Season’s greetings!

The STS group at InSIS wishes everyone a healthy, happy and hopefully relaxing holiday break. Especially for this occasion, our research fellow Will Davies shared his most recent work: a ground-breaking venn diagram based on the varieties of cookies, biscuits and short bread on offer at our holiday party last week. The following ‘cookieography’ may be particularly useful for those not familiar with British pastry classification.

Will Davies' Cookieography

Have a nice break and see you in 2011.

The (third) STS Talk-Walk: Silencing – what is it to silence?

by Malte Ziewitz

Our final STS Talk-Walk this year led us into the frosty greens of Port Meadow. The topic turned out to be strangely appropriate for a walk in the empty Oxfordshire countryside: silence.

Thames Path

Thames Path, only seconds before the talk-walkers arrive.

Silence figured in many different ways in our discussions. Silence as a concern for those who have no voice or lack the capacity to articulate themselves. Silence as a resource for understanding the relationship between ourselves and others. Silence as an obligation to not say everything that could be said. Silence as something that can be done as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Silence as something we can remain silent about.

Questions were raised about how to deal with ‘silent’ interview partners. How to make sense of and enact such silence in our transcripts and research reports? Some of us were wondering how management tools promote a certain view of the world and ‘silence’ others. If every account privileges some, but suppresses other realities, what is the point of thinking about silence at all? Others struggled with a ‘wall of silence’ they hit in their fieldwork and discussed how this could be made productive (as opposed to being filed under ‘access denied’ in the methods section). Again others got stuck on the example of Wikileaks, which triggered some lively discussion about ‘silence’, ‘absence’ and ‘secrecy’. And, finally, what do we do with things that cannot be told? When do we need to stay silent?

A number of papers were referenced during the talk-walk. Here are three of them:

  • Lynch, M. (1999), ‘Silence in Context: Ethnomethodology and Social Theory’, Human Studies, 22 (2/4), 211-33.
  • Star, S. L. and Bowker, G. C. (2007), ‘Enacting silence: Residual categories as a challenge for ethics, information systems, and communication’, Ethics and Information Technology, 9 (4), 273-80.
  • Rappert, B. (2011), ‘Revealing and concealing secrets in research: the potential of the absent’, Qualitative Research, 10, 571-87.

Next STS Talk-Walk: Friday, 21 January 2011. Click here to learn more.

Thank you, Neurosociety!

by Tanja Schneider

Thank you again to everyone who attended or participated in the Neurosociety conference jointly organised by the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) and the European Neuroscience and Society Network (ENSN) at Saïd Business School last week. Participants joined us from Australia, Europe, North and South America. As a result of everyone’s contributions, we thought that the event was a remarkable success.

Brains in action

Brains in action (click to enlarge)

We are currently updating our conference website with:

  • audio recordings of the plenary sessions (welcome, keynote speeches, panel discussion, closing discussion)
  • photos taken at the event
  • participants’ comments and feedback
  • tweets from the conference, and
  • a short conference report

We hope to share this with you soon.

Update I: Some thoughts by Alice Bell on the conference.

Update II: The materials, including speaker presentations and slides, are now available on the conference website.

Visualisation in the age of computerisation

Call for proposals deadline: extended to 3 December 2010

Conference: 25-26 March 2011, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

The Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) is organising a two-day conference on 25-26 March 2011 at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, with support from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and the Oxford e-Social Science project.

Speakers include:

  • Peter Galison, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University
  • Michael Lynch, Department of Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University
  • Barbara Maria Stafford, Distinguished University Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Steve Woolgar, InSIS, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

Summarising discussants:

Visualisations abound in all forms and phases of research and knowledge production and communication. From the graphical user interface of our computers, to equipment and instrument displays, to the screens of our smart phones, knowledge communication of all kinds is increasingly visual. In design, engineering, science, education, medicine, the humanities and social sciences, the increasing pervasiveness of visual images is due largely to computational techniques. To be sure, computers have been in common use in science and related domains since the advent of the desktop computer. Over the past decade, however, plain text commands, programming languages and numerical engagement have given way to the visual form, from the reproduction, modification and synthesis of images to the visual representation of that which formerly could not be seen.

There has been an unprecedented rate of innovation in computational imaging and visualising techniques to render physical and non-physical data in visual form, including techniques for multi-dimensionality, the development of algorithmic techniques for image processing, the production of hybrid visual objects and an apparent photo-realism for non-existent entities and objects. The emergence of the Internet-as-database, with complex and massive quantities of data mined from online social and spatial processes given visual form, has gone hand-in-hand with these advances in making new phenomena and data visible.

Call for papers: We welcome abstracts of 500-1000 words for papers on these topics. We also invite proposals for less conventional forums, such as conversations, performance pieces or installation works.

Submission Deadline:
extended to 3 December 2010 to

The pervasive computerisation of imaging and visualising challenges us to question what changes accompany computerised imagery, and whether, for instance, it is poised to transform science and society as thoroughly as the printing press and engraving techniques changed image reproduction (Eisenstein 1980, Rudwick 1976), or photographs altered art’s aura (Benjamin 1936).

Some art historians discern continuity in representational form from Renaissance single-point perspective to cinematic and digital arrays, from Alberti’s windows to Microsoft (Crary 1990, Friedberg 2006, Manovich 2000). Other commentators, such as W.J.T. Mitchell, Barbara Stafford or Howard Rheingold, understand our immersion in imagery as heralding a ‘visual turn’ with the engagement of knowledge in contemporary culture. James Elkins suggests visual literacy spans the specialised disciplines of the academy, while Robert Horn or Thomas West claim ‘visual thinking’ is primary and intuitive. High-tech may be enabling the reclamation of old visual talents devalued by word-bound modernist thought.

Notwithstanding these appraisals, it is as yet unclear what specific effects these innovations are having and whether claims regarding new and more effective visualising techniques and transformed modes of visual thinking are borne out. While not exhaustive, we offer several foci with potential to limn changes.

Changing Notions of Cognition Traditional ideas about cognition have long been rejected in favour of an understanding of interpretation in terms of in situ material practices. It is thus recognised that mentalistic precepts such as “recognising patterns”, “identifying relationships”, “assessing fit and correspondence” etc are better treated as idealised depictions of the activities involved in generating, managing and dealing with representations. In science in particular this move established the importance of the muddled and contingent efforts involved in the practical activities of making sense(Lynch and Woolgar 1990). Yet the advent of new modes of computerised visualisation has seen the re-emergence of claims about “cognition” (McCormick et al, 1987) and about the role of visualisations as “cognitive aids”. In what ways are our understandings of the material basis of cognition challenged by the emergence and use of new computational artefacts?

Changing Notions of Objectivity
Scholars such as Galison and Daston have described the involvement of technologies in science in terms of the historical flux of epistemic virtues in science, tracing a trajectory from idealised images that required intervention and specialised craftsmanship to more mechanical forms of recording. A later hybridisation of these virtues has been claimed to occur when instruments, and, later computers, allowed active manipulation versus passive observation (Hacking 1983, Galison 1997). Other researchers suggest that the computerisation of images accounts for an epistemic devaluation of visualisations in favour of their mathematical manipulation which the digital (binary) format allows (Beaulieu 2001). Now that computers are inextricable from visual evidence, a situation described as “instrumental cognition” (Pomian 1998) or “thing knowledge” (Baird 2004), we ask what is the impact upon the epistemologies of practitioners?

Changing ontologies of scientific vision
Science and Technology Studies (STS) has documented the manner in which visually inscribing phenomena makes ‘the everyday’ of science work (Latour and Woolgar 1979, Lynch and Woolgar 1990). STS suggests that much of what enables science to function is making things visible through the assembling of inscriptions for strategic purposes, and has focused on disclosing the innervating components of science through observation in the ‘wet-lab’ or physical sites of production. While vitally important for providing the blood flow of science, such visual representations are often black-boxed as self-evident.Now, researchers often confront visualisations assembled entirely on the computer or web-based ‘spaces’, seemingly black-boxed again. In the age of computerisation, can we adequately document the ontologies of scientific representation, how they are composed and deployed?

As innovation continues it is necessary to undertake a two-fold enquiry: firstly to question the claims made about the benefits or transformations achieved, and secondly, to question whether current theoretical resources in the social and human sciences can rise to the challenge of analysing and understanding the ways in which these new computational techniques mediate between ourselves and the people, objects, entities and processes that are visualised – or indeed, the ways in which these new techniques affect imagining, thinking and doing and foster new notions of self and agency.

The aim of the conference is to gather together a group of people who theorise about or use computational images in their practices to tackle these questions and offer insights to these or other areas of perceived change. Examples of questions that can be addressed include, but are not limited to:

  • What is computational seeing? Is there anything new in computational seeing?
  • Do the new modes of computational seeing involve or allow new practices of observation and evidence?
  • Does computational seeing foster new notions of objectivity?
  • Are we challenged by computational techniques to re-think notions of realism and verisimilitude?
  • Do computational techniques blur the distinction between representation and intervention?
  • Do they bring into question the traditional distinction between quantitative and qualitative research?
  • Do computational techniques introduce imagination into the domain of the cognitive in new ways?
  • What modes of representation are computational picturing, imaging or visualising?
  • What distinguishes information and scientific visualisation, and what distinguishes either of these from art?
  • What types of insights into complex systems or large datasets are uniquely possible with visualising tools?
  • What effects does the reproducibility of digital images have on the way we relate to them and their content?
  • Does the rise of interactive and editable web-based visualisation make the public as well as specialists more visually savvy? Or does it aestheticise visualisation and anaestheticise us through data inundation?
  • Does the binary coding of computerised visualisations allow for greater compatibility and extensibility?
  • By virtue of being inter-linked and multiply composed, do computerised visualisations resist scrutiny? Do the network effects grant them a greater reality?
  • What kinds of relationships between people, institutions, computational resources and visual artefacts are instituted or embodied by systems for visualisation?
  • What is the role of the computational apparatus in mediating, forming, shaping or constituting what we see (or think we see)?

Organising Committee:
Annamaria Carusi, Oxford e-Research Centre (OeRC), University of Oxford

Aud Sissel Hoel, Department of Art and Media Studies, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Timothy Webmoor, Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS), Saïd Business School, University of Oxford,

Steve Woolgar, Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS), Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

Registration and logistics:
There is no fee to attend, but travel and accommodation are not provided.

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Follow InSIS on Twitter: The conference hashtag is #oxvisual. Or download to your mobile by scanning the tag (‘Tales of Things’ app free from iTunes or the Google Android market):

For more information:
Contact the organisers at

Norwegian University of Science and Technology Digital Social Research Oxford e-Social Science