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The grit in the oyster: using energy biographies to question socio-technical imaginaries of 'smartness’


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The future, viewed from the present, is not a realm of facts (Jouvenel, 1967), but of possibilities, potentials and expectations that shape the present (Borup, Brown, Konrad, & Van Lente, 2006). It has therefore been argued that social technology assessment requires critique of the socio-technical imaginaries through which visions of future technologies are constructed (Simakova & Coenen, 2013). Technology assessment thus moves beyond weighing risks against benefits, and towards interrogating the ‘worlds’, including social relationships, practices and forms of life, that are implicated in future imaginaries (Macnaghten & Szerszynski, 2013). The contribution that qualitative social science research can make here by exploring the meanings of technologies within everyday practices has been demonstrated by, for example, Yolande Strengers’ ethnographic work on everyday energy use and imaginaries of ‘smartness’ (Strengers, 2013). In this paper, and contrasting with Strengers’ ethnographic approach, we show how the biographical investigation of everyday life can be used to develop deliberation on socio-technical imaginaries. Using a novel combination of narrative interviews and multimodal methods, the Energy Biographies project at Cardiff University has examined imaginaries of smartness through the lens of biographical experiences of transformations in how energy is used domestically. In particular, this approach can open up a critical space around future socio-technical imaginaries by exploring the investments that individuals have in different forms of engagement with the world, along with the relationship between these forms and particular technologies. Using a psychosocial framework that also draws on theoretical resources from science and technology studies, we show how these investments can lead to shifts in the meaning of taken-for granted assumptions about the meaning of concepts like convenience, and how valued forms of subjectivity may be conceptualised as emerging out of the ‘friction’ of engagement with the world. In this way, we demonstrate the value for of ‘thick’ data relating to the affective dimensions of subjective experience for social technology assessment.

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The grit in the oyster: using energy biographies to question socio-technical imaginaries of 'smartness’

  1. 1. Christopher Groves, Karen Henwood, Catherine Butler, Karen Parkhill, Nick Pidgeon and Fiona Shirani Energy Biographies Project ( School of Social Sciences Cardiff University, UK
  2. 2. • QLL biographical interviews ▫ Four UK sites: Ely, Peterston (Cardiff), Lammas (west Wales), Royal Free Hospital (London) ▫ 3 longitudinal interviews (N=74 in first round, N=36 for rounds 2 & 3) ▫ 6 months between interviews ▫ Multimodal component: participant photography and film
  3. 3. • Critique of imaginaries explores viability & desirability of socio- technical transformation • Embodies a responsible research and innovation (RRI) approach • RRI means reflecting on the social constitutions1 or ‘worlds’2 of socio- technical options • Implies a ‘hermeneutic’ approach to futures3 & a deliberative model of tech assessment 1. Kearnes, M., et al. (2006). "From Bio to Nano: Learning Lessons from the UK Agricultural Biotechnology Controversy." Science as Culture 15(4): 291-307. 2. Macnaghten, P. and B. Szerszynski (2013). "Living the global social experiment: An analysis of public discourse on solar radiation management and its implications for governance." Global Environmental Change 23(2): 465-474. 3. Grunwald, A. (2014). "The hermeneutic side of responsible research and innovation." Journal of Responsible Innovation 1(3): 274-291.
  4. 4. • Ethnographic work on ‘smartness’ emphasises entanglement of socio- technical arrangements and lifeworlds1 • RRI approaches tend to construct deliberation as discursive & its subjects as rational discoursers ≈ Habermasian technological democracy • But the meaning of technologies is inseparable from lived engagements2 and affective, embodied subjectivity2 1. Strengers, Y. (2013). Smart Energy Technologies in Everyday Life: Smart Utopia? London, Palgrave Macmillan. 2. Mol, A. (2008). The logic of care. London. New York, Routledge. 3. Lash, S. and J. Urry (1994). Economies of Signs and Space. London, Sage. • How can lived, embodied engagements with technologies enter deliberative arenas – particularly when these belong to as yet only potential and abstract future worlds?
  5. 5. • Psychosocial approach to social practices: practices matter (Sayer, 2011) • Explores ‘internal rewards’ (Shove, Pantzar & Watson, 2012) of participating in practices ▫ Constitutive of identity ▫ Supporting sense of agency • As well as shaped by shared meanings of practices, identity is ▫ dynamic ▫ relational ▫ biographical • Complex dynamics of attachment condition participation in normative/ non-normative practices Groves et al, 2015, ‘Energy biographies: narrative genres, lifecourse transitions and practice change’, Science, Technology and Human Values Groves et al., forthcoming,’Invested in unsustainability?, Environmental Values, June 2016
  6. 6. • 2nd and 3rd round interviews ▫ Photographing everyday energy use with smartphone ▫ Using two films to explore shared imaginaries  Monsanto’s ‘House of the Future’ (1957)  UK Channel 4 ‘Home of the future’ (2012)
  7. 7. • Older interviewees: remember liberating, life-enhancing socio- technical transitions • Convenience widely seen as becoming an end-in-itself • Biographical narratives echo STS analyses of a thinned1 lifeworld in which attention is dispersed2 • Stiegler: dispersed attention reduces opportunities for individuation 1. Casey, E. S. (2001). "Between Geography and Philosophy: What Does It Mean to Be in the Place-World?" Annals of the Association of American Geographers 91(4): 683- 693. 2. Stiegler, B. (2010). Taking care of youth and the generations. Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press. It’s the best thing in the world that happened to me, was going from coal that we had over in Hywel Dda there. But when I first moved from Cambria Road to Heol Deva that was a house of, it was unbelievable, we had central heating and I was only 10, in all the rooms, a steel house, wonderful, wonderful. (Jeffrey, 60s, Ely) ‘[…] yeah, everything is really easy and convenient I mean you want the TV on you hit a button and it’s on and you’ve got like 500 channels at your fingertips should you want to watch them and then you’ve got all your music players and you’ve got not just one but maybe one in each room […] and then you’ve got, you’ve got Wi-Fi and internet and stuff ‘ (Monica, RFH)
  8. 8. • Against the ‘frictionlessness’ of convenience and smartness1 • Friction as individuating2 – the ‘grit in the oyster’ of subjectivity • Associated with valued forms of relational subjectivity “Yeah but I don’t like that. I look back and I think actually I see for me how I had no connection with it [central heating], no connection you know, whereas when the wood’s there and you see the fire going you think maybe I’ll just turn the fire down cos the pile of wood is shrinking.” (Emmanuelle, Lammas) “I think we were saying about the log fire, it’s rewarding when you sit back and see the log fire whereas if you just flick a switch and it’s there it’s not as rewarding so who knows you know on how it effects our happiness in the long run things like that, don’t know.” (Sarah, RFH) “Yeah well that’s, my partner says I’m obsessed with it because I’m always off up the woods looking for wood and things like that, ‘I’m going to light it tonight’, ‘oh no you’re not are you?’” (Robert, Peterston) 1. Ellul, J. (1964). The technological society. New York, Vintage: p. 414 2. Stiegler, B. (2010). Taking care of youth and the generations. Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press.
  9. 9. • Reflecting on imaginaries produces critical observations ▫ On unacceptable forms of dependency ▫ On forms of technological mediation that erode individuation “[talking about Ch4 film] all the gadgets I mean that was you know similar to the bloody [Monsanto] house you know you’re hungry and the electricity is down and you can’t, you know you can’t have a shower because you can’t turn on the tap (Vanessa, Lammas)” (Vanessa, Lammas) “I still think it sort of dumbs us down as a kind of society and replaces our you know ingenuity and our thinking, free thinking with controlled you know thinking and you know computerisation of everything” (Dennis, RFH)
  10. 10. • Reflecting on valued forms of agency and links to practices/technologies spreads to values like comfort, convenience and controllability1 • Leads to a re-tooling of the meaning of these dominant values • E.g. differently convenient: localisation of infrastructure rather than always ready-to- hand services 1. Vannini, P. and J. Taggart (2014). Off the Grid: Re-Assembling Domestic Life. London, Routledge. “I had no connection with it [central heating], no connection you know, whereas when the wood’s there and you see the fire going you think maybe I’ll just turn the fire down cos the pile of wood is shrinking.” (Emmanuelle, Lammas)
  11. 11. 1. Interviews feature reflexivity that is aesthetic, embodied, relational 2. Indicates value of multimodal-narrative- biographical approach as occasion for deliberation 3. Involves using biographical reflections on practical lifeworlds as the basis for imagining future ‘worlds’ 4. Opens paths for extending deliberative approaches beyond ‘Habermasian technological democracy’
  12. 12. Other team Members: Professor Karen Henwood, Professor Nick Pidgeon & Dr Fiona Shirani (Cardiff), Dr Karen Parkhill (now York) Dr Catherine Butler (now Exeter)