Please be warmly welcome to attend Klara Müller’s mid-seminar in doctoral education, here at KTH Campus on Monday April 24.
The Qualitization of the Humanities: Changing Articulations of Research Quality
“Placed at the intersection between research policy, STS and the history of humanities, the project aims to analyze quality articulations on both the micro-level and the macro-level of the humanities since the 1980s. This is done through a combination of various methodological approaches such as archival research, oral history and bibliometrics.”
Doctoral student: Klara Müller, Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment, KTH
Supervisor: Sverker Sörlin, KTH & Linus Salö, Stockholm University
Opponent: Vera Schwach, Doctor and Research Professor at NIFU, Nordisk Institutt for Studier av Innovasjon, Forskning og Utdanning
Time: Mon 2023-04-24 13.15 – 14.45 Location: the seminar room at the Division (Teknikringen 74 D, level 5) Language: English
It has been a few months since I came back from my stay in the U.S. And I have to say, I miss it sometimes. But being back in Sweden, I can reflect on the things I have learned and experienced.
I arrived in Washington, D.C. in August 2022, Typical for the summer there, the temperatures were tropical, the humidity excruciating, and the mosquitos everywhere. That is how I learned D.C. is actually a part of “The South.”
I stayed at Virginia Tech, a technical university with a campus in the suburbs of the D.C. area. Although small and often compared to a prison or asylum, the campus had a certain charm. There were also many events for graduate students, with free food and ping-pong! It was a great way to meet other graduate students, of which most worked in engineering and computer science.
For four months, I was part of the STS Department of Virginia Tech as a guest Ph.D. student, hosted by professor Sonja Schmid. My aim was to get to know STS more and to learn from Sonja Schmid, who has worked extensively on nuclear safety and contributes actively to nuclear policy in the U.S.
One of the aims of my stay was to take part in a project-based STS graduate course. This year, the theme was ‘Nuclear Facilities in Armed Conflict.’ Together with six other American STS students, with varying backgrounds ranging from nuclear engineering to law, we wrote a policy report with recommendations on how to prevent situations like the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine. We also presented our work in a public session for policy-makers, government officials, and industry experts. We are working on a policy publication right now.
Washington, D.C. has many archives that are relevant for nuclear historians like me. Although they are not always easy to get into, I came back with thousands of scans from the Library of Congress, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Archives, and – most importantly – the NRC Public Documentation Room. At the NRC, I was helped a lot by the NRC historian, professor Thomas Wellock.
Staying in D.C. was a great opportunity to travel around. I attended the Society of History of Technology (SHOT) conference in the stunning city of New Orleans. I presented my work in the college town of Blacksburg, where the main campus is located, and received great feedback from the STS scholars there. And in an act of ‘dark tourism’, I drove up to the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, which is only a two-hour drive away from D.C.
But after each trip, I was also happy to be back in D.C. It is a marvelous place to live. Paradoxically, the capital of the U.S. has a very European feel: wide sidewalks, beautiful architecture, good public transport, lush parks, and so many great pubs and restaurants. I lived in Columbia Heights, a beautiful historic area with small row houses built after the Civil War to house new civil servants.
Yet, at the same time, the abundance of museums, monuments, and sports stadiums – but at the same time also the stark racial and social inequalities in the city – remind you of American history and culture every day. American politics is never far away either: when you talk to people, see politicians or “staffers” in the streets, or when walk on the National Mall and cannot get the intro tune of House of Cards out of your head.
Nuna Marques, postdoctor at the Division and the KTH Centre EHL, attended a eco poetry reading during the Ecopoetry Workshop at the #APHELEIA 2023 seminar on Adaptation and Transformation: Community-based Practices in Mação, Portugal. Read his full performance below.
at an ecopoetry workshop I was invited to say something about this poem as ecopoem. Here is what I said:
this poem is a composition about/with killing and eating animals and the violence inherent to human and family relationships. It is also about tenderness.
It deals with the killing of pigs in Portugal done in traditional ways, not in slaughterhouses where animals that are industrially raised – the actual term is produced– are killed.
I based it on my experiences during childhood and adolescence with taking part in killing pigs and cutting them; preparing sausages, and in all the processes that happen after the animal is dead.
I used some specific vocabulary of the Center region of Portugal, where I am from, for names of tools, body parts of pigs, gestures, plants, food. This is the area of Portugal where almost all the meat that is eaten in the country is produced – pig, chicken, turkey and others.
Lack of regulation on waste waters has turned the river Lis that crosses the region in one of the most polluted rivers of Portugal from wastewater coming from animal production but also from leather and grain production units.
This is a long poem created by several sections that can be read separately but that work better in relation. I mostly use verbs. Sometimes verbs as adjectives and verbs as nouns. This I learned, as translator and researcher, from North American poets as Brenda Hillman; Evelyn Reilly; Allison Cobb; John Cage; Gary Snyder; Michael McClure; Charles Olson; Susan Howe.
Vegan ecofeminism is important as well – Carol J. Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat – for the distinction between corpse/cadaver and meat – which is a cultural construction operated by separation and differentiation:
to cut bodies into meat to cut the word
verb as action
I also wanted to work with rhythm and sound, so I use repetitions. Hopefully these create, through interrelations within the poem, sets of frequencies that distribute the action of cutting in long time frames: from childhood till today.
The title Dia do Não [Day of No] refers to the day before the killing in which the pig has no water and no food:
a time and space of negativity
The poem is accompanied by images by the Portuguese artist André Alves. Images and words follow different directions:
the text starts from the whole body and ends with the cut pieces; from concrete to abstract; the image from abstract parts to the whole body. I have Rita Barreira to thank for this idea as well as for suggesting working with André.
I consider this an ecopoem because by engaging the cultural constructions of animals as non-others in the Center region it brings forth the environmental history of animal production in this area. The poem entangles culture and nature; flesh meat tendons muscles smiles love cross between pigs and humans, knifes separate, as Evelyn Reilly asks in Echolocation: “And why should our bodies end at our skin?”
Dia do Não was published as a full-length book in Portugal by Douda Correria in 2018. Some sections have been published at: Revista Inefável15 (online). Other sections are forthcoming in the Ibero-American anthology Futuros Multiespecie edited by Azucena Castro for Bartlebooth (in press); and the Brazilian, African, and
Portuguese ecopoetry anthology O Livro do Verso Vivo (in press), edited by Thássio Ferreira and Maurício Vieira.
 The reading took place during the Ecopoetry Workshop at the #APHELEIA 2023 seminar on Adaptation and Transformation: Community-based Practices in Mação, Portugal. It was organized by BRIDGES UNESCO Sustainability Science Coalition. Poets attending: Esthela Calderon (Nicaragua), Juan Carlos Galeano (Colombia & USA), Nuno Marques (Portugal), José Manuel Marrero Henríquez (Canary Islands), Bernard Quetchenbach (USA) and Catarina Santiago Costa (Portugal).
Mid-Seminar: Universities and innovation in Africa: Contemporary histories of innovation policy and practice in a selection of African universities
Doctoral student: Domingos Langa Supervisors: Sverker Sörlin,KTH;Urban Lundberg,Dalarna University College;Erik Arnold, Technopolis;Teboho Moja, New YorkUniversity Opponent:Charles Edquist, researcher and Holder of the Ruben Rausing Chair in Innovation Research at CIRCLE, Lund University, Sweden
Join and let’s discuss Domingos’ work!
Time: Mon 2023-04-03 13.15 – 14.45
Location: the seminar room at the Division (Teknikringen 74 D, level 5)
Brief introduction of the Kappa and its structure
The primary goal of this study is to understand how university innovation policies and practices have evolved in three African countries:
Mozambique, Kenya, and Uganda. In this thesis, I present a review of the literature on higher education and innovation in Africa, as well as the study objectives and research questions, key concepts, methods, and sources for the first two papers related to the Mozambican case study, a summary of the first two papers, and the full papers.
This text was first published on the WaterBlog@KTH on 10 March 2023.
The sun setting on our right in beautiful orange hues, water flowing calmly and gentle breeze on our faces. This was the tranquil atmosphere on Río Guapi on a Saturday evening in early October 2022, as we were travelling down the river in a traditional fishing boat of the Guapiñeros. In the next moment, loud cheering and clapping echoed through the mangroves and houses lining the river. The sail prototype had been unfolded and successfully set up on the boat. The next twenty minutes had everyone brimming with excitement as the fishermen expertly navigated the boat towards the barrio of Puerto Cali, using the sail that the team had built together just hours before, utilising the ancestral knowledge of the fishing community.
Local and ancestral knowledge as a strategy to reach sustainability goals
The use of local knowledge is considered key to achieving the climate strategies and plans, as outlined by Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) in a recent report (IPCC, 2022). Both the IPCC and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) emphasise the importance of local and indigenous knowledge in understanding and creating solutions for sustainable futures (Tengö et al., 2021a-b). Moving towards more sustainable futures, in practice, requires a thorough understanding of the local traditions and how concepts of change are used in the local context. The preservation of fishing traditions, sailing and sailmaking are interesting examples. On the one hand, recognizing the value of preserving local ancestral knowledge (related to fishing and sail making), but also recognizing that the older generation wants their children to take steps to improve their future, embarking on studies etc. Thereby wanting a better future, with less hard work that fishing entails, for the next generation. This is one example that we discussed with fishermen in Guapi showing that the involvement of local communities is necessary for getting a better understanding of how local knowledge and cultural traditions are key for understanding how change can come about. In addition to this, also recognizing that the local and global level is interrelated (Larsen et al. 2011) when implementing policy to achieve climate objectives and UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs). Improving the possibilities to improve (local communities) life situation and increased involvement in economic development is central to the strategy for the regional development of Latin America (Sida 2021, page 9) relating to several SDGs, including SDG12, sustainable production and consumption.
Local knowledge, culture and values are important to be included together with scientific knowledge in the co-production of new solutions and for input to advising policies. This aspect of co-creation in a transdisciplinary team to take advantage of both the traditional knowledge of local communities and scientific knowledge of academics from several different disciplines (including anthropology, environmental history, technology, engineering, and design etc.) is an important methodology of the Pacífico Econavipesca project.
Fishing and boats in the community in Guapi, Colombia
The objective of the project is to develop a sustainable artisanal fishing model that reduces the environmental, social, and economic impacts on the ecosystem in the municipality of Guapi, Cauca, in Colombia. A major challenge is to reduce dependence on fossil fuels for fishing boats and engage in dialogues with the local community about ways to create social entrepreneurship to make fishing activities more sustainable long term. The project involves universities in Colombia with strong commitment and previous experiences with the communities in Guapi. The focus of fieldwork activities is to create room for dialogues and mutual learning rather than importing or imposing certain technology or ways of thinking on any local community. The fieldwork activities where KTH has been involved have been carried out in collaboration with the research teams in Colombia to ensure these aspects and safeguard continued dialogues on how future solutions may look.
Guapi is a municipality on the pacific coast of Colombia. The town and villages here are all situated along Río Guapi, Río Guaji and Río Napi. The rivers are a source of life for these communities as they provide food, water, transportation, etc. In fact, their relationship with water is beyond material provisions. It is their deep connection with the diverse natural environment in the territory, a rich food culture, music and dance that follows the rhythm of the river, and their ancestors that have passed down a great wealth of knowledge. Artisanal fishing is one such knowledge that has been passed down through generations in Guapi. Currently, traditional fishing boats that run on gasoline motors are used to fish out at sea. However, gasoline is very expensive in the region and causes them a great economic burden. This is worsened by increased uncertainty of catching fish with reduced fish populations due to pollution and climate change, causing them to return with little to no fish on many days. Local environmental pollution of the river is also caused by leakages of gasoline. Hence, one of the main objectives is to create more sustainable fishing boats with reduced reliance on gasoline.
In the initial stages of the project Econavipesca, it became clear that the previous generation of fishermen would sail out to sea with homemade sails. However, with the introduction of modern technology like gasoline motors, this traditional knowledge of sail-making and sailing was forgotten. This was one of the early stages of co-creation, where local knowledge was re-discovered in dialogue with the community. The team then decided to examine possibilities to incorporate these traditional sailing techniques in present-day boats to reduce reliance on gasoline motors.
Co-creation in the focus of KTH fieldwork
In October 2022, the KTH project team embarked on their first field trip, including Gauri Salunkhe, a master’s student in Sustainable Technology at KTH. Gauri would spend three months on a field study in Colombia. This field study focused on understanding community engagement, co-creation strategies and actor interactions to identify challenges and opportunities for the sustainability of the project. She engaged in dialogue with different stakeholders such as academics and community team members to gather data for her field study, using methodologies such as observational studies, interviews, actor-network mapping, co-creative activities, reflective workshops, etc.
Video 1: Interview with Gauri Salunkhe about her field study experience in Colombia (Interview by Sebastián Serna)
This KTH field study began with a deep dive into the community, as Gauri, together with Katarina Larsen, a researcher at KTH, Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment, and Magnus Lindqvist, Senior advisor at the KTH International Relations Office, embarked on the fieldwork in Guapi (30 Sep 2022 – 04 Oct 2022) together with the project team in Colombia. Ask any member of the team about a key moment during this fieldwork, and the moment that would resonate in all the responses would be – “the sailing activity”. This brings us back to the scene at the beginning, on Río Guapi.
The sailing activity is an essential example of co-creation in the Pacífico Econavipesca project. Local knowledge of sail-making and sailing was incorporated with academic knowledge to design and build the sail prototypes. Instead of fieldwork activities solely organised by the academic team, with the community members only as participants, in this case, the community members’ representatives were key to planning and organising the activity. They gathered local resources, people and materials, specified fabrics needed for sails, and identified suitable locations, to build the sail prototypes. Since the traditional sail-making knowledge is only held by some elderly members of the community now, they were also an essential part of designing and building the sail.
Sailing on the river
A key moment for one member of the academic team was while building the sails together with the local community. “At the beginning, they were very protective with some information due to the (historical) projects culture in this part of the country … as they don’t know what people would do with the information”. However, the activity could give space to having an open conversation where everyone felt comfortable sharing their experiences with sailing. Many of them learnt it when they were children but lost touch over the years. Furthermore, it was the fishermen that had the local knowledge about the material, type of knots required, etc., not the academic team, so the fishermen’s active involvement, knowledge and skills were essential for this activity of re-introducing sail-making and testing the sails on the river.
Initially, when we started the fieldwork in Guapi in October, we expected to build the sail prototypes, but not necessarily test them on the river. However, the community members were so enthusiastic to also test the sails on the river! As expressed by one (academic) team member who was organising the activity, “They were so interested in testing the sail, who am I to stop them? Just go for it!”. This experience highlights the importance of not imposing our own views and expectations on the project fieldwork activities but being flexible to carry it out according to the community’s wishes. The organiser of the activity described the smile on a fisherman’s face when navigating the boat like he was a little child again while looking at the sail. It is moments like this that inspire the team to continue working hard to implement new useful ways for co-creation in this project.
Co-creation experiences from dialogues during fieldwork
Engaging in co-creative dialogues about future ways of more sustainable living in a fishing community like Guapi goes beyond dialogues with fishing associations. It also means involving different types of members of the community (that are not out on the fishing boats), such as the women (often involved in preparations before and after fishing trips) and younger generations in fishing communities. The young adults will determine the future of how fishing activities will develop in Guapi. It is important to improve the quality of life for fishermen, increase economic gains from fishing and dignify the work of fishermen to retain the artisanal fishing practices among young people in the future. Women are also an important part of the fishing journey who may be invisible at the moment. For example, they carry out preparations for the fishing journey, and process and sell the fish post-fishing. It is important to recognise this and involve them in co-creating solutions.
Some other lessons about transdisciplinary co-creation from this project are the importance of establishing dialogues for discussing terminology used, expectations by community and academic teams, and being open to learning from each other. This is important both within the academic team and across the academic and local community teams. Since participants bring different experiences and perspectives to co-creative learning processes, it is essential to create dialogues that give room for reflection on activities and to also align everyone to work towards a common goal.
Experiences from the fieldwork in this project highlight that transdisciplinary co-creation is at the core of finding solutions for sustainable development. It has provided concrete examples of the importance of a dialogue-based approach to gathering different types of knowledge, and methods of catalysing participatory action and creating dialogues on future options by involving the community. It is when the community is actively involved and takes initiative, that they would be able to create and maintain solutions for themselves, which is required for long-term sustainability for the communities along the Guapi river.
Participants in the Pacífico Econavipesca project include the fishing associations of Guapi, Colombia, local and regional authorities, and the following academic partners: Universidad Nacional de Colombia (Colombia), Universidad del Cauca (Colombia), KTH Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden), and Lund University (Sweden). The project is funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). We wish to thank all participants in the project for their genuine commitment to the project work and, in particular, the local fishing community representatives for sharing their knowledge, stories and unforgettable experiences on the river of Guapi.
Gauri Salunkhe, MSc-student in Sustainable Technology at KTH
Katarina Larsen, researcher at Div. History of Science, Technology and Environment, KTH
For more information on the project Econavipesca and interviews with KTH participants, follow the links below.
Agusdinata, D. B. 2022. The role of universities in SDGs solution co-creation and implementation: a human-centered design and shared-action learning process. Sustainability science. [Online] 17 (4), 1589–1604.
IPCC 2022. Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, M. Tignor, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem, B. Rama (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA, 3056 pp., doi:10.1017/9781009325844.
Larsen, K., Gunnarsson-Östling, U. and Westholm, E. 2011. Environmental scenarios and local-global level of community engagement : Environmental justice, jams, institutions and innovation,” Futures: The journal of policy, planning and futures studies, vol. 43, no. 4, s. 413-423.
Minoi, J.L., et al., 2019. A Participatory Co-creation Model to Drive Community Engagement in Rural Indigenous Schools: A Case Study in Sarawak. The Electronic Journal of e-Learning, 17(3), pp. 173-183, available online at www.ejel.org
Moons, I.; Daems, K.; Van de Velde, L.L.J., 2021. Co-Creation as the Solution to Sustainability Challenges in the Greenhouse Horticultural Industry: The Importance of a Structured Innovation Management Process. Sustainability 2021, 13, 7149. https://doi.org/10.3390/su13137149
Tengö, M. et al. 2021a. Indigenous Futures Thinking: Changing the narrative and re-building based on re-rooting. Workshop report. SwedBio at Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm, Sweden.
Tengö, M. et al. 2021b. Creating Synergies between Citizen Science and Indigenous and Local Knowledge. Bioscience. [Online] 71 (5), 503–518.
Universidad Nacional de Colombia, et al. 2021. Technical Report for the first year of the Agreement. Project Econavipesca Del Pacifico: Ecosistema Para la Navigacion Pesquera Sustentable en el Municipio de Guapi, Cauca.
Sida 2021. Strategiplan för Sveriges regionala utvecklingssamarbete med Latinamerika 2022-2024, Datum: 21-12-13, Environment, climate and sustainable use of natural resources (Stödområde 2: Miljö, klimat och hållbart utnyttjande av naturresurser, page 9) ”Hållbar produktion och konsumtion (SDG12), men även SDG 3,5, 8 och 16, är viktiga för omställningen till grön/cirkulär ekonomi, som också måste ge fattiga och utsatta människor bättre möjligheter att förbättra sin livssituation och en ökad delaktighet i den ekonomiska utvecklingen.”
Within one week we have two exciting seminars to invite you to! First out is Eglė Rindzevičiūtė who will give a talk on Scientific Prediction in the 20th Century on Friday March 13. On Monday March 20, Eglė will visit us in the role as discussion leader and opponent, when Achim Klüppelberg has his final seminar in doctoral training.
Scientific Prediction in the 20th Century: Mapping Ideas, Institutions and Practices Across the Cold War Divide
Eglė Rindzevičiūtė is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Sociology, Kingston University London, with an interest in governance, knowledge production and culture. Her Friday talk with us is based on the forthcoming book, The Will to Predict: Orchestrating the Future through Science (Cornell 2023).
The book questions the established view that in the Cold War era scientific prediction was an expression of a positivist mindset and that scientific predictions were mainly used to enhance top-down control by collecting data, monitoring and influencing people’s behaviour. In contrast, this book shows that the role of scientific prediction is far more diverse than that of a mechanistic, top-down control. The book argues that scientific predictions are human attempts to find an adaptive way to cope with uncertainty, to address the limitation of knowledge and to act collectively through the continuous orchestration of human and non-human actors.
Welcome to join:
Friday March 17 @ 14.15 to 16.00
in the Big Seminar Room at the Division, Teknikringen 74D level 5, Stockholm.
From Water to Nuclear to Catastrophe: How Soviet Hydro-nuclear Entanglements Shaped Dangerous Technocratci Safety Culture.
Achim Klüppelberg started as a doctoral student at the Division in the fall of 2018. He is active in theNuclearwaters-Project (ERC Consolidator Grant, PI Per Högselius) where he focus on the nuclear history of Eastern Europe, especially on the territory of the former Soviet Union and its successor states. Achim investigates expert cultures in nuclear discourses, with a special interest in water-related issues in nuclear power plant decision-making.
Other than focusing on his doctoral studies, Achim has been active in several of the courses at the Division – as assistant and teacher. He also contributes to educate us in metal (music, that is) and has been one of the editors of the Division blog the past years.
Main supervisor: Per Högselius
Supervisors: Kati Lindström, KTH and Anna Storm, Linköping University
Welcome to join:
Monday March 20 @ 13.15 to 15.00 CET
in the Big Seminar Room at the Division, Teknikringen 74D level 5, Stockholm.
I am a PhD Student at the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment since December 2018. I hold a M.A in the History of Ideas and Sciences from Lund University and I was a visiting student at the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society at UC Berkeley 2016-2017.
As a part of the research project SPHERE, my current work concerns the scientific construction of a global environment and, particularly, how planetary timescales were increasingly incorporated into human history and global environmental governance between 1950-1980. As human impact on the environment began to be understood in planetary terms, practices aimed at tracking environmental changes over vast periods of time, such as ice core drilling and pollen analysis, were drawn into the political spotlight. They spoke to more than just the deep past, as they gradually became immersed in the work to predict, visualize and alter the trajectories of the living conditions on the planet. Over the course of a few decades, long planetary timescales had moved into the realm of the governable. I am interested in this process and the way environmental and societal temporalities have been synchronized, mediated and negotiated as a part of a larger shift in the human-earth relationship. More broadly, my research interests concern the history of science and technology, environmental humanities and historiography.
Building on insights from ecological economics and philosophy of technology, this book offers a novel, interdisciplinary approach to understand the contradictory nature of Solar photovoltaic (PV) technology.
Solar photovoltaic (PV) technology is rapidly emerging as a cost-effective option in the world economy. However, reports about miserable working conditions, environmentally deleterious mineral extraction and toxic waste dumps corrode the image of a problem-free future based on solar power. Against this backdrop, Andreas Roos explores whether ‘ecologically unequal exchange’ – an asymmetric transfer of labour time and natural resources – is a necessary condition for solar PV development. He demonstrates how the massive increase in solar PV installation over recent years would not have been possible without significant wage/price differences in the world economy – notably between Europe/North America and Asia- and concludes that solar PV development is currently contingent on environmental injustices in the world economy. As a solution, Roos argues that solar technology is best coupled with strategies for degrowth, which allow for a transition away from fossil fuels and towards a socially just and ecologically sustainable future.
This book will be of great interest to students and scholars of solar power, philosophy of technology, and environmental justice.
About the Author
Andreas Roos is an interdisciplinary scholar with a doctoral degree in the field of human ecology. His work draws from ecological economics, environmental history and philosophy of technology to understand the contentious relation between technology and ecology. Roos’s most recent work focuses on assessing the potential of renewable energy technologies to transform modern human-environmental relations. Publishing in top ranking journals, Roos’s other contributions include ecological perspectives on the digital economy and the possibilities for commons-based energy technology.
A misconception continues throughout the history of online doctors
Technology has utopian potential, but why is it so difficult to realise it? Erik Isberg is looking for an answer in the history of technological remote care.
One afternoon in Boston in 1876, physician Clarence John Blake saw a telephone for the first time. I imagine him gently picking up the phone and holding it to his heart, whereupon his friend Alexander Graham Bell, who had been showing his new invention, looked at him questioningly. Why didn’t he hold the phone to his ear, as was intended? They began to discuss what kind of device they had in front of them. Their notions of the phone differed. Where Graham Bell saw a means of communication, Blake saw a kind of electronic distance stethoscope. The possibilities, Blake said, were enormous. Around Boston, people would hold the phone to their chests and let their heartbeats travel through the newly drawn-out telephone lines, finally landing in a liaison center where Blake and his colleagues sat ready to listen and diagnose.
A couple of years later, Blake was forced to state that despite diligent attempts, he was “nowhere near” to get a good enough sound quality. There would never be a liaison centre. The patients pressed their phones to their chests, but Blake only heard noise.
The dreams of practicing care remotely, despite Blake’s failure, have hardly disappeared. Today, the collection of health data constitutes a billion-dollar industry, app companies offer doctor’s visits via video calls, where crackly telephone lines have been replaced with high-resolution front cameras. In 2016, the then government and Sweden’s municipalities and regions decided that Sweden will be the world’s best country when it comes to digital care. Communication technology has never, the agreement wrote, offered such great opportunities.
On TikTok, a large amount of followers can take part in KaisTheSurgeon’s attempts to perform surgeries remotely. With the expansion of the 5G network, the idea is that remotely controlled scalpels will be able to carry out operations with the patient in one country, and the surgeon in another. While waiting for human patients, KaisTheSurgeon is allowed to hold on to fruit. In his almost hypnotic clips, he elegantly dissects grapes, bananas and oranges without being in the room himself.
When KaisTheSurgeon fillets an orange that is in the room next door, the future seems for a while both bright and high-tech. But while utopian promises of technological revolutions are succeeding each other, many of healthcare’s central problems don’t seem to be going away at all; It concerns accessibility, equality, staff density. Why is it so difficult to realize the utopian potential of technology?
The physician and medical historian Jeremy A. Greene argues in his book The Doctor Who Wasn’t There. History, Technology and the Limits of Telehealth that one reason why those who have made grand promises of technological innovations often found it difficult to realize them is a one-eyed focus on technology itself. Just because a technology exists and works, it is not obvious that you know how it will be used, or who will benefit from it.
In the late 1800’s, it wasn’t just Blake who experimented with the telephone. Exactly what one would use it for was unclear. It was used for live broadcasts of concerts as well as for private conversations. Gradually, it became clear that the phone had created a new kind of room: where you could be physically apart but still close. The voice could be disconnected from the body. But the telephone also became a symbol of modernity’s anonymous and lonely existence, where thin telephone lines were the only thing that bound the isolated individuals together. In Franz Kafka’s The Castle, the telephone is the tool of faceless bureaucracy. Protagonist K watches in despair as the bureaucrats make their calls, but what is actually being said and who it is that says it, remains unclear.
In healthcare, during the first decades of the 1900s, the telephone came to have an opposite symbolism. Rather than marking distance, it became an expression of a modern and alert medical profession that was constantly present. A doctor who didn’t answer the phone was not only archaic, but also bad at his job. In the United States, the new doctor role was summed up with a slogan: The doctor is on call.
Over time, other communication technologies came into the picture. But while they often worked excellently, Greene shows how this still wasn’t enough for them to be long-term successful. He finds one such example in a pilot project in Harlem, New York, in the early 1970s. In poor areas of America’s major cities, it was not uncommon at this time for an area to share a television antenna, which was then connected by telephone cables to the households around it. A group of doctors in Harlem realized that these local cable networks could be used to organize video meetings, thus reaching a group of patients who were used to a racist care system and were reluctant to seek care.
A local telemedicine system began to take shape: film cameras were rigged up in assembly halls around Harlem and nurses who themselves lived in the area were on hand to assist. The cable network was owned by the residents themselves. Although the project was not perfect, it showed a way forward for a democratically anchored remote care, which put the needs of the most vulnerable at the center. But this was not enough. In 1977, the project was discontinued. State money was running out and local cable networks had begun to be bought up by major telecom companies, with the aim of creating a national television market. Economics, not technology, decided the outcome.
If everything had instead been just about the performance of the technology, the story would have been different. Then all it took was for Blake’s liaison center to work is a good enough sound quality and the video calls in Harlem had continued as long as there were patients. Our delight in spectacular technical solutions obscures the view, all that other stuff – money, people, knowledge – crowds into the background.
The path from Clarence John Blake’s heartbeat liaison center to KaisTheSurgeon’s viral fruit surgeries may not be as long as it might seem. They both represent a utopian view of technology, which captures the potential of new technology but at the same time misses everything that is around and that is necessary for the technology to work. After all, it doesn’t really matter if the phone can perceive one’s heartbeat if there is no doctor to call. The opposite of presence, recalls technology historian Hannah Zeavin, is not distance, but absence. In KaisTheSurgeon’s comments section, one of his followers writes laconically: “That orange probably gets better health care than me”.
John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air. A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001).
Jeremy A. Greene, The Doctor Who Wasn’t There. History, Technology and the Limits of Telehealth (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2022).
Hannah Zeavin, The Distance Cure. A History of Teletherapy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2021).
Historically, cities have built their drinking water service provision based on the principle of universal coverage that relies heavily on formal piped water supply offered by a few municipal actors. However, in cities of the Global South these formal service provision systems are often very fragmented and can face shortcomings in meeting the water demands of all urban water users. Importantly, the urban poor that live in informal settlements are often disconnected from these services and therefore complement their drinking water needs with a plethora of informal water services.