Turning Things into Assets
Location 212
Date and Start Time 01 September, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 5


  • Kean Birch (York University) email
  • Fabian Muniesa (Mines ParisTech) email

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Short Abstract

An increasing number of STS scholars are engaging with assets as objects of inquiry. An asset is a thing that can be owned, traded and capitalized as a revenue stream, often involving the valuing of discounted future earnings in the present. One key question emerges: how do things become assets?

Long Abstract

An increasing number of STS scholars are engaging with assets as objects of inquiry. Some scholars seek to differentiate asset from commodity markets in the bio-economy, while others seek to understand how assets are constituted by and come to constitute, in a performative fashion, valuation processes. By asset, we mean a thing - e.g. patent, business model, technology, infrastructure, molecule, etc. - that can be owned, traded and capitalized as a revenue stream, often involving the valuing of discounted future earnings in the present. One key question emerges: how do things become assets? What this question requires us to do is tease apart the (techno-economic) configuration of assets and capitalization; that is, the tangible materiality and intangible knowledge that enable things to be turned into assets (or not). It leaves us with many questions about where to take forward any critique of capitalism and technoscience more generally. For example, it might be the threat of assetization stifling innovation, promoting the pursuit of rentiership (i.e. extraction of value through property ownership) over entrepreneurship (i.e. creation of value through development of new products and services). Furthermore, it might be the implications of capitalization in reshaping how we think about things (including ourselves), turning them into a purely financial calculation of costs and benefits over other concerns. There are, no doubt, other issues to consider and we invite contributors to do just that. More details:

SESSIONS: 5/5/5/5/5

This track is closed to new paper proposals.


Turning uncertain disasters into risks and assets : the case of catastrophe-bonds.

Author: Sara Angeli Aguiton (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales)  email

Short Abstract

Working at the intersection of sociology of risk and social studies of finance, this communication propose to investigate catastrophe-bonds and to document the process by which uncertain disasters are turned into both calculable risks and profitable assets.

Long Abstract

Since the mid 1990's, a specific variety of assets called "Insurance-Linked Securities" (ILS) has been developed on the financial markets. ILS are the vehicles by which insurance companies transfer their risks to investors. Today, approximately half of the ILS market is composed of catastrophe-bonds (cat-bonds), which are securities attached to natural disasters. The specificity of cat-bonds is that their construction do not only rely on financial knowledge or accounting technologies, but also on meteorology, geosciences, building engineering, etc. Turning natural disasters into assets indeed requires actors to be involved in two lines of entangled operations : the shaping of the risk (framing, definition, measurement, establishment of thresholds...) is inseparable from its financial valuation.

Working at the intersection of sociology of risk and social studies of finance, in an empirical fashion, this communication propose to investigate the process by which uncertain disasters are turned into both calculable risks and profitable assets. To do so, I will reflect on the part played by the disaster modeling industry who offers expertise to insurers and investors alike. Disaster models are crucial for cat-bonds construction : they state expected loss, they establish the borders of what is an acceptable risk for investors, they enable the calculation of yields and are even used by investors to rate cat-bonds. Consequently, I will argue that the financialisation of environmental problems both relies on and legitimates new style of financial expertise, which are used to transform disastrous uncertainties into tools of financial security for insurers and of profits for investors.

Recidivists, Rough Sleepers, and the Unemployed as Financial Assets: Social Impact Bonds and the Creation of New Markets in Social Services

Author: James Williams (York University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the emergence of social impact bonds (SIBs) as a unique market in social services and a new way to create value from human assets. The forms of evaluation and monetization that underlie this market are explored and SIBs are conceived in terms of a different kind of ‘bio-economy.’

Long Abstract

In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, many Western governments have moved to cut public expenditures for social services while pursuing alternative sources of funding. One such alternative is social impact bonds (SIBs). Pioneered in the UK in 2010, SIBs are investment contracts in which private investors provide funding for social programs offered by nonprofit agencies. If programs meet performance targets, the government will repay the capital and provide a return based on the long-term cost savings realized from reduced demands on related public services. If programs fall short of their targets, investors lose their capital. While an emerging policy and academic literature has identified several potential strengths and limitations of the SIB model, a key aspect of SIBs that has been overlooked thus far is the work required to build a viable SIB market infrastructure. This includes the development of evaluation metrics and techniques that allow for the quantification of program impact and thus the monetization of outcomes as identifiable cost savings and investor returns. Drawing from a larger study of SIBs in Canada, the U.S., and UK, and informed by work in the social studies of finance (SSF), this paper explores the technologies and practices of (e)valuation that underlie these nascent markets in social services and their attempt to translate pressing social issues into marketable investments. The fact that these investments hinge on the creation of a new type of human asset (e.g. the non-recidivist) points to the emergence of a different kind of 'bio-economy.'

Strata of ignorance in the securitization of natural catastrophes

Authors: Emmanuel Kypraios (University of Lugano )  email
Dror Etzion (McGill University)  email
Bernard Forgues (Emlyon Business School)  email

Short Abstract

Securitization of natural catastrophes into catastrophe bonds makes risk explicit but ends up increasing opacity as strata of ignorance are sedimented when deals move from one realm of expertise to another, from geology to engineering to insurance to finance.

Long Abstract

Research on the 2008 financial crisis highlighted the role of concealed risks in financial securities. The prescription is to make risks explicit and clear, moving them from the shadows into the spotlight. Catastrophe bonds, a financial tool through which insurers transfer the risk of extreme natural events such as hurricanes and earthquakes to institutional investors, are paragons of financial instruments in which risk is front and center. We contend, however, that risks of securitization cannot be made fully transparent, even in these types of instruments. We tease out the tangible materiality of natural catastrophes and intangible knowledge (or lack thereof) embedded in catastrophe bond deals, and reveal that risks incorporated within these securities are sedimented one on top of the other (geological and climatological risk, engineering risk of property damages from catastrophic events, the insurability risk of these properties, and finally the financial risk of these insurance portfolios). Put differently, we hypothesize that because deals tap into different realms of expertise, they produce strata of ignorance wherein each stratum takes as a fact what the previous stratum considers uncertain. We test our hypotheses using a dataset of all 627 catastrophe bond deals issued between December 1996 and November 2015, with information about the sponsor, date of issue, size, coupons, expected loss, etc. Our results show that investors seeking to diversify portfolio risk essentially push the boundaries of certainty farther into oblivion rather than accurately quantify them.

Making Violence and Sex Consumable: Industry Microcosms, Corporate Flaneurs and Invisible Bodies at the Modern Expo

Authors: Shimrit Lee (New York University)  email
Shelly Ronen (New York University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the exposition as a capitalization device through which industries can transform unseemly products into assets. We investigate the Israel Defense Exhibition (ISDEF) and the Adult Novelty Manufacturers Expo (ANME) as sites in which technologies of death and pleasure are made consumable.

Long Abstract

This paper examines the exposition as a type of capitalization device (Doganova and Muniesa 2015) through which industries can transform unseemly products into valuable objects. We investigate two modern expositions as cases of unusual trade shows in which technologies of death and pleasure are made consumable. The biennial Israel Defense Exhibition (ISDEF) held in Tel Aviv showcases the latest technologies of warfare, and the biannual Adult Novelty Manufacturers Expo (ANME) is a trade show for sex toy companies held in Burbank, California. Drawing on participant observation from these two cases, we explore how exhibitors remake violence and sex into acceptable goods, what Doganova and Muniesa call "asset-becoming processes". We identify two techniques that mitigate the unseemly and the unsightly: professionalism and techno-fetishism.

The expo plays a performative role as a business scale model that orchestrates professional alliances within enterprises. The spatial instantiation of hierarchies and implicit rules of inclusion and exclusion choreograph a particular visitor experience that detaches meaning from war/sex objects and instead attaches value to future professional relationships. In the technique of techno-fetishism, a notion of the profitable future is conveyed through an investment in technology. Ideas of progress are instantiated by inviting visitors to engage in an anticipatory futuring of the self. Both ISDEF and ANME exemplify larger trends in which consumptive power works less by means of coercive state apparatuses and more by seduction that is promoted by corporations, branded through professionalism and techno-fetishism, and folded into everyday life.

Through competition to assetization: The entrepreneurial alignment of machines, samples, papers and researchers

Author: Marcela Linkova (Czech Academy of Sciences)  email

Short Abstract

This paper builds on an ethnographic study at a bioscience research institute in the Czech Republic during which time the institute underwent what I term ‘entrepreneurial alignment’. I will explore how machines, samples, clusters, papers, students and postdocs turned into assets in the process.

Long Abstract

The paper contributes to scholarship on the institutional change of academia and specifically of the academic biosciences (cf Vallas and Kleinman 2008). Drawing upon ethnographic research at a Czech bioscience research institute I explore changes that have emerged in the realm of academic knowledge making in the natural sciences over the past twenty years. To analytically conceptualize these ongoing changes I have developed the notion of the dynamic triangle to capture the triangular relationship between dynamic research organization, dynamic researcher subjectivities and dynamic research funding. These three dynamisms are inter-related and co-enact an increasingly entrepreneurial, self-sustaining governmentality regime, one revolving around competition through metrics-based research assessment.

Here I will focus specifically on the processes through which various actors—machines, clusters, samples, lab space, students and postdocs—turn into assets, assets that must be managed, that require schedules and maintenance rules, the monetary value of which must be established, and the use of which must be protected and guarded. With the sedimentation of metrics-based performance ranking at the institute, I will examine the ways in which the ensuing competition has gradually made claims in the entire institutional landscape and in the process turned the various human and non-human actors into human and non-human assets. In conclusion I will trace the epistemic effects of the entrepreneurial alignment.

A theory of rentiership and rent-seeking for science and technology studies

Author: Kean Birch (York University)  email

Short Abstract

I develop the beginnings of a theory of "rentiership" as it relates to (technoscientific) knowledge. Drawing on the intellectual history of ‘economic rent’, I conceptualize how knowledge (considered as a social process) is (1) turned into an asset, and (2) understood as capitalized property.

Long Abstract

As the recent furore around Martin Shkreli and Turing Pharmaceuticals in the USA illustrates, economic rent-seeking is emerging as an important phenomenon in contemporary capitalism. As the economy increasingly revolves around the value of intangible assets (e.g. knowledge, experience, goodwill, branding, etc.), it highlights the importance of understanding how (technoscientific) knowledge is turned into an asset, how it is monetized, and how it is capitalized. I define this process as "rentiership" - or the dark side of entrepreneurship - in which value is mined and extracted from knowledge as well as social relations, personal desires, environment, etc., rather than created as the result of productive and risky investment (e.g. development of new product). Considering the diversity of knowledge, however, it is important to engage theoretically with the intellectual lineage of economic rent as a concept. In this paper, I draw on theories of economic rent from classical political economy (e.g. Smith, Ricardo, Marx), neoclassical and old institutionalist economics (e.g. Marshall, Veblen), Marxism (e.g. Harvey, Smith), and others to theorize the conversion of knowledge - conceived as a social process - into capitalized property (i.e. asset). I then unpack the techno-economic configurations that are involved in this conversion and consider the implications of rentiership to research and innovation.

From commodity to asset and back again. Property in the capitalism of varieties.

Author: Veit Braun (LMU Munich)  email

Short Abstract

Products are never fully commodified and never fully assetisized. As the example of wheat varieties shows, a product is composed through a specific arrangement of commodity-shaped and asset-like valuation processes.

Long Abstract

The line between commodities and assets is a thin one. If we conceptualize commodities as those goods that do not require long-term social obligations for their acquisition because they are exhausted in the transaction and assets as those who involve continuing relationships because they cannot be exhausted, then when does a product cease to be one or the other? Taking the marketing process of wheat varieties as an example, I will discuss the multiple nature of products that are never fully commodified and never fully assetisized. Rather, as the practice of wheat breeding shows, a product is composed through a specific arrangement of commodity-shaped and asset-like exchange processes. To a considerable part, wheat varieties depend on breeding work done outside the breeding companies that produce them, are sold like a traditional mass-produced commodity by private enterprises, but form the basis for novel variety development by third parties. The European intellectual property regime for varieties accounts for the multiple nature of plant varieties by granting peculiar property titles that allow for forms of both commodified and assetisized marketing. Recent attempts to turn varieties into a more asset-like good by redrawing their legal and material boundaries might however have far-ranging implications for this framework.

Turning Inventions into Assets: Double Immateriality and Speculation in Patents as Securities

Author: Hyo Yoon Kang (University of Kent)  email

Short Abstract

This paper identifies and problematises the increasing financialisation of patents from legal conceptual and STS perspectives. It argues that patents as securities effect a doubling of immateriality and speculation: namely that of an invention’s potential and the patent’s financial value.

Long Abstract

This paper identifies and problematises the increasing financialisation of patents from legal conceptual and STS perspectives. A patent, as a legal intellectual property right, enables and configures different modes by which the potential of a patented invention is weaved into social relations: via appropriation, possession, commodification, and financialisation or securitisation. Differently from the critiques of patents that have examined the ways in which scientific knowledge have become proprietary, or that have analysed the effects of monopoly rights on innovation and pointed to the ethical issues of access to knowledge, I suggest that the financialisation of patents is driven by different modes of rationality and temporality than those of commodification. The rationality that drives financialisation is probability (as opposed to monopoly), and its temporal mode is one of speculation (rather than of a reward or promise). These modes reconstitute patents' values as interests, securities and assets: for example as collaterals for capitalization, assets in balance sheet and as investment vehicles. I propose that the value of the patents as financial assets is neither measured by primary reference to the inventive thing itself nor by its surplus value as a commodity. I show how the value of patents as assets arises by the very valuation practices themselves, which vary in their techniques and settings, for example, in patent funds and court litigations.

The paper raises further questions about this intricate entanglement and doubling of inventive and financial futures in patent law, both of which share the characteristics of immateriality and speculation.

Testing Asset Values: Financialization, Organization and the Emergence of Asset Impairment Rules

Authors: Andrea Mennicken (London School of Economics and Political Science)  email
Yuval Millo (University of Leicester)  email

Short Abstract

Inherent to assets being realized is the issue of their valuation. The ability to generate a legitimate knowledge claim about asset valuation depends on successfully relating a body of knowledge to a would-be asset. How do organizations develop and justify calculations through which assets are valued?

Long Abstract

This paper uses the case of asset impairment testing to draw out a specific historical episode of the ways in which the boundaries between markets and organizations, and between external and internal reporting, are being blurred and new categories for asset valuation are being established. Tracing the history of impairment testing rules in the UK, based on archival research and interviews, we argue that standardized impairment tests are an important vehicle in the financialization of asset valuation, and organizations respectively. Combining managerial and market-based valuation approaches, impairment tests put the accounting for asset value at the interface between markets and organizations. Managers are being made aware of the importance of markets through the implication of market-based information in organizational impairment valuations. At the same time, market-based information becomes more managerialized. In tracing the intertwinement of managerial knowledge and market-based information in asset impairment tests, we highlight that financialization is not a one-way process, where finance and financial markets capture and colonize organizations. In impairment tests, market-generated numbers are combined and hybridized with organizationally generated managerial estimates. We highlight the eclectic nature of impairment valuations and the relevance of accounting technologies for bringing market-oriented asset valuation about. In so doing, the paper adds not only to our understanding of the dynamics underlying the emergence and change of asset conceptualizations. It also contributes more broadly to the sociology of economic valuation, by shedding light on the different forms of calculability engrained in the establishment of asset value.

Is capital some sort of a semiotic syndrome and if so how and how come?

Author: Fabian Muniesa (Mines ParisTech)  email

Short Abstract

The paper speculates on the potentials of considering capital as a "semiotic syndrome" (i.e. a regime of signification that propels a particular state of reality), with specific attention to science-related "value creation".

Long Abstract

Drawing, on the one hand, on a discussion of the intellectual contributions of Michel Foucault ("veridiction", "gonvernmentality") and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari ("collective assemblage of enunciation", "semiotics of capitalistic valuation"), and, on the other, on a reflection on a number of case studies in the field of science-related "value creation", the paper speculates on the potentials of considering capital as a "semiotic syndrome", i.e. a regime of signification controlled by an investment scenario in which becoming valuable means become asset.

English Higher Education: From a Public Good to an Impaired Asset

Author: Sveta Milyaeva (Goldsmiths, University of London)  email

Short Abstract

The paper focuses on accounting techniques for UK student loans to analyse how their monetary value is constructed based on them viewed as a measure of a public good or financial assets, thus addresses questions of the conceptualisation of difference between goods and assets.

Long Abstract

This paper analyses the current transformation of higher education in England from being regarded as a 'public good' to being accounted for as an 'impaired asset'. The focus of the analysis is student loans and the construction of their monetary value through accounting techniques. Science and higher education was once seen by economists as a good characterised by non-rivalrous consumption and non-excludability (Stiglitz 1999) and was heavily financed by public money in the UK. With the introduction of full tuition fees in 2012, substantial and income-contingent loans for home and EU undergraduates in England resulted in a surge in national public debt. However, student loans have also become assets in government department accounts, albeit of a peculiar nature - their value is impaired as their worth is less than their cost.

Drawing on the recent engagement of the STS community with assets in all types and forms (Birch and Tyfield 2013, Martin 2015), and their formation through attribution of value (Muniesa 2012, 2014), we look into the construction of the monetary value of a good (measured by national debt) and an asset (undervalued on department books). In so doing the paper argues that the budgeting and accounting of student loans is crucial in understanding how the monetary value of a good and an asset is constructed. Higher education thus provides a site to address questions of the conceptualisation of difference between goods and assets.

Assets by Legislation: Stranded Cost Securitization as a Politico-financial Technique

Author: Daniel Breslau (Virginia Tech)  email

Short Abstract

Stranded-Cost Securitization was developed as a way of compensating electric utilities whose assets were rendered worthless by the introduction of markets. An examination of this financial innovation shows how the requirements of assetization impose a limit on governmental authority.

Long Abstract

When electricity markets are deregulated, some power plants that were guaranteed recovery of costs under regulation are no longer economically viable. They are designated by the evocative term "stranded costs." This paper traces the struggle to assign responsibility for stranded costs in the US during the massive introduction of electricity markets in the late 1990s.

The dominant technique for constructing a working resolution among these conflicting interests is through the securitization of stranded cost obligations. As an outcome of a bargaining process among a range of actors, governments legislate a transition charge, to be paid by all electricity customers, which will cover the estimated stranded costs amortized over a period of several years. The utility originates an asset, a property right to the stream of future transition charge revenues, which is then sold on the Asset-Backed Securities market.

In other cases of securitization, such as mortgages, debtors receive something of value in return for their payments, such as home equity. But in the case of stranded assets, the electricity customer is compensating the utility for a worthless asset. There is nothing but the legislated obligation to induce them to pay the transition charge. Therefore, for the newly defined assets to retain their value, government must legislate an irrevocable obligation from customers. This creates an anomaly for democratic governance, in which future legislators, and their constituents, are prevented from modifying the policies of their predecessors. In effect, the value of an asset is assured by enacting a limit on governmental authority.

Spanish High-Speed Rail: from infrastructure to markets and the contradictions of liberalization

Author: Natalia Buier (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology)  email

Short Abstract

This paper analyzes the historical evolution of the Spanish high-speed rail project, also known as AVE. Converting rail transportation into an asset presents a specific set of contradictions the response to which can only be understood by analyzing competing claims of economic expertise.

Long Abstract

Spain is currently the country with the largest HSR network in Europe and the second longest globally, surpassed only by China. With origins in the 1980s, the AVE project has been converted into a symbol of modernity and the solution to the crisis of conventional rail. While the last years have seen criticism of the AVE intensify, the project has so far survived the financial crisis relatively unscathed. Born as the star instrument of the commercial railway programme set in motion in the 1980s, its defense today requires recourse to a different set of legitimation principles that construct it as a political project that justifies non-market behaviors. In this paper I analyze the various forms in which a specific technology, HSR, has been reconstructed as an asset. I discuss the conflict between different modalities of converting this specific infrastructure into an asset and open a discussion about the analytic importance of the histories of failing to build a market in HSR transportation.

Cost benefit analysis - turning (hypothetical) assets into (material) things?

Authors: David Hawkey (University of Edinburgh)  email
Janette Webb (University of Edinburgh)  email

Short Abstract

EU directives require cost-benefit analysis of energy efficiency as a means to create material ‘things’ on the basis of their potential status as ‘assets’. Indeterminacy in the way such assets are valued lead to significant differences in what things states identify as worth trying to create.

Long Abstract

The European Commission has championed the financialisation of governance processes across Member States (MSs), including through the use of Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA). In this paper I examine two EU directives both of which stipulate the use of CBA to identify optimal levels of energy efficiency technology deployment. MSs are required to analyse these technologies as hypothetical assets: they are to be evaluated on the basis of time-discounted flows of net benefit (principally energy saving) they would create if they existed. Where this 'socioeconomic' value is found to exceed that of the 'business-as-usual' counterfactual, MSs are required to take action to close this gap (by adopting policies to increase deployment of the relevant technologies). The directives thus seek to achieve the creation of material things out of their hypothetical status as assets. I examine how three states (UK, Denmark and Germany) have responded to these directives, highlighting significant differences in how the instruction to use CBA was interpreted. Drawing on the 'finitist' sociology of knowledge, I argue these differences illustrate the tenuous institutionalisation of relevant concepts such as 'cost to society' or 'cost-optimal'. Whereas the intention of the directives is to transcend MSs hitherto variable approaches to energy efficiency by imposing universal cost/benefit principles, in practice the indeterminacy of the required processes of valuation means the space for variation is still held open. I discuss the scope for different interests to rationalise their preferred policy outcomes by selecting different ways of construing things as assets.

Performance indicators to unfold the assetization of drinking water

Author: Laurent Beduneau-Wang (Ecole Polytechnique - Université Paris-Saclay)  email

Short Abstract

Our paper deals with the process of assetization of water. Based on empirical case study, it aims at defining and categorizing which kind of value(s) and assets are brought through water service delivery and its set of performance indicators.

Long Abstract

Our paper deals with the value of water, more precisely, with the process of assetization of municipal water management services. Based on empirical case study with a constructivist "framework", inspired from grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss), it aims at defining and categorizing which kind of value(s) and assets are brought through water service delivery and its set of performance indicators. It is a "thick description" (Geertz) in a long-term perspective, based on historical archives from mid-19th century and ethnographic observation. To what extent, does water management service create value(s) and adaptive assets ?

In the early 2000's, public-private model in water management in France is questioned, reevaluated by local voluteers' organizations, the medias and some politicians. Performance indicators began to multiply strongly. Which kind of value(s) and assets creation lie in that set of performance indicators?

As a management tool negociated between a private company and municipalities, it reflects their respective vision and concerns about what should be or should not be, through related financial penalties, called value.

Indicators create knowledge, cognitive assets, about operational activities. Indicators don't only create knowledge, they also create new social links, organizational assets. They generate new relationships between entities and people which have to collaborate in order to produce, validate, control and adapt indicators. Not only should performance indicators be considered a way of controlling operational activities, but also a process to generate relations, to learn, to innovate and, implicitely, to make new professionals, new values, new assets and new capital to emerge.

Investing in energy system flexibility - A risk or uncertainty?

Author: Ronan Bolton (University of Edinbrugh)  email

Short Abstract

The energy transition is creating demand for new sources of energy system flexibility. The paper analyses how flexibility is being constituted as an asset suitable for investment. The redesign of markets for flexibility in Europe is a political negotiation largely conducted in national contexts

Long Abstract

Stored fossil energy has been as the main source of energy system flexibility but its use needs to be curtailed to reduce carbon emissions. In Europe policy makers are seeking to construct markets which enable investment in new sources of flexibility, including electricity and thermal storage, market interconnection, peaking plant and demand side management.

The paper analyses a debate about how best to design such markets and to constitute flexibility as an asset suitable for long-term investment. Some argue that price spikes experienced during periods when renewables output is curtailed will be adequate to remunerate investors in the capital intensive technologies required to deliver flexibility. The alternative argument is that relying on 'scarcity pricing' will be inadequate to reassure investors and that government-backed capacity contracts are needed to create certainty in the market.

Knight's (1921) distinction between 'risk' and 'uncertainty' is proposed as a useful lens through which to view the debate: A risk lens implies that the electricity market should function as normal and market participants bear responsibility for calculating the extent and reliability of future returns. Investment in flexibility as an uncertainty implies that risks cannot be revealed through the operation of the market, rather government intervention is required to create the conditions for investment.

Through a comparison of the UK and Germany, the paper outlines how processes of redesigning electricity markets are embedded in the politics of energy in nation-states and as a consequence the European Union's ambition of a harmonized electricity market is seen as problematic.

Mineral deposits to money mines: capitalization and investment climate rankings

Author: Paul Gilbert (University of Brighton)  email

Short Abstract

This paper traces the imaginative, calculative and legal work undertaken to transform a mineral deposit into a profitable ‘money mine’, following the processes by which investment climate rankings and political risk imaginaries are folded into the ritual of capitalization, via the discount rate.

Long Abstract

This paper traces the imaginative, calculative and legal work that must be undertaken in order to transform a mineral deposit into a profitable 'money mine'. It follows a group of extractive industry investors intent on opening up new resource frontiers during a period of heightened 'resource nationalism' (2012-14), when the appeal of further investment in established mining territories was diminishing. The paper begins with an ethnographic account of the spatio-temporal imaginary according to which 'investment climates' in frontier territories are mapped onto racialized hierarchies of difference (from 'backwardness' to 'Europeanization'), by mineral exploration firms and industry analysts. It goes on to describe how these racialized hierarchies are folded, through the discount rate, into the ostensibly calculative 'ritual of capitalization' (Nitzan & Bichler 2009), which allows the net present value of specific mines to be determined. The paper argues that the capitalization of extractive industry firms reflects a confidence in future revenue streams, based not only on analyses of a given geological deposit, or the perceived capabilities of a management team, but on the level of 'political risk' that is imagined and quantified for a specific jurisdiction. Attending to the ritual of capitalization allows STS scholars to bring ethnographic studies of the techno-imaginative configuration of particular assets (in this case, prospective mines) to bear on recent debates in political economy which place futurity - or legal claims on future income streams - at the heart of analyses of financialized capitalism (e.g. Atkinson & Whalen, 2011; Nesvetailova, 2014).

Turning sunlit rooftops and windy sites into energy assets

Authors: Alain Nadai (CNRS - Centre national de la recherche scientifique)  email
Béatrice Cointe (Aix-Marseille University)  email

Short Abstract

Our contribution analyses the work of turning things (sunlit rooftops, windy sites) into productive assets (solar roof, wind power site) which is at the core of renewable energy development. It discusses on this basis notions used in the critics of capitalism (asset, rentierhsip).

Long Abstract

At the core of renewable energy project development is the work of turning things (roof, site) into productive assets (solar roof, wind power site) through the siting of material devices (turbines, PV panels). The resulting assets convert an untamed flow (sun, wind) into electricity dubbed 'renewable' and eligible to stable remuneration ('feed-in' tariff). They are valued (tradable projects/portfolios) and they produce value (marketable electricity). Assembling productive-enough assets implies engaging things in hybrid agencements by requalifying their pre-existing usages and/or users.

Our contribution starts from two case studies of politically engaged project developments: a mutualised PV project carried out by farmers (Fermes de Figeac, Lot, France), and a wind farm repowering in a European migratory corridor involving bird watchers and a wind power developers (Narbonnaise, Languedoc-Roussillon, France). These cases allow us to describe the socio-technical and economic reconfigurations through which sunlit rooftops and a windy site are turned into assets, and made to generate revenue streams. We further look at what these reconfigurations produce, which allows us to discuss the forms of rentierships entailed and the way in which we define assets.

As these processes take place at the junction with financial valuation, conveyed by developers business models (project/portfolio TRIs, relation with banks), they additionally make the case for discussing the relation between capitalisation (TRI requirements) and asset making.

Making New Assets from Old: Future Cities

Authors: Janette Webb (University of Edinburgh)  email
David Hawkey (University of Edinburgh)  email

Short Abstract

Concepts from sociology of technology are used to examine contemporary struggles between Glasgow city council and energy utilities to transform old things, constituted under public ownership, into new "future city" energy and carbon assets with currency in a neo-liberal political economy and society.

Long Abstract

The City of Glasgow, known historically as ˜Second City of British Empire", contributed to the industrial revolution and formation of a modern economics for making assets out of things. By 1945 the Glasgow Corporation owned considerable assets, including extensive energy networks. In 2016, Glasgow city council is a microcosm of the British economisation of welfare, and energy suppliers in the city are predominantly trans-national private enterprises. The paper uses social studies of technology to examine contemporary struggles between city council and energy utilities to transform old building and energy assets, constituted under public ownership, into new assets with 'currency' in a neo-liberal political economy. Our research combines interviews, ethnography and documents, collected over three years. The analysis examines attempts to configure buildings, energy and carbon as assets which behave as 'an income stream… a net revenue generator for Glasgow…' (Glasgow Energy and Carbon Masterplan p.66-67), and as a source of profitability for the energy utility. The choreography of people, technical devices and physical artefacts is discussed in relation to differing City Council and energy utility attempts to build durable facts about the value of things, and to enrol others in this translation of old things (particularly buildings and energy networks) into assets with financial value for a 'future city'. Making new assets from old things in these circumstances is shown to be a process marked by uncertainty, disruption and reversals. The paper contributes to theorising about the indeterminacies of power implicated in turning things into assets, in neo-liberal capitalism.

Hungry Capital: Financial Actors & the Governance of Global Food Security

Author: Lise Cornilleau (LISIS / Sciences Po)  email

Short Abstract

The article describes the role of financial actors and technologies in the renewed governance of global food security since the 2008 world food crisis. As in the case of biotechnologies, policy design and metrics are coproduced between private actors and international organizations.

Long Abstract

In spite of their controversial role in the 2008 world food crisis, financial actors are encouraged to participate in the renewed global governance of food security, both through multi-stakeholders platforms such as the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) of the United Nations, and through international initiatives promoting public-private partnerships in African agricultural policies (e.g. the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition) and agricultural research (e.g. the Alliance for A Green Revolution in Africa). The article will describe: (i) the main categories of financial actors involved (banks, insurance companies, hedge funds, etc.), (ii) the financial technologies promoted as "solutions" to world hunger, (iii) the ways these technologies create assets (land, soft commodities, etc.) and the role played by metrics (i.e. statistics and models) in this process. The analysis is based on content analysis and ethnographic material: participant observation of the negotiations of the Principle on Responsible Agricultural Investment at the CFS; interviews with financial actors involved in the negotiation process, and with statisticians and modelers of food security in international organizations (FAO, IFPRI). Whereas the Green Revolution has been described as an actor-network centered on biotechnologies [Brooks, 2005; Cullather, 2010], its unique combination of financial and biological technologies enables to govern foreign populations at a distance and in the future.

The Placenta Economy: From Trashed to Treasured Bio-Assets.

Author: Charlotte Kroløkke (University of Southern Denmark)  email

Short Abstract

This paper is about the emergent placenta economy and the ways that placentas circulate and become a valuable commodity.

Long Abstract

This presentation examines the human placenta not only as a scientific, medical and biological entity but as a consumer bio-product. In the emergent placenta economy, the human placenta is exchanged and gains potentiality as food, medicine and cosmetics. Drawing on empirical research from the United States, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Japan, I use feminist cultural analysis and consumer theories to discuss how the placenta is exchanged and gains commodity status as a medical supplement, smoothie, pill and anti-aging lotion. Placenta preparers and new mothers cite medical properties and spirituality as reasons for eating or encapsulating the placenta, reinstating ideas of the liberated good mother. Meanwhile the cosmetics industry situates the placenta as an extract and hence a commodity, re-naturalizing it as an anti-aging, rejuvenating and whitening bio-product.

Cure as Asset? The Contradictions of Valuing a Therapeutic Breakthrough

Author: Victor Roy (University of Cambridge)  email

Short Abstract

I investigate the making of a cure for Hepatitis C as a rare instance in which a medicinal asset ‘eliminates its market’, and the contradictions faced in attempting to value both its population health promise as well as financial return.

Long Abstract

Sofosbuvir, a curative therapy for patients with Hepatitis C, presents a rare opportunity to study the consequences of transforming scientific knowledge into an asset that eliminates the very market from which its owners might accrue profit. The regimes of justification and repertoires of evaluation described by Dumit's notion of surplus health - in which patients are economically valuable to companies based on the extent to which they take medicines on an ongoing basis - are re-considered in light of this short-term therapy. I trace the medicine from its origins at a small biotechnology company called Pharmasset, which fulfilled the promise contained in their name and supplied the pharmaceutical asset sofosbuvir to Gilead Sciences for $11 billion in 2011. Gilead Sciences later priced sofosbuvir at roughly $1,000 per pill for its daily regimen. By interpreting a novel data set of private corporate presentations and public transcripts of earnings calls between investment analysts and firm executives, I chronicle a grammar of pharmaceutical forecasting rife with contradictions: on the one hand is the high societal valuation of a therapy that carries the potential to eliminate a disease that affects 170 million people globally. Yet on the other hand this valuation is used to justify a price that defers and diminishes its population health potential. This in-depth case study of a cure can provide insight into both general and exceptional tensions emergent in the creation of biomedical assets, which rely on epistemologies of aggregating and transmuting long-run population-level health risks into short-term economic valuations.

The Capitalisation of Electronic Patient Records in Data-Driven Economies: Overcoming Privacy Expectations

Authors: Paraskevas Vezyridis (The University of Nottingham)  email
Stephen Timmons  email

Short Abstract

To assetise data from electronic patient records and financialise economic growth, the state and the private sector are developing a new techno-legal framework of shared investment and risk for recipients and commissioners of healthcare so as to overcome privacy concerns.

Long Abstract

Big data analytics from electronic patient records aspire to facilitate efficiencies and innovation in healthcare via personalised services, new medical treatments and accountability. However, there are also ethical, legal and social implications around the processing of sensitive personal data. The paper explores the privacy concerns, expectations and implications of the programme by NHS England. It traces the historical development of this national central database that aims to develop complete datasets of patients' journeys (primary care, hospitals, genomics) across the national health system. It uses the contextual integrity framework to illustrate the way technologies and policies are shaping the programme's direction towards new information flows outside direct healthcare. Through an STS lens, it goes a step further to show how, both symbolically and materially, data from these records is gradually transferred to a 'neutral' space ready for transactions. Under a techno-legal framework, where the clinical duty to promote research translates into the societal duty to participate in research, we find a new social contract of shared investment and risk between recipients (uncontested data provision) and commissioners of healthcare (uncontested data sharing). For this, a new public-private partnership is formed where the state, on behalf of the private sector, asserts property rights over these datasets for their assetisation and the financialisation of unsustainable healthcare systems. In the process, privacy is reduced to an individualistic preference while sustainability, governance and economic growth are becoming the de facto social values, restricting discussions about social and ethical implications of such big data initiatives.

Making Bio Economy Happen: on the commodification of bio-medical research

Authors: Bernhard Wieser (Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt)  email
Luka Jakelja (Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt)  email
Michaela Mayrhofer (BBMRI-ERIC)  email

Short Abstract

What is the knowledge basis deployed in the attempt to create a supportive environment for the commodification of bio-medical research? The ways in which intermediary actors integrate tacit and codified knowledge will be discussed.

Long Abstract

Genome research was and still is expected to deliver the basis for a prospering bio economy. After some disenchantment over the seemingly low hanging fruits of the Human Genome Project and other large-scale research programmes in its wake, the challenge remains how to stimulate bio-economic development. This paper looks into policy practices on a regional level and explores the ways in which policy makers, research managers, network coordinators and other intermediary actors attempt to create an environment that is supportive for the commodification of bio-medical research. The creation of such an environment requires decisions. The challenge for the relevant decision makers is not only to determine the best way of investing scarce resources, but they also need to justify their decisions. Drawing on Sheila Jasanoff's "civic epistemology", this paper explores the knowledge basis deployed to justify propositions for making bio-economic prosperity happen.

A qualitative study has been performed in order to shed more light on intermediary actors and their contribution in turning bio-medical research into economic assets. The role of tacit knowledge will be discussed in relation to codified knowledge as provided by academic literature, including economic and STS literature. Yet, commodification is not a matter of course. It is therefore equally important to understand the ways in which the results of bio-medical research fail to become assets.

The context of this study is a region in Austria that hosts four universities and two universities of applied sciences, a large European research facility and numerous SMEs in the bio-medical field.

Datassets: assetizing and marketizing personal data

Authors: Kevin Mellet (Orange Labs)  email
Thomas Beauvisage (Orange Labs)  email

Short Abstract

Big data technology seems to have achieved the transformation of personal data into a commodity. In this contribution, we wish to question this (common) vision of assetization-as-commodification by paying attention to the actual status and uses of personal data in markets and within firms.

Long Abstract

In a 2011 report entitled "Personal Data: The Emergence of a New Asset Class", the World Economic Forum stated that "personal data will be the new 'oil' - a valuable resource of the 21st century." The report advocates the assetization of personal data through its literal monetization, and forecasts huge benefits for companies as well as individuals' empowerment.

In this contribution, we wish to question this vision of assetization-as-commodification by paying attention to the actual status and uses of personal data. We build upon an empirical investigation of market intermediaries in the marketing and advertising industries.

First, we analyze the repeated and unsuccessful attempts to create a C2B market for personal data, and the underlying conception of personal data marketization as a trade-off between privacy and the benefits of tailored services (Acquisti, 2010). This failure can be considered as a 'performativity failure' of economic models and related experiments.

Secondly, we investigate the actual markets for personal data, a B2B activity strongly linked with marketing and advertising services. We show that personal data can be commodified and traded, especially by 'data brokers', but as derivates adding value to advertising products in the form of contacts, segments or attributes. We finally argue that the spreading of tracking technologies and Data Management Platforms (DMPs) inside private companies contributes to transform datasets into 'datassets', that can either compete or articulate with third party, commodified, data.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.