How can social science research address planetary concerns and be designed carefully? Two recent articles in Science & Technology Studies address this question with a view to different cases: Conference Mobility on the one hand and Decentralized Social Media on the other.
Jumping on the bandwagon
In Fieldnotes on FlyingLess Conferencing we discuss our different experiences as train travelers to the EASST conference in Madrid. Some of them were long journeys through Europe, including stops. But it is possible, in Europe the plane is not without alternative, even if the scattered infrastructure does not always make it easy.
A quote from our text (that is, by Vanessa Ashall, Tobias Held, Stefan Laser, Julie Sascia Mewes, Mace Ojala, Nona Schulte-Roemer, Robert Smith, Richard Tutton, Sine Zambach):
Initiatives such as Flying Less and podcasts by the Oxford University Flyingless Group provide information, discussion and practical suggestions on how we as individual academics can alter our practices, but also how to challenge our institutions and professional associations. There are also discussions on how to organise conferences in hybrid or hub-like formats to reduce travel activities. For the recently held EASST 2022 conference in July, some delegates decided to journey by long-distance train across Europe to reach Madrid. As one would expect from a group of STS scholars, this was not done without some appreciation of the sociotechnical challenges involved and of course with that long standing commitment of our field that ‘things could be otherwise’.
Shooting down the bird
Digital communication has become a cornerstone of academic exchange, internally and with media and partners. In the fall and winter of 2022, Twitter and Elon Musk respectively have attracted some attention. The “Birdsite” is no longer the same; now it has become a right-wing agitation platform, with dubious blue-flagged accounts hijacking the discourse. But you can’t do without social media, at least it makes sense to explore other forms of participation. With Fediverse, Mastodon, and other popular apps like PeerTube and Calckey, a veritable alternative is growing that is of utmost relevance to STS researchers.
We used the timing and discussions on Twitter and Mastodon to think about platform design and an “Other.”
What kinds of worlds are not probable but possible from the ruins of Twitter? Mastodon might not be the next big thing. Yet it is an exciting network that many people are experimenting with and, for STS scholars, offers entry points to learn through practical engagement. Perhaps more important than Mastodon per se is the idea of othernets (Dourish 2017 chapter 7); the internet we have is not a necessity, and might take a very different shape and feel different based on new collectivities. If Mastodon has a less devastating impact on the environment, what else about our internet can we change, or make a case for changing?
In such initiatives, it remains crucial to move away from individual responsibility to discuss structural interdependencies and collective mobilization. This is what the low-carbon research method group does, for example. I will use this blog to discuss my own experiences with research pratices and material infrastructures.