What We Talked About At ISA: Technology and World Politics (Part I)

The presentation I gave at the International Studies Association (ISA) conference was on the broad topic of technology and world politics, with more specific reference to the use of crisis mapping software in humanitarian situations. One of the main contentions of this research is that the role of technology in world politics tends to get massively overlooked by the field of IR. This is a bit odd considering the important role of technology in issues of world politics – weapons systems, financial systems, communications systems, surveillance technologies, social media tools, etc., etc. In fact, it’s hard to point to a single standard IR issue that isn’t infected with technological aspects. Yet IR remains a science limited to a focus on disembodied individuals. Whether it be rationalists or constructivists, little mention needs to be made of the actual materiality of these actors and their contexts. Instead, international relations is taken to be comprised of these actors alone.

To get a sense of the materiality of the world, you have to turn to alternative fields – political psychology and its attention to our embodied nature; gender studies for focus on the body and its political roles; and in my particular case, science and technology studies (STS) for an understanding of technology’s unique form of agency. Growing out of sociology, STS became known originally for taking a specifically social approach to the study of science. That is to say, it began looking at how scientists operate in practice in order to create facts. In doing so, it created a lot of controversy – first, for its willingness to suspend the truth of scientific claims in order to look purely at how they gain legitimacy. Second, for its undermining of naïve visions of the scientific method (a naivety that plagues IR to this day). Finally – and for the purposes here, the most interesting controversy – was the agency it attributed to nonhuman objects. I won’t go into the nuances here (maybe another time), but the basic point here is that agency is not primarily about intentional action (a problematic claim about human agency anyways), but instead it is about action changing a structural context. [1] In this sense, it seems unproblematic to agree that technical objects do have agency – in other words, they can change structural contexts by being introduced into preexisting assemblages (a term which itself points to the mutual implication of technology and society).

With this idea of nonhuman agency in hand, we can more precisely formulate what is missing from IR theories when it comes to technology. It is not that technologies are never mentioned (liberalism often talks about communication technologies in the context of globalization; realism often speaks of military technologies in the context of power). It is rather that even when technologies are mentioned, they are reduced to pure instrumentalist logics. Technology makes a difference in these theories because it allows existing actors to carry out existing strategies more efficiently. (Nuclear weapons are an important exception to this tendency in IR.) Technology, in other words, does not do something – it does not change a structure. It plays into an existing structure alone, and leaves untouched the strategies and tactics of different actors. The ultimate explanatory concepts are therefore human actors, and IR has no need of understanding technology outside of its efficiency and speed gains.

By contrast, STS (and myself) argue that technology has a much larger role to play in world politics. It does do things: it does open up new pathways for action; it does change the behaviours and habits of individuals and states; it does impose strict requirements on how human collectivities develop through time. This is not to say that technology is all-determining. One of the primary advances made by STS has been to undermine technological determinism (albeit at the risk of falling into simple social constructivism). The world proposed by STS is one of multiple agencies – human and nonhuman – mutually interacting. What is argued for is the idea that the world we inhabit is not merely a social world. Instead, we live in a properly sociotechnical world.

In the field of IR, these ideas have had little currency so far (though considering how late IR is to pick up popular ideas from other disciplines, this isn’t too surprising). As it stands, I know of only two other scholars who are bringing together STS and IR: Christian Bueger and Stefan Fritsch. Bueger (who’s website and papers are available here) focuses less on the technological aspects, but employs STS to look at knowledge production in international organizations (among other things). He has some really interesting theories and a quite unique take on how organizations produce knowledge and come to decisions. Fritsch, on the other hand, is more explicitly concerned with the technological aspects of STS. His recent article in International Studies Perspectives is the closest piece of work I’ve seen to my own yet, and is an excellent introduction to STS, as well as being a powerful critique of mainstream IR theories. If anyone else happens to read this and knows of others in the small STS/IR community, please do let me know! I’d be eternally grateful (well maybe not eternally…)

In upcoming posts, I’ll try to elaborate on what I think the primary role of technology currently is in world politics, and then to examine crisis mapping as an example of this. So stay tuned for the exciting finale!

[1] A further clarification – a common misunderstanding is that STS is arguing that human and nonhuman agencies are equal. This is wrong – instead, agency is something that is developed, constructed, and ultimately collective. Human agents have greater capacities for agency because of their specific cognitive make-up. Technical objects still have agency as well though, in the minimal sense of changing a sociotechnical structure. Rather than a world of inanimate objects versus animate humans, STS argues a continuum of agencies – from the most minimal to the most developed.

2 thoughts on “What We Talked About At ISA: Technology and World Politics (Part I)

  1. Pingback: What We Talked About at ISA: Crisis Mapping and the Rise of Digital Humanitarianism (Part III) « The Disorder Of Things

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