Science as Culture (Special Issue: Island Imaginaries)
Island Imaginaries: Introduction to a Special Section (free access)
Mascha Gugganig, Nina Klimburg-Witjes
Colonial empires, scientists, philanthropists and Hollywood studios have long sustained an image of islands as remote places with unique ecologies and cultures, experimental labs, or loci of escapism. The climate crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic have contributed to a predominant view of islands as both exceptional spaces and testbeds to be scaled up onto continental or planetary levels. Likewise, the metaphor of the island is foundational to Western thought yet has been less explored in the context of scientific processes and technology development. Bringing together science and technology studies (STS) with critical Island Studies and related fields, this special section expands upon the spatial dimension of sociotechnical imaginaries to consider islands and their imaginations as both preexisting and channeling visions of science and technology. The introduced concept of Island Imaginaries captures the mutual constitution of island visions and their materialization in scientific, technological and technocratic endeavors that are imagined and pursued by scientific communities, policymakers, and other social collectives. Such an approach explores the co-constitutive dynamic of islands as sites for the foundation of technoscientific knowledge regimes, and the concomitant rendering of islands as conducive places for discovery and experimentation. The special section offers empirical case studies with insights into islands as synecdoche for larger wholes (the Earth), as experimental and exceptional sites for trialing business creation and political orders (in Singapore, and for Asia), and as variously interpreted laboratory paradise (of Hawai‘i). Further research themes for STS are suggested in the Conclusion.
Hawaiʻi as a Laboratory Paradise: Divergent Sociotechnical Island Imaginaries
Scientific discoveries or testing technical systems are often tied to places deemed central for such endeavours. Related technoscientific visions are not merely mapped onto a place like a blueprint, but co-constituted with pre-existing spatial imaginations. This is particularly so in the case of islands. Taking up Hawai‘i’s significance both for natural science and contemporary agricultural biotechnology, and expanding upon the concept of sociotechnical imaginaries (Jasanoff and Kim, 2015), spatial imaginations of islands – as remote, contained spaces – channel, and are channeled by technoscientific, colonial visions and theories. In this context, laboratory and paradise tropes either accommodate or ‘keep out’ science and technology, and find expression in two sociotechnical island imaginaries. In an ecological island imaginary, western-scientific conceptions frame Hawai‘i as a laboratory of nature, and hosting paradise for natural sciences. Anti-GMO activists likewise articulate an ecological island imaginary, yet one of Hawai‘i as laboratory on nature, and nonabsorbable paradise in such slogans as ‘Stop Poisoning Paradise.’ In an agribusiness island imaginary, policy and industry visions portray the Islands as conducive agricultural laboratory where Edenic settings point to a hosting paradise to accommodate advancements of science, technology and business. Laboratory and paradise tropes indicate shared epistemic commitments across diverse sociotechnical island imaginaries, as well as divergences, such as in efforts to decolonize science. An analysis of overlapping and contrary sociotechnical island imaginaries that attends to such key visions allows for delineating heterogeneous dynamics beyond conventional categories like biodiversity, science, or culture.
The Test Bed Island: Tech Business Experimentalism and Exception in Singapore
Brice Laurent, Liliana Doganova, Clément Gasull, Fabian Muniesa
Islands imaginaries are imaginaries of exception, in the dual sense that islands are seen as places like no others (exceptional territories) as well as sites of exceptions to known orders of things (territories of exceptions). In Singapore, these two modalities of exception play a key role in Smart Nation, a program launched by the government in 2014 which shapes the island as an exceptional place for technology-oriented experiments meant for business development. We call this type of experimental practice tech business experimentalism. We investigate how the Smart Nation innovation program, conceived of as an example of tech business experimentalism, defines Singapore as an exceptional territory and a territory of exceptions. By studying how turning the island into a test bed relies on a politics of exceptionality, we show that current analyses of experiments beyond the scientific laboratory have much to gain by examining two related aspects, namely the business orientation of experiments and the exceptions on which they are built. This approach allows us to discuss the transformation of Singapore’s territory, the processes whereby certain inhabitants (and not others) are turned into experimental subjects, and the re-definition of policy action as an ability to carve out material and regulatory exceptions.
Gaze-scaling: Planets as Islands in Exobiologists’ Imaginaries
Claire Isabel Webb
From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, scientists and engineers in the U.S. chartered a new field, exobiology: the search for organic life beyond Earth. Joshua Lederberg, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, led exobiologists in framing a powerful sociotechnical imaginary for the emergent discipline, one that envisioned planets as islands. That vision followed long traditions in natural science, literature, and geography in which islands had been posited along dueling edges: fragile, bounded sites that required preservation, but ones that also been staged as bountiful, inviting exploration, even exploitation. From Lederberg’s archive, other historical sources, and astronautical accounts of seeing Earth from above in the Space Age, the conceptual duality of islands – as enclosed and expansive – transferred to how exobiologists considered their solar system. Planets, including Earth, came to be imagined as biospheres to be preserved, but simultaneously as sites that could possibly underwrite humans’ future colonization. Such speculation was supported by a rich visual culture of technologically animated perception, from Apollo 8’s Earthrise photograph (1968) to Mariner 9’s (1970) televisual images. Scaling the gaze of planetary science from Earth to extraterrestrial sites, exobiologists’ planets-as-islands imaginary forecasted a cosmic archipelago of interconnected life in the post-World War II era.
Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Techno-Optimism: Examining Outer Space Utopias of Silicon Valley
Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have been investing in improving human spaceflight capabilities through the development of reusable rockets to greatly reduce the cost of orbital launches. One such entrepreneur is the controversial Elon Musk who projects a techno-optimistic vision of the future in which humans live on other planets, enabled by his company’s technologies. This is a technologically utopian and libertarian vision that has implications for ongoing contestations about the future of Earth and humanity. For Musk and his investors and supporters, their vision is about how human action in outer space will transform things ‘down here’, bringing about positive social change. While many celebrate such business leaders of Silicon Valley, critical voices challenge their evasion of current global challenges. Musk’s techno-optimistic visions can be illuminated by the concept of sociotechnical imaginaries that draws attention to how public debates about science and technology also often evoke feelings of excitement, adventure, disappointment and anxiety. Science fiction narratives and digital simulations play an important role in conveying to multiple publics the desirability and feasibility of such imagined futures. However, although exciting in ambition and design, Silicon Valley visions of outer space futures offer little to the flourishing of humans and the planet.
The Rape Kit’s Promise: Techno-optimism in the Fight Against the Backlog
News of hundreds of thousands of untested forensic rape kits in police storage facilities and forensic labs across the United States has sparked a national dialogue about criminal justice responses to sexual assault. In a battle for more funding for forensic testing, victim advocacy organizations and activists are pointing to the necessity of rape kits for identifying and convicting sexual offenders. When tested, they argue, rape kits can ensure victims’ healing and justice, and increase public safety. Current campaigns to reduce rape kit backlogs reflect a widespread techno-optimism around forensic technologies’ ability to reduce and prevent violent crime. This optimism has a long history. The rape kit’s development in the 1970s was fueled by anti-violence activists’ hope that a new technology would improve criminal justice responses to sexual assault. The rape kit’s history provides an insightful backdrop to current rape kit backlog campaigns and the optimistic sociotechnical imaginary of a society rid of sexual violence through forensic technologies that drives them. An analysis of textual data, including media articles, government reports, conference proceedings, and advocates’ social media campaigns, reveals the history of techno-optimism around the rape kit and its recent expressions in rape kit backlog campaigns. This data also draws attention to the less visible consequences of this techno-optimism: a booming forensic industry profiting from the optimism around the rape kit, an increasing pressure on sexual assault survivors to comply with forensic procedures, and a narrowing of critical dialogues on criminal justice responses to sexual assault and sexual assault prevention.
Science in Context
Rendering Inuit cancer “visible”: Geography, pathology, and nosology in Arctic cancer research
In August of 1977, Australian pathologist David W. Buntine delivered a presentation at the Annual Meeting of the Royal College of Pathologists of Australia in Melbourne, Victoria. In this presentation, he used the diagnostic category of “Eskimoma,” to describe a unique set of salivary gland tumors he had observed over the past five years within Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Center. Only found amongst Inuit patients, these tumors were said to have unique histological, clinical, and epidemiological features and were unlike any other disease category that had ever been encountered before. To understand where this nosological category came from, and its long-term impact, this paper traces the historical trajectory of the “Eskimoma.” In addition to discussing the methods and infrastructures that were essential to making the idea of Inuit cancer “visible,” to the pathologist, the epidemiologist, and to society at large, this paper discusses how Inuit tissue samples obtained, stored, and analyzed in Winnipeg, Manitoba, came to be codified into a new, racially based disease category – one that has guided Canadian and international understandings of circumpolar cancer trends and shaped northern healthcare service delivery for the past sixty years.
Time, trauma, and the brain: How suicide came to have no significant precipitating event
Stephanie Lloyd, Alexandre Larivée
In this article, we trace shifting narratives of trauma within psychiatric, neuroscience, and environmental epigenetics research. We argue that two contemporary narratives of trauma – each of which concerns questions of time and psychopathology, of the past invading the present – had to be stabilized in order for environmental epigenetics models of suicide risk to be posited. Through an examination of these narratives, we consider how early trauma came to be understood as playing an etiologically significant role in the development of suicide risk. Suicide, in these models, has come to be seen as a behavior that has no significant precipitating event, but rather an exceptional precipitating neurochemical state, whose origins are identified in experiences of early traumatic events. We suggest that this is a part of a broader move within contemporary neurosciences and biopsychiatry to see life as post: seeing life as specific form of post-traumatic subjectivity.
Science, Technology, & Human Values (Special Issue: Beyond the Production of Ignorance)
Introduction: Beyond the Production of Ignorance: The Pervasiveness of Industry Influence through the Tools of Chemical Regulation
Emmanuel Henry, Valentin Thomas, Sara Angeli Aguiton, Marc-Olivier Déplaude, Nathalie Jas
Research on the influence of industry on chemical regulation has mostly been conducted within the framework of the production of ignorance. This special issue extends this research by looking at how industry asserts its interests––not just in the scientific sphere but also at other stages of policy-making and regulatory process––with a specific focus on the types of tools or instruments industry has used. Bringing together sociologists and historians specialized in Science and Technology Studies (STS), the articles of the special issue study the arenas in which instruments and practical guidelines for public policy are negotiated or used. The aim is to observe the devices in the making or in action, from the selection of actors to the production of thresholds, criteria, and other technical regulations. The introduction highlights how industry influence on expertise and regulation is undoubtedly far more pervasive and multifarious than has been conceptualized to date by social scientists. Putting this issue back at the heart of both the STS and social sciences research agendas is increasingly urgent and could lead to new inquiries able to highlight these logics even more widely, using fresh empirical examples.
Creating Regulatory Harmony: The Participatory Politics of OECD Chemical Testing Standards in the Making
In recent decades, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has become a powerful forum for trade liberalization and regulatory harmonization. OECD members have worked to reconcile divergent national regulatory approaches, applying a single framework across sovereign states, in effect determining whose knowledge-making practices would guide regulatory action throughout the industrialized world. Focusing on US regulators, industry associations, and environmental groups, this article explores the participatory politics of OECD chemical regulation harmonization in the late 1970s to early 1980s. These efforts were conditioned by differential institutional access and resources among stakeholders who sought to shape regulatory knowledge rules. Facing competing European and US approaches to chemical data—a minimum “base set” of test data versus case-by-case determinations—OECD members chose the European approach in 1980. However, US regulatory politics shifted with the election of President Reagan, prompting industry associations to lobby the US government to block the agreement. Examining the micropolitics of these standards in the making, I demonstrate that while long-term structures advantaged industrial actors, ideological alignment with the US government precipitated their decisive influence. The case illustrates the importance of attending to the distinctive politics of international harmonization and the effects on transnational knowledge-making and regulatory intervention.
Governing Occupational Exposure Using Thresholds: A Policy Biased Toward Industry
Strongly grounded in scientific knowledge, the instrument known as occupational exposure limits or threshold limit values has changed government modalities of exposure to hazardous chemicals in workplaces, transforming both the substance of the problem at hand and the power dynamics between the actors involved. Some of the characteristics of this instrument favor the interests of industries at the expense of employees, their representatives, and the authorities in charge of regulating these risks. First, this instrument can be analyzed as a boundary object that has very different uses in space and time. In particular, it is increasingly masking its industrial origins to appear as an instrument that is almost exclusively based on scientific rationale. In the case of asbestos and its substitutes, the use of an instrument relying on scientific expertise generates a specific temporality of implementation that allows manufacturers to take advantage of periods during which regulations are either nonexistent or very loose. Finally, the choice of a technoscientific definition of the issues contributes to shifting the negotiations to a field where companies are in a position of strength and their opponents are weakened.
To Test or Not to Test: Tools, Rules, and Corporate Data in US Chemicals Regulation
Angela N. H. Creager
When the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed by the US Congress in 1976, its advocates pointed to new generation of genotoxicity tests as a way to systematically screen chemicals for carcinogenicity. However, in the end, TSCA did not require any new testing of commercial chemicals, including these rapid laboratory screens. In addition, although the Environmental Protection Agency was to make public data about the health effects of industrial chemicals, companies routinely used the agency’s obligation to protect confidential business information to prevent such disclosures. This paper traces the contested history of TSCA and its provisions for testing, from the circulation of the first draft bill in the Nixon administration through the debates over its implementation, which stretched into the Reagan administration. The paucity of publicly available health and environmental data concerning chemicals, I argue, was a by-product of the law and its execution, leading to a situation of institutionalized ignorance, the underside of regulatory knowledge.
Defects in Doubt Manufacturing: The Trajectory of a Pro-industrial Argument in the Struggle for the Definition of Carcinogenic Substances
Recent work in science and technology studies has looked at how chemical industries manufacture doubt about the toxicity of their products and manage to establish their scientific views in the field of international regulations on toxic substances. Rather than examining yet another “victory” for the industry, this article analyzes the deployment of a “pro-industrial” scientific position, punctuated mainly by failure and opposition. This trajectory is tracked through the analysis of several data sets: archives, scientific documentation, and sociological interviews. The first part of the article charts the development of a biochemical concept, “peroxisome proliferation,” within an academic subfield and its subsequent appropriation by certain industrial parties who used it as a defensive weapon for their commercial interests. Through the example of the International Agency for Research on Cancer and its network of interdependent institutions, the article goes on to analyze the multiple attempts of chemical industry players to establish their interpretation of the concept within the regulatory bodies for carcinogenic substances. The study of such systems of sociological interdependence shows that a full analysis of the “doubt manufacturing” requires an examination not only of the manufacturing process but also of the reception of the ideas produced.