Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
QuantifiedBiosensing Technologies in Everyday Life$

Dawn Nafus

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780262034173

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262034173.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM MIT PRESS SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.mitpress.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright The MIT Press, 2020. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in MITSO for personal use. Subscriber: null; date: 06 April 2020

(p.157) III Seeing Like a Builder

(p.157) III Seeing Like a Builder

The MIT Press

Keywords:   Interoperability, Clinical standards, Biosensors, Open architecture, Schemas, Medical data

Keywords:   Biosensing, resource management, water culture, care of the commons, informal urbanism, design, architecture

Keywords:   Biosensing, resource management, water culture, care of the commons, informal urbanism, design, architecture

Keywords:   Data citizen, environment, privacy, policy, ethics, biosensing

The chapters of part III ask what a biosensor-rich world looks like from the perspective of people who build these technologies, and the social and cultural formations that go alongside them. In some ways, part III picks up on the essential themes articulated earlier in the book—how data renegotiate relations between self and other, how biomedicalization and counter-practices jostle for cultural legitimacy, and how existing institutional forms shape what comes on the market. Part III gives these themes a material grounding that helps us better assess what could, and what should, happen with biosensor data, by helping us see what biosensor creators see through building. When someone approaches biosensing (or any other technical practice for that matter) with an eye toward designing it differently, what she notices is very different from what jumps out when she has her eye on social commentary. By approaching biosensing from this angle, we become sensitized to what is more open to change, what is difficult to shift, and what is surprisingly simple. This angle is particularly valuable for those of us who would like to intervene, whether our interest is in building something ourselves, as the scholars in the chapters of part III have done, or more traditional social science activities such as informing policy change. Some of these chapters underscore the peril of trying to do one independently from the other.

These chapters make clear that building yields surprises from any number of corners. The surprises come once the builder gets into the technical weeds, and finds that unseen complexities make themselves apparent. They also come through the sometimes surprising places where one meets social resistance, or where people use what a creator has built in ways she did not envision. Each chapter approaches surprises in different ways. Estrin and de Paula Hanika (chapter 9) design around what they know they cannot anticipate, thus incorporating flexibility into a system that otherwise could become rigid. Böhlen’s chapter (chapter 10) conveys (p.158) particularly well what it is like to be in the thick of these surprises, and having to change course constantly in response to them. Taylor (chapter 11) dips his toes in data processing in ways designed to provoke alternatives to stable categories currently used in data work. In my own work building data processing software,1 I too have been struck by precisely how little can be anticipated, and how much one can only really learn by doing. Yet I am also struck by the paradox that emerges when we compare Taylor’s and Böhlen’s contributions. On the one hand, Böhlen shows us that to build in ways sensitive to the belief systems already in place is to find surprises. On the other hand, when Taylor looks at what is being built today, he largely sees the same old categories and social systems embodied in new technologies. His claim is that it is possible to build something new and not be surprised enough. Put together, these two scholars show us that perhaps going beyond “same old categories” invites more uncertainty in already uncertain work. When building something, one has to choose what one is going to hold stable, and what one seeks to change. To build in ways that embody more fundamental social change perhaps requires slower building.

In the pages to come, you will develop a sense of how these surprises unfold. They raise important questions about the relationship between policy and design described in part II. Gregory and Bowker in chapter 12 suggest that policies that govern biosensing technologies cannot be thought about outside the specific technological conditions that bring people and things together, and shape public and private, which, like Day and Lury, they see as an unfixed distinction. This raises an important point. If we agree that privacy is important (even if as necessary fiction—surely there is room to deconstruct the very things we want?), then we must also agree with Patterson and Nissenbaum that some level of due diligence is warranted. But Gregory and Bowker raise the next, equally difficult question: if due diligence cannot be carried out independently from the technology, at what moment in the technical development should such an exercise be undertaken? It seems useless to try if all a technology developer has is the faintest notion of what she wants to create, and it seems too late after millions, or in some cases billions, of dollars have been spent creating it. “In the middle!” is an obvious answer—the one given by privacy-by-design advocates. My own experience in building has led me to believe that this is wise in general, but there is also a certain unhelpful vagueness in the suggestion to build in privacy “along the way.” Exactly when and how to rethink a decision, in the context of competing problems to deal with, is not obvious. How elaborately should (p.159) one trace out all possible scenarios? How do you know it is better to undo expensively built code than to continue with the code you have? If only “the way” were a linear, predictable path! The chapters of part III will offer a sense of what being in the middle is actually like, or could be like, in hopes of offering a ground-level view into the moments when considerations like privacy can (and cannot) be taken into account.

All of the projects presented here are also attempts to do things differently; that is, they are not accounts of straightforward product development that would likely yield more of the same types of products the market now generates. These are technology developers who are extraordinarily careful about the social relationships their technologies make possible. As such, they are well positioned to describe what it is like to live with a box of surprises you have just opened, and now have to deal with. In the Introduction, I suggested that we in the social sciences could help technology developers embrace the possibility that alternative social relations could be built into material worlds, or to use Taylor’s phrase, “material worlds that enliven relations rather than flatten them.” These changes would be more substantial than the constant stream of “revolutions” declared by Silicon Valley rhetoric. If we are going to ask for such things, then part of the work on our end has to be comprehending when and how we would have builders embrace even more uncertainty than they already work with by necessity. Seeing the uncertainties that builders perceive can support the formulation of design recommendations that can be taken up more easily. It can also inform judgments about when it might be necessary for social scientists to “roll their own,” as the software developers like to say, and directly build the things we would like to see in the world. “Rolling our own” requires more skills than those taught in social science departments, but is not that far-fetched. In fact, the 2015 annual meeting of STS scholars hosted demonstrations of software, hardware, and other physical building projects from social science and humanities scholars who build.

In part III we have a diversity of approaches to building. Taylor’s contribution could be described as a critical making project, in Matt Ratto’s (2011) original sense of building something physical in order to explore a theory or social phenomenon through materials. Here Taylor builds an assemblage of data, and takes nonobvious cuts through it to explore what capacities are being undervalued. In their chapters, Böhlen and Estrin and de Paula Hanika surface the nuances of the social and material world by working their way through it, backing off on what does not work, and elaborating on what does. Building can also be building a team, or (p.160) building the kinds of constructs or imagery intended to inspire a different material world. Gregory and Bowker have not built a technology per se, but they are included here because they have written with an eye toward intervention, grounded in a particularly sensitive attention to materials.

It has been multiple decades since STS and aligned disciplines began to take materials seriously, having had enough time to recover from the fallacies of technological determinism. The contributors in part III have gone beyond thinking about materials as a theoretical conceit. Some use materials to make their contributions to social scientific knowledge, while others more plainly, and with a good deal of generosity, open up their work so that we in the social sciences might see what they see. The street goes both ways. Building has something to offer the social sciences and humanities, by making objects that are also good to think with. Those disciplines in turn have much to offer those who would reshape the built world. If we are to intervene while technologies are being built rather than attempting to undo them after the fact, seeing with an eye toward building is necessary.



Bibliography references:

Ratto, Matt. 2011. “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life.” Information Society 27 (4): 252–260.


(1.) The data processing software is a cloud-based tool called Data Sense. It can be found at www.makesenseofdata.com.