Written by Michael Hockenhull. Michael is PhD Fellow in the Data as Relation research project at ITU, and member of the ETHOS Lab research group.
A little over three months ago I had the luck to begin my new job as a PhD student at the IT-University of Copenhagen. I say job because as opposed to many other countries, doing a PhD degree is a well-paid (relatively speaking) position in Denmark and most of Scandinavia. Due to our strong tradition of unionisation, a focus on investing in science and technological development (until recently, anyway) and a generally strong economy, the government pays me to read, think, write, and to go to conferences and meetings. I realise that this is an amazing thing, and that it isn’t an opportunity afforded to everyone. It makes me both somewhat anxious and quite proud. Anxious because I want to make the most of this privileged opportunity. Proud because I was deemed qualified to be given said opportunity.
However, receiving such an opportunity should also prompt some reflection. There are other jobs I could be doing. There are many who think that the government should not pay for PhDs in fields such as Science and Technology Studies, sitting as it does at the intersection of the social sciences, humanities and philosophy. From this I feel two questions arise which need to be discussed, although I do not seek to claim I can provide a complete answer. Firstly, why do a PhD? Secondly, why have PhD research in the social sciences or humanities at all?
For someone whose intellectual heritage is a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Philosophy, as mine, or in any similar liberal arts or social science programme, both of these questions may seem nonsensical to ask. Yet it is worth reflecting, in these times of upheaval and rapid technological development, why we value the additional three years of abstract education that a PhD represents. We are amidst the largest refugee crisis since the 2nd World War, increasing autocratic tendencies in the western world and monopolisation of our lives and data by multinational corporations is on the rise. Why, then, should we delve into the depths of theory and research, rather than become volunteers and activists?
Much has already been written about the value of the humanities and of abstract thinking in general. In some ways, rehashing those arguments would simply be rehearsing the history of philosophy, which a blogpost like this doesn’t quite allow for. Yet history is only made relevant when we invoke and reframe it for the present. For the ancients, a life of philosophy was a mode of living; for the Scholastics philosophy and theology were ways of understanding God and his will; for Marx and the Frankfurt School their practice was a project of emancipation and for post-modernism everything was (perhaps is?) decontextualised and fragmentary. Currently we are embroiled in post-truth, alt-facts, big data, ontological turns and neo-positivisms, and either the post-modernist moment has passed or it is barreling onwards at full speed.
So why dedicate three years of one’s life to a PhD and its attendant abstraction and research conventions? The answer to this question is necessarily personal, and I certainly don’t think that a PhD degree is unquestionably good for everyone. Heck, I’m not 100% sure it’s even good for me. What I do know is that for me, a PhD represents a life lived in practice of thought and argument and in pursuit of truth, whatever you take that to mean, and despite it never being fully obtainable. The constant of history, seems to me that there are those that attempt to continue moving our understanding of the world forward and to engineer it in a just manner, whilst others claim that this is impractical, problematic or even downright wrong in the face of mounting and pressing problems. But to paraphrase Slavoj Žižek, our response to the current multiplicity of crises should be to think, not to act. If we don’t think about our practices we are bound to continue creating the same outcomes. In one way, one might say that a PhD is one of the few spaces in modern life where thinking of this sort is possible. Not the instrumental thinking of reaching a goal, of acting, but pondering the current conditions of thinking itself. To use a heideggerian term, a PhD represents a clearing for thought to take place and for Being to appear.
And why spend good money on funding (as all appeals within our current capitalist regime must be made to monetary value, not intrinsic worth) research in Science and Technology Studies and other fields of its ilk? To pick up the heideggerian thread I would say that despite the recent problematisation of his thought, it is difficult to contest that Heidegger was one of the first to foreground the importance of thinking about technology. Some 60-70 years later, Science and Technology Studies is a blossoming field that has moved far from whatever it may have once owed the German philosopher. Both science and technology remain aspects of human practice that it is essential to understand if we are to flourish as humans in our increasingly technical and technocratic world. In my mind, STS, as it is called in shorthand, contains amongst its scholars some of the most thoughtful and daring reflections on the nature of reality, methods of research and the role of the scholar. I will even dare to say that I identify in STS a sort of empirical philosophy, a contradiction of terms that will no doubt earn me the ire of STS scholars and philosophers alike. Nonetheless, what is important about STS and why it is worth investing in is that it both has an extensive empirical program and is liberal in its attempts to conceptualise the world.
If we are to think about technology and science, both empirics and concepts are important. Technology and science are both vastly complex enterprises, and the common accounts given of them have historically been versions that left out much of the messiness and difficulty involved in them. With many misconceptions and failed projects to follow. It is therefore essential that research attends empirically to the actual practices taking place, rather than just take the words of those involved for granted. Conversely, to study technology and science only equipped with an empirical focus, we risk not being sensitive to whatever nuances or newness there might be present in the empirical material. Theorising allows us to manifest in words those intuitions that empirics produce. It is a way to work when something does not quite add up and needs addressing, explaining or juxta-positioning. Theory also gives us means by which we can isolate and describe slivers of reality that are hard to access. Slivers that may become lost beneath the constant wash of sensory information, networks of relation and workings of our faculties, within and without the bounds of reason. This is why STS is a necessary and valuable investment. It allows research insight into these crucial parts: society, science, technology and their relations amongst one another.
I’m writing this blogpost (and hopefully more to come) as a way to start discussing the matters of my research with an audience both inside and outside of the university. Simultaneously, I hope to improve my writing and argumentation. I don’t want to simply instrumentally improve, however. While it is unlikely that many people will ever read what I write here, my goal is to get better at what Bruno Latour has formulated as the most important task of the critic: to create gatherings, to make a space where actors can convene, to facilitate the work of the parliament of things – or put very simply, to disseminate, create discussion and bring people and things into relation. Therefore, I am more than welcoming to any comments, talks, chats and discussions that this blog post might spur – you can mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I see this as a part of my job, and a part of what I’m employed to do. I also see it to be intellectually important. If we are to actually perform speculative thinking, create futures and do so in a manner relevant to society, it should happen publicly.