Conflict, innovation and futures: What we have been reading (1)

Here at Bath we decided to collate some of the stuff we have been reading into monthly(ish) short reviews. In part this is to stimulate discussion- and at other times to demonstrate that reading some of these books and articles really does count as work. Generally speaking, our current interests revolve around emergent technology and security- especially technology futures, responsible innovation and disarmament. Much of the stuff we end up reading also stems from suggestions we get from other people we bump into in the department as well as from other faculty who recommend all sorts of weird and wonderful things- oh yes, and inevitably from Twitter.


McCarthy, D. (2018). Technology and World Politics


This really is an invaluable source for scholars and practitioners interested in getting to grips with the state of the art in IR scholarship that looks at the intersection of tech, society, politics, science and culture. The introduction particularly serves as a great touch-stone reference point for understanding how various dominant approaches and understandings emerge and fit-together.
While there are definitely points at which you’re urging the discussion to go a step or two further – to get a bit deeper into an issue or to wrestle a little more with some of intersections between theory/concept and materiality – that really isn’t what this book is about. And in doing what it sets out to do – provide a detailed, rigorous introduction – the book is definitely successful.

The contributions cover a lot of ground and the recommendations for further readings are excellent throughout.
For those among us interested in the technology and war/war as society/social production of technology nexus (or those interested in being interested in it!) I particularly recommend Antione Bousquet’s short chapter on the concept of the RMA.


Sovacool, B. and Hess, D (2017). Ordering theories: Typologies and conceptual frameworks for sociotechnical change, Social Studies of Science Vol 47, Issue 5, pp. 703 – 750.

If like me, you are interested in understanding the co-production of technologies and sciences through discourse, narrative, culture, politics and security… AND if you, like me, like to invent new problems for yourself by trying to always work with rather than against complexity – then I thoroughly recommend this article as a useful reference point. Sovacool & Hess define theories straightforwardly as ordering devices, and from there provide a categorisation of theories of sociotechnical change by approach, epistemology and normative concerns. It’s good, useful and brings some simplicity back to the complexity of theories of thickness.


Hurlbut, B and Tirosh-Samuelson, H (2016). Perfecting Human Futures: Transhuman Visions and Technological Imaginations


As above, very little of this book concerns itself very explicitly with the concept of security, though issues of great import for world politics and international relations feature throughout.

The book engages in real depth with theoretical, empirical and conceptual issues at stake in the imagining of technological – specifically posthuman – utopian futures in modernity. The range of contributions takes the reader through a really broad range of approaches – from theology to STS – and the volume is probably well described as interdisciplinary.

With that said, each contribution works towards a comprehension of the same central question of how to understand how social realities shape, and are shaped by, technological visions of the future.

The introductory chapter, from editors Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Benjamin J. Hurlbut defines how technology is understood in the book, locating it historically as a specifically modern phenom. Technology is not to be understood as machines or tools, but rather as an assemblage or complex interaction of machine systems, as well as processes and techniques that are both social and material.

The book argues that technology occupies a central position site of moral (re)production and cultural (re)invention – It is seen as coproduced by a totality of social and material contingencies, and the authors argue that any meaningful interrogation of a particualr technology, must be “supplemented by a larger understanding of the complexities of technology in general, so as not to overlook the role that technological orders play in imaginaries of progress and perfectibility.”

I’d recommend this book to researchers interested in getting to grips with the larger cultural or social narratives and understandings that are at play in guiding (and are re-produced in) the development of transhumanist discourses and technologies. I’d also recommend it to anyone interested in the substantive political and social effects of the kinds of phenomena we often only refer to off-hand… such as human perfectibility.


Ray Kurzweil ( 2012) How to build a mind


This book was published 6 years ago. I have no idea how it passed me by.  Kurzweil is uniquely placed to reflect on philosophy of the mind and the ethics of technology as he takes you on a tour of the history of artificial intelligence systems.  I found that his way of writing and reasoning stayed very close to his engineering roots; while still providing lively examples. Some of the concepts introduced, particularly related to emergent complexity and adaptive systems are not just ingenious, but beautiful.

I must admit, I had picked this book up with a slight skepticism. But I finished it feeling I had been able to engage with some of the technical dimensions of this area in a way that I had previously thought would prove completely inaccessible to me.  Neglecting the visionary stuff, for me the real triumph of this book was the way in which Kurzweil would transplant metaphors and principles between physical systems he had build, and more abstract philosophical questions. Reductive at times yes, but I felt that on balance this book opened up many more interesting questions than it inadvertently closed down,  about the mind, and what it would mean to build one.









Understanding the lab analysis of the Salisbury poisoning: where the technical meets the political- Talk, Bath 11th May

The recent Salisbury poisoning sets the scene for an interesting case study of the tensions between needs for confidentiality and needs for transparency in international investigations

Following the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in early March, the UK Government asked the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to confirm its identification of the agent, commonly known as a “Novichok”. The OPCW is the body established by the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty with the aim of achieving a chemical-weapon-free world.

OPCW inspectors visited the UK and took a number of samples from relevant locations and from individuals affected by the poison. These were then dispatched by the OPCW laboratory to a number of accredited laboratories around the world. Broader political debates about the OPCW would quickly bleed into the discussion and presentation of Laboratory findings. For example, one senior Russian diplomat would even erroneously claim that another toxin had been found in the OPCW samples, and that this had not been reported. This came in the context of a number of debates about the source of the agent which were framed in technical terms.

In this seminar, Richard Guthrie will provide an overview of the technical issues involved in the methods used by the OPCW for sampling and analysis in investigations of alleged use of chemical weapons. Brett Edwards will then discuss the ‘narrative-wars’ which have surrounded these technical processes.

Dr Richard Guthrie has worked in and with the non-governmental, governmental and inter-governmental sectors, mostly looking at technology control and innovation issues that relate to materials and technologies that can have hostile as well as peaceful uses. He is Coordinating Editor of CBW Events, a project to create a record of events to enable and encourage understanding of how policies on the issues relating to chemical and biological warfare (CBW) and its prevention are developed.

Dr Brett Edwards is a Lecturer in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath. He works on a number of projects which examine the governance of biological and chemical weapons.

Further details

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