The Failures of Seamlessness? When a Visit to the Theater Turns into an STS Lesson

by Carsten Horn

The Vienna State Opera is one of many cultural institutions in the city of Vienna (Credit: Karl MPhotography)

Vienna is beautiful, not only because of the historic buildings or the many parks and green spots in the middle of the city (and many other things could be mentioned). One particular aspect that lends the city its special atmosphere for me is the abundance of theaters. On any given day you can go out to see tragedies or comedies, classical or modern plays, amateurs, or professionals on the “boards that mean the world” (to imperfectly translate Schiller’s phrase into English). So, what better thing to do after a long day of racking one’s brains about STS than to go out, attend a play and get the mind off heavy STS stuff.

Thus, one Saturday evening I find myself in line at the entrance of one of the many theaters. Now, in Austria, given the implementation of a vaccination mandate and the so-called “2G-Rules” (stating you either have to be vaccinated (“geimpft”) or recovered (“genesen”), one has to present a certificate to prove that one meets the access requirements. Much could be said about the logic of this way of controlling access (Deleuze, 1992) not only to theaters but also restaurants, bars and museums, but remember, at least initially, the goal of this visit to the theater was to get my mind off STS. Conveniently, the Austrian Ministry for Social Affairs, Health, Care and Consumer Protection has introduced the so-called “Green Pass App,” a digital app that stores all your Covid-19-related certificates on your smartphone so you don’t have to carry them around in the paper format that is issued at the vaccination centers (or at pharmacies, but more of that later) or find a pocket large enough to fit the rather unwieldy, yellow vaccination pass, mine issued by the World Health Organization (WHO). As the line moves ahead, I collect what I need to be able to enter: the personalized ticket, my ID card to prove that I am indeed the person the ticket has been issued to and that I am indeed the person whose name is stated on the vaccination certificate I am about to present, and my Green Pass App-equipped smartphone. Opening the Green Pass App, I am not greeted by the familiar green checkmarks underneath the QR-code which signal that, yes, I may access museums, theaters or bars and restaurants. Instead, I see two bright red boxes: My vaccination certificate has been invalidated. In disbelief I scroll down on the screen — after all, I was vaccinated for the third time only little more than a month ago and even with the rapidly changing regulation there surely shouldn’t be any problem, right? But there it is, in black on white: My Green Pass App claims I have only been vaccinated twice, the last time in the summer of 2021, thus the invalidation. All my pleas to the theater employees that my app is clearly lying and that there must have been some type of technical error because I have been vaccinated three times are, rightfully, to no avail — and thus I find myself, contrary to the intention of attending the play, thrown right back into the midst of current debates in STS.


Of seams and cyborgs

“Oh Green Pass App, why have you forsaken me?” (© Carsten Horn)

Given the contemporary proliferation of digital infrastructures, “seamlessness” has become a virtue. The multiple, (not only digital) infrastructures we are constantly attached to need to fit one another so that, for instance, we can easily and almost automatically link the results of our latest run in the park, self-tracked by one of the many apps that exist just for this purpose, to our social media feeds for our digital social networks to, literally, cheer us on or to link our sensing devices to our smartphones and the corresponding apps (Williams et al., 2020). Janet Vertesi (2014) has shown that this is a more or less tedious task of what she calls “aligining,” that is, finding more or less creative ways of making heterogeneous infrastructures compatible. Nevertheless, especially in digital infrastructures, seamlessness, thanks to technologies such as Application Interface Programming (API), may seem rather easy to accomplish and at times may even be invisible to the user of such infrastructures. In this sense, what is at stake in the denied theater visit portrayed above is twofold. On the one hand, in the rather classical STS move to look for controversies or situations of breakdowns, Vertesi (2014, p. 276) argues that “[m]oments when actors fail to interweave their many systems successfully can be analytically useful for revealing otherwise invisible infrastructural components essential to the task at hand and surfacing sociotechnical orders and tacit social relations to analytic view.” On the other hand, there seems to be more at stake than just the alignment of however heterogeneous technical infrastructures — in this case, among others, the infrastructures that make the vaccination campaign of the City of Vienna possible and the digital infrastructure involved in the certification of the vaccinations. Perhaps even more pervasively, alignment here concerns the relationship between the digital world and the real world, especially salient in the times of the pandemic (Coeckelberg, 2020). To successfully enter the theater, I should have been a “cyborg” (Haraway, 1985), which in this situation comes to mean the entanglement of a vaccinated bodymind and a digital app. Only this entanglement of the real and the digital world would have made me “vaccinated” in terms of the official 2G-Rules. Because the latter component — the functioning app — was missing, I might have been a vaccinated bodymind but this was insufficient to grant me the desired access (thus the hopelessness of my pleas to the employees). In turn, this makes visible an often taken-for-granted dimension of the cyborg as the interweaving of organism and technologies: the seams “between embodied consciousness and socio-material fields, flesh and machines and body and society” (Freund, 2004, p. 277).


The work to make digital health work

At last, and through concerted efforts of (re-)aligning infrastructures, I still got to see the play – even though I arrived a bit late. (Credit: Cottonbro)

As Vertesi (2014) points out, breakdowns of interconnected infrastructures as a methodological point of departure unveil the social relations that are obscured as long as these infrastructures hold together seamlessly, including the work of (re-)aligning them. This is an especially salient insight for the contemporary efforts of digitalizing healthcare systems ongoing in many countries. These efforts often have the alignment of digital infrastructures as their core. They entail questions such as how the socio-technical alignment is possible, who makes alignments work and who is responsible for failures and the corresponding repair of seamlessness. Such sociocultural questions need to be considered carefully to get a fuller picture of digitalized healthcare. Existing research into telemedicine, as one particular form of digital health, shows that it indeed goes along with a redistribution of work. Work that may subsequently become invisible in formal accounts of medical practice but is crucial for the workings of telemedicine (Nicolini, 2006; Oudshoorn, 2008).

How did things work out or, rather, had to be made to work out in my case? The recovery of the seamlessness between the digital and the real world took a detour: I had to align the medical infrastructure of the City of Vienna, with the built infrastructure of the city, the small alleyways of Vienna’s Inner City, and the infrastructure provided by the Global Positioning System (GPS) to guide me the way to an emergency pharmacy that was still open on a Saturday evening. There, a pharmacist could luckily print out my vaccination certification. This was made possible by the alignments between the technical infrastructure of the pharmacy and the Austrian electronic health record that the pharmacist thankfully created by using my insurance card. This impromptu printout, at last, granted me access to the theater. The solution disclosed an alternative pathway and a corresponding different configuration of the digital and the real world: The moment of breakdown and the distributed efforts to find a resolution make visible a vast analog and digital infrastructure that exists in parallel with the Green Pass App. This infrastructure and the types of work it implies tend to remain hidden in the seemingly inconspicuous analog sheet of paper that I was then able to present to the employees at the theater (although the QR-code printed on top of the certificate provides a trace of the digital world as a constant companion). In turn, this also shows that for me, in this situation the interconnectedness of infrastructures has been boon and bane at the same time: disruptive when it failed at the theater entrance, enabling in the concerted effort to repair the situation and save the day after all. Dealing with these ambivalence(s) of seamlessness will likely be one of the major challenges in the digitalization of healthcare systems in the near future. The play, an adaption of a recent French movie, turned out great in the end, by the way; I only missed the first couple of minutes.


Coeckelbergh, M. (2020). The Postdigital in Pandemic Times: A Comment on the Covid-19 Crisis and its Political Epistemologies. Postdigital Science Education, 2, 547–550.

Deleuze, G. (1992). Postscript on the Societies of Control. October59, 3–7.

Freund, P. (2004). Civilised Bodies Redux: Seams in the Cyborg. Social Theory & Health, 2(3), 273–289.

Haraway, D. (1985). Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. Socialist Review, 15(2), 65–107.

Nicolini, D. (2006). The work to make telemedicine work: A social and articulative view. Social Science & Medicine, 62(11), 2754-2767.

Oudshoorn, N. (2007). Diagnosis at a distance: the invisible work of patients and healthcare professionals in cardiac telemonitoring technology. Sociology of Health & Illness, 30(2), 272-288

Vertesi, J. (2014). Seamful Spaces: Heterogeneous Infrastructures in Interaction. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 39(2), 264–284.

Williams, R., Will, C., Weiner, K., & Henwood, F. (2020). Navigating standards, encouraging interconnections: infrastructuring digital health platforms, Information. Communication & Society, 23(8,) 1170-1186.

Carsten Horn is a second-year master’s student at the Department for Science and Technology Studies. He also works as a researcher in the research project “ICU4Covid” at Department. His research interests are situated at the intersection of STS, sociology and philosophy. Currently, he is writing his master’s thesis on the regulation of digital health technologies.

Paused Isolation – STS, Sunshine, and Spritzers at the 20th PhD Seminar in Raach

by Esther Dessewffy



To our great pleasure, and against the odds, the 20th annual PhD summer school took place (almost) as usual in June in the seminar center in Raach am Hochgebirge. Despite COVID-19, the department managed to create a safe space for its PhD candidates to come together, socialize, hike and engage in intense feedback rounds about ongoing projects. Thanks to rigorous abidance to the 3G rule (“tested, vaccinated or recovered”) and wearing FFP2 masks indoors, it was possible to maintain a secure atmosphere and mitigate the risk of contagion.

This year, the public health situation did not permit the of international commentators, who would have otherwise reviewed invitation papers submitted by junior researchers at different stages of their doctorate. Luckily, our very own Ulrike Felt, Sarah Davies and Max Fochler volunteered to fill in. In total, the participants and reviewers intensively engaged with fourteen papers, such as complete journal submissions that had already been handed in, dissertation chapters, and exposés of early-stage candidates.

As a newcomer to the PhD program and the summer school, I was impressed by the high standard of papers and feedback. I was particularly happy to get insight into the creative approaches the presenters had taken to resolve different questions and issues that had emerged during their ongoing research. I listened to feedback discussions between peers who brought an abundance of fresh and imaginative takes alongside a deep reservoir of research experiences. The diverse applications and combinations of theoretical concepts, different interpretations of analyses, and ideas about how to create a compelling narrative arc gave me a vivid impression of fellow students’ individual perspectives, sensitivities and approaches to research. Despite the passionate exchanges, the appreciative and respectful atmosphere nurtured the emergence of new, collectively assembled avenues of thought and a sense of familiarity.

Outside the seminar room things were equally exciting. Sharing the seminar center with a clown school (yes, I’m serious), left one or the other STSer questioning their career choices (apparently you can scream as loud as you want as a clown). After the feedback sessions, we would go on short hikes in the woods in search of Raach’s legendary donkey population (I’ve seen it with my own eyes). Despite STSers’ tendency to be critical of nature-culture dichotomies (Latour, 1993) and stable distinctions between rural and urban (Kaika, 2005), leaving the city for the countryside – complete with nature and “wild life” – turned out to be integral to our imaginary of a proper summer school. Long evenings together, dreaming about having cats or even mini-horses as emotional support animals at the department, and the occasional spritzer contributed to a fun experience that brought the department closer together – a much needed development after a year and a half of Corona induced isolation.





Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern (1. publ. ed.). Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Kaika, M. (2005). Preface: Visions of Moderniz ation & The Urbanization of Nature. In ?City of Flows: Modernity, Nature, and the City? (pp. 3-26). Routledge.

Esther Dessewffy is a PhD student at the department of STS at the University of Vienna, where she has recently completed her master’s degree. Her thesis on the political dimensions of different simulation methodologies for design in architecture is supervised by Sarah Davies. She enjoys ethnographic research and is looking forward to participating in teaching activities in 2022.

Designing for the Event, or what can Urban STS learn from Urban Games?

by Carsten Horn

As Science and Technology Studies (STS) have become an established field of research and discipline they have also become a household name in large-scale technoscientific innovation projects. This has led to a multitude of calls for an “engaged STS,” which not only partakes in such innovation action but takes a normative stance in it. One area in which STS expertise has grown in influence is the intersection with the field of Urban Studies and processes of urban planning – for example in the manifold smart city projects currently carried out in many metropolises. Departing from the concept of “technical democracy” (Farías & Blok, 2016), the challenge STS is faced with here is the re-configuration of urban planning in ways that allow for “collaboration among laypeople and experts” (Farías & Blok, 2016, p. 539). In this brief essay, I want to argue that in order to re-think this challenge, STS may find a rather unlikely ally and learning partner in the design of urban games — games specially designed for and played in urban space (e.g. Big Urban Game played in Minnesota in 2003 or Cruel 2 B Kind). To make this point, I draw on an interview I conducted with a German urban games designer in the course of the seminar “Creating Urban Space – Invited and Uninvited Participation” headed by Andrea Schikowitz and Ignacio Farías at our Department.


Design and the Event

Drawing on Participatory Design (PD), a pragmatist notion of publics and STS engagement with participation, one of the major contributions of STS to Urban Studies has been a reconceptualization of what urban design and urban planning do: They no longer primarily aim at producing socio-technical artifacts but make a point of providing platforms for symmetrical encounters of experts and laypeople – the focus, in other words, shifts to infrastructuring participation, the design of platforms for participation (Corsín Jiménez, 2014). Situating themselves within this shift, Erling Bjögvinsson et al. (2012) understand their task as designers in the tradition of PD as the construction of a Thing (“Thinging”): the (re-)assembling of collectives of human and non-humans which serves as an infrastructure for novel encounters between these entities. The resulting associations and the human and non-human entities they consist of are not predetermined but emerge out of these encounters. Bjögvinsson et al. (2012, p. 108) describe this in terms of the “event”: Infrastructuring, they argue, “must deliberately design indeterminacy and incompleteness into the infrastructure, leaving unoccupied slots and space free for unanticipated events and performances yet to be”. The challenge for infrastructuring is, thus, to design for the event.

With the concept of the event and the subsequent challenge to design for events, we delve deeply into philosophical territory which warrants a brief discussion of one of the philosophical traditions the concept originates from. In the line of thought stretching from Whitehead to Deleuze to Stengers, “event” describes the “becoming together” of the entities that form an assemblage (Fraser, 2009): “the event is characterised by the fact that the interactions of its constitutive elements change those elements” (Horst & Michael, 2011, p. 286). Neither the identities of the elements nor the relationships between them are pre-determined. The event, moreover, is self-sufficient in that no external explanations can be invoked to explain the emergent assemblage. While it is out of the scope of a blog post to go into details of this conceptualization of the event or to discuss its relationship with other understandings of the event (e.g. on the line of Heidegger and Badiou), it becomes evident that “event” signifies the (temporary) suspension of one state of being, i.e. a specific arrangement of heterogeneous entities, for a new state to emerge. For Bjögvinsson et al. (2012), we can therefore define the event as the emergence of novel entities and the relations between them.

If “events are different from the states of affairs in which they are actualized” (Goodchild, 1996, p. 54, as cited in Fraser, 2009, p. 78) and, further, do not have an external reason, Bjögvinsson et al.’s (2012) notion of deliberately designing infrastructures for the event is at risk of a contradiction or, at least, a conceptual tension. As STS research has shown, infrastructuring is not a neutral act (Star & Ruhleder, 1996). Infrastructures afford some (participation) practices rather than others based on the choices made during the construction of the infrastructures by their creators – in this case, urban designers and planners – who are always situated in the current state of affairs (Bjögvinsson et al., 2012). This implies that what can emerge out of the infrastructures of urban planning, and thus the event-ness aimed at by Bjögvinsson and colleagues, is potentially limited by such choices. It is here that I want to propose that experiences and practices from urban gaming can contribute to our theoretical and practical engagements.


Urban Games as Improvisation Technologies

Urban games, to give a very brief definition, transcend the “magic circle” – the idea of a distinct time and space – that has traditionally been defined as characteristic of games and played in a threefold way: it goes beyond it spatially because the city as a whole is turned into a playground; it expands the temporal aspect because the boundary between play and non-play becomes fluid; it transcends the magic circle socially as the distinction between player and non-player is blurred as bypassers may (inadvertently) become part of the game (Montola, 2009). Moreover, urban game designers face many of the same challenges as STS-inspired urban planners and researchers, namely the need to accommodate (and intentionally trigger off) unforeseen events. As Mela Kocher (2018, p. 269) argues, urban game designers attempt to anticipate the actions of future players but there remain “blank spaces” that are only filled by the play during the game. Interested in this challenge, I asked my research participant what the role such events play in his design practice:

I often use the concept […] by Christopher Dell who is a music theoretician, improvisation of the second order which means planned improvisation. So I design into my games the need for improvising and intentionally leave free space for that.
Street Art Scavenger Hunt in which players collect points by gathering images of graffiti and other forms of street art ( © Daniel Parlow)


Thus, the urban game is designed as an “improvisation technology” [Improvisationstechnologie] (Dell, 2014) and game participants are made to improvise and to bring into being what the designer has not foreseen. The event is not a byproduct of the design but an intentional component. Such events enact novel associations that would be otherwise unthinkable:

There’s a square over here where oftentimes alcoholics hang out and enjoy themselves. And there is a relatively large object that needs to be circled. I observed how a group that played there, a mix of students and punks, that was so much in the game that they just asked this group of old Polish and German alcoholics with whom they would never have interacted otherwise. And they were like, yeah, sure, and hey Herbert, come over, they need help. And then they were all holding hands and so the 21-year-old female students and the 50-year-old pissheads over there, stand together, hold their hands in order to circle that thing, and then, bye, we have to continue.
Players “conquer” a tree in the city by forming a human chain around it (© Daniel Parlow)

In the game described here, players have to “conquer” landmarks in urban space by forming a human circle around them. Due to the differing size of landmarks, groups of players may have to involve bypassers, making possible such unlikely alliances. In the event, the established identities of the constituents of such alliances are suspended; the boundaries that would have usually tended to foreclose interactions between students, punks, and alcoholics are dissolved for the moment to make way for collaborative engagements entailed by the need to improvise. However, this example also illustrates one of the challenges of event designing: How can the opening be sustained and the emerging association be stabilized? How can the temporary emergence of new associations be perpetuated? How can the return to the previous state of affairs be prevented?

This difficulty notwithstanding, it is the re-definition of the game as an improvisation technology that can help Urban STS to embrace and design (for) the event in participation processes. This way, or so I have argued, can the latent tension that is inherent to any attempt to deliberately design for the event be resolved: How can participants – laypeople and experts alike – be “encouraged” to improvise which, in turn, facilitates the formation of new relations and identities, the becoming of new urban assemblages (Farías & Bender, 2011)? Moreover, concealed beneath this argument, as a second audio track, as it were, runs the call for (Urban) STS to more thoroughly engage with urban gaming (a gaping lacuna as of now). In a symmetrical way, to conclude, both fields may learn a lot from each other.


Dell, C. (2014). Die improvisierende Organisation. In Die improvisierende Organisation. transcript.

Farías, I., & Bender, T. (Eds.). (2011). Urban Assemblages. How Actor-Network Theory Changes Urban Studies . Routledge.

Fraser, M. (2009). Facts, Ethics and Event. In C. B. Jensen & K. Rödje (Eds.), Deleuzian Intersections. Science, Technology, Anthropology (pp. 57–82). Berghahn Books.

Montola, M. (2009). Games and Pervasive Games. In M. Montola, J. Stenros, & A. Wærn (Eds.), Pervasive games: Theory and design (pp. 7–23). Morgan Kaufmann.

Carsten Horn is a second-year master’s student at the Department for Science and Technology Studies. He works as a researcher in the research project ICU4Covid. His research interests are situated at the intersection of STS, sociology, and philosophy.

’Community and Identity in Contemporary Technosciences’: A publication story

by Andrea Schikowitz & Sarah R Davies

One thing that students (and our non-academic friends and family members) are often curious about is the process of publication. How do researchers create texts, and what are the stages through which these texts pass before they become public? Having recently had chapters published as part of the anthology “Community and Identity in Contemporary Technosciences”, we thought our experiences might be illustrative – as well as relating to the themes of the book itself.

The book came out of a workshop that took place in February 2017 here in Vienna (which was in turn based on two conference panels in 2014 and 2016). Drawing scholars together from across the world, the discussions went so well that the organisers suggested that participants put together an edited volume based on the papers presented. They already had a connection to a book series – the Sociology of the Sciences Yearbook – so proposed working towards publishing as a part of this.

Many of the next stages were ‘behind the scenes’ to us as authors, as the editors – two of the scholars who had organised the workshop, including colleague and friend of the department Karen Kastenhofer – managed the reviewing process and negotiated with the editors of the book series. We submitted our chapter manuscripts in 2017 and received comments from an internal review by the editors. In 2018 we received comments from external reviewers and revised our manuscripts in response to these, until the reviewers were satisfied. Once all the chapters had been through this process and been accepted, the whole manuscript could be handed in to the series editors (in 2019). At this point we received a few more comments (including from a language editor), and made further small revisions. The book was formally accepted by the series editors in August 2019, and handed over to the publisher.

The publisher also sent the volume out for review, however, and requested some further changes. This process meant that we received proofs of our chapters – for double checking the final text – in November 2020. The editors received the final proofs of the whole manuscript in February 2021, and the book has now been published (and is available for free online!).

So: publishing can be drawn out across years, and involves many different actors. While this is not always the case (publishing a single paper in a journal can be a more streamlined process, for instance), we do think it’s interesting in the context of the themes of the book.

Image by Georg Schroll

Both our contributions to the yearbook focus on the enactment of researchers’ identities as a malleable and precarious process rather than as a stable condition. We both argue that identity work is about bringing together individuality and collectivity in specific ways, which is ongoing and might differ across settings and situations. Being a ‘good researcher’ is performed through specific practices – and publishing is certainly a crucial practice through which contemporary researcher identities are performed.

We see many of the developments that the yearbook analyses – from acceleration of research to increased international mobility – reflected in the changing constellations and belongings of the authors during the publication process. The work on this publication took place in, was supported by, and contributed to different and changing institutional, disciplinary, and national communities over more than five years. The editors and authors who contributed to the Yearbook formed different communities and shared different belongings during the publication process.

Image by the authors

For example, Andrea’s contribution “Being a ‘Good Researcher’ in Transdisciplinary Research: Choreographies of Identity Work Beyond Community” builds on research conducted for her doctoral project (in the frame of a larger research project) at the STS department of the University of Vienna, but when the workshop took place she was a guest researcher at the Institute for Organization Studies at the WU Vienna, financed by a scholarship. When doing the revisions of the chapter she was holding a postdoc position at the TU in Munich. She was still there when the final author description and corresponding address had to be provided. When the Yearbook was finally published, she had just started her current postdoc position, again at the STS department in Vienna, as part of Sarah’s group, who had become a full professor there in the meanwhile.

So, Andrea conducted different amounts and kinds of work for this chapter at different institutions, partly funded by third party funding, and colleagues from all these institutions provided feedback on different versions of the chapter (all of this finds expression in footnotes and acknowledgements). Further, this publication in its various stages (‘under review’, ‘accepted for publication’ or ‘forthcoming’) also to some degree contributed to Andrea’s becoming part of these different communities, as she put it on her publication list when applying for new jobs.

Yet, the final publication, dated 2021, is what will finally ‘count’, when academic productivity is more formally evaluated on the basis of publications (e.g. for cumulative dissertations, etc.).

The story behind this one publication interestingly mirrors Andrea’s analysis, in her chapter, of the spatiotemporal choreographies which enact academic identities, which go back and forth between different belongings and communities. We can also see that such unlikely things as a single publication (which appears as one discrete event on our publication lists and CVs) can contribute to continuity across these different belongings and to our identity work. For being a ‘good researcher’ we need to perform both at the same time: the (sometimes lengthy and cumbersome) process of publication which however allows us to form a researcher identity and togetherness with the other authors and editors, and with those who provide feedback, beyond institutional belongings; and publication as a discrete event and transferable commodity that gets affiliated with individual and institutional performance and on which we rely for mobilizing institutions to get jobs and grants.

But the story does not end here – this is where science communication sets in. After the official publication has been launched (which is of course also an instance of science communication), various authors announced the publication in Tweets (and re-tweeted them mutually), or over other individual or institutional social media platforms. We also wrote this blogpost about it, and some of us have and will use chapters for teaching. This relates to Sarah’s argument, in her chapter “Performing Science in Public: Science Communication and Scientific Identity”, that scientific identity work is also done through public communication. Such practices (in her study, participation in a science festival) are important not just for representing research and researchers in public, but for a sense of shared community within scientific collectives. Tweets about this book, for instance, may well be read by lay audiences, but also our fellow department members and other colleagues, helping to reinforce a particular imagination of who we – the authors – are and what we do.

So, a single publication experience can open up many dimensions of the practices involved in being a researcher in contemporary technoscience. While of course contributing to some of the more worrying developments in research, such as changing rapidly between short-term engagements or quantified evaluation, these experiences also provide mundane and often unacknowledged possibilities for togetherness and communication beyond a single community.


Kastenhofer K., & Molyneux-Hodgson S. (Eds.), Community and Identity in Contemporary Technosciences. Sociology of the Sciences Yearbook, vol 31. Springer, Cham.

Davies S. R. (2021) Performing Science in Public: Science Communication and Scientific Identity. In: Kastenhofer K., & Molyneux-Hodgson S. (Eds.), Community and Identity in Contemporary Technosciences. Sociology of the Sciences Yearbook, vol 31. Springer, Cham.

Schikowitz A. (2021) Being a ‘Good Researcher’ in Transdisciplinary Research: Choreographies of Identity Work Beyond Community. In: Kastenhofer K., & Molyneux-Hodgson S. (Eds.), Community and Identity in Contemporary Technosciences. Sociology of the Sciences Yearbook, vol 31. Springer, Cham.

Andrea Schikowitz is a university assistant (post-doc) at the STS department, University of Vienna. Her research deals with the encounter of heterogeneous ways of knowing and possibilities for change. She has investigated this question by analysing various settings – such as transdisciplinary sustainability research, public governance, urban living labs and collaborative housing. Her current focus is on knowledge practices in urban planning and controversies, and on the intersection of digital and material practices therein.

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

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:

Boudette, N. E., & Flitter, E. (2020, May 9). Elon Musk Lashes Out at Officials Keeping Tesla Plant Closed Over Virus. Retrieved August 11, 2020, from The New York Times website:

Hughes, T. P. (1987). The Evolution of Large Technological Systems. In W. E. Bijker, T. P. Hughes, & T. Pinch (Eds.), The social construction of technological systems. New directions in the sociology and history of technology (pp. 51–82). Cambridge/London: MIT Press.

ITU News. (2020, April 29). COVID-19: Where are the self-driving cars and trucks? Retrieved August 11, 2020, from ITU News website:

JafariNaimi, N. (2018). Our Bodies in the Trolley’s Path, or Why Self-driving Cars Must *Not* Be Programmed to Kill. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 43(2), 302–323.

Lambert, F. (2020, July 14). Tesla sees spike in COVID-19 “exposure,” data leak shows over 130 cases and more “affected.” Retrieved August 11, 2020, from Electrek website:

Latour, B. (1988). The Pasteurization of France. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Law, J. (1987). Technology and heterogeneous engineering. The case of Portuguese expansion. In W. E. Bijker, T. P. Hughes, & T. Pinch (Eds.), The social construction of technological systems. New directions in the sociology and history of technology (pp. 111–134). Cambridge/London: MIT Press.

Ohnsman, A. (2020a, March 17). Waymo Halts Phoenix Robotic-Ride Service With Backup Human Drivers Due To Coronavirus – But Fully Driverless Vans Keep Rolling. Retrieved August 11, 2020, from Forbes website:

Ohnsman, A. (2020b, May 7). Waymo’s Self-Driving Vans Ready To Roll After COVID-19 Shutdown – But No Robotaxi Rides. Retrieved August 11, 2020, from Forbes website:

Stilgoe, J. (2018). Machine learning, social learning and the governance of self-driving cars. Social Studies of Science, 48(1), 25–56.

Stilgoe, J. (2019). Self-driving cars will take a while to get right. Nature Machine Intelligence, 1(5), 202–203.

Stilgoe, J. (2020). Who’s Driving Innovation? New Technologies and the Collaborative State. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

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Winner, L. (1980). Do Artifacts Have Politics? Daedalus, 109(1), 121–136.



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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