Islands on the Cutting Edge: Test sites for reimagining future technoscience
Location 114
Date and Start Time 03 September, 2016 at 11:00
Sessions 1


  • Phoebe Sengers (Cornell University) email
  • Laura Watts (University of Edinburgh) email
  • Kaiton Williams (Cornell University) email
  • Max Liboiron (Memorial University of Newfoundland) email
  • Hrönn Holmer (Cornell University ) email

Mail All Convenors

Discussant Lucy Suchman (Lancaster University)

Short Abstract

This collaboratively presented session interweaves stories from 4 islands - Orkney Islands (Scotland), Fogo and Change Islands (Newfoundland), and Jamaica - to speculate on islands outside the mainstream as test sites for alternative versions of science, technology and the future.

Long Abstract

In this collaboratively presented session, we interweave stories from our fieldwork on 4 islands around the edge of the Atlantic - Orkney Islands (Scotland), Fogo and Change Islands (Newfoundland, Canada), and Jamaica - to create a speculative futures account of islands outside the mainstream as potential 'test' sites for developing alternative visions of science, technology, and the future.

Islands at the edge make visible the edge conditions of technoscience. Blinkered from mainstream view, isolated from centralized infrastructures, things go awry: sensors are blown off rocky beaches or encased in ice; the precarity of the local economy make the intense focus of Silicon Valley start-up culture too risky for local developers; technological 'disruption' risks booms and busts that the big city can absorb, but not a small island. The hopes we invest in science and technology do not always apply here.

Yet, islands can also be places where technology and science do just work - surprisingly, when conditions appear to violate assumptions of technoscientific practice. And even when things go awry, in places far from licensing institutions there are traditions of making things work outside officially sanctioned methods. Islands are sites of innovation where new infrastructure is opportunistically cobbled together, new scientific protocols leverage local climactic conditions, and where science and technology can do things those at the center never imagined or would consider unorthodox. These moments - sometimes marvelous successes, frequently precarious or double-edged accomplishments - demonstrate possibilities to reformulate technoscientific practice outside of central assumptions.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.


An Island is a World

Author: Kaiton Williams (Cornell University)  email

Short Abstract

Within its effort to promote tech entrepreneurship, Jamaica’s diverse culture & material infrastructure is often a source of anxiety. But that heterogeneity yields significant potential, both for its budding developers and for those seeking alternatives to dominant ideas of technical praxis.

Long Abstract

Over the last 5 years, several programs in Jamaica have attempted to centre the country as a site of technology development. This focus on data, apps, and internet services proffers lush futures where islanders can triumph over historical biases. But capitalising on these possibilities has meant applying development methodologies, imagined as universal, across geographical, cultural, and infrastructural distances.

In this often technocratic imagination of what Jamaica should be, its society, culture, and material infrastructure appear as sources of anxiety, rather than opportunities. When viewed from this perspective, its development scene seems chaotic and underproductive, with few, if any, mainstream successes.

But seen through another lens, the work in these spaces---often as much focused on the individual and national self as on the artifact---reflects a navigation and embrace of a radical and seemingly incoherent variety of cultural forms, discontinuities, and allegiances. While this negotiation challenges rote acceptance of the imported methodology, as an orientation it offers instructive alternatives to dominant ideas of technical prowess and the figure of the entrepreneurial engineer. In this regard, islands like Jamaica are among the vanguard, allowing access to alternative futures with global resonance.

Breaking the Scientific Method at the Edge of the World, Newfoundland

Author: Max Liboiron (Memorial University of Newfoundland)  email

Short Abstract

Instruments and protocols for monitoring marine plastics are not built for Newfoundland. This co-presentation outlines place-based techniques for doing marine plastic pollution research in an environment that undercuts the regularity, standardization, and predictability of the scientific method.

Long Abstract

There are plastics in every ocean in the world, but the instruments and protocols for monitoring them are not built for Newfoundland, an island at one of the four corners of the world in northeastern Canada. In fact, standardized scientific field practices that require something to happen every day, at regular intervals, or at the same point in the landscape do not work in Newfoundland. Because the weather is so extreme—to the point of shifting entire rocky shorelines and disappearing waterfalls—the anomalies and novel phenomena that we are warned about in the Anthropocene happen here as a matter of course (though not predictably). This co-presentation will outline some of the place-based science techniques and stories that have emerged from doing marine plastic pollution research in an environment that undercuts the regularity, standardization, and predictability of the scientific method.

Infrastructures of Modernization

Author: Phoebe Sengers (Cornell University)  email

Short Abstract

Change Islands, Newfoundland was rapidly modernized in the 1960's. New

infrastructures from power to roads introduced new conditions of

existence, only some of which are viable on a remote island. Change Islands is a place to query how being modern is, and is not, produced by means of technology.

Long Abstract

In the 1950's the government of Newfoundland & Labrador began an ambitious project to transform this new Canadian province from an impoverished rural backwater to an industrial economy. Central to this plan was the organized movement of most of its population from isolated fishing villages to centralized settlements allowing easier access to services and infrastructures. Change Islands was one of a few villages that actively resisted this move and insisted instead on modernizing in place. Within a few years, the village was overrun with unfamiliar technologies, including electricity, telephone, television, cars, roads, and running water. These new infrastructures introduced, sometimes accidentally, sometimes purposefully, new conditions of existence. They both assumed and produced new cognitive habits, orientations to labor, experiences of time, requirements for accountability, and moral norms, many of which do not match well to the geographical and social requirements of remote, rural communities. Caught up in contradictions, Change Islands is today simultaneously experienced as a dying relic, as a cherished preserve for traditional practices, and as unrecognizably modernized. It is a place to query how the condition of being modern is, and is not, produced by means of technology.

The Electric Nemesis, tale from the Energy Islands Saga

Author: Laura Watts (University of Edinburgh)  email

Short Abstract

Victor Frankenstein came to Orkney. He created a companion monster, and then abandoned her. A century later and she has been recharged by electric future-making in the islands, by smart grids and test sites. This is her tale, sensitive to the hubris of the universal and the partiality of the edge.

Long Abstract

Victor Frankenstein came to Orkney, off the far northeast coast of Scotland. Out of hubris, he sparked islander flesh and photons into life to make a female companion for his monster, and then abandoned her in the islands.

A century later and Orkney is again the site of electric innovation: a world renown test site for wave and tide energy, a test site for smart grid infrastructure, site for an ad hoc islander made hydrogen fuel network, and with more electric cars running on micro wind turbines than anywhere else in the country. But all this is happening despite government policy, despite unreliable and limited infrastructures, which fail to imagine extreme weather, or such cutting edge places. Orkney is modern high-tech living when the hubris and partiality of 'universal' and 'ubiquitous' is made visible and untenable.

Hubris is not possible in Orkney - the figure from Frankenstein still haunts this place (and 'monsters' have always been a friend to STS). Drawing on eight years of ethnography in the islands, this presentation and conversation will share her story, her saga of electrified future-making at the edge.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.