Torben Elgaard Jensen is a visiting research fellow at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) until August 2011. He takes a break from his position as Senior Lecturer/Associate Professor at the DTU Management Technical University of Denmark. He arrived in early January and sat down with Timothy Webmoor on 31 January to talk about his current work on user-driven innovation, how he is finding the STS group at InSIS, and how he’s getting on at Oxford.
What brings you to Oxford, what brings you to the STS group here at InSIS?
What brings me to Oxford is my family. I’m so lucky to be married to an STS person who is also a STS researcher. And she had saved up on time to go on leave and she wanted to go somewhere interesting. Her interesting place is with John Law at the Open University. But she wanted me to come along and our family to come along as well, so I had to find some interesting place. I thought about what would be an interesting STS environment in or around Oxford. InSIS was an obvious choice.
One benefit to having a scholar visit us is that we of course get to learn about you, your interests and background and where you’re coming from. At the same time it gives us a chance to see something about ourselves that perhaps we are not aware of. When you chose the STS group here as an interesting place, it was probably because of Steve Woolgar’s work on configuring the user. Had you also come in contact with some of the conferences and workshops that have been put on by the group here?
Steve’s work was the immediate eye catcher, but I also had heard about the Visualisation Conference. Another interest was the work going on with Mapping Controversies, and I heard that there was an Oxford version of this course. I had heard that Noortje Marres was a part of this. And I had met her at a conference. So in going to this STS unit I’d be able to talk to Steve about the relations around users in STS, and to Noortje about Mapping Controversies. That would be plenty of engaging things for me to do, on top of the writing projects that I have to finish.
So can I ask some more about your research project. I know you’re working on a paper about the ubiquity of the ‘user’ in popular discourse and professional constructions.
Let me begin by telling you a little bit about the empirical content first. As with many STSers I’ve started out with some interesting empirical phenomena. My phenomenon is a recent Danish obsession, almost, with user-driven innovation. There is much talk in Denmark about how can we engage anthropologists, ethnologists and others in studying users and their practices and how can we relate that to design and building new services or systems. And this has been taken up as a national innovation policy and two big funding programmes have been put in place. So from 2007 to around 2010 about 50 million pounds have been allocated to various projects into user-driven innovation. So there is a lot of activity going on. I’m agnostic about whether I’m a believer in user driven innovation or not, but I’m interested in how does this ‘thing’ get put on the agenda, how does it configure thinking about the user and the relations between the user and society. In my more lofty moments I’m thinking back to Shapin and Schaffer’s book Leviathon and the Air-Pump. They have this beautiful statement that the matter of ‘facts’ is at the same time an epistemological category and a social category. So by thinking about particular events in the laboratory as matters of fact you’re also configuring society to receive these facts. So the knowledge and the social organisation are two sides of the same coin. So if we have to understand the user in a new way, what kind of social configuration would that entail. In terms of the role of the users, the role for the publics, the role for social science, and for those that develop technologies.
A lot of coordination work is going into legitimizing and stabilising the user. So what is happening with the epistemic components of what you’re talking about? How would you see the user as an epistemic object? That is, as a valid source of knowledge, as generator of innovation, and so configured as an ‘origin’ of sorts and ‘sold’ as a valuable ingredient in innovation? What is the place of this ‘new’ user in the epistemic work of the design process?
Well I have various ideas about what is ‘new’ in terms of the user. What type of new object is emerging here. Right now I am trying to invoke a contrast between what I am calling an old conception of the user in STS and a new user. I don’t know if it will break down later. The old user would be put on the agenda by, for instance, Steve’s work, or by Oudshoorn and Pinch or Akrich and others. And their approach to the user is something that is co-constructed by some sort of open game with a new, tangible technology. Stories about the computer user, and the computer where the two entities fit or misfit or abuse each other in various way. So those are the well-established and very good work on the approach to the user. To study users in relation with specific technologies. But what I am trying to argue is that with these new projects, other perspectives seem to come in and perhaps new roles for STS researchers. It seems that, whereas at one stage there was an interest in developing particular technologies. Now it seems that there is a broader concern with how do we relate to customers in the globalised setting. Where you have an intensified competition on one hand and on the other hand greater customer mobility and lack of loyalty. So for this reason companies may have good reason to be more nervous about their customers. Not just how do they fit with certain products, but how can we second-guess them before they make their next move or we lose them to our competitors. How can we get closer to our customers? So this increased social nervousness about customers is part of the thing that factors into the interest in user driven innovation. I don’t think it is vocalised very much, but it seems to be part of the background arguments and analyses for putting these type of programmes in place.
Do you see this distrust of, and desire to know, the customer or user as being parallel to certain discussions in anthropology where the ‘informant’ or individual, as an epistemic subject, is considered untrustworthy. That is, providing unreliable knowledge and so an obstacle, of sorts, that must be gotten around. A stance which has prompted greater consideration of the material context, of devices, objects, everyday wares and so on that informants are embedded within. Or indeed, as we have heard much of at the recent Neurosociety Conference here at InSIS, the material traces of a ‘user’s’ brain. So that from an epistemic perspective these mundane things, these silent witnesses, are potentially more revealing and profitable.
If you look at some statements from influential policy acts in Denmark, they have said that we should now invite the anthropologists and ethnologists to help us develop new things and policies. If you look at some of their statements, they have very high hopes that these social science disciplines can come and tell us the users’ true, unacknowledged needs. Needs that we couldn’t get at with normal sources. Of course, what they will find is that these social science disciplines can help them with a lot of experience and a sophisticated discussion about this problem, about the category of user, rather than simply a solution of the problem. Within private companies, among designers and engineers, you can also see a similar discussion about ‘can we trust the users’. There are ongoing deliberations about what kind of material you can show to the users that they will not misinterpret. So, for example, a rule of thumb for engineers is as follows. You can either show users something that is a very early concept for a product, because then it is so sketchy and so made out of cardboard that they wouldn’t assume that it is the real project and they will comment upon the idea. Generating useful input at the beginning of the design iteration. But if you have something that is semi-finished, then they will focus too much on its appearance of not being done and so focus upon, according to the engineers, the wrong aspects. Whereas if you have a prototype that actually looks like a real product then again you can use their comments. So there is some sort of trough in the middle where you can’t ‘use the users’.
A provocative ending statement with nice resonance with Mackenzie’s ‘Certainty Trough.’ We look forward to hearing more about your project as it develops.
You’ve been in Oxford for a month now. How are you finding it? What’s been unusual, what’s been other than expected, what’s been exactly as you had thought?
I had hoped to find a buzzing, intellectual STS environment. And I think I found just that. I found many people who are deeply concerned and deeply knowledgeable about STS, the literature, various case studies, and love to discuss STS. So I think that has been as wonderful as I had hoped. The thing that characterises a well-functioning unit is that they have certain ‘pet topics’ in common. I’m sure you have several, but one is Steve’s work on reflexivity and that seems to be an on-going discussion and everyone seems to have a take on it. It is very nice to have an on-going theme there for everyone to relate to or disagree with. That’s the sort of on-going discussion that builds coherence.
Finally, have you discovered a favourite pub in Oxford?
Yes, well, the one next to Blackwell’s on Broad Street [The White Horse]. But that’s actually the only one that we’ve had time to visit. But I can say that I have a Costa Coffee Card.
That’s good. Already a card-carrying member of the Oxford community then.
Thanks for your time Torben.