This is a hot take that Lee Vinsel has been trying to drive home for a couple of weeks already. “Hot”, as in, a lively idea, something he grapples with. I find the idea puzzling and compelling. So here are a few thoughts, experiences, and links to follow.

Describing something as a #technofix has become a staple of critical commentary on technology, and perhaps global capitalism per se. A technofix is not really a fix, rather, it distracts from the actual issues. Mostly, these are social ones. Think all of what Silicon Valley is doing, like AI solving something. It’s delusional.

Yet Lee and others ask: Is this really a pressing issue? What exactly are technofixes? It appears like this is a slippery term applied to anything vaguely. Sounds familiar to me. More importantly, however, technofixes might not be the most pressing things to discuss. STS devotes too much attention to problematic technologies. (Perhaps technologies and innovations more generally.)

Check out Lee’s recent podcast Peoples & Things where he discusses the matter together with the engineer Guru Madhawhan, who wrote a book on wicked problems.…

This also relates to the discussion around “solutionism,” a term that, I agree, remains rather vague yet very strong and often ignores materialities, impasses, and virtualities.

Leakage Experience

Moving on to our recent #stsing conference in Dresden. I was taking part in a panel on waste and discards, hosted by a research network that we, as waste scholars, have received funding for. Check the links for info on both the event and the network.

Some presenters and commentators mentioned the notion of a technofix. It is indeed a recurring theme in all things discard. When you encounter marine plastics, there are gigantic projects around ocean cleanup that spread hope and call for a solution. With a lot of funding. Easy rollout of the technofix critique. I’ve research electronic waste in detail, and through recycling technologies, the technofix is ever-present. Well, digital devices themselves are technofix devices to a certain degree, promising easier lifes, more efficient work, less paper, less stress, whatnot.

Where to go from here? First, I was reminded of the critical discussion around this critique (a criti-hype).…

(Citing Cory although this is also a term introduced by Lee)…

Technofixes might not be that big of a problem, empirically speaking. Thus, this analytic would have outlived itself. It might be us scholars bathing in our on conceptual pool. Still, we had a fruitful conversation in Dresden around this very notion. The critique of the critique was resonating, but staying with the technofix as a genuine problem remained of high value.

Excessive systems of industrialism, capitalism and colonialism turn to seemingly novel technologies to turn the tides and stay focused on growth, no matter what. This is hot the oil industries turn to plastic materials in times of crises.…

In Dresden, we also had the pleasure of enjoying Nerea Calvillo’s keynote on air pollution. Nerea argued that technologies of remedy are part of the problem of containing air pollution. Well, even the notion of “containment” is problematic, because no container holds tight. What has to be done instead is tackle the upstream pollution; to cut off the gas, and oil, and move away from coal. To stop the pollution instead of adapting to it.

As a daily user of air purification technologies and face masks (#Vietnam, #Hanoi), I was puzzled. Is there no value in maintenance, care, even for moments, even if this is not helpful in a systematic sense – because it saves lives, here and now. But Nerea doubled down and made this into an argument of against repair.

I am not sure whether I like this twist, turning against maintenance and repair, even if only for strategic reasons. Narea has published on the troubles of living in a permanently polluted world, so this is not really an argument against care and its conceptual siblings, I suppose.……

Max Liboiron offers a related argument, although with a different focus. Similarly vast in consequences, perhaps. Think threshold limits and pollution. The dose is the problem; you know the deal. Sounds reasonable. Keep pollution below the limits.

But because of the very invention of threshold values, pollution is here to stay. Because of the fixation on threshold values, it is here to say. Threshold values pushed Ulrich Beck into mad mode in his Risk Society book, a paragraph that is hardly cited. And Max writes,

Instead of changing systems that allowed industrial effluents to begin with, governance could turn to technical efforts to locate and manage allowable limits. This is the foundation of [what Max calls] the permission-to-pollute system." (p. 51 in Pollution is Colonialism)

The Infrastructure Fix

Instead of juggling with technofixes, it is worth exploring “infrastructural fixes”. When systems set up and embrace infrastructures that make sociotechnical change an impossible task, then the infrastructure fixes people, things, and lives. Investing in the brutal nature of these infrastructures becomes deeply problematic. Slow violence is bound to happen. This is demonstrated well in energy thinking, say, when the After Oil collective posits:

“Then there are the enduring powers of infrastructure: pipelines, refineries, highways that push us to replicate behaviours and cultural forms. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, for the social majority to imagine and embrace a society that is not dependent on carbon energy.” (After Oil 2015: 39)…

So, when you and I and the affected communities just cannot move away from daily struggles, deadly troubles, then it’s worth rolling out a “fix” critique. A critique that turns to infrastructural harm.

It sounds like a good idea to stop using notions when you hardly know what they are about anymore. Sure, uttering “technofix” might get people engaged and find an initial common ground. But it’s trajectory is puzzling. So, here’s the infrastructure fix as a rough sketch.

The snapshot attached is from the Leakage conference, with a zoom on materials dug up in a panel on coal landscapes and imaginaries. Imaginge fixing that mix of contaminated and probably clean matter.

You see a bright wooden table filled with stuff: jars with differently coloured ingredients, a bit of food in jars, some herbs, a gas cooker, and a block of soil. Most of it neatly placed on paper. Two persons are leaning on the table, you cannot see the faces. These are partly materials to drink and digest, and partly hazaroudous materials