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Panel II: Sensing Technology Narratives – Imaginaries of Intervening and Accessing

with Orit Halpern, Melissa Littlefield, Ashley Shew
by Nicole Schimkus , Alice Soiné, Daniel Stoecker

This panel focusses on sensing technologies that promise to make available what was previously understood as inaccessible – a promise which could also be discussed as the claim to interface with an other. We want to discuss modes of intervening and accessing not as mere achievements of sensing technologies but as powerful guiding imaginaries for their envisioning, planning, designing, implementation and usage as well as the politics and decision making going along with them. The aspirations, obsessions, ideologies, myths, and fantasies surrounding sensing technologies are wide ranging. Contemporary narratives our panelists tackle in their work suggest that mental states may be approachable through EEG (Melissa M. Littlefield), that what are seen as bodily limitations may be overcome/eliminated through technological enhancement (Ashley Shew), and that humans and computers can and should coexist symbiotically by forming resilient cognitive networks (Orit Halpern).

Imaginaries of intervening and accessing implicitly or explicitly delineate and make normative claims about an other, justifying that it can be accessed, conquested and controlled in some way by the means of technological innovation/adaptation/optimization. As the contributions of our panelists impressively show – each from a different perspective –, these narratives inevitably reduce the complexities, ambiguities and contradictions correlated with sensing technologies, their conditions and effects. Imaginaries of intervening and accessing play a central role in the question not only of how something (or someone) can be made available, but also of how it itself is constituted as an other.


The Smartness Mandate – Theorizing our Nervous Present

Orit Halpern (Concordia University, Montreal)

The COVID 19 pandemic has seemingly naturalized the relationship between computation and human survival. Digital systems sustain our supply chains, labor, vaccine development, public health, and virtually every manner of social life. Nowhere has this link become more powerful then at the intersection of statistics, artificial intelligence and finance. This paper links a genealogy of neural nets through the psychologist Donald O. Hebb, economist Friedrich Hayek, and perceptron inventor Frank Rosenblatt to contemporary efforts to model and gamify markets, populations, and networks. I argue that the idea of a networked, population based, ecological cognition unifies neo-liberal governance and conceptions of cognition and intelligence through the figure of the neuron; what I label the “smartness mandate”. This imaginary has political and ethical implications for our present underpinning contemporary reactionary politics and increased volatility and precarity (for many) in economy.

Amplification and Access – Mechanical Brain Wave Imaginaries in the X-Men and Flash Gordon

Melissa Littlefield (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)

Over the past decade, human electroencephalography (EEG) has gradually moved out of the laboratory and into various wearables: hats, headbands, and even costumes. But what are these devices recording and for what purpose? According to NeuroSky’s website, their EEG wearable devices measure “Brain waves. Not thoughts.” This distinction between brain waves and thoughts ostensibly makes EEG wearables appear objective: data in, data out, with no messy translation from thought in between. However, there is a more complex story behind the brain wave discourses upon which these devices rely. Indeed, and as I explore in this presentation, brain waves are an invention—part of a larger imaginary—that constructs the brain’s electrical activity as accessible and modifiable. In this presentation, I analyze one very small slice of this imaginary: representations of accessible brain waves from mid-century American popular culture. “The Brain Machine,” which appears in Flash Gordon (1955) and Cerebro, popularized by the X-Men (1964) are exemplary EEG-styled helmets. Their presentation in popular culture reveals discourses of mechanical access and amplification alongside arguments for brain waves as thought, as markers of individuation, and as opportunities for control or connection. In order to better situate these examples, I first discuss a longer history of twentieth-century references to brain waves, which notably shift into mechanically mediated phenomena after the news of Hans Berger’s pioneering EEG work spread in the popular and scientific media of the 1930s.

Disability Tech Narratives

Ashley Shew (Virginia Tech, Blacksburg)

Drawing from the stories disabled people tell about the technologies they use, I introduce the term technoableism and talk about how designers and engineers get the story wrong when it comes to disability technology – and how to reconsider expertise in light of disability narrative. I consider the role of media, both in the sense of multiple mediums of sensing/expressing and of media coverage of disability technologies.