‘Care and Technology’ by Helen Carr

Last month I attended the 4S conference in San Diego, (the Society for Social Studies of Science in case you were wondering) along with about 1000 others.  Whilst I heard some good papers – I particularly enjoyed the panel on Calculating City Life: A Socio-Material Perspective to Low-Budget Urbanity which included papers on ride sharing and ecosan communities – I was struck, and disappointed, by the very limited focus on gender, sexuality and caring. The title (and what a great title) No Space for Old Women: Transformations in Healthcare Work was promising, but the presentation concerned women who had become nurses in the 70’s and who now felt edged out of the profession by the increasingly technological nature of their work. Interesting stuff, but, as far as I could tell, the feminism that was promised in the introduction to the paper, lay in the fact that the research subjects were women. This is perhaps unfair; when I read the full paper (and I promise I will) it may be more developed. I was amused though, when I asked the presenter to expand upon her feminist perspective, I was answered by a young man in the audience who told me it was self evident.  Women who entered work in the 1970s were all feminist pioneers apparently, since most women stayed at home and looked after their families.  It was hard to restrain myself from replying, ‘young man, I don’t think you are in a position to lecture me about feminism in the 1970s’ but I just about managed!

Many papers were concerned with surveillance, and the consequences of technology on our freedoms. Whilst these are important and topical concerns, there was a tendency to rehearse traditional liberal arguments, treating the state as one homogenous entity and technology as irredeemably bad. There was little deviation from this perspective, and I got the feeling that if someone said, well perhaps some communities want more surveillance, or technology can be a force for good, they would have been shouted down.  Moreover the panels were very gendered.  Young men, strutting their stuff, and congratulating themselves and each other on their (very similar) insights.  What a pleasure it was to hear Evelyn Ruppert from Goldsmiths introduce her empirical work on statisticians in the European Union and explain how people and institutions deploy ‘technologies of trust’ to give legitimacy to unstable and contested political projects such as the notion of Europe. Her ideas felt very productive to me.

Of course this is just a snap shot of the panels I went to.  It could just be that I made really poor choices (although I did comb the programme for references to care).  And I should probably have gone to ‘Feminist Postcolonial Science Studies: What are the Issues?’, chaired by Sandra Harding and Banu Subramaniam, but how could I resist a paper on baboons apparently making pets out of kidnapped feral dogs (for those of you interested here is the Youtube link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2lSZPTa3ho – one million hits and rising!) which was on at the same time.  Just in case there is any doubt, as a result of that choice, as to my academic engagement, I would point out that I chose the paper on no-flush toilets over and above ‘Scotch Malt Whisky Tasting and Subjectivity Science in the Making: A Participatory Experiment’ where apparently the first 60 delegates got a whisky sample!

I reached two conclusions following the conference.  First, and this is a bit self-congratulatory, how much more productive was our workshop in Adelaide, when a wide range of papers were delivered, across our themes, and where the discussion was critical, constructive and engaged.  The workshop format really seems to work to develop shared intellectual capital in a positive and enjoyable way.

The second is to reflect on the contemporary importance of the relationship between care and technology which seems to be undertheorised.  I would suggest that once we start thinking about technology from the perspective of care, then the ambivalence of technology becomes apparent. Whilst I was in Adelaide, I had dinner with a woman who was originally from London. Her father was in a home in London and had a tendency to wander.  He was given a walking stick with a GPS tracing device, and she was able to follow his wanderings round London on her computer. Is technology in this instance increasing or decreasing her father’s autonomy, well being, dignity and privacy? What does it do to our understanding of family, and of rights and obligations? The invention of super-absorbent sheeting can be liberating, but can also be undignified and lead to a life isolated from human contact. Is it caring to be able to provide them to someone who is functionally, although not medically incontinent? Is technology absolving us of our responsibility to care? There is a huge amount to think about so it may be that the 4S conference would be a great place for our Revaluing Care network to squat, or at least to make its presence felt. So is anyone up for a panel or two in Buenos Aires August next year? Or perhaps more realistically at the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology in Torun Poland in September 2014?

Helen Carr, Reader in Law,

Kent Law School: http://www.kent.ac.uk/law/people/academic/Carr,_Helen.html