Living with monsters?

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It is hard to believe that the story of the monster of Frankenstein was already written 200 years ago. The story of Mary Shelley continues to be a source of inspiration, also for the researchers that gathered on 11 and 12 December 2018 at San Francisco State University for the IFIP 8.2 working conference. Iris Wallenburg, Rik Wehrens and I (Marthe Stevens) were present from the Health Care Governance group. What an amazing and inspiring conference it was!

Many know the famous monster story, in which Victor Frankenstein assembles a creature out of dead body parts from the local graveyard. His creation turns out to be an astonishing technological achievement, but at the same time so repulsive that Frankenstein flees away. Left on its own, the monster, unaware of his own appearance, gets out of control and ends up wandering through the world. According to many, this story exemplifies that we should not leave monsters alone but need to engage with them and care for them continuously.

Living with monsters PowerPoint slide
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The Frankenstein-story is nowadays often invoked by researchers, sometimes as a warning for how new technologies might get ‘out of our control’, at other times as a metaphor for the feelings of fear and uneasiness that we experience with certain technological and societal developments. Keynote speaker Lucy Suchman discussed the example of monstrous drones that are used in warfighting. She explained that the algorithmic-based control of drones washes out the human estimation whether an enemy is considered a ‘real threat’ and legitimizes killing (also according to international human right laws). Iris Wallenburg, studying a completely different field, used the monster metaphor to describe the often criticized numbering and counting practices in healthcare and academia and how they reconfigure (and open up) traditional practices of knowing and valuing.

I presented my recent ethnographic work, in which I studied Big Data practices in a hospital. In public discourse, Big Data is often presented as monstrous as it could lead to invasions of privacy and its use can be discriminatory. I explored what happens to these monsters if we study them up close. I demonstrated that by following Big Data in a small setting, certain monsters disappear and other unexpected monsters can arise. To domesticate the monsters, it is crucial that all people involved in Big Data initiatives, work closely together, share their ideas and create an open atmosphere.

Luckily, the conference itself was not monstrous at all! It was nice to meet so many (new) colleagues from all over the world and exchange thoughts and ideas. The conference will inspire my colleagues and me to develop our research projects further. In case you want to know more, you can always reach me out (e-mail address is below).

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This blog is written by:

Marthe Stevens is a PhD candidate at the department of Healthcare Governance at Erasmus School of Health Policy & Management (Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands) and WTMC.

E-mail: stevens@eshpm.eur.nl