infrastructures of in/security.

Find here a video of the keynote presentations during the panel discussion.



(2) This workshop was jointly organized by the Department of Science & Technology Studies, the Department of Political Sciences and the Department of Sociology of the University of Vienna, in the interdisciplinary framework of the program “Knowledge, Materiality, and Public Spaces” of the faculty of social sciences. We would like to thank the participants for their thought-provoking papers and presentations during the workshop. We would also like to thank Annalisa Pelizza, Claudia Aradau and Johan Schot who gave the keynotes for a Panel Discussion, as well as Ulrike Felt for her moderation and role as discussant.

(3) In her book The Body Multiple, Mol attends to how different versions of atherosclerosis, different versions of this particular object, are handled in hospital practice. By showing how the different enactments of an object in different parts of the world need constant coordination to become a coherent object.


Anand, N., Appel, H., & Gupta, A. (2018). The Promise of Infrastructure (N. Anand, H. Appel, & A. Gupta, eds.). Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Carse, A. (2016). Keyword: Infrastructure: How a humble French engineering term shaped the modern world. In P. Harvey, C. B. Jensen, & A. Morito (Eds.), Infrastructures and Social Complexity: A Companion (pp. 27–39).

Kaiser, W., & Schot, J. (2014). Writing the Rules for Europe. Experts, Cartels, and International Organizations. Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan.

Larkin, B. (2013). The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure. Annu.Rev. Anthropol., 42, 327–343.

Law, J. (2011). What ’ s Wrong with a One – World. Heterogeneities, 1–14.

Mol, A. (2002). The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. In Medical Anthropology Quarterly (Vol. 18).

Schipper, F., & Schot, J. (2011). Infrastructural Europeanism, or the project of building Europe on infrastructures: An introduction. History and Technology, 27(3), 245–264.

Star, S. L., & Ruhleder, K. (1996). Steps Toward an Ecology of Infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces. Information Systems Research, 7(1), 111–134.

Nina Klimburg-Witjes is a post-doc researcher at the Department of Science & Technology Studies, University of Vienna. In her work at the intersection of STS and Critical Security Studies, she explores the role of technological innovation and knowledge practices in securitization processes, with a particular focus on sensors, infrastructures and space technologies. Tracing the entanglements between industries, political institutions, and users, Nina is interested in how visions about sociotechnical vulnerabilities are co-produced with infrastructures of in/security. Among her recent publications is the edited volume “Sensing In/security – Sensors as Transnational Security Infrastrcutures” together with Geoffrey Bowker and Nikolaus Poechhacker (forthcoming 2021). The book  investigates how sensors and sensing practices enact regimes of security and insecurity. It extends long standing concerns with infrastructuring and emergent modes of surveillance by investigating how digitally networked sensors shape practices of securitization.

Paul Trauttmansdorff is a PhD candidate at the Department of Science and Technology Studies at the University of Vienna. His current project explores the making of large-scale digital infrastructures in the EU border regime and is situated in the intersection of STS, critical migration studies and critical security studies. He is furthermore interested in studying the controversies and contestations around infrastructural developments and innovations, thereby bringing STS perspectives together with social and political theory.

Thinking with Atmospheres

By Sarah Davies

A (meteorological) atmosphere. Image by Pixabay

I recently had an article published that uses the concept of atmospheres to think about scientists’ experiences of international mobility. While I naturally urge you all to read this in full,* I also thought it would be interesting to more informally share some of the background to this piece of writing. What do I mean by atmospheres, how can we think with them, and what are the benefits of doing so?

The article began, in fact, with a problem of mess. I had carried out a fantastically rich set of interviews with different kinds of scientists, all at the time working in Denmark, who had experienced some kind of international mobility. There was so much interesting in these interviews, about so many different things, that I struggled to tell neat analytical stories about this empirical material. It made sense – was coherent – but in a manner that eluded easy thematisation or categorisation. How, I wondered, to do justice to such material? How to craft stories from it, tell-able stories, that still rang true to the complexities of lived experience?

Using atmospheres was one approach to doing this. Though we mostly think of this word in colloquial terms – as speaking either to a physical atmosphere, such as that surrounding the earth, or to a mood – in recent years it has been taken up as a device for social research (often in ways that blur the meteorological and the metaphoric). Atmospheres are ‘productively nebulous’: as an analytical device, they allow us to simultaneously think about the material and immaterial, the local and global, the emergent and the staged (for instance). They allow us to notice affects and materialities as well as stories and discourses. Beyond these affordances, though, I had already started to think of my informants as existing with different kinds of webs, clouds or networks. As you can see from my sketch below (part of one of my coding diagrams), interviewees spoke about different kinds of overlapping relations that structured their trajectories and decisions, operating at different scales. Atmospheres gave me a framework for thinking about this.

A work-in-progress – messy – analytical sketch by the author.


Well, you can read the full analysis in the article. In it, I draw on different ways of defining and working with ‘atmosphere’ as a way of pulling out different (at times incommensurable) aspects of my informants’ experiences. Atmosphere, I suggest, helps us to talk about the elusive, the hard-to-grasp, the almost intangible, in ways that don’t render these things too neat and tidy and which are therefore part of a broader STS project that tries not to flatten mess in our data and analyses. I hope I have whetted your appetites for such approaches, and for atmospheres in particular.

* As said by every researcher/writer, everywhere. The article is called ‘Atmospheres of science: Experiencing scientific mobility’ and is currently Online First in Social Studies of Science.

Sarah Davies is Professor of Technosciences, Materiality, and Digital Cultures in the STS Department, University of Vienna. Her research explores the relations between science and society, particularly as these are done in digital spaces.

Let us take over! How Jack Stilgoe wants to put the public back into the driving seat of innovation

By Sebastian Bornschlegl

Let us take over! How Jack Stilgoe wants to put the public back into the driving seat of innovation
Book Review: Stilgoe, J. (2020). Who’s Driving Innovation? New Technologies and the Collaborative State. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

The book at the center of this review

We are accustomed to a story of a mobility revolution told by companies like Uber, Waymo, and Tesla year after year: Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are just around the corner, probably available this very year. But something always seems to get in the way of these great promises. In 2020 the global COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying regulations like social distancing and lockdowns brought the development and testing of AVs to a sudden halt (Ohnsman, 2020a; Wiggers, 2020). Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk made headlines multiple times, defying the lockdown of a factory in Fremont and anti-COVID measures in general (Boudette, 2020; Boudette & Flitter, 2020; Lambert, 2020). Serious health risks for workers were accepted in the name of innovation. AV technology is presented as too disruptive, too important, too essential for society than to be stopped by regulations. This story of inevitable technological progress against all odds is aptly challenged by Stilgoe (2020) in his pamphlet Who’s Driving Innovation? New Technologies and the Collaborative State.

Stilgoe is one of the leading STS scholars working on automated driving and artificial intelligence (AI). His new book builds on his previous work on self-driving cars (2018, 2019) in which he highlighted the technology’s infrastructural interdependence and social complexity. In his pamphlet the author explores how emergent technologies are governed and links current trends to our sociotechnical past. He employs AVs and AI as prime examples while focussing mostly on the US and UK context. Stilgoe poses an essential question: How can societies hold innovators responsible for developing technologies that benefit all of society instead of a small elite?

The situation today appears like the exact opposite: Private companies drive and control the process of innovation in the high-tech sector. They either circumscribe regulations or enroll the public sector for private interests. Stilgoe challenges the techno-deterministic visions of society enacted by companies like Google and Facebook across five chapters. His critique is focused on the way private entities organize innovation, which often compromises social equality and welfare in favor of profit and autonomy. But Stilgoe does not stop at problematization, he also explores potential alternatives for democratizing innovation. The concept of the Collaborative State is a tentative, normative program for the governance of emergent technologies that puts governments and the public back into the driving seat of innovation.

Undemocratic technologies
An extraordinary fatal accident which occurred in 2018 acts as the entry point to the issue of current technological innovations: The killing of Elaine Herzberg by a self-driving car operated by Uber in Tempe, Arizona. Blame was assigned to everybody, but the decision to test an apparently dangerous technology without sufficient safeguards was not questioned. This “tombstone mentality” (Stilgoe, 2020, p. 4) ignores the need for regulations until it’s too late. The emerging theme of companies not taking responsibility for their innovations while promising big benefits for society is present throughout all chapters. Stilgoe argues that “[i]n the absence of any outside involvement, science and technology will tend to reinforce rather than close inequalities.” (Stilgoe, 2020, p. 32) For example Uber’s investment in self-driving taxis opens up the possibility of getting rid of its underpaid, precarious drivers altogether. In a similar manner AI might be employed for decision making in a variety of social contexts not because it is more just but simply because it is cheaper than human labour.

The self driving Uber after its fatal accident

His dire prospect is connected to a set of issues with the current governance of innovation. New technologies are presented as quick fixes for specialized problems and get assessed according to their possible risks. If something goes wrong, technology’s shortcomings are frequently labeled as unintended side effects instead of its inherent risks. But as Stilgoe argues, many bugs are indeed a deliberate feature serving the interests of private innovators: Facebook is designed around privacy infringements and the free productivity services provided by Google feed into its advertising business. These risks might be unknown to consumers and regulators alike. The author links the opaqueness of powerful software companies to “economies of scale” (Stilgoe, 2020, p. 29), meaning that current high-tech innovations like AI and machine learning depend on vast centralization efforts by private companies. These entities position themselves as the solution to the need for data collection and computational power. But once high-tech companies get hold of public data, they enforce full control over it – often without any public oversight.

While AV innovators like Musk claim that they will use their power to develop revolutionary self-driving software, Stilgoe points out that their promises have not yet manifested at all. The killing of Herzberg exemplifies that AVs cannot perform even mundane tasks like breaking on time. Thought experiments like the “Trolley problem”, where the machine is faced with a dilemma situation and has to decide on whom to run over, “provide a convenient distraction from a real debate about the limits of technologies and the responsibility of engineers.” (Stilgoe, 2020, p. 45). Colleagues like JafariNaimi (2018) also criticize the utilitarian framing of treating lives as calculative variable, resulting in AI programmed to kill. Stilgoe’s argument culminates in the realization that “the dream of instant autonomy promises to change to world without changing the world.” (Stilgoe, 2020, p. 47) Innovations like machine learning would have to be combined with processes of social learning and infrastructural developments in order to really benefit society. If cars shall drive automatically, our built environments as well as ways of living will need to change radically – and not just cars.

The last chapter on the concept of the Collaborative State positions policymaking and public experimentation as a way of democratizing innovation. The author tries to translate insights from how the NHS governs innovation in the medical sector to how governments could regulate disruptive innovations in general. This would result in “public policy as a form of grand experiment” (Stilgoe, 2020, p. 58). Stilgoe is convinced that governments and policymakers should lead the way of innovation in order to make sure that the public actually profits from private innovators. Public participation as well as flexible, pro-active policies are the tools he proposes for this end.

Is there a chance that AI and AVs will actually revolutionize societies across the globe? The author reformulates this question: Can we put effective regulations into place so that these innovations get democratized, mitigating inequalities instead of reinforcing them?

The critique is on point, but “how” remains an open question
Sticking to the formal characteristics of a pamphlet, the book presents a normative program supported by fitting empirical evidence and pointed argumentation instead of an in-depth analyses or case study. Stilgoe ties together past work on the governance of innovation and the politics of technology like Winner’s (1980) famous example of the tomato harvester in order to understand the societal impact of current bleeding edge technology. Just like the tomato harvesting machine radically changed the plants, plantations and connected human labour, emergent technologies will not simply replace existing ones but alter the fabric of society in significant ways. This puts Stilgoe’s book in relation to STS work on engineering cultures like Hughe’s (1987) study on large technological systems as well as Law’s (1987) concept of heterogenous engineering. Stilgoe is convinced that technology is always embedded into the larger context of society, thus being dependent on built environments, social relations as well as infrastructures. He highlights that engineering is not only a technical process, but also a social one. To paraphrase Latour’s (1988) paradigm of science being politics by other means, Stilgoe presents the invention and governance of technology as a way of doing politics.

The innovative character of the book lies in updating past debates for the 2020s and focussing on AI and self-driving cars as one of the most discussed technologies today. Even though these innovations are presented as disruptive and revolutionizing, Stilgoe shows that technologies and their corresponding politics are never inevitable. He formulates a critique of technological determinism that remains comprehensible considering the shortness of the book. His warning is as relevant as ever: The testing of AVs is already taken up again (Ohnsman, 2020b) and some companies claim that these vehicles could be the solution to the COVID-19 mobility crisis (ITU News, 2020) by reducing human contact in the transportation of essential goods. One can imagine the imminent tensions between private innovators and regulations in times of crisis.

Stilgoe’s pamphlet is a call to democratize innovations in order to strengthen public participation and welfare. This message is consistently picked up in all of the chapters. The Collaborative State as means to this end remains vague though, which in part is owed to the short form. For me a main concern regarding this concept is the belief that experimentation and public participation lead to good governance by the state per se. For once, the lack of regulations might be a deliberate decision in order to cater to the interests of private stakeholders. The ways certain governments handle the current crisis should be a telling warning that politics often do not have public welfare in mind. Secondly participation experiments come with their own set of issues (Bogner, 2012), namely that representing the public under lab conditions tends to reinforce experts’ hypotheses instead of yielding novel insights. Stilgoe critically reflects that “experiments in public are also experiments on the public” (2020, p. 59), thus encompassing profound ethical challenges. It remains to be seen how collaborative forms of governing technology can be organized effectively and whether civil society interacts out of its own interests instead of being called by expert bodies.

Sebastian Bornschlegl BA BA is currently studying the STS program at the University of Vienna coming from a humanities background. He is preparing his MA thesis on semi-autonomous buses and their users. In his spare time he is podcasting about politics and culture for Schirmchen & Streusel.


Bogner, A. (2012). The Paradox of Participation Experiments. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 37(5), 506–527.

Boudette, N. E. (2020, May 8). Tesla Tells Workers It Will Reopen California Factory Despite County Order. Retrieved August 11, 2020, from The New York Times website:

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The Politics of Contact Tracing Apps: How Apple and Google distance themselves from politics while building a global infrastructure of contact tracing

By Thomas Kuipers

Corona app illustration (stock image from


There’s an app for that

The desire to solve society’s problems with technological fixes is not new. They appear to be cheap, efficient and immediate. On the contrary, political and systemic responses are expensive, slow, and controversial. Often, we are not even sure what exactly political responses would entail, or how they would be realized. Typically, they foster heated debates, which appear to slow down this already lengthy process even further. The appeal of putting science and technology in the drivers’ seat is obvious.

In this regard, the coronavirus pandemic is no exceptional situation. It was not long before we vested our hopes of tackling this crisis in technology. A solution was formulated within the sociocultural context of recent mass adoption of smartphones, which came along with a plethora of apps designed to solve all of our problems, inconveniences and more. The echo of Apple’s commercial “There’s an app for that” has yet to fade. Perhaps it was not surprising that we imagined that an app would come to the rescue. In some nations, such as Australia and the Netherlands, the mass adoption of a ‘corona app’ was even listed as a hard requirement for lifting the lockdown. The Dutch government organized an ‘Appathon’, in which seven companies competed for a weekend to create an app that would be used to “combat the coronavirus”. What exactly the app should do was unclear, but that the coronavirus could effectively be fought with an app was taken as self-evident.


Roadblocks to an imagined future

Fast-forward one month and it appears that a particular type of corona-fighting apps has taken the center stage: one that facilitates contact tracing via Bluetooth. When two people have the app installed on their smartphones, they automatically exchange pseudo-random messages (hashes) with each other when they are within the reach of each other’s Bluetooth signal. Each person with the app keeps track of which messages it has received. When someone then gets infected with the coronavirus, an alert will be sent to all other participants via the internet. This alert, which contains another hash, will then be compared to all of the previously stored Bluetooth messages. If a match is found, this would mean that the participant has been within the vicinity of the now-infected patient, and is at risk of also being infected.

Even though little is known about these apps as of now, both proponents and opponents have been engaging in a hot public debate. It often appears that the choice of resorting to contact tracing apps is a matter of balancing public healthcare with privacy (Verhagen & van Gestel, 2020). Will contact tracing apps successfully “combat the coronavirus”? Or will they upend privacy as we know it? The only real answer at this point is: we have no idea. At this point in time, “the technology remains the figment of a particular technoscientific imagination” (Stilgoe, 2015, p. 6). Studying contact tracing apps means studying ideas, promises and imagined futures. Their very existence and their actual qualities are still being negotiated from various technical and political angles.

The technicalities of Bluetooth have thus far already played a major role in shaping these apps. On iOS, it is currently only possible for an app to send and receive these Bluetooth signals when the app is active and visible on the screen. When the phone is on standby, which it always is when it is in your pocket, the Bluetooth messages cannot be sent. On Android, it is possible for apps to send and receive Bluetooth signals when the phone is in standby mode. However, fears about battery drainage and reliability across a wide range of Android devices remain. These limitations on access to Bluetooth have been perceived as insurmountable by certain European officials and they have requested the tech giants to remove these restrictions. Initially, Apple and Google flat-out refused to do so on the grounds of protecting the privacy of their customers. Not much later, a French “senior government official” proclaimed that “European states are being completely held hostage by Google and Apple” (Rosemain & Busvine, 2020). One cannot help noticing the irony in European states demanding Silicon Valley tech giants to lift their privacy-protecting measures.

 A particularly empty snapshot of Museumsquartier, here in Vienna. Busy places like these could be regular ‘meeting’ points for our phones’ Bluetooth sensors (image taken by the author).


The political difference between an app and an API

These tech giants are now in the unique position to program the capability of Bluetooth-enabled contact tracing into our smartphones. They have been building the infrastructure of mobile connectivity for over a decade, with themselves firmly established at the heart of it. Building this global infrastructure is not a purely technical endeavor, it also “requires organizational, economic, political and legal innovation and effort in order to resolve the heterogeneous problems that inevitably arise” (Edwards, 2010, p. 10). While many individuals, institutions, businesses and governments are dependent on this infrastructure, Apple and Google hold a disproportionate amount of power over who gets to access or modify it.

Soon after the rallying cries of frustrated politicians, Apple and Google announced they would contribute to solving this global problem with a new collaborative effort between the two rivals, titled “Privacy-Preserving Contact Tracing”. A crucial element of this effort is an Application Programming Interface (API) which enables apps to interact more smoothly with the Bluetooth protocol. Through this API, developers can access all the data necessary to create contact tracing apps. What is remarkable, is that Apple and Google are not creating a full-fledged contact tracing app themselves. They are merely providing the building blocks for others to do so, even though the two most powerful technology companies in the world certainly have the technical capabilities to create this app.

While we can only speculate whether this was a deliberate strategic decision, it certainly puts Apple and Google in a significantly less politically controversial position. ‘Corona apps’ and their advocates have come under great scrutiny in the media by privacy-guarding institutions and worried politicians. If Apple and Google were to develop the app themselves, they would surely attract the bulk of this storm of criticism, but now they appear to be shielded from at least part of it. We can only begin to imagine the kind of public and political backlash they would face were they to undertake the development of the entire app. To understand why the decision to only develop an API and not an app appears to be less controversial, we need to concern ourselves with what makes for controversy in the first place.

A common conception in contemporary societies is that technology develops independently of social and political forces (Wyatt, 2007) — it is even often believed to be neutral and value-free. This causes what is seen as purely technical to be shielded from scrutiny. Because engineers supposedly follow an independent and technocratic path of innovation, we need not worry about it: their innovations will take place regardless of societal debates. This conceptualization of technological progress is known as technological determinism. Quite on the contrary, the political is understood as an arena of debate in which collective decisions are made. Democracy — the rule of the people — surfaces as the antithesis of the technocratic notions of technological determinist thought. While these readings of technological progress and political decision-making appear as starkly separate domains, the boundary between them begins to blur as we realize that the design and development of corona apps is a highly political endeavor. Where exactly lies the boundary between the technical and the political and how does it emerge? Can we say that apps are always political, while APIs are not? Do technologies have certain intrinsic qualities that determine the extent to which they are political?

Thomas Gieryn (1995) provides an explanation that moves away from such essentialist explanations: the demarcation between the technical and the political is the result of boundary-work. Boundary-work is the act of distancing the scientific or technical from the social. Gieryn describes how successful boundary-work results in the prevention of the control of certain technoscientific activities by outside powers. As political pressure on Apple and Google was mounting to cooperate in the development of contact tracing apps, it was not unthinkable that they would be forced by nation-states to adapt their operating systems to accommodate these apps. Whether this would have been attempted by court order remains unknown, but the reputational risk of being seen or characterized as the impediment to public healthcare in a global pandemic was all too real. An attempt at such a characterization happened only later, on the 5th of May, when France’s minister for digital technology, Cedric O made some hefty accusations against Apple (Kar-Gupta & Rose, 2020):

Apple could have helped us make the application work even better on the iPhone. They have not wished to do so. I regret this, given that we are in a period where everyone is mobilised to fight against the epidemic, and given that a large company that is doing so well economically is not helping out a government in this crisis. We will remember that when time comes.

But already earlier it became crystal clear that states around the world were longing for contact tracing apps with reports about their development from Germany (Busvine, 2020a), France (Rose & Pineau, 2020), Israel (Cohen, 2020), Singapore (Ungku, 2020), South Africa (Dludla, 2020) and even a European effort (Busvine, 2020b). Meanwhile, Apple was all too aware of its privacy feature of limiting apps’ access to Bluetooth while not being opened and in the foreground. At least some form of action was crucial. In providing this API, Apple and Google have “kept politics near, but out” (Gieryn, 1995, p. 434). They have protected their autonomous control over their operating systems by providing political forces with just enough to prevent more threatening consequences. They engage with politics just enough to be able to contribute to societal problems and demonstrate their usefulness. However, they refrain from becoming entirely entrenched in the heated debate about contact tracing by not providing the apps themselves, therefore leaving the final implementation of the solutions to the public health authorities. This would allow Apple and Google to avoid risk of loss of prestige or credibility in the case of further controversies surrounding the contact tracing solutions. Developing the API, but not the app, is a clever maneuver which shows the skillful demarcation between the technical and the political. Not only are they walking the tightrope between these two territories — they have put it up themselves by constructing the boundary in a way that maximizes perceived beneficence and minimizes the risk of reputational loss, all the while maintaining full autonomy over their infrastructure.


Contested sovereignty and protocol politics

Even though Apple and Google are not directly engaged in developing the app, that does not hold them back from having a say in how the apps should behave. From their initial announcement of the new standard it was clear that they favored a decentralized approach: this is a central feature of the design of the APIs. Accessing the Bluetooth sensor’s data through the new API and storing it on a centralized server is not allowed. Apps that would do this would simply not be given access to the new API. A second limitation took longer to emerge. For weeks, the Silicon Valley companies remained unsure of whether they would allow contact tracing apps to combine the Bluetooth data with GPS data (Nellis & Dave, 2020a). It was only on the 4th of May that they finally announced that location data could not be used by apps that access their contact tracing API (Nellis & Dave, 2020b). This is in stark defiance of the explicit request of US states North and South Dakota and Utah to access location data. Simultaneously, a third limitation was introduced: only one app per country or region would be allowed. What exactly defines a region was not specified.

Theoretically, public health authorities could still decide to go without the new API and thus circumventing the newly imposed limitations on their apps. However, the importance of this API is rendered visible by examining Germany’s and France’s continued attempts at developing an app that does not rely on the newly proposed protocol (Rosemain & Busvine, 2020). They long desired a centralized approach which would give the respective governments far greater control over and insight into the collected data. Finally, Germany gave in to the desire for a decentralized approach and flipped (Busvine & Rinke, 2020). Colombia made a serious attempt to deliver contact tracing without Apple’s and Google’s API, but failed and dropped the contact tracing feature from their “CoronApp” after a month, planning to resume their program when the new API is ready (Dave & Nellis, 2020).


Evaluating infrastructures of healthcare: beyond privacy

Much public scrutiny appears to focus on the privacy implications of corona apps (Verhagen & van Gestel, 2020; Verhagen & Brouwers, 2020; De Wit, 2020). Function creep is one of the dominant aspects of these implications: while initially their only intended use would be to conduct contact tracing in order to contain the spread of the virus, governments and corporations could soon find other uses for the gathered data. The data in this case is highly sensitive and useful, a social graph of which people interact with each other. Replacing the word “infection” with “crime” directs our gaze at other potential use cases of this data (Parthasarathy, Stilgoe & Waisanen, 2020). If you have recently interacted with a criminal, there is a certain probability that you are also involved in criminal activity. Some may be satisfied by the guarantees that all data will be anonymized and only stored in decentralized ways. However, the potential applications of this data still remain: if a person can be identified as having been in contact with an infected person, she can also be identified as having been in contact with a criminal. Apple and Google have promised us that apps can only use their exposure notification API for contact tracing during the pandemic (Exposure Notification Frequently Asked Questions, 2020). However, the next time that governments will require this technology it will again be requested on the grounds of combating a crisis. And with crucial elements of the sociotechnical infrastructure already in place, the barrier to the adoption of this technology has been lowered significantly.

While such privacy concerns are not to be minimized and deserve careful consideration, we also cannot ignore the implications of building crucial elements of our public healthcare on top of an infrastructure that is under the tight control of Silicon Valley tech giants. By developing the API, but not the app, their political influence is disguised as the pure technological enablement of public health authorities to perform contact tracing in ways that seem appropriate to their locality. On closer inspection, however, we can observe that Apple and Google are still exerting significant power as system builders by controlling access to the infrastructure. And infrastructures last: their endurance is one of their fundamental qualities as they can last far beyond political trends and temporary crises (Edwards, 2010). Ever more elements will use the infrastructure as their foundation, strengthening the network as they are added. Eventually, the infrastructure’s endurance itself will function as its legitimization in a self-perpetuating cycle. The influence of Apple and Google on how public healthcare is conducted within the territories of nation-states might prove difficult to be rolled back once the pandemic is over, as Tamara Sharon (2020) has noted. She argues that our increased dependency on these tech companies for providing what used to be public services will ultimately lead in the reshaping of these services to more closely align with the values and interests of Silicon Valley. These may of course be at odds with those of European citizens.

In a crisis it is tempting to reach for technological fixes that promise to address our immediate concerns. However, we must not forget that these promises are based on technoscientific imaginations and not on empirical evidence. Coronavirus apps are strongly dependent on Bluetooth sensors, which are already known to be inaccurate and unreliable in measuring the proximity between devices. Furthermore, these apps are not created in a vacuum and they come embedded in a sociotechnical infrastructure. They can have long-lasting effects on the balance of power between tech giants and nation-states and have the potential to reconfigure the stage of geopolitics. It remains to be seen how these nation-states’ sovereignty will be affected when they hand over responsibilities to international corporations and increasingly come to depend on their computational infrastructures.


Thomas Kuipers is following the masters program of Science-Technology-Society and works as a software engineer on various projects, most notably in the cyber security space. He is particularly interested in how software is used as politics by other means.



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Being productive in times of crisis, making the crisis productive?!

By Ruth Falkenberg

Being productive in times of crisis, making the crisis productive?!

The corona pandemic we are currently facing is certainly an unprecedented crisis – a crisis in which science, medicine and health(care), global and national politics, socio-economic, and even environmental dimensions are entangled in complex and often seemingly elusive ways. As such, the current situation represents an immense and multi-faceted STS case study. As an STS scholar, it is hard not to think about what we see and hear in all kinds of media channels through our various STS lenses. Increasingly, there are also formalised calls to respond to, research and accompany the current pandemic from an STS, or more broadly, social scientific perspective.

Analysing, commenting and reflecting on the current crisis from a critical (scholarly) perspective is certainly crucial, as we find so many interesting, remarkable, but first and foremost worrisome things going on around us – things that would not have even been imaginable just a few weeks ago. As such, the current situation lays open many of the values that are so tacitly embedded in the ways the social worlds around us are organised. Furthermore, the shifts we are currently witnessing open up multiple versions of a ‘new normal after corona’, creating spaces for change and transformation that can happen in many directions. STS perspectives and (academic) interventions are therefore indispensable and can play a crucial role in shedding light on some of the complex entanglements of this crisis and in shaping the pandemic and its aftermath.

In short, the value of timely STS contributions to the corona crisis seems out of question.[1] Nevertheless, over the last days and weeks I increasingly find myself wondering and reflecting about scholarly responses to the corona pandemic. While I am following current discussions and conversations within STS and the broader academic community on various channels such as mailing lists or twitter, I cannot help myself asking what is actually driving our work and professional engagements in these times. (And I deliberately use the term ‘our’, since these reflections certainly also pertain to myself.) Do we produce papers, proposals or other forms of output related to the corona pandemic out of a wish to contribute something to the current situation that is of relevance and help to other actors, whoever these may be? Is it a sheer curiosity, finding so many (undeniably) highly interesting things happening right now? Is it maybe a way to deal with the current stressful and novel situation? Is it a pressure that as an STS scholar one has to make a contribution to the current situation, to turn this crisis into a form of productive output? Or is it a convenient option to add another item to the CV, or to get some quick grant money?

While lecture halls are empty, other aspects and logics of academic life are not coming to a halt.

(Image licensed under creative commons)

Certainly, the complex relations between these different aspects that guide our practices are impossible to disentangle, in these times as well as in other moments. Yet, it seems that these days it becomes particularly salient how fine and blurry the line is between providing a valuable contribution that may be of interest or help to other people, and rather productivity- and competition-oriented considerations. Which is not meant to deny the importance of any of these factors that may drive our work – clearly they all come from somewhere. For example, writing about the crisis as a way to cope with the own impressions, thoughts, and emotions can definitely be an important and valuable practice. And, of course, also the need to somehow continue to produce output, to stay visible and contribute to the academic discussions of the own field is something that cannot be neglected – the accumulation logics of epistemic capitalism do not simply stop in times of crisis.

Yet, at the same time, the current situation that produces so many exceptional states and lays open so many weak points of our societies, can also be an encouragement to reflect on the values, considerations, and tacit norms that actually guide our own practices. What is it that we produce output for? Who do we actually want to be as researchers? And what effects do our own practices sometimes create?

At the moment, there are new potential forms of competition and stress created for some people, in relation to contributing some scholarly output to the current crisis. At the same time, the current situation also radically exposes how closely the possibilities for academic productivity are tied to the own personal circumstances and always compete with other practices, roles, and ways to contribute – at the moment, there is a large gap between those who do not have many teaching, care, or other responsibilities and who may therefore indeed experience the current situation as a sort of deceleration, and those who need to juggle more duties than ever and may hardly have time to follow even their basic tasks. Furthermore, even some of those who have the time to write down their thoughts may rather feel a need to become active and engage with the current situation in a non-academic manner. What, then, does it mean to be a good scholar, and how to think about academic citizenship in times like these?

What is a valuable (academic) contribution in times of crisis? And who does, amongst many other tasks, actually have the capacities to engage in solitary writing? (Image licensed under creative commons)

It would not be possible to answer the questions that I have raised in the scope of this blogpost, but this is not my aim. Indeed, finding answers to such questions is to some extent a very individual and subjective process and there may be no absolute right or wrong. Yet, it is certainly important to (collectively) reflect on and discuss these issues – at least as far as the current state of exception allows it.

I want to thank my colleagues from the STS department who shared with me their thoughts and feelings on being productive in the face of the corona pandemic.

[1] For a nice example of this, you can just scroll down to read the post by my colleague Kamiel Mobach.

Ruth Falkenberg is a PhD student at the Research Platform Responsbile Research and Innovation in Academic Practice. She is interested in meanings and practices of “relevant research” and in valuation practices in academia, particularly in the context of contemporary neoliberal regimes of research governance. Her dissertation is part of the project Valuing, Being and Knowing in Research Practices, which investigates how valuation practices and processes of subjectification are entangled with strategic decisions in researchers’ work.

Thoughts on Legibility, the Coronavirus and Responsibility

By Kamiel Mobach

How many people are currently affected by the coronavirus, nobody really knows. Governments and their organizations are publishing figures every day, but this does not say anything about how many people actually carry the virus with them. Knowing this number accurately would be impossible, because the way in which such knowledge is produced is quite complex. In this post I will shortly illustrate that there is no objectivity in numbers. As an alternative, I will suggest the notion of ‘legibility’ as a view on what numbers can do for societies and governments. I will connect this concept to issues of responsibility and politics.

Figure 1: Cumulative increase of COVID-19 cases. Source: WHO (Accessed 22 March 2020).

The sudden, discontinuous increase in this graph on the 13th of February was the result of the Chinese government changing its definition of coronavirus cases to include people with symptoms who hadn’t been tested yet. The number of people who were being treated in Chinese hospitals did not change, but from this day onwards more of them were counted as ‘patients with coronavirus.’ More recently, many governments have stopped testing every person that has got symptoms. At the same time, most of them still publish numbers solely based on positive test results. Not testing everyone is justified by the fact of limited testing capacity. However, the continued publication of figures based on test results brings about unclarity about how many coronavirus patients there currently are. In the Netherlands, for example, the Dutch governmental public health institute reported 1135 cases on 15 March, while the country’s municipal health services said they estimated the number of infections in the country to be around 6000.

Statistical knowledge, like the figures just discussed, is an arena where practices of government and science are intimately intertwined. In his book Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott develops the concept of legibility to theorize this intertwinement (1998). The book gives a host of examples of how states developed formal knowledge categories in order to know more about their population. Examples include standardized measurements and weights, land surveys, mapping and building of cities, and census. Scott argues that the categories that the state uses to make things legible do not just describe how things are, but come to prescribe how people live, how land is organized and how people distribute and trade resources. However natural they seem to us now, surnames, as well as birthdays are artifacts of census practices imposed on our ancestors centuries ago.

In the current case of the coronavirus, the state has to impose means of categorization to define certain people as infectious, and to classify people into different categories of risk. The sudden increase in the number of coronavirus cases on the 13th of February is an example of how the state knows differently through different categorizations. There is a whole apparatus behind the numbers that get shown in the media. There are people who administer tests, labs that process them, administration that keeps track of the numbers, and in all these stages and links of the process, choices need to be made about how to proceed. This can result in certain people not being tested, for example because they have not been in a risk area in the past weeks. Moreover, what counts as a ‘risk area’ is changing almost daily. The limited capacity of testing means that there are assumptions at play in who can be defined as a coronavirus patient. On top of that, there are multiple ways to test someone: for example, there are tests that find molecular signs of infections, tests that look for antibodies against the virus, as well as CT scans of a patient’s lungs. There are certain standards agreed upon that are not the only possible standards that could have been chosen.

None of this means that coronavirus patients are a made-up category. Instead, the discussion of ways of knowing about the coronavirus shows that making knowledge is a complex practice. What I want to focus on here, however, is not the way in which single patients are categorized, but how knowledge is created about a population. In the case of the before-mentioned increase, the Chinese government had to justify measures it was taking to stop the spread of the virus. It could do this only by convincing the public, organizations, other lawmakers and foreign actors that the measures it was imposing were justified. The population became a patient that needed to be categorized in order to decide and justify what the right ‘medicine’ would be.

The justification of certain measures over others depends on how they are made legible. Using a method that results in lower numbers might inspire inaction, whereas using a method that results in higher numbers might inspire rash measures to contain the spread. Therefore, legibility provides two intertwined functions: it makes governments able to know about the people and things it has power over, and it provides justificatory measures for policies it decides upon. People and groups think differently about which measures are justified. As there are many stories going around about what is happening, how many cases there could be and what the governments’ next measures are going to be, it is hard to find a conclusive story to believe.

The statistics that governments and other institutions provide can help explain their choices. Inversely, which strategies of counting and categorizing are used also depends on the measures that need justification. And this depends on what we see as the thing that needs to be cured. Is it the disease in specific people? Is it the epidemic in a population? And if so, in which population does it need to be cured more urgently and about which places do we care less? Maybe it is a specific country’s healthcare system that needs to be held upright. To do this we could try to ‘flatten the curve’, i.e. spreading the cases of the disease over a longer time in order not to go over hospital capacity. Doing this, however, stands in contrast with keeping the economy running in the most profitable way. To let businesses survive the crisis, it would be better to lower the lockdown time. Instead, looser measures could be chosen for by propagating the notion of ‘herd immunity’. Governments could also support the economy, but to whom should they give their newly created money? Big businesses? Self-employed people? Small businesses?

Having these matters of concern in mind, we see that the statistics published about the coronavirus can respond to different worries and fears. This begs the question whether we should publish numbers about cases around the world, in specific continents, in specific regions, or countries. Which ‘unit of people’ we publish about and where we draw boundaries between these units stands in relation to the possible responses. Making the coronavirus epidemic legible, then, is not just something that has to do with abstract knowledge-making but is an act of responsibility towards certain concerns.

Choices have to be made here, though. We cannot be responsible to all possible concerns around the epidemic, because some of them clash. We cannot keep the economy functioning like it is and at the same time stop the spread of the disease. Moreover, attention to some concerns, like keeping the Austrian healthcare system functioning, draw away attention from others, like the spread of the virus in refugee camps. On the other hand, a concern for situations farther away from home might be linked to concerns about one’s own region if thought through properly. European governments were quite inattentive to the situation in China when the virus did not spread to Europe yet. The way in which the situation evolved shows that such inattention is no option in our globalized societies.

Taking these thoughts into account, it is important to demand public access to the way in which figures about the pandemic are being created. On the website of the Austrian ministry for social affairs, for example, the government publishes how many people have been tested and how many of those tests were positive. The website explains that a test is conducted when a ‘health officer’ reports a potential case of the disease. This does not explain which decisions this officer should take to decide whether a potential patient is going to be tested. It is important that such information is made available to evaluate the justifications that governments use to implement certain measures. When governmental authorities show certain graphs to justify their measures, we should know what these graphs show, whether the shown in- or decrease in cases represent patients in hospitals, tested patients, or an estimate of the number of patients.

It will be very interesting to witness the discussions on what is worth a proper response and what is not during the rest of the pandemic and during its aftermath. The outbreak has opened up cracks of social inequalities that have been unethical, if not outright dangerous to societies all over the world. When people do not have access to healthcare, for instance, the disease spreads faster. If people are forced to keep working while they are ill or at risk of getting ill, they will take more risk and possibly spread the virus. If hospitals are incentivized to compete on a ‘health care market’, they will increasingly push away extra capacity to deal with emergency situations. Moreover, we will see for which populations governments are willing to take measures and spend money and for which they won’t. Which economical actors will get compensation for the production capacity lost in the past weeks and which won’t?

Another big question confronting us is how the current crisis will affect the attentiveness to future threats that are further from home. This is connected to the insight that in a globalized world, it is impossible to hide and protect your own while leaving others to their bad fortunes. How do the processes of making the coronavirus crisis visible and the swift responses to it compare to how the climate crisis has been made visible over the past decades? What about research on social inequality? It seems that making something legible does not directly translate into action from governments and society. Nonetheless, the way in which we make these threats visible, where we draw the boundaries between units of analysis such as populations, will have big effects on the measures taken in these future crises.

I want to thank Ruth Falkenberg and Isabel Frey for their very helpful critique and suggestions.

Kamiel Mobach is a PhD student at our STS department researching the co-production of the scientific and sociopolitical identities of the ‘European Organization for Nuclear Research’ (CERN). He is interested in the historical evolution of notions such as ‘fundamental research’ and ‘objectivity’ as well as their sociopolitical functions.

STS Cities – Planning – Infrastructure: Sensorial Infrastructures (Part Two)

By Marvin Alexander Heine

…I open up my eyes and see dozens of humans, young and old, in pleasurable selfindulgence deeply immersed in their phone. With a certain skepticism I watch a tastefully attained man, a father, holding his infant child. The child watches a shrill cartoon on one phone, while the man scrolls with his thumb over the display of a separate phone. This little instrument compartmentalizes, isolates and trains the perception of this defenseless creature. Smartphones bring everyone back to the safety of their home, the comfortzones, the satisfaction of online-shopping, fast-food-information, and simulated human connection(1). They are distant, objective facts, signifiers of a self-referential necessity, constantly transforming and conjuring by proudly proofing their own point. But most of all, these little, black objects that gently touch and smoothly caress the skin, – are hygienic, clean and sterile. Smell-less as they are, havens from the chaos of sensory information, they offer refuge and oblivion. Forget realism, – this is capitalist sensualism, – hyperaestheticized. I smell the disturbing taste of red-bull, deodorants, perfumes, textiles, a burger. I think someone just farted. This is life, teeming bare life. It is the same everydayness which is positioned as pathological above and below. So we let it fade away and replace it with an anosmic cube (2), white hygiene, offering a mesmerizing flow of information and disinformation to the sensorially deprived, culturally homogenized human of the 21. century, who’s subjective sensibility was cultivated and brought into being by the absent, the image, – by the disciplinary repetition of the mantra of commodity. We partake in the creation and approval of tautological, cannibalizing socio-economic virtualities, realms of products, self representation and immediately satisfiable desires. The train carriage empties, station by station. The rumbling and clattering of steel in motion gains fidelity, the noises reconfigure, I sense difference, grain, particularities. The rhythm smooths the thorns of noise.

Across from where I sit, a few seats further, facing me, garmented in a strikingly vivid Indian sari, I see a cheerful, beautiful woman, performing little dances, making funny faces and blowing kisses, dedicated to the little child in the baby stroller in front of her. The warmth and love she emanates is intense and radiates in pulses trough our train compartment. I have to smile and at one point I cannot hold it anymore and I laugh out loud. So here I sit, alone, dressed in a black hoodie. Next to me, not able to see the mother with her child, sits a young woman in my age, who’s attention I attracted. I feel her curious gaze on me, while I have to smile more and more broadly. When I look at her, from the corner of my eyes, I see an even, interesting face, revealing myriads of micro-expressions simultaneously. She reminds me of someone, – someone who makes me happy. Her eyes are filled with fire, almost blazing, – blue fire and pitch black lashes. There are only us four left in the carriage. The mother, her child, the woman next to me and me. The rhythms fade into each other. Like a Spanish guitar’s husky music. My whole body is filled with happiness, thanks to a mother’s play with her child. My feelings in turn contaminated the woman next to me, who is laughing too – and so here we are, transforming this space with solidarity and warmth. The air is sweeter, the colors brighter. This unexpected subversion of stereotypes, this theater of promise and desire for face-to-face contact, renders this space incomplete, in the making, let’s us script this place as it did script us before (3). New constellations of meaningful relations, new bodies of resonances, – a new rhythm, only for a short duration, and yet undeniably present, has been imprinted, echoing and reverberating into every corner of this space, this chaotic, smelly, noisy realm of the inbetween.

Bridges in Spittelau, Vienna. 2019. Taken by the author

Everydayness, celebrated, in the constant process of becoming and transforming, creates moments of eurhythmia, alignment, potential and change. Of course, small encounters like these are necessary elements of the bigger rhythm, the rhythms of the state and of commodity and suffering. And yet, being surprised, being part of a hopeful improvisation among people, – sensing the poetics and potentialities of exchange, of micro-gestures, is a small revolution (4). All we need is, – more of it. Much more, – until this machine we’re sitting in, those networks, the whole city and every drunk, monk, dog and smartphone is infected by it, by an idea, the idea of creation and multiplicity, of decentering and diversity. I exit the Bridges in Spittelau, Vienna. 2019. Taken by the author train. I feel a little bit dizzy. I walk and walk, not knowing where to or why. But the sky seems brighter and the passerby’s faces seem more lively. Suddenly I realize that my path led me straight to a graveyard.

The air tastes like metal and mountain water. Where I am standing, with my eyes closed again, I am sensing and sniffing in the scents of fresh ploughed soil. It is quiet. I hear the wind playing in the trees, and every now and then there is a numb „donk“ when a chestnut hits the ground. I take a deep breath and open my eyes. I am standing in the center of an empty, wide square with seven narrow paths branching away from it. This area has the size of 2,5 km2, it is larger than two of Vienna’s districts combined and if one takes a closer look at the maps, it becomes obvious that this place is a labyrinth. This is the second largest Graveyard in Europe, designed by famous architects to give the dead a comfortable place to rot. They did a great job. I feel oddly alive and save, walking over the bones of three million viennese. „A schene Leich“. That’s what people use to say here. A good looking corpse. The people living in this city have the same morbid humor today as they had in 1874, when they dug up the earth to bury Jakob Zelzer, the first one among millions to be buried here. I take a look at the lighter in my hand: a giveaway-present, and in white letters it says „Bestattungen Wien“. I have to smile. I light up a cigarette and walk towards to setting sun in the west, which will probably lead me towards the buddhist cemetery, – and then the jewish cemetery. I really like it, that in this place the remains of human beings from every confession, culture, origin lie next to each other, laughing about the past and the present, and the ridiculous reasons the living bash their heads in over supposed ethnic and religious differences (5).

I enter a narrow pathway which is beautifully framed by an alley of glooming yellow and lilac autumn trees. The golden leaves that cover the ground crumble gently under the sole of my boots. There are 330.000 tombstones and at this moment every single one throws a growing shadow. The sun-cycle, and a thousand graves, – an enormous choreography, perfectly synchronized. In this charming city, – where the main problem in the summer time seems to be the question, if the subway-trains should be automatically aromatized with zitron-perfume (6), around 44 people are dying per day, – and 40 of them end up here, at the Wiener Zentralfriedhof, right beneath my feet. And that, my friend, is the bill. You have to pay 2,500 to 4,000 € to get disposed. But you had a whole life to work hard, spend your nights drinking and moaning, you deserve something better. Here, we have this beautiful shiny coffin for you for only a little extra-charge. No? You want to get cremated? We can do that! But if you want to take the urn home, we have to check in, and see if you placed the little casket in a delicate and solemn manner. What? No! That’s not a joke. That’s actually the law. A few days earlier, when I was having a tour through the central funeral building, I had the morbid pleasure to have a look into their „showroom“. You can get your remains bedded on the finest silk, or your ashes pressed into a diamond. When you are old you cannot work. You don’t earn money. You cannot spend it. You’re outside. They are making you invisible and hide you. And you are helping, because you are so damned ashamed to be useless. You are like one of those DELL laptops from 2007. A waste of resources. Redundant. Right until you made your last breath. Now, my friend, you are finally of value again (7). We throw a funeral-party for you, with the best wine from Niederösterreich. We buy a little sculpture of some divine person and take the second most expansive tombstone. My dear dead friend from Vienna, do you even realize how many jobs depend on you?

Deers on graveyard-grounds, Vienna. 2016. Taken by the author

A strange sound awakens me from this imaginary dialogue. I am standing between two rows of graves, all of them overgrown with dark-red ivory. Behind one of them I see a pair of hooves disappearing. At first I don’t really believe it. I heard about the twenty deers living on this graveyard, but…Very slowly I place my feet on the gras, walking carefully closer, – and there is, in fact, a deer. The deer is eating the flowers from a grave. I like the attitude. Suddenly the deer is shaking it’s head very ambitiously and ends up looking at me. Behind a maria-statue a second deer appears. Hello Mr. and Mrs. Deer. After an awkward moment of silence8 these obscenely graceful creatures keep eating the flowers. I grew up wandering through forests and there was no deer daring to get so close to me. But in my forest they shoot deers on regular basis. On this graveyard no deer died since the mid-1980s. I follow them for over an hour. Every now and then a plane is flying extremely loudly over our heads. All three of us freeze when this happens. The Airport Schwechat, which was build seven decades after the Graveyard, is close. Thus, it is not allowed to let more than 14 balloons fly into the sky from these grounds. A graveyardguide told me that 15 balloons are enough to seriously confuse a pilot. That was a peculiar detail. I say thank you to my new friends and leave them be. I walk to the forest-graveyard, sit down on a tree-trunk, right next to a little burning candle. Everything around me looks like a forest clearing, – but looking closer I see a teddybear, little self-made boards with names written on them. For some reason it is not creepy. I light up a cigarette and watch people in the distance walking by. Then I see two young persons appear close to me. Every now and then they exchange a few sentences. They seem to be happy. They drink and smoke and lough and brood, and then they are investigating this tree, and then that plant. Explorers! Everyone, everything, our whole culture and economy rejects the notion of dying. They try to absorb it, to simulate it, to repress it. And here we are, on the grounds where so many people are buried, joyfully taking dying for granted, in the middle of a city, surrounded by highways, fiber-glass-cables, invisible communication-networks, by water and subways-trains, emergency response systems, advertisement-jingles, – and ghosts. (This was part two of a two part essay. Part one was published on this blog last week.)

Marvin Alexander Heine is a master student at the department of sociology at the University of Vienna. He is deeply interested in the senses, their phenomenology, mediations, and politics. Currently he is writing and filming his master thesis about the influence of the urban acoustics on processes of socialization.


(1) Amin & Thrift argue, that „the everyday rhythms of domesticate life have rarely counted as part of the urban, as though the city stopped at the doorstep of the home. But domesticate life is now woven routinely into the urban ‚public realm‘. How else are we to interpret the rise of home-working and teleshopping, and ‚public‘ involvement through the consumptiopn of goods, television, the internet and the growing exposure of domesticate life in chat shows (…)“. (Amin & Thrift 2002: p. 18)
(2) The Anosmic Cube, as it is articulated by Drobnick: „(…) smooth surfaces and geometric perfection point not inly to an intolerance of the olfactory, but to a distrust of the organic, of the sensual, of anything alluding to the realities and controversies of the external world.“ (Drobnick, 2005: p. 267)
(3) Blok & Farias argue, that „the urban built environment has been cast as a text that is written and read by different urban actors in different ways“. (Blok & Farias 2016: p.568)
(4) Lefebvre argues, that „by fully reinstating the sensible in consciousnesses and in thought, he (the rhythmanalyst) would accomplish a tiny part of the revolutionary transformation of this world and this society in decline.“ (Lefebvre 1992: p. 26)
(5) For more information on the escalation that happened upon the opening of Zentralfriedhof in Vienna see Bauer (2004)
(6) For more information on spraying incense into Vienna’s subway carriages see Walker (2019)
(7) „Violent death changes everything, slow death changes nothing, for there is a rhythm, a scansion necessary to symbolic exchange: something has to be given in the same movement and following the same rhythm, otherwise there is no reciprocity and it is quite simply not given. The strategy of the system of power is to displace the time of the exchange, substituting continuity and mortal linearity for the immediate retaliation of death. It is thus futile for the slave (the worker) to give little by little, in infinitesimal doses, to the rope of labour on which he is hung to death, to give his life to the master or to capital, for this ‘sacrifice’ in small doses is no longer a sacrifice it doesn’t touch the most important thing, the différance of death, and merely distils a process whose
structure remains the same.“ (Baudrillard 1993: p. 71)
(8) „The animal looks at us, and we are naked before it. Thinking perhaps begins here.“ (Derrida 2006: p. 29)


Amin, A., & Thrift, N. (2002). Introduction & The Legibility of the Everyday City. In Cities: Reimagining the Urban (pp. 1-30). Cambridge: Polity.
Baudrillard, J. (1993). Symbolic Exchange And Death. Sage: London.
Bauer, W. (2004). Wiener Friedhofsführer: Genaue Beschreibung sämtlicher Begräbnisstätten nebst einer Geschichte des Wiener Bestattungswesens (Kultur für Genießer). Wien: Falter Verlag.
Derrida, J. (2006). The Animal That Therefore I am. New York: Fordham University Press.
Drobnick, J. (2002). Volatile Architectures. XYZ Books, Toronto.
Farias, I. & Blok, A. (2016). STS in the City. In C. Miller, et al. (Eds.), Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (4th Edition, pp. 555-582). Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Lefebvre, H. (1992). Rhythmanalysis. London: Bloomsbury.
Walker, S. (2019). Passengers incensed: Vienna adds perfumed trains to €1 a day travel.

STS Cities – Planning – Infrastructure: Sensorial Infrastructures (Part One)

By Marvin Alexander Heine

It is the 11th of October, 2019, in Vienna, Austria, and a little more than a dozen human beings, all young and more or less healthy, stand in front of a huge, dusty machine. Their heads are covered with colorful helmets, and, even though it is rather early in the morning, underneath those helmets one can spot faces that are wide awake and thirsty for knowledge. In their culture, these promising animals (1) seek to become scientists, they are hopeful, and eager to change the world for the better. They take notes, hold up their recorders, ask specific, appropriate questions and listen carefully to the answers given by an enthusiastic tour-guide. This machine they observe, is part of a bigger machine. It’s like one organ of a larger organism.

The guide explains carefully and passionately the purpose of those metal-structures, their history, their transformation and economic implementation. The hall they’re in is very large and every sound in here reverberates and echoes for quite a while. The south-wall is completely covered with windows and one can see the eery sunrays through the dusty air. This machine consists of tubes and turbines and connection pipes, like calcified veins (2). Those sophisticated creatures keep walking, secretly taking pictures, protocoling every single detail in their notebooks. Strange staircases lead the cohort into the heart of this nonhuman metal cyborg (3), which is a building in itself.

The sheer complexity of this structure is overwhelming, to the extend of being boring (4). All this seems like a metaphor, a little model which represents society, or a nervous system. Yellow pipes for gas, blue for oil. Or was it the other way around? Our tour-guide tries to convince us, that we are confronted with an active energy plant, – a very modern one even, one that supplies 730.000 households with heat and electricity. Every now and then someone with a blue collar rides by on an old, loud bike, – like an extra, a bystander. This is, supposedly, an incineration plant, which works almost entirely with burning waste, – and therefore, – our guide incessantly repeats it, this plant is on the forefront of environmentally friendly energy production. A few decades earlier, he continues, there were dangerous symptoms of pollution and destruction, forest dying, sicknesses, etc. But improvements, using waste as energy, renouncing coal, changed a lot. If the politics would give more subsidies, if industries would improve their vision and if consumers would change their behavior, incineration plants like this one could be the future.

The students skeptically look around. There is still this scent of an old library or a museum in the air. The planet’s human population has doubled in the past 50 years. In that same period, the size of the global economy has quadrupled, and global trade has grown tenfold. Humans have significantly altered seventy-five per cent of the land. Over 85 per cent of wetlands have been lost. Approximately half the world’s coral cover is gone. In the past ten years alone, at least seventy-five million acres of forest have been destroyed. More than 7,000 underground methane gas bubbles are about to explode in the Arctic. We’ve emitted as much atmospheric carbon in the past thirty years as we did in the previous two centuries of industrialization and massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic floodings are reported on a daily basis, forcing hundreds of millions of people to flee regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought (5).


And almost everyone still believes, that „if we all unite“ then we can still prevent the environmental apocalypse. Especially when we change our own „consumer behavior“. Well, why not? It is a first step, and if it’s true, that this energy plant is not just a museumpiece, than it is a manifested symbol of an alternative approach for natural and artificial coexistence. And to be honest, this species had millions of years to develop a wheel, and now, confronted with the destruction they caused, like ignorant children that didn’t know better, they have only 30-40 years to change EVERYTHING, or being forced to adapt to a new world. So energy plants like these, even though they might not actually prevent an immanent catastrophe, are, considering the circumstance, surprisingly progressive and inspiring (6). The tour has ended. The students swarm out, in every direction, towards busses, trams, machines to live in. Still in thought I walk towards a close-by train-station.

I don’t have to ease my pace, sidestep or use my limbs. This wall of glass welcomes me, it opens up and leads my way. As if by magic, and politeness, a friendly mechanic instinct detected my approach and cautiously reacts by opening up a door. The temperature changes, the air is dry and warm and filled with distant scents: Something sweet, like popcorn, – oil and meat. I smell kerosine, metal and dust. Transpiration of skin, restlessness and anxiety inexorably evaporates from a socio-technical body in motion. Sluggish machines, like lethargic little elephants, reluctantly suck in the wrappings of fastfood, flyers and printed advertisements. Showcases, seductions, a shiny flicker of light. I rest and observe and let myself be immersed by a car commercial. Those happy childreneyes, their motionless hair in the wind, /freedom/, a promised adventure. Next to it, barely dressed in dark-red lingerie, a female, whispering the colors of love, Baisser Volé: Cartier.

After a while, their unvoiced expressions change. They urge me to move on, to go to work, not to disrupt the flow, because I can’t afford them, only dream of them. A few steps forward and I get swept away by a current of bodies. Click-clacking shoes, fragmented announcements, distorted pop-music, leather, denim, wool: an intricate sound of movement, of routine, of busy bees buzzing around their hives. With a generic movement I validate the ticket and turn around (7).

Trains in Spittelau, Vienna. 2016. Taken by the author



Relentless, seamless streams of humans arise from, – or disappear in the underground’s gullet. Standing on the right side of the escalator, I hold on to the handrail and surrender, like everyone else around me, to the raw and efficient trans-human metabolism of urban public transport systems. As I descend, the appearance of things changes, their references to social reality, their cultural framework. White Noise. Sterile but warm. I cannot hear the cars anymore, the supermarkets, the sing-song from the coffeeshop. The rhythms that lay hidden above, now impose themselves upon my senses. Waiting. To dislocate. Departure in four minutes. Where am I? In-between. Only in those quiet minutes while waiting for a train I can clearly see the city (8).


I sense cyclical repetition, infinite itineraries, discontinuous lines of flight, a kaleidoscopic urban world. Each station linked into a greater uniform identity. Even down here, in this submerged and hidden non-space of the urban, where everyone is standing still, – I sense a thousand and one movements, bacterias, human hearts and disconnections. The platform releases subliminal vibrations, slowly intensifying, – and then I smell and feel the invisible wind being pushed through the tunnel. Joining the pressure in my ears the noise of steel and heaviness grows closer and stronger, instinctively alerting my body, – and then this monster of a machine, a cyborg city in itself, decelerates right before my eyes. An acoustical trauma for everyone who has never heard a subway approaching. I see myself reflected by the moving train, – a hypnotizing stop motion sequence, – until this mindless metal worm finally stops and yawns and coughs and vomits out passengers. After a mechanic choreography of giving way and entering and keeping distance and an impersonal face, I push away a populist tabloid paper, sit down and close my eyes.

A short moment of quietude followed by a signal as sharp as knife. I see red flashes of light through my closed eyelids, hear wheels forcefully grasp onto the rails and abruptly clickshutting doors. Zwish, Klonk. One hears and sees those trains start up, pull forward, but how? And Why? Those trains and the generatively multiplying networks they are part of are veins rooted beneath us, secretive symptoms of clandestine structures, constantly on the verge of breakdown. No one is really in charge (9). They are accepted as truly facts as rivers and lakes are (10). An ungraspable whole. And at the center is me, listening with my body, blindfolded, with my senses in evenly suspended attention. I hear de-centered recurrent patterns, relations of immediacy, the rippling and rising of voices. A concatenation of rhythms, acousmatic ghosts (11) of presences, time both broken and accentuated. Smells that overlap, irritate and vanish, – someone’s breakfast, someone else’s dinner. Everyone on this train is living out an individual itinerary, going to work, getting home, to the library, the bar. These itineraries, subjectively lived, endow this train with reality. And yet, everyone is conforming according to a certain social code, in the comfort of collective morality (12). The moving subway oscillates as a shadow, a mirror of the terrestrial, reflecting back on those spaces as they are charged by cultural and ideological forces (13)… (This was part one of a two part essay. Part two will be published on this blog in the following week.)

Marvin Alexander Heine is a master student at the department of sociology at the University of Vienna. He is deeply interested in the senses, their phenomenology, mediations, and politics. Currently he is writing and filming his master thesis about the influence of the urban acoustics on processes of socialization.


(1) Derrida, in his lecture „the animal that therefore I am“ refers to Nietzsche when he says „man is a promising animal (…) an animal that is permitted to make promises.“ (Derrida 2006: p.3)
(2) Kaika M., for example, states: „Cities are dense networks of interwoven socio-spatial processes that are simultaneously human, material, natural, discursive, cultural, and organic (Kaika 2005: p. 23).
(3) Lancionne and McFarlance, when discussing key contributions of the urban political ecology (UPE) state, based on Haraway’s cyborgs and Latour’s hybrids„that the urban cannot be separated from the biophysical, and that the city is a key place for the reconfiguration of socio-natures“ (Lancionne & McFarlane 2016: p. 4.)
(4) Star begins her article on the ethnography of Infrastructure by stating, that many „aspects of Infrastructure are unexciting“, and that the scientists should explore the „embedded strangeness, a second order one, that of the forgotten, the background, the frozen in place“. (Star 1999: p. 377ff)
(5) To find information on the acuteness off our environmental’s catastrophe one could read Wallace-Wells article „When Will Climate Change Make the Earth Too Hot For Humans?“ (Wallace-Wells 2017), or Jonathan Franzen’s „What If We Stopped Pretending?“ (Franzen 2019).
(6) Hommels discusses the problem of urban obduracy, and why changing embedded urban structures proves so difficult: „Once a technological frame work is established, it will guide the ways of thinking and interacting between actors.“ (Hommels 2018: p. 211)
(7) “In front of the bank automat I had to act as a generic individual endowed only with an individual pin code; pressed against the barrier on the pavement I was a mechanical force weighing against another mechanical force; in front of the traffic light I became a reader of signs, capable of understanding a prohibition;[…]” (Latour and Hermant 1998, plan 33).
(8) Sadjic argues, that „this new species of city is not an accretion of streets and squares that can be comprehended by the pedestrian, but instead manifests its shape from the air, the car, or the mass transit railway.“ (Sudjik 1992: p.297)
(9) One of the nine properties of infrastructures, according to Star is, that infrastructure „is fixed in modular increments, not all at once or globally“ (Star 1999: p. 382), and that this kind of de-centralization doesn’t allow for one determining control-system.
(10) Cronon, referring to the invention of railroad systems in North America, states that trains seem „less as an artificial invention than as a force of nature.“ (Cronon 1991: p. 73)
(11) „The acousmatic is a sound heard whose origin we do not see.“ (Labelle 2010: p. 14)
(12)„Transgressed or not, the law of the metro inscribes the individual itinerary into the comfort of collective morality, and in that way it is exemplary of what might be called the ritual paradox: it is always lived individually and subjectively; only individual itineraries give it a reality, and yet it is eminently social, the same for everyone, conferring on each person this minimum of collective identity through which a community is defined.“ (Marc Augé 2002: p. 30)
(13) This reminds of Foucault’s definition of heterotopia, that has „the curious property of being connected to all the other emplacements, but in such a way that they suspend, neutralize, or reverse the set of relations that are designated, reflected, or represented by them.“ (Foucault 1998: p.178)


Augé, M. (2002). In the Metro. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Cronon, W. (1991). Preface & Rails and Water. In Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (pp. xiii-xxiii & 55-93). New York: W.W. Norton.
Derrida, J. (2006). The Animal That Therefore I am. New York: Fordham University Press.
Foucault, M. (1998). Essential Works of Foucault 1954–1984, Volume 2, Aesthetics. London: Penguin Books.
Franzen, J. (2019). What If We Stopped Pretending? Retrieved from:
Hommels, A. (2018). Re-Assembling a City: Applying SCOT to Post-Disaster Urban Change. In M. Kurath et al. (Eds.) Relational Planning: Tracing Artefacts, Agency and Practices (pp. 205-228). London: Routledge.
Kaika, M. (2005). Preface: Visions of Modernization & The Urbanization of Nature. In City of Flows: Modernity, Nature, and the City (pp. 3-26). New York, NY: Routledge.
LaBelle, B. (2010). Acoustic Territories. New York: Continuum.
Lancione, M. & McFarlane, C. (2016). Infrastructural becoming: sanitation, cosmopolitics and the (un)making of urban life at the margins. In A. Blok & I. Farias (Eds.) Urban Cosmopolitics (pp. 45-62). London: Routledge
Latour, B., & Hermant, E. (1998). Paris: Invisible City. Paris: La Découverte. (Virtual Book: [Sequences: 1 Traversing + 4 Allowing] http://www.bruno– paris/english/frames.html).
Star, S. L. (1999). The Ethnography of Infrastructure. American Behavioral Scientist, 43(3),377–391.
Sudjik, D. (1992). The 100 mile city. Harcourt Brace, San Diego.
Wallace-Wells, D. (2017) The Uninhabitable Earth.