4S/EASST Open Track: “Turning Things into Assets”

Here is a link to the track and papers in it.


Kean Birch (York University, Canada)
Fabian Muniesa (Mines ParisTech, France)

Short Abstract

An increasing number of STS scholars are engaging with assets as objects of inquiry. An asset is a thing that can be owned, traded and capitalized as a revenue stream, often involving the valuing of discounted future earnings in the present. One key question emerges: how do things become assets?

Long Abstract

An increasing number of STS scholars are engaging with assets as interesting objects of inquiry, worthy of our analytical gaze. Scholars of the bio-economy – e.g. Birch and Tyfield (2013), Cooper and Waldby (2014), Lezaun and Montgomery (2015), Martin (2015) – have sought to differentiate asset from commodity markets in order to analyse the resulting socio-ethical implications, while scholars in the social studies of finance – e.g. Doganova and Karnøe (2015), Doganova and Muniesa (2015), Muniesa (2012, 2014), Ortiz (2013) – have sought to understand how assets are constituted by and come to constitute, in a performative fashion, valuation processes. By asset, we mean a thing – e.g. patent, business model, technology, land, forest, skills and experience, CV, bodily function, personal popularity, pollution emissions, building, infrastructure, life form, molecule, etc., etc. – that can be owned, traded and capitalized as a revenue stream, often involving the valuing of discounted future earnings in the present.

In the recent STS literature mentioned above, one key question emerges: how do things become assets? What this question requires us to do is tease apart the (techno-economic) configuration of assets and capitalization; that is, the tangible materiality and intangible knowledge that enable things to be turned into assets (or not). It leaves us with many more questions about where to take any critique of capitalism and technoscience more generally. First, this might be the threat of assetization stifling innovation, promoting the pursuit of rentiership (i.e. extraction of value through property ownership) over entrepreneurship (i.e. creation of value through development of new products and services). Second, it might be the implications of capitalization in reshaping how we think about things (including ourselves), turning them into a purely financial calculation of costs and benefits over other concerns (Chiapello 2015).


In light of these issues, we invite contributors to address but not limit themselves to the following questions:

  • How might we conceptualize the difference between commodities and assets? What does this difference mean for our understanding of value and valuation?
  • How are things turned into assets? How are they capitalized? What sort of techno-economic configurations does this involve? What are the implications? Does this entail new or old forms of rentiership?
  • How might we use concepts like assetization and capitalization in place of dominant terms like commodification, marketization, privatization, neoliberalization, etc. as a critique of capitalism?
  • How does capitalization differ with different materialities? How can we recognize the material traits of assetization?
  • How is the logic of the asset transforming science and technology? What is driving science and technology policy in the era of the business model?


Birch, T. and Tyfield, D. 2013. “Theorizing the Bioeconomy: Biovalue, Biocapital, Bioeconomics or… What?” Science, Technology and Human Values 38(3): 299-327.
Cooper, M. and Waldby, C. 2014. Clinical Labor: Tissue Donors and Research Subjects in the Global Bioeconomy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Lezaun, J. and Montgomery, C.M. 2015, “The Pharmaceutical Commons: Sharing and Exclusion in Global Health Drug Development,” Science, Technology and Human Values 40(1): 3-29.
Martin, P. 2015. “Commercialising Neurofutures: Promissory Economies, Value Creation and the Making of a New Industry”, BioSocieties, doi:10.1057/biosoc.2014.40
Doganova, L. and Karnøe, P. 2015. “Clean and Profitable: Entangling Valuations in Environmental Entrepreneurship”, in A. Berthoin Antal, M. Hutter and D. Stark (Eds.). Moments of Valuation: Exploring Sites of Dissonance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 229-248.
Doganova, L. and Muniesa, F. 2015. “Capitalization Devices: Business Models and the Renewal of Markets”, in M. Kornberger, L. Justesen, J. Mouritsen and A. Koed Madsen (Eds.), Making Things Valuable. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 109-215.
Muniesa, F. 2012. “A Flank Movement in the Understanding of Valuation”, Sociological Review 59(s2): 24-38.
Muniesa, F. 2014. The Provoked Economy: Economic Reality and the Performative Turn, London: Routledge.
Ortiz, H. 2013. “The Limits of Financial Imagination: Free Investors, Efficient Markets, and Crisis”, American Anthropologist 116(1): 38-50.
Chiapello, E. 2015. “Financialization of Valuation”, Human Studies 38(1): 13-35.


CPERI Workshop Call for Papers

The Fourth Annual Workshop

The Changing Political Economy of Research and Innovation (CPERI): Producing and experimenting with publics in new political economies

28-29 June 2016
University of Liège, Belgium

Many disciplines investigate how research and innovation (R&I) contributes to socio-economic development. Yet most mainstream studies tend to focus rather narrowly on R&I as a resource to be mobilized instrumentally to address grand challenges: first and foremost economic growth, but also increasingly climate change, food security, low-carbon economy, social welfare, and the ageing societies. Often, these goals are framed with a loose reference and appeal to ‘the public’ as important agents in these issues. An alliance of scientists, entrepreneurs and the public is increasingly emphasized by policy-makers and innovation actors, developing alternative pathways in science, policy and industry. This agenda has attracted interest also from more critical scholarship, generating an appetite for meaningful movement towards new, sustainable socio-material transitions. Yet the translation to (public) action remains a challenge. A crucial question here concerns understanding of the public – more precisely, publics – and their role in the changing political economy of R&I, where these issues of substantive R&I trajectories and their political economic conditioning and effects are too often neglected.

This workshop seeks to explore how publics and their knowledges, practices and processes as political-economic phenomena transform R&I – actually and potentially – within and across changing contexts and evolving geographies (Slaughter and Rhoades 2004, Mirowski 2010, Tyfield 2011, Birch 2015). Publics have always been an important topic in science and technology studies (STS), with studies of public engagement in, and/or public understanding of, science problematizing scientific authority with regard to lay individuals’ opinions (Wynne 2007) and the emergence of “counter-publics” (Hess 2011). However, the various ways that publics have been mobilized or given roles in R&I processes often overlook issues of political economy that are themselves also changing dramatically: the continued prevalence of programmes of austerity are changing the very institutions of the ‘public’ political economy including of R&I. Moreover, it is critical to unpack issues of political economy in light of proliferating new discourses like Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) or promissory imaginaries such as the “creative economy” (Howkins 2013), the “sharing economy” (Wood and Scantlebury 2014) and the “3rd industrial revolution” (Rifkin 2011), which invoke publics in diverse and possibly novel ways, both descriptive and normative. Furthermore, an array of new situations involving publics in R&I are also emerging; from participatory design in decision-making processes and public value mapping, to Living Labs or FabLabs, to public protests against particular innovations. In ‘techno-nature-society’, thus, ‘publics’ and their changing meaning, forms, socio-political roles and responsibilities, and normative cultural valence thus sit at the heart of changing relations of scientific research, innovation and political economy; and vice versa, regarding investigations of publics as a constructed or imagined contributor to R&I and its governance, as a produced audience and recipient of the outputs from R&I, and as performers in situated experiments of new social forms (Laurent 2010).

The workshop focuses on four substantive and overlapping issues that address the co-production of publics and the political economy of research and innovation:

  • The future role of publics in processes of government: the involvement of publics in participatory decision-making processes (regarding R&I) today is meant to guarantee enhanced democracy and stronger, more robust and more legitimate decisions. This raises questions:
    • Do we overestimate what publics can do, and/or expect too much of them? Based on what conceptions of ‘the public’?
    • Can publics actually direct R&I? How? Or, has public involvement become just another procedural requirement?
    • How might we envision the future role(s) of publics in decisional processes? And to what broader (socio-political) ends?
    • How can ‘publics’ be invoked and included in ways that turn R&I into a locus of a constructive politics, as opposed to merely directing given trajectories and/or minimizing their negative effects?
  • Empowering publics in new innovation processes: today the proliferation of new experiments with publics are often accompanied by an empowerment rhetoric that – ostensibly – profoundly challenge the dominant intellectual property-intensive, global model of science-based innovation. But:
    • When value is generated in such innovation processes, how are the potential benefits shared with directly involved publics? What kind of struggles about risk and benefits (e.g. with intellectual property) are emerging?
    • More generally, how can political economy help to make sense of such embedded innovation/creativity to explain the dynamics of advanced capitalism?
    • How shall we account for the embeddedness of publics in innovation processes that are themselves inserted in socio-economic and socio-political contexts?
  • Public participation as a luxury: the context of multiple and overlapping (economic, ecological, social) crises has often led to the fabrication of imaginaries of scarcity (of competitiveness, of sustained growth, of natural resources, of qualified workers, of public monies).
    • How do such imaginaries impact public participation exercises and the fabric of publics when the context asks for quicker results with smaller budgets? Is quick-and-dirty public participation on its way?
    • What future tensions are there when public involvement is voluntary, unprofessional and potentially biased by public or private sponsors seeking quick returns on investment?
    • How do these scarcity and austerity discourses and imaginaries influence the conception and measurements of impacts of public participation? What ‘public’ is being constructed as a result?
  • Publics and political economic crises: the lack of economic growth is often used to justify cutting public services and institutions, or for introducing new performance indicators and new public management and governance tools. This contributes to enforcing neoliberal dogmas and channelling public and private investment away from what does not directly contribute to short-term economic performance. In R&I, the economization (Popp Berman 2013) of policies is a term coined to highlight the pervasive idea that the main purpose of government is to affect positively the larger economy with R&I as central vehicle. This process happens against the backdrop of mounting social protest and an intensification of “Occupy-movements”/organised publics across the globe, whereas even mainstream economists today denounce continuing neoliberal and austerity politics that are reshaping the ‘public sector’ and public investment.
    • How do studies of publics invoked, performed and constructed by contemporary R&I illuminate this growing divorce between political priorities and societal demands – the growing apotheosis of the ‘public’ in political discourse alongside its systematic dismantling in political economy?

Keynote Speakers
Pr. Ulrike Felt, University of Vienna
Pr. Phil Mirowski, University of Notre Dame (to be confirmed)
Dr. Johan Söderberg, University of Gothenburg

Paper Submission
Please email your abstracts (400 words max) to pierre.delvennne@ulg.ac.be and ncharlier@ulg.ac.be by the 31st of January, 2016. Feel free to get in touch before the deadline to discuss your ideas.

The Workshop will be held at University of Liege, Belgium, and hosted by SPIRAL Research Centre.

Dr Pierre Delvenne, University of Liège
Dr Nathan Charlier, University of Liège
Dr Mélanie Antoine, University of Liège

Series Organizers
Dr Kean Birch, Department of Social Science, York University, Toronto, Canada
Dr Charles Thorpe, Department of Sociology, UCSD, USA
Dr David Tyfield, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK

Report on the 3rd CPERI Workshop, San Diego, March 2015

Arriving in sunny Southern California from a long and very cold Toronto winter is bound to put a smile on your face – and it certainly did for me. It was also nice to arrive early and get a chance to explore a bit of La Jolla or just go for a walk on the beach in the sunshine. A lot of other participants seemed to feel the same when we started talking during the workshop. What about the workshop though? Well, it was a two-day affair – see here for details of the talks – and covered topics from historical perspectives on the political economy of science to national and regional strategies for innovation. It’s obviously difficult to summarize all the talks since it might prove slightly repetitive, so I don’t want to do that here. Instead I’m going to write about some general themes that emerged from the workshop itself and discussions around it, as well as the general discussion we all had at the end about future directions. A number of themes emerged quite strongly from the workshop:

  • Universities in crisis: While not an actual panel – and maybe it should have been – it was evident in many conversations and shared experiences that we are witnessing a tipping point in the future of the university. This is not just evident in the recent and ongoing strikes in Canadian universities or the implications of under-funding in European universities, most of the people I talked to had (horror?) stories to tell about threats to the university as a site for education and research. In particular, commercial interests are driving the university down a certain road which includes the outsourcing of the riskiest research to academics, while alternative visions of the role of universities in society are seriously lacking – creating these visions is something we need to do, urgently and forcefully.
  • What is innovation: As a key theme across all CPERI workshops, innovation obviously came up again and again, this time especially as it related to the idea of “responsible innovation”. What became obvious was that not only could we not agree on what these terms meant, it was also clear no-one else (e.g. policy-makers, politicians, business, etc.) could really agree either. Yet, innovation is frequently held up as the panacea for social and global issues (e.g. inequality, poverty, climate change, etc., etc.) and, therefore, as a social imperative. It’s possible that innovation has become yet another buzzword used to justify a range of deeply problematic assumptions about how we should organize society, govern ourselves and manage our economies. Again, it’s evident that we have an opportunity to ‘capture’ the term, and ensure that it denotes more than mere profit.
  • Entrepreneurship (vs. rentiership): Terms like entrepreneurship, entrepreneurial and entrepreneur came up again and again, especially as ways to refer to the ‘neoliberal’ transformation of research, innovation and universities over the last few decades. Here people raised concerns about entrepreneurship as the new motivation, incentive and driver behind science, research and innovation – for example, as a way to frame social problems and then address them (i.e. let the private sector get to work). The obverse of entrepreneurship – something I tried to think through in my own paper – is the idea of rentiership; by this I mean the increasing prevalence of technologies that do not produce anything new (e.g. product) but simply install some form of new techno-market structure that can extract economic rents by monetizing a diverse range of activities – think Uber, Airbnb, Google, etc.
  • Imaginaries: As should be evident, there was a lot of discussion about the cultural and social representation and expectations of science, research and innovation. Many participants addressed these issues through the concept of imaginaries – or, the visions of the future that are enrolled in the governance of the present in order to frame certain decisions as legitimate and others as illegitimate. What this highlighted was the importance of understanding the socio-cultural embedding of science, research and innovation in these visions, which brings me to …
  • The role of STS: A final theme was about what role STS has in all of this, which was especially taken up in the keynote by Philip Mirowski – see paper here. He argued that STS has abandoned political analysis altogether, or has headed down the road of defending science etc. against attacks from various fronts (e.g. climate sceptics, creationists, right-wing governments, etc.). Has this meant that STS is no longer providing a critique of science? As pointed out in the concluding general discussion, there was a sense that morality and values should be key to STS – as a discipline and mode of inquiry – such that we should not focus exclusively on analytical accuracy, but on why and how our research can matter to wider audiences. Moreover, participants agreed that while science etc. have definitely changed – as the result of neoliberal, entrepreneurial or commercial pressures (you decide!) – in contrast, STS has not done so; in the current climate, it is not possible to study science etc. without also studying commercialization, and this puts extra pressure on STS researchers to expand their skills set.

These are my impressions, so other participants may want to add their own. Kean Birch, March 2015

YouTube, Let’s Plays and Cognitive Capitalism

PLEASE NOTE: this is reblogged – with some minor changes – from my personal website.


Has anyone wondered why Flappy Bird made such big waves last year? Well, it’s because of a phenomenon know as “let’s plays” (LPs) on YouTube – basically people posting videos of themselves playing computer games. It’s like spectator computer gaming. To some this may seem totally weird, but it’s a significant proportion of YouTube’s ‘business’, as it were (and it is a business).

Last year, Flappy Bird was showcased by PewDiePie – a Swedish let’s player (LPer) – and hey presto it then went vital. You might ask who is this PewDiePie? Can he really have that influence? Well, PewDiePie has more YouTube subscribers – at 29.8 million and rising by 1 million a month – than Miley Cyrus and is one of the most popular attractions on the internet (alongside porn and fluzzy kittens, although not those two together since that would undoubtedly break the internet!).

Yet something like LP videos – watched and enjoyed by millions, myself included – barely surfaces in mainstream media. It remains unknown – and maybe unfathomable – to most people out there. It probably sounds strange, in fact, the idea of watching other people play computer games. Surely the point is to play them yourselves? With others if you want. What LPs illustrate, however, is that the image of geeks playing alone in their rooms is outdated … WAY outdated. In contrast, LPs provide a glimpse into the creativity, interactivity and community possible as part of Web 2.0. It is driving new forms of gaming and new forms of leisure as computer gaming overtakes traditional entertainment industries (e.g. film, publishing, theatre, etc.).

Lets Plays on YouTube

I came across LPs a few years back – I think it was in 2009 or 2010. I was either ill or hungover and was thinking about playing Deus Ex again but wasn’t sure if it’s was worth the time. I looked it up on YouTube and came across an LPer called Kikoskia who does a brilliant turn at sardonic commentary – see here. I ended up watching 100+ videos, several hours worth of clips all told. I then explored more LPs, looking up games I’d played previously or never finished playing. Since then YouTube and LP videos have basically replaced TV for me. I watch something every day, sometimes several videos, and follow a number of LPers.

Here are my favourites:

  • Obviously Kikoskia: amusing and wry commentary by a British guy, who knows who he is, on various RPG games that frequently takes me back to my youth (well, younger days!) when I played games like Ultima 7, Deus Ex, Baldur’s Gate, NeverWinter Nights, etc. Funny, poignant, nostalgic, entertaining …
  • Then there’s Helloween4545: another British guy, active on Twitter as well, who focuses on horror games. First started watching him because he did an LP of Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, which I never finished because I found it too terrifying to play. Interestingly, he now does commentary on gaming issues (e.g. conflicts of interest in games reviews, DRM, in-game advertising) with other LPers like Kikoskia. He also does multiplayer LPs with people like Kikoskia and Klyka, an intermittent German LPer.
  • Next, Necroscope86: yet another British guy (there’s probably a trend here) who does various RPGs and strategy games. He also does video blogs (VLOGS) about his personal struggles with depression alongside gaming.
  • NerdCubed: a British guy who has nearly 2 million subscribers and basically does 20-30 minute showcases of games, including new independent games. He’s amusing and pretty blunt in his reviews, which is nice to see when it comes to something like Dark Souls (which I don’t understand the attraction of at all!). What is interesting, though, is that he has become increasingly influential in the gaming world and beyond, evident in his interviewing of Steven Moffat (of Doctor Who fame).
  • Bajan Canadian: finally, a non-Brit! A Canadian teenager – or just out of his teens – who specializes in Minecraft (the best game ever!) modded games, especially a version of Hunger Games in which players fight each other to the death until only one remains. He has over 4 million subscribers and seems to have a pretty adult head on his shoulders – which is more than can be said for many YouTubers.
  • LifesAGlitchTV (LAGTV): another Canadian channel, this time comprising a couple of guys (MaximusBlack and NovaWar) who commentate on StarCraft games, mainly amateur ones rather than professional (yes, there is such a thing as professional gaming!). Their commentary regularly veers off into other subjects as they forget the game at hand. They started out, it seems, with a series called ‘When Cheese Fails’ in which one player tries a ‘cheesy’ tactic instead of playing normally (and then loses). Probably more pre-pubescent humour than the others, but both casters also do other videos on things like the mechanics and economics of being a YouTuber – i.e. how to make money from it.

What should be obvious right away is the gender imbalance here – this might be my own fault (in terms of what I watch), but it is very noticeable that women are under-represented in the LP world. They are not missing, there are several women LPers with significant followings (e.g. RPGMinx, YOGCASTHannah) and, of course, others without. They are not, however, the dominant voice in the LP world.

Monetizing Personality: Affective Economies and Cognitive Capitalism in Action!

What is clear is that computer gaming has changed and is changing as the result of greater interaction and multiplayer formats. It is likely that games like World of Warcraft, Sims, Second Life and so on drove greater demand for interaction through social media like YouTube – for example, WoW came out in 2004 and the first lets play (LP) video was supposedly created in 2007. The growth in gaming itself, whether online, on smart devices, etc. has no doubt contributed to the emergence and growth of LPs as well. One particularly important gaming development, in my mind at least, was the (full) release of Minecraft in 2011. For those living in the desert for the last three years, Minecraft is a sandbox, survival game. You start in a world and then collect resources and build things; there is no real goal to the game or limits on what you can do within it, which makes it totally different from most other games out there. It is, moreover, rather ugly – blocky, pixelly, etc. However, the freedom it allows players has meant that people can create their own worlds – in creative mode – and then play games in them with other players online. As I mentioned in the last post, one popular Minecraft game is a version of Hunger Games.

Anyway, alongside the social aspects of LPs (and other online gaming), there is an economic aspect to them as well – especially on YouTube. What YouTube allows players to do is monetize their videos – i.e. videos of themselves playings computer games. Any YouTuber can do it, not just gamers. The basic dynamics are as follows – also see video by LPer NovaWar on whole process:

  • You start a YouTube account and start uploading videos (of whatever);
  • Once your videos start getting 10k views, YouTube invites you to become a ‘partner’;
  • Once you become a partner, you can monetize your videos (through account settings);
  • Monetization basically means attaching various types of adverts to your videos (e.g. before it starts, as a transparent overlay, alongside);
  • You get revenue from advertising per 1000 views (or similar);
  • YouTube gets 45% of revenues from these adverts, which is how it makes its money;
  • … that’s basically it.

All this might sound wonderful – “money for nothing”. Videos of cute things – e.g. animals (especially fluffy ones), babies, etc. – can make a mint; aside from the fortune that Grumpy Cat has brought it, other examples include the video of the ‘stoned’ kid coming back from a trip to the dentist. But not everything is rosy in the garden. Advertising revenues on YouTube, for example, are declining and there is growing competition from other YouTubers. These things aside …

Making money, as is probably obvious, depends on how popular your videos are, which is based on how popular you are, how popular what you do is, and also (probably) has a lot to do with how interactive you are (i.e. making comments) on YouTube and other social media formats (e.g. Twitter).

Ok, let’s get “academic” about this then – not that I’m first to do this, obviously!

To me LPs represent a great example of what autonomist Marxists call ‘cognitive capitalism’ (Yann Moulier Boutang), ‘immaterial labour’ (Maurizio Lazzarato), ‘affective economies’ (Christian Marazzi), etc. Basically, what these thinkers are highlighting is that activities, relationships, emotions, behaviours, tastes, personalities, etc. can all be exploited like physical labour in capitalism. So, when it comes to shopping, we are putting in work as arbiters of taste (e.g. buying fashion magazines, following trends, etc.) as much as labourers in factories somewhere overseas – we are “prosumers”; when it comes to something like social media, we are putting in work through our emotional and social connections to friends and families – Facebook can exploit these links through selling advertising but only because we manage these relationships; when it comes to something like YouTube, we are putting in work as personalities – we are being funny, interesting, etc. in order to monetize our videos. While most LPers are not necessarily doing this – most seem to need to continue in other forms of work – this form of (cognitive, immaterial, affective) work represents both a possibility for liberation from capitalist imperatives and the subsumption of our personalities, emotions, relationships, etc. to those imperatives.