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).

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