November 10, 2011

Conferences and sociotechnical systems

Flying is a constant, necessary (in)convenience in my life. While it’s great being only a 4-hour flight away from Michigan when I’m in Arizona, the endeavor requires careful planning, packing, arranging, and management of every little detail from my laptop’s battery life to remembering to drink water. I’m doing a lot of flying this month, and just got back from the joint conference of the History of Science Society, Society for the History of Technology, and the Society for Social Studies of Science. As a consequence of all this talk of science and technology, I can’t help but begin to see everything as “socio-technical system.”

If you’ve seen the movie “The Matrix,” you have an idea what graduate school is like for me. There’s a Facebook page for one of my advisors, Dan Sarewitz, that jokingly asks,
- Are you unable to sit through a traditional biology/chemistry/physics/engineering/economics course without constantly contemplating how your professor managed to "drink the kool-aid?"
- Do you constantly remind yourself that your science professors are but tiny cogs in a global innovation machine?
- Are you unable to look at a tomato without thinking about science, politics, labor economics, sociology, anthropology, Michael Crow, agriculture, geopolitics, innovation systems, the University of California, and climate change?
- Does the mere mention of the "linear model" make you shudder?
- Are you unable to synthesize your views on climate change in less than 5,000 words? 
If so, you are probably a former student of Dan Sarewitz. You will never hold a mainstream academic position, and your peers (and the public) will never quite be sure what your "deal" is. That's what you get for taking the red pill.
Yep, that sounds about right.

A major project of the science studies is to give social, historical, and political context to the technologies we use in our everyday lives. For example, I’m reading a book by Maria Kaika about urban water infrastructures. We don’t really think about where our water comes from every day. We turn on the tap and expect water to be there (in the Western, developed world, at least). What we don’t think about is what it takes for that water to get there and for an assured, constant, and instant supply of water at our faucets. During the rare times when the tap might go out, we get a profound sense of “uncanny” because our expectations are suddenly jolted as we realize water doesn’t just appear form the walls. The author writes about the hidden infrastructure of urban water. For example, let’s say you visit a dam someplace out west. We don’t really connect this with out water supply, and also the enormous amount of energy needed to move water from the source to tap. All of this is hidden from view and out of mind. Kaika argues that this is because of the artificial divide between “wild” nature and the sanitized urban home. So here we have not only a sociotechnical system, but a socio-technical-environmental system.

Back to airplanes, since I’m actually writing this on the plane! Airplanes, and the process of air transportation, are a more visible form of sociotechnical systems. We stare in awe at the massive planes used for transcontinental flights. But from the second you walk into the airport, you become immediately aware that you are part of a finely tuned system of both humans and technologies. We are enrolled, inspected, standardized, and shuffled into our seats. Usually everything goes well, but today after our flight landed, the electricity went out as we were leaving the plane. This was also an example of “uncanny,” even though it is a more visible system. We can see the nuts and bolts of the plane (and don’t get me started on rivets… we read a painstaking paper last semester about the technological innovation behind airplane rivets), but we still expect everything work.

Think about the complex and heavily embedded system behind energy extraction and production, and the technological disaster that this has caused. These aren’t just technological disasters though, they are most definitely sociotechnical disasters. It’s crucially important to realize that humans design, maintain, and run these systems (to the extent that we have control). But inevitably, tightly coupled systems, such as energy, increase the severity of human error and technological failures. The take home message is that we often don’t notice sociotechnical systems until they fail.

UPDATE: Here's a great link via Arijit on the nation's water infrastructure being ignored.

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