CfP: Scales, Norms, and Limit Values in Times of (Digital) Change

Technical Museum Vienna | University of Vienna, 17.-19. September 2021

Scales, norms and limit values regulate procedures within production lines and transnational infrastructures; they pervade hospital wards and university lectures; they fill scientific journals and bureaucratic regulations. Scales occur in science, medicine and technology alike, and have become ubiquitous in everyday life. Scale readings help to control devices and machines. They are often the interface that users rely on. Norms, for the most part, are based on combined scales, for example technical measures and medical indicators. This is true regardless in which format a standard was defined (DIN, ISO, TGL or the ГОСТ-formats of the former USSR). Limit values are legal and technical specifications; they play an important role in long-term planning, but also in risk communication and the regulation of public life. Not least, the format of this planned conference depends crucially on the R-value in late summer. Limit values make it possible to read the environment in terms of infectiousness, toxicity or radiation exposure. But how are threshold values implemented? Does the »counter-knowledge« of citizens’ action committees or the citizen science movement contribute to their formulation?

Measurement and evaluation procedures pervade sciences and humanities alike. But a differentiated study of the scales employed in this process is still pending in the history of science, medicine and technology. And what is more, ratings, rankings and indicators draw criticism. Established scales hide possible alternatives and spaces for negotiation. In the data age, however, they are becoming more and more widespread, and are more and more freely available. It is easy to lose sight of how indeterminate many natural dimensions still were in the early modern era or the 18th century. An exact measurement scale of temperature, for example, was not available at that time.
It first had to be developed and demanded laborious intellectual and contractual negotiation. Many universal measurement units and standards arise from competitive situations, which are surprisingly national and spearheaded by industry. However, once established, the scale of temperature enabled new practices. In the 19th century, the clinical thermometer changed the view of the body and translated symptoms into data. It had ramifications as far as India, where Ayurvedic medicine and colonial medicine were newly conciliated through this instrument. The complex relationships that scales are able to mediate are brought to light when practices of scaling or data practices are investigated.

The joint annual conference of the GTG and the GWMT is therefore dedicated to the role of scales in science, medicine and technology, in particular with regard to the formation of technical norms, standards and limit values. Which are the intellectual and social negotiations necessary to produce scales of measurement? Conversely, how do they influence how we conceive of nature, the body, technology, social conditions and the individual? How did standardization and norm-setting processes take course in the Middle Ages or in data-based genetics? What role is ascribed to indicators in generating a semblance of objectivity? In what way and with which consequences do scales create coherence in visualized representation (graphs, diagrams, temperature curves, maps, timelines, etc.)? What does the layer of control expressed in scales, norms and limit values constitute, given that this regulation pervades our living environment and the assembled machines and apparatuses of the Technosphere? Which individual and collective practices can be observed in digital data regimes? What conclusions does the history of big data provide for science and administration? How and by whom were data generated in the history of statistics? How does the interaction of pragmatic warning levels with complex statistical scales work out in the current pandemic? How do we interact with scales and vice versa?

Three subject areas deserve special attention:

1)    Scales and the Indexing of Materiality in Environmentalism and Economics
Scales are involved in a variety of ways in the indexing, exploitation and management of materiality. This is true for the specific density of substances, for medical-diagnostic parameters, for the history of global resource balances, and for the trajectories of matter essential to war or the colonial extraction of raw materials. In dealing with environmental phenomena and climatic change, various scales, norms and standards were developed, discussed and rejected (e.g. the combination of small and large scales in dynamic climate modeling, climate vulnerability indicators, the theory of scales in statistics, energy-based units of ecological economics). Emission values, pollutant indicators and limit values measure, regulate and normalize human existence in the world. They shape the relationship between people and the environment. Supply chains and logistics play a central role in making material available. Yet, the scalability of supply chains is not unlimited, and the non-scalable residuals of a particular material flow have been pointed out recently.
Research on the history of technology from the field of environmental and energy history is of interest here, as are »alternative« and »green technologies«, research on security, criticality and the history of infrastructure, on risk and technology assessment. What role do both technical and social norms and benchmarks play in the development and evaluation of technology? How does the view of a technological system change due to new measurement regimes or the new availability of data? What triggers ruptures in the perception and employment of technical systems, and when is their legal framework affected by change?

2)    Human Scales and Human Proportions
The measurement of the human body and its capabilities is closely linked to discourses on norms, »race«, heredity, and gender, as well as concepts of normality and deviance. On the one hand, there are quantifying approaches in anthropometry, intelligence testing, psychological characterology, and the clinical scores of personalized and evidence-based medicine, which are supposed to make people measurable and comparable. On the other hand, the human body has been providing the basic measure or the just proportion, which shaped the encounter with the world throughout architecture, art and design. This proportionality of the body is only fractured, when techniques of magnifying, metricizing, imaging and datafying begin to be applied. In Antiquity, the »doctrine of the critical days« of Hippocratic medicine sought to periodize the disease. In the Middle Ages, it was the harmonies of music which, with their ascending scales, seemed accessible to a mathematical order and which served as models for measurement. The intervals of musical scales turned out to be culture-specific, which lead to the development of ethnomusicology. From the color scales of early modern uroscopy to the display of false colors in modern imaging processes, scales, classifications and categorizations play a central role in experimental cultures. In the 20th century, the abandonment of Fordist concepts and automation efforts was often seen as the »humanization« of production. However, mixtures and conflicts of human versus technical units and dimensions, are still prevalent. Technical standards alike produce inclusions and exclusions of human and animal kinds, regarding their gender, race and disability. Norms and types are deeply inscribed in historical data collection and statistical categorizations. But how does a self-learning, artificial neural network unlearn the bias towards racist classification and the stigmatization of deviance?
In medicine, not only has the materiality of the patient’s body been metrically developed since the 19th century and thus made supposedly objectifiable, but also immaterial things such as pain, psychological complaints or the need for therapy are quantified by scores, and treatments are statistically evaluated by EBM. This leads to an abundance of scales that have either been static for decades, as in the case of blood values, or are in a constant flow of negotiation processes. What is the history of scales in medical research and practice? How are these instruments developed, read, misinterpreted and willfully ignored? How do measured values, scales and scores create material reality and thus shape the practical world structure between doctors, patients and science?

3) Global and Planetary Scales
Within the range of subdisciplines present at the joint annual conference, there is a trend towards large scale research perspectives: historical pandemic research reconstructs transcontinental epidemics of the last millennia. Infrastructures cross national borders and are strategically expanded by Europe in the colonial era. The objects of research themselves can be of considerable dimensions. The history of astronomy and geology have inevitably dealt with deep time and vast spatial dimensions. As of late, geologists have begun defining the new geological epoch of the Anthropocene based on stratigraphic markers. Global histories of science, medicine and technology question familiar narratives and supposedly »universal« explanations. However, does the investigation of non-European knowledge lead to new universalisms? How is it possible nevertheless for non-European technologies and forms of knowledge to be appreciated beyond colonial perspectives? Which conceptions of time do different scientific disciplines employ?

Another focus of the conference, which runs through all three subject areas, is the linking of scales with the material heritage. This strong nexus is documented in the extensive collections of the Technical Museum Vienna, and other scientific and medical history museums. A day of collections and archives will be offered in the run-up to the joint GTG and GWMT conference (16.9.2021, please refer to the conference website). There are also excursions and object lessons on the program (17.9.21). Separate calls for topics are circulating for the Forum History of the Life Sciences and the meeting of the Driburger Kreis, which this year is being held together with the GTG’s young scholars conference.

Deadline, abstracts, and the question of presence
Submissions of individual papers (30 minutes per paper including discussion) or panels (for four papers of 30 minutes each including discussion, three papers usually with commentary) are welcome. Suggestions for innovative formats will be examined with interest.
If the quality is the same, preference is given to panels that span academic generations and reflect diversity. Interdisciplinary papers are expressly invited. Contributions beyond the conference topic are possible to a limited extent. The two societies invite the presentation of newly approved research projects relating to the history of science, medicine and technology. A reimbursement of travel expenses will not be possible. The conference fee is reduced for members of one of the two organizing societies.
If the overall epidemic situation will not allow face-to-face meetings in autumn, contributors will be informed after submission about the possible change to a full online format. We understand submitted contributions as binding offers for the two possible formats online or personal attendance. For proposals for individual papers, an abstract and a short biography are required (max. 1 page); in the case of panels, the abstracts of the individual contributions are supplemented by a general abstract and include a title for the whole panel.

Contributions must be submitted by 7th April 2021, via the conference website.