Early findings of Module 4: Thematic & discursive analyses of smart technologies

To recap our article published on 29 August — What is discourse analysis and how can it help understanding for a more societally responsible ‘smart’ new world? — Module 4 of the CANDID is performing two roles in helping achieve the project’s aim of developing a ‘codebook’ for analysing discourses of ‘smart’ technologies.

Firstly, working with the other module leaders, Dr Maria Xenitidou together with Dr Kristrún Gunnarsdóttir (both of Surrey University) assisted their fellow module leaders in developing the documentation for the peer review, reviewed the wording of the interview questions and scanned responses of the resulting insights, all from a discourse analysis perspective.

The second role for module 4 was to analyse European commission documents dealing with the Innovation Union and the Digital Single Market and specifically related to Horizon 2020 work programmes and calls. This stirred an interest in talking to people involved in drafting these documents or in positions related to ‘open science’, ‘responsible research and innovation’ and ‘science in and with society’.

The eventual ‘codebook’ will cover ways to analyse discourse of smart technologies, designed for researchers and innovators to help them address societal challenges in product development processes.


Developing the peer review

The work for Module 4 has involved close cooperation with the leaders of the other modules to develop the core tests, that were circulated to peers for the consultation, and in the development of the interview questions.

According to Maria, “We provided input from a discourse analytic perspective on the way CANDID members might ‘co-construct’ notions of smartness, arising from the assumptions embedded in the texts communicated to peers about how they approach the discourse on smart technologies, as well as the issues it raises.”

“That’s because, our questions, texts, and communications, as would anyone’s, can not be neutral in any sense.”

An example of the fine detail of these sorts of issues addressed internally even included discussion on the placing the word ‘smart’ within quotation marks in these texts.

“When you see a word in a quotation mark, that means something. It’s not an empty signifier.”

“First it signals that the meaning of smart is not straightforward (for us authors); this may actively be viewed as such by others – our peers in this case – or it may not, but might inform the way they talk about it or go unnoticed, or treated as banal.”

“So”, added Maria, “we discussed such details as whether to start with smart in quotations marks, or whether to put it in quotation marks after we’ve explained our problematic”.


Review of policy documentation

As the Module 4 team decided that ‘smart’ technology discourse is normatively constituted, they concentrated on EU policy documentations in their research.

“These are social constructs, taking certain things for granted so we decided to talk to people involved, such as policy offers, e.g. DG officials as well as people with different backgrounds, such as participants in a workshop on the introduction of RRI and the role of SSH in ICT projects.”, said Maria.

Some resistance to these requests was experienced, possibly due to the seniority of people responsible and concerns about any applicable confidentiality agreements; ‘peers’ such as fellow academics, so far, have appeared to be more responsive than policy makers and officials.

“We don’t have concrete results yet”, reported Maria, as she has further interviews in the pipeline. “But some feedback received so far recognises a lot of examples of criticism of technologies or managing accountability for that critique by employing what we call ‘bureaucratic discourse’, that says ‘we need to make sure that there’s wide participation and these smart technologies are inclusive”.


Initial discourse analytic insights

Maria highlighted this first notable trend in the documentation, as commonly used by the more ‘enlightened’ bureaucrats. “The stakes of acknowledging the critique for their position and authority at stake, seemed to engage them in a concern with managing their accountability, arguing that they’re doing the best they can to ensure everything’s done in an inclusive and democratic way”.

Maria also noted that some of the policy documentation, especially for Horizon 2020, had a self-celebratory tone when talking about change, as reflected in phrases such as ‘a break from the past’, as if the past was problematic.

“They’re saying they’re going to do things in a better way but without saying necessarily what was not good or bad about what was done before”, Maria commented.

“There are a lot of potential explanations for this, one being showing commitment to the EU project.”

However, Maria commented that the use of numbers is very common in these documents to produce a more tangible message; maybe also for reasons of accountability.

Another initial insight from these documents is that, in Maria’s words “they are often quite self-referential. There’s a lot of circularity, and a lot of tautology”.

Maria also noted that call texts commonly contained references to ‘excellence’ – as in excellent science, as if science is not good enough by itself.

“There’s also an issue of management of the dilemma between excellent and ‘stupid smart’, in the sense of simplifying to make information accessible for everyone and not only addressed and applicable to a small elite.”

“Also, there’s use of value laden terms which are not problematised at all. For instance, there’s a shift to a discourse of the ‘citizen scientist’ without questioning the meaning of the term ‘citizen’ or its membership.”

“What we’re being critical of in these documents is taking things for granted and also trying to come across as apolitical, as if there are no ideological assumptions there.”

As regards the peer exchanges, Maria continued, “we found lines of argumentation that went like, ‘if we have more democratic process in the development of a smart technology, it will be more democratic at its end use’, or that ‘a more transparent development process, more robust measures will produce fairer or more accurate technologies”.

“This rationalisation process is an argument by analogy in discourse analysis.”


The power of discourse or why is this important?

Maria added that “these rationalisations, that are being applied for making sense of the (smart new) world in the policy texts and the communication with peers are not empty statements, they’re constitutive of reality; notwithstanding power differentials of course as well as that of counter-discourses.”

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