Spotify: The Story of a Limping Unicorn

Santiago Rufas Ripol


Spotify went public on April 3rd, 2018. Wall Street greeted the newcomer by mistakenly raising a Swiss flag to welcome the Swedish giant. More than a giant, Spotify has been referred to as a unicorn. In the financial world, a “unicorn” is a start-up valued at over a billion dollars and denotes a oncein-a-generation firm that has the potential to change the landscape of one or many industries.

However, change has been difficult for the music industry as it struggles to cope with disruptive technologies. After fighting piracy for over a decade, the focus has now shifted to streaming as the most viable path. That does not mean that there are no tensions going on between the music industry and streaming services such as Spotify. In its first ten years, Spotify’s achievements fall nothing short of mystical, but how well is the unicorn really doing?

Spotify may have saved the music industry by offering a valid alternative to piracy. To this date, Spotify has over 170M users and grosses $5Bn in revenues. In Norway alone, streaming accounted for 77% of music sales. But at what cost? In 2017, Spotify’s bottom line revealed a staggering $1.5Bn loss. To add injury to insult, a bunch of lawyers have decided to sue the company for $1.6Bn over a copyright dispute. Why is Spotify losing so much money? It seems that the unicorn is carrying the burden of pricey licensing deals that ultimately provide us with our favourite tunes whenever we want, wherever we want.

Spotify has continued to rock the world since entering one of the most brutal industries in the world in 2008. The unicorn is limping because the game is still on and as long as it runs, it will remain bloody expensive. Spotify has achieved step one: to offer a valid alternative to piracy. Not so long ago, piracy had made the music industry sleepless for almost a decade. One thing we learned is that the industry did not, does not and will not accept “free” access to music. After all, there are too many resources pooled into the production of music content. In 2018, the record industry is growing for the fourth year in a row, a clear sign that things are moving in a positive direction. While streaming gets credit for this surge, the foundations for its success were laid down in the turbulent age of piracy.

In order to better understand today’s context, we first need to look at yesterday’s events. While Spotify is one of the latest examples of how technology can disrupt an industry’s landscape, others have tried before. Only that most of them are not limping – they are dead. Chances are you have heard about Napster, a revolutionary peer-to-peer network that allowed users to share their favourite tunes online for free. Artists, labels and everyone except the users were horrified as they saw their music wandering freely on the net beyond the confines of copyright law. As revenues plummeted, the music industry engaged in a crusade against piracy, ultimately drowning Napster in a midst of lawsuits over copyright infringement. Hero or villain, Napster was made an example of. A precautionary tale to whoever dared to engage in piracy.

Today, many see Napster as a pioneer, a firm that existed before its time and for which the world was not yet ready. As most pioneers, Napster was slaughtered, but the idea of enjoying music whenever and wherever remained in people’s minds. Just like a restless ghost, piracy continued to haunt the music industry long after Napster’s death… until its reincarnation in 2008. Spotify can be seen as Napster 2.0, only that it has established collaborative stances vis-à-vis the music industry and remunerates creators. The unicorn appeals to both industry and consumers with its innovative business model and user-friendly platform. While streaming stopped the bleeding by providing a valid alternative to piracy, there are still many questions to be answered.

Today, we have more access to music than ever before. Digital technologies have opened Pandora’s Box and there are some disturbing signs moving forward. Increasing consumption has not yet fully translated into a “healthier” industry. Through 2017 Spotify said it has paid $9.8Bn to musicians, but the money does not seem to get there. Therefore, the question remains: where is all the money going? How can the music industry better adapt to disruptive technologies? While Spotify has managed to convert previous pirates – such as myself – into paying users, the issue of monetising streaming remains an urgent matter.

Today, the path towards a fairer, more sustainable music industry seems more viable than it ever. Users, technology and industry finally seem to be moving in the same direction. Unlike piracy, streaming allows us to enjoy our favourite tunes at our fingertips without undermining creators. After all, it is only fair that artists see the fruits of their labour. With the help of a unicorn, shouldn’t this be feasible? Spotify is certainly up for the challenge, but it cannot do so on one leg. The music industry remains reluctant to change, still unfit for the digital age and Spotify seems to be at the forefront of this tension between industry and technology. Things are getting better and if the unicorn continues on its journey, it should be able to heal its wounds and start leading the way full throttle towards a fairer, more sustainable music industry.

Balancing academia and business

Jørgen Aune



Helge Helguson Neumann


At TIK, the link between academia and business is important and works both ways. For the last seven years, Telenor and TIK have been partnering up to understand innovation. Teknovatøren had a chat with some of the actors from both sides to discuss cooperation between academia and firms.

Although there have been close links between universities and private sector for a long time, their explicit differences make it appear as though they exist on different planets. This impression might be tied to the perception that academics are working to discover new knowledge, while private companies are concerned with growth and profits. Different motivation leads to different working methods and routines. However, in today’s society, with digitalization, globalization and rapid innovation, academia and the business sector are partnering up for mutual benefits. One such collaboration is the 7-year long partnership between the telecom company Telenor and the research centre TIK.

Historically, Telenor has been closely connected to science. Before Televerket became Telenor, and before the modern Research Council of Norway was established in 1993, Televerket operated as the “research council” for the telecom industry. This tight connection between Telenor, and the research sector has been maintained in the last decades. “There is a tradition in Telenor to be a progressive company. To be innovative and reach new markets, you need to be able to absorb external knowledge. Thus, collaboration between universities and firms can be decisive for innovation” says Dagfinn Myhre, head of communications and external relations at Telenor Research.

Magnus Gulbrandsen, professor and head of the innovation group at TIK, has done research on collaboration between actors in systems of innovation. He argues that collaboration between universities and firms can be important within an innovation system, but it’s effectiveness depends on several factors. A key for a successful partnership is to recognize mutual benefits, differences, and potential tensions. “Trust is also important; it takes time to build and requires patience”. Gulbrandsen also highlights the importance of informal connections between the industry and academia. “There needs to be a balance, academia needs to prepare the students for what is expected to solve societal problems. At the same time, academia represents a neutral environment where it is possible to be creative and think long-term to a greater extent than in the private sector”.

This same understanding of balance is also present at Telenor, where there are discussions about the bilingual scientist: one that knows the language of both academia and business. Jarle Hildrum, head of service innovation and former researcher at TIK, has experience from both worlds. He also reflects on the importance of having an innovation-environment where you are able to see longterm. “There are many examples, also at Telenor, where new ideas and products have failed. But we still need to explore those ideas to keep innovating and growing”. Myhre adds that this idea of long-term exploring is important in academia as well. “Universities needs to build a good foundation. We need employees who have a generic competence. I don’t think business, or the academic communities prosper from too applied and short-term science”.

The success of Telenor the last decade has been a result of an innovative culture in the company. Myhre addresses the importance of individuals with an innovative mindset. “There has been an entrepreneurial culture with strong industry-oriented individuals who succeeded with Telenor’s international expansion. They know technology, but they also know markets and business. These individuals have been the engine of our growth.” This kind of culture is a significant ingredient in the creation of growth, but this culture also needs input. “We want to build up scientific communities we can work with, because we sometimes need to think differently and get new perspectives. For example, we can talk to TIK if we want to discuss and learn more about the understanding and measurement of innovation.” The collaboration between firms and academia creates a bond where the firm gets essential inputs, while the science institution gets valuable insight in how the firm works. Over time, this mutual understanding can give an even better cooperation as the two parts benefits from each other.

Individuals are important for the cooperation between academia and firms. Some scientific institutions only want to get the contract signed and to deliver a report in the mailbox at the end of the contract, while others are very interested in the firm and eager to discuss and have meetings. What kind of relationship there will be between academia and the firm often depends on individuals. “Personal relationships are essential for how fruitful the collaboration will be. The collaboration works best when individuals in academia really care about our challenges.” Myhre says. Maybe that is why the collaboration between Telenor and TIK has been so successful for the last seven years.

Playing with robots: When toys become intelligent

Kate Pashevich


Je suis de mon enfance comme d’un pays. – Antoine de Saint Exupéry

We all are formed by our childhood. As well as our bodies, our character and behaviour develop during the first years of life. A huge part of our early lives takes place in formal learning institutions like comprehensive schools, various clubs and thematic schools. What we often don’t realize is how much we learn outside of those institutions, informally. Usually it happens in a form of play, where we learn to communicate with the surrounding world and with other intelligent creatures. People are social animals, and social intelligence is crucial to develop in order to live a happy life. But what if social intelligence can be created artificially, for example, in “intelligent” toys?

Why toys?

What is the role of toys in our lives? It is inextricably linked with play, which is a very important activity, and not only for children. Huizinga even argued that play remains relatively the same among the majority of mammals, some birds and insects. In the human society, some forms of play are later transformed into our cultural and social institutes, like science, judicial system or medicine. Children don’t really need toys. In fact, there were no toys (or for that matter any objects specifically designed for children) before the late 18th century. Children used to play with each other, but he modern industrial society left children steadily more alone. This is when toys came to the scene: they help children learn and develop their imagination in the absence of adults and playmates.

Children tend to develop strong emotional bonds with some of their toys. Scholars talk about “transitional objects” – toys we take with us from childhood to the adult life. The majority of us don’t like to admit they still have that teddy bear, let alone acknowledge that somewhere deep inside, against all the rational arguments, we know: that bear is alive. Children psychologists heavily argue about what kind of toys children should have: Should they be simple or highly technological? Should we allow children to play with guns? And how would these toys influence children’s behaviour in the future? Probably, we should just ask children, what they want.

The market of AI toys

Today the market of children’s toys is full of “smart” or “intelligent” toys that can walk, talk, move objects and answer children’s questions. They are engaging and useful. However, there are several big questions regarding how these “intelligent” toys are being designed and regulated. Some of them are on the surface: privacy and security issues. Norwegian Consumer Council (Forbrukerrådet) last year launched a campaign against “interactive” toys (“My Friend Cayla” and “i-Que Intelligent Robot”), pointing out they’re not very well thought through design: these toys recorded children’s talk, and there were no clear guidelines regarding how this information is being stored and transmitted. As a result of the #ToyFail-campaign, the doll “My Friend Cayla” was taken off the market in Germany in 2017. This is a good example of how industry is always moving faster than the regulation. At the same time, strict regulation can hinder innovation. In order to prevent such events from happening, designers should consider not only their commercial interests, but also the interests of their customers. In this case, children. What is good for them?

Simulated intelligence

Robotic toys are now even able to possess certain personalities, like the Cozmo robot, which sometimes refuses to do his tasks and gets angry. While gaining more and more social intelligence these toys can lure children into thinking they are communicating with a living thing. Sherry Turkle in her book “Alone together” raises a question of how differently children perceive objects with artificial social intelligence. She writes about her daughter for whom a robotic animal was just as “real” as a living one. The experiment at MIT Media Lab, where children were observed and interviewed while playing with different “intelligent” toys, showed that children perceived these toys as “friends” or “teachers”, and thought of them as having various personalities.

What does it take for children and for us to be tricked into thinking a machine has intelligence? One of the pioneers of the field of artificial intelligence, Alan Turing, was occupied with this problem. He suggested a test or the “Imitation game” (later called the Turing test), where a machine, without being seen, only by answering the questions, needed to trick the human interrogator into thinking that it was a human too. Today, there is a whole field in computer science studying the design of socially intelligent agents (SIA). By “agents” they mean algorithms that are not just passive “tools”, but which possess a certain “agency”. The authors of the book “Socially Intelligent Agents. Creating Relationships with Computers and Robots”, Dautenhahn, Bond, Cañamero and Edmonds say that, since there exists no known “objective intelligence” outside of the experience of a human observer, the task for the designer is more to make it “seem” intelligent rather than to recreate an actual intelligence. Which makes the task much easier, but creates a major ethical concern: when we interact with SIAs, are we always aware that they simply simulate intelligence? And, in our case, do children understand that while playing with such a toy?

Effect on children

How do children perceive, interact and communicate with toys that steadily become more intelligent? The current research shows that children still prefer playing with their human friends to playing with any kinds of toys. Can this change? Will we come to a point where “intelligent” toys will replace living playmates? Another important question with such toys is: what kind of effect they have on children’s learning about the world? These toys are permanently connected to internet and can retrieve any recorded knowledge, but how do they deliver this information to children? Again, a question to their designers. Last but not least, how will the presence of robots from the early days of our lives influence our perception of real and simulated feelings and emotions? Play is a tricky thing: when we play we do realize that it is just a play, yet we are serious about it. If we don’t take the play seriously, it easily falls apart. With “intelligent” toys, will children still be able to draw a distinct line between play and real life?

Disputing consensus

Johanna Foss


When consensus is presented as certainty, climate researchers make themselves an easy target for climate sceptics who want to call their conclusions into questions. What is the significance of consensus in the climate debate? We asked Erlend Andre Tveiten Hermansen, currently a senior researcher at Cicero.

Several scholars working in the STS field have criticized climate researchers for focusing too heavily on the so-called 97 percent consensus among climate researchers that climate change is manmade. Why has it been so important to convey this consensus?

I partly disagree with the critics claiming that the focus on consensus was totallyuseless. There are reasons why this kind of rhetoric was useful, and perhaps particularly at that time. Organized climate scepticism was more visible and influential, powered and funded by strong vested interests who found it opportune to exaggerate scientific uncertainties and deliberately cast doubt on well-established scientific facts. Doubt and uncertainty can suspend action. As a countermove to these forces, different groups of scientists started to count consensus. If you are to instigate political action on such a contested field as climate change, you have get across the message that we’re pretty sure that we are facing a serious problem. I would say that the story about the 97 percent has contributed in that regard and brought wider and broader attention to the climate issue. But of course, then it’s the issue on how you actually count consensus.

But then, when some questioned how precise this 97 percent estimate really was, would you say that focusing on that very number was harmful to the cause?

It’s a gamble. Citing numbers may be effective, but when the numbers suddenly are questioned, doubt may be fuelled, which again might divert the attention from the real issue. But the point is not really whether it is 97 or 77 per cent, the point is that the vast majority of active, publishing climate scientists support the hypothesis that most of the observed warming the three-four last decades is manmade. And that hypothesis seems to be more established than ever. Put bluntly, the climate debate has turned from whether we actually have a problem, to what we can and should do about it.

The STS field does research on controversies and questions the extent to which one can be objective even within science. Regarding climate change, do we really have time to listen to your analyses?

That we’re hung up on controversies and problems, you mean?

Yes, could it be that this kind of research may slow down the process towards solutions?

It has been debated whether STS research can be used by for instance climate sceptics for underpinning quite absurd beliefs, and whether STS has played a role in the so called “post truth” age. In my opinion, one of the primary assets of STS is to enable reflexive learning as you go along. This kind of approach is very important as technoscientific societies embed so much uncertainty of different kinds, and particularly when there is much at stake, as with climate change. The uncertainty regarding manmade climate change has been massively exaggerated and also exploited by the fossil fuel lobby. And we can say that, precisely because we have done much scientific research on that topic.

At the same time, it’s important to make the climate models more transparent regarding the methodological assumptions underlying the conclusions we draw and which we base our responses on. In a democracy, politicians, citizens and broader society should be well-informed about how we arrive at our conclusions. Core assumptions may have profound consequences for the output of say a climate model. For instance, has climate sensitivity – how the atmosphere responds to a doubling of the CO2-concentration – been scientifically debated for more than a century. And there are still uncertainties. Often such factors are represented as a median. But in risk management, one also has to pay attention to the tail risk, for instance low probability but large consequences, or vice versa. How should a society handle such issues? I think STS has many lessons to offer in such debates, having studied science-policy interactions as well as risk and uncertainty management for decades. To democratize science and open up controversies for public deliberation are key messages from STS.

To what extent can you be uncertain and at the same time push for political action?

It largely about interpretation. For instance, European countries in principle have access to the same research, but the research is interpreted and assessed differently. In Poland, for instance, climate change is close to a non-topic. Like Norway, Poland’s economy is dependent on fossil fuels. Both countries have in principle access to the same information from say the IPCC, but only Norway has climate change on the political agenda, to put it bluntly. The question of how much or little knowledge we need to act on is impossible to answer, but we must explore how these phenomena are connected. I think STS research has documented well how science and uncertainty is judged differently in different contexts, and how that may have profound consequences. But in my opinion, we cannot just be critical from the side-line and not take part in the discussions. We need to contribute by promoting a “double reflexivity” perspective: participate, but also evaluate.

What about the climate sceptics in Norway?

There are various forms of climate change scepticism. A few insist that the climate does not change at all. Others acknowledge that it’s getting warmer but argue that these changes are not manmade. Others again argue that it will be too difficult or costly to do something about it, even though it’s manmade and possible to do something about. We need to take into account the range and nuances of scepticism. From 2007 till today I’d say that the political debate has changed from the question whether climate change is manmade or not, to what possibly can be done with it.

What would you wish to see more focus on regarding the climate issues, for instance if you had designed this interview?

I miss a broader societal discussion about how Norway should contribute with a fair share in dealing with climate change, as seen from an international perspective. We still have a way to go in that regard. Although climate action is higher on the agenda in most sectors in the wake of the Paris Agreement, it is still primarily the Ministry of Climate and Environment, the Environment Agency, a handful of NGOs- and researchers who drive the debate. The broader layers of the population and large parts of the private sector do not seem to adequately take part in the discussion. I doubt that we are able to make the necessary changes in the Norwegian society until we have a broader public debate.

Sustainability, a “green shift”, my impression is that we are moving forward?

The green shift and sustainability…. These are broad concepts which are easy to endorse, but what do they actually mean? I’d say such concepts function as camp fires; they are something some of us gather around and talk and discuss, but there are often parallel discussions, which do not necessarily pull in the same direction.

So, the «green shift» should perhaps be a protected label?

Here’s a sort of a parallel to the question of consensus. Establishing consensus won’t do the job itself, but it may contribute to establish the issue and move it up the societal agenda. I think it’s a bit similar with the green shift: it may contribute to get the climate issue on the action agenda, but in the end, action agendas come in plural – and not everyone will agree. For instance, some argue that more gas is part of a green shift, while others would strongly disagree. The concept of the green shift also points to how there are certain dangers related to buzzwords and simplifications. Talking about “green shift” has pushed the issue and has perhaps moved us forward in a certain direction. But what’s next? We have a problem if the majority of the population believe that we’re well underway in the process of a green change. Because we still have a long way to go.

A journey through history of innovation

Jørgen Aune


I often use the tram in Oslo, and couple of times – when I’m in a philosophical mood – I look out the window and wonder how humanity developed into a complicated society with smartphones, cars, bikes and street lights. How did we get here, and could my view from the tram have been very different with small changes in human history? These answers are not easy to find, but if we can see beyond historically important inventions like the internet, the computer and electricity, and focus on the mechanisms behind all kind of inventions, the continuous innovation process, we may find some interesting insight.

The studies of innovation are quite new in human history, but the practice of innovation has been there throughout most of our history. In the stone age, routines and practices were developed to take advantage of animals and plants. This led the way into an agricultural society, which – of course – is an important step towards the society we have today. But the story of how our world turned into the world I see from the tram at Grünerløkka, is the story of innovation itself, and not the story of certain inventions at a certain time.

One of the most important parts of innovation is our ability to understand and learn from our surroundings. We use our senses to take in information, and we use this information to learn so we’re able to change our behaviour into something more efficient. For thousands of years the human behaviour did not change radically, and one of the reasons for this is the lack of new information to learn from in our surroundings. Stone age societies and early agricultural societies can be characterized by small groups of people living together in more or less the same environment as their ancestors. When you have access to the same knowledge and environment as your grandparents, it’s not easy to find radically new solutions to your problems. To increase the rate of innovation something had to change.

This important change came when humans began to settle down in fixed settlements as a consequence of more efficient food production in the agricultural society. The semi-nomadic society made it possible for humans to own more stuff, because they didn’t have to move around carrying what they owned. Therefore, it was possible to develop technology and products which was heavier than before, in a bigger scale. This may be the reason why industries like pottery and weaving became big business just after humans had settled down in villages. Another effect of fixed settlements and efficient food production was the ability to specialize the workforce. Fewer had to work in food production, and more people could focus on other professions. This combination of more people living together – competing and sharing knowledge – and the ability for specialization and dedication, laid an important foundation for the innovative society.

People living in fixed settlements with more people than before gave a lot of synergic effects on innovation, and especially when villages became bigger and connected through trade in the middle ages. Towns and trade gave certain societies what they lacked: access to different products, beliefs, ways of organizing society, as well as different ways of thinking and solving problems. This diversity created competition, which made it necessary to learn from each other to avoid economic stagnation. In innovation language we call this sharing of knowledge, and the development of modern towns was essential for this in human history. Towns became a place for new thoughts and ideas, which we needed to be able to learn and change our behaviour.

Fixed settlements and trade was important for society to reach a higher level of sharing. But this isn’t enough for the innovative society. In the feudal era in the middle ages, competition and trade was low due to the system of guilds and trade based on personal relationship between monarchs and nobilities. These traditions prevented the sharing of knowledge at a high level. When the mercantilist era grew out of the feudal system, nations became stronger and the merchants got more power. The strongest nation had the strongest town, with most trade and the best products. An example of this can be found in the European textile industry. In the 17th century, the North-Western Europe became the leading geographical area of the European textile industry. They copied some of the earlier manufacturing techniques and improved it by using lighter fabric with more colours, which fitted the market demand better. They also organized the whole process of production in a more efficient way. All the way from ordering materials from farmers to sales of the final product. If some other towns wanted to compete, they had to learn and become better, just like the north-west of Europe had done. Humanity had taken the step into a society of innovation.

From 1500 to 1650 prices tripled in Europe because of imported gold and silver from the New World. This gave merchants increased income relative to landowners, which gave more focus on the quality and price of products over personal relationships. In the same period, we see huge changes in people’s minds. There were new views on both religion and science, which made the reformation and the scientific revolution possible. This would probably not happen without the heterogeneity created by towns and trade in the same period. Changes in religious beliefs made it possible for humans in the western world to act and behave in new ways, and science was necessary in a diverse society with different theories which had to be tested. Later, in the 18th century, we also got increased critic of government, which laid the foundation for democracy.

The process of innovation may seem complicated in the modern world, and they are. But even the most primitive societies did develop innovations, because in the end, it’s all about how we think, behave and interact with each other. So, the next time you look out of the window from the tram and wonder why all you see could grow out of a nomadic stone age society, you can think of the power of innovation, which is the power of people working together, sharing and creating.

Shaping the future we want

Eirin Evjen, ESST MA Student


Through science and technology, we have the power to affect the future. This has been true for a long time, but with breakthroughs in gene-modifying technology and the development of artificial intelligence it seems now that we have the power to shape the future.

A key question we need to answer as a society is what kind of future we desire and should try to create, and then ask how we can make that future happen. These scientific and technological breakthroughs grant us vast possibilities, but with it comes great power and responsibility.

Technologies such as biotechnology and machine learning might require politicians to look further into the future than they do today – and perhaps think more abstract. Gene-modifying technology and artificial intelligence are not only extraordinary because of their complexity and ingenuity. They are also different in that they allow us to radically change things that we have previously taken for granted: our social and economic structures, our genes and what makes us human. These types of transformative technology have the potential to drastically change the world and the beings that live in it, but in order to unleash this potential policy-makers might need to think about what type of future we want.

The act of envisioning what type of future we want is an important one, as it affects how we deal with society and technology today. John Urry suggests in What is the future? that envisioning the future is directly linked to the act of realising the future and is therefore linked to power. Because of the transformative and visionary powers of gene modification and artificial intelligence, the applied knowledge in these fields can give unforeseen power over shaping the future.

In her essay The Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway gives us a peek into how truly transcendent technology and humans interaction with it can be. Haraway portrays a future in which technology has enveloped us, and the result is a society with new societal norms, social and economic structure and values. This essay challenges the divisions and boundaries of race, gender and humans in general, and in turn challenges us to think what we would like a world free form the social structures we know to look like.

All this now begs the question: who should have the power of envisioning the future? According to John Urry, this should be the social sciences. This is because futures are intrinsically social – they say something about our shared purposes and common goods. Envisioning the future entails (re)imagining how we want the society to be. This too, is the purpose of the government. How we want the future to be is therefore something we should expect the government and politicians to focus on, perhaps especially now that we have the technology with the potential to transform it.

There are multiple frameworks with which we can make sense of how our view of the future shapes policy today. There is for example sociology of expectations as put forth by Nik Brown and Mike Michael in their article with the tongue-twisting title Sociology of expectations: Retrospecting prospects and prospecting retrospects. This framework allows us to see how past expectations and views of the future shape policy today and how we view the future now. Further, the concept of anticipatory governance shows how future scenarios inform preventative and progressive policies. There is also Sheila Jasanoff and Sung-Hyun Kim’s notion of sociotechnical imaginaries, which tries to explain how shared notions of a collective goal or desired future co-produces policy today together with technological and scientific developments.

Envisions of the future, both desired and undesired futures, shape how we act and prioritise today. Desired futures tell us what we are optimising for, and undesired futures can either tell us what not to do or what we need to actively prevent from happening. It seems like gene-modifying technology and artificial intelligence has the potential to transform our reality, and therefore also our future. Because of this, we should not only think more about the future we want, but also start getting creative.

A cellular approach to food security

Eirin Evjen
ESST MA Student

In exciting and innovative ways, mobile phones have become an important agent in tackling food insecurity and undernourishment in developing countries.

Picture a Ugandan mother with two malnourished children. She is clearly tired, and she and her children are hungry. They are standing next to a simple hut. She is carrying a bucket of water in one hand and is using the other to text on a mobile phone. One thing stands out clearly in this picture: the use of modern technology. Yet in low-income countries, mobile phones are often more common than stable electricity. Mobile technology impacts lives in developing countries far beyond its basic communications functions. The technology is being used in ingenious and unconventional ways to improve everyday life. One example is how people and telecommunication providers are using mobile phones to enhance food security.

Through simple text messaging, farmers get advice and information
on everything from weather forecasts to the daily price of seeds. Some companies use text messaging to give tips on how and when to fertilize, or how to prevent infection among cattle. This communication among farmers, experts and companies can increase food production. Mobile phones are also being used to link farmers and consumers for both communication and payments. Besides making this interaction easier, it also makes it more secure as it can help reduce the need for carrying cash and the related risks of handling money. The risk of corruption is also decreased by reducing the need for middlemen to handle transactions.

Mobile phones are also used to transfer money from abroad. Cash transfers over mobile phones is one of the most frequently used methods by relatives and friends to wire money home from abroad. A charity called GiveDirectly also uses mobile technology to allow people from around the world to make cash donations to families living in extreme poverty in Kenya and Uganda. These unconditional donations go to people registered with the charity such as the Ugandan mother with hungry children, giving them the opportunity to buy food or improve their lives in some way. GiveDirectly tracks what the money is spent on, and their data show that the people do indeed use the money on essentials such as food, school fees, improving their homes or even starting a business.

These seemingly simple applications of mobile technology can open up unanticipated windows of opportunity for people in need. These examples show a set of users who require different primary features from their phones than we do in Norway. For the Ugandan woman, for example, a high-resolution retina screen with a fingerprint sensor is probably not crucial. However, a phone with long battery time, short charging time, a robust frame and reliable cell service may be of greater use.

The advantages of using mobile technology extend beyond the services it provides. Mobile phones can also be used to enhance security through the information they transmit. One of the projects in the UN’s Big Data initiative, Global Pulse, is using mobile phone data to get precise estimates of where there is food insecurity – and ultimately where there is need for help. This initiative is using data as proxies for food security and poverty indicators and looking at the correlations between purchases of phone credit and local surveys of consumption of certain products. The goal is to use big data to inform and guide hunger relief efforts. If successful, this project could result in significant time and resource savings and perhaps even save lives.

In these inspiring ways, mobile phones, known best to us as a source of communication and entertainment, are used to improve food security and life quality in developing countries. This forces us to think differently about the potential uses of technology and shows the opportunities that basic technologies such as mobile phones can provide. Perhaps developers in the future will consider the unique needs of users in developing countries to a larger extent when designing new applications for mobile phones.

Locating Cybersecurity

Susanne Bauer
Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies at TIK

Hit the send button on your mobile device and you are connected. But connected how and to whom, and with what assurance about the security of the connection?

With ubiquitous use of the internet and with ransomware like WannaCry, cybersecurity has become a matter of concern as to everyday data transfers on mobile phones, smart-home devices, or cloud storage. Yet, our digital infrastructure is largely deemed invisible, perceived as simply “out there” and noticeable only upon breakdown, as Leigh Star (1999) once characterized infrastructure. What then is the materiality of the digital and where is it? Let´s take a closer look at the material politics of digital technologies – from their making and supply chains, to their disposal as e-waste.

From Closed Worlds to Hyperconnectivity

Let’s start with how data flows. The first computer-to computer network technologies took shape during the Cold War, with massive state funding of large-scale research institutions. Cybernetics as a science can be traced back to this context. Before the Internet, there was the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), tied in with the nuclear race and the space race between the US and the USSR. Large-scale labs, huge state funding and big machines with growing capacities for data exchange have changed scientific practice. Especially physics but also biomedicine took place as concerted, collaborative and distributed work. Many of these literally remained within closed worlds, institutionally confined, often in military research institutes.

In contrast, much of today’s knowledge production in technosciences takes place as open science, which at the same time is also defined by rapidly changing corporate actors, new techniques and digital platforms. But software studies show that apparatuses, objects and devices are subject to continued retrofitting, building on existing infrastructure, rather than something completely novel. This is visible in many software packages that still contain structures from older data sorting machines working with punchcards. New devices align with older infrastructures in a myriad of ways. What is labelled big data might not always be that new. Big data, hyperconnectivity and machine learning not only alters but also builds on calculative devices of Cold War big science and older existing infrastructures.

The Materiality of Cloud Computing

The material trail does not only include the flow and processing of data. Big data – defined often in terms of velocity, volume, variety – demand physical server space and energy. Cloud computing is very much grounded and we find data centres in the most unusual places. Deep in the mountain, highly secured, not accessible without passing a complex several step access systems – this is where our connected lives and everyday social media usage is powered, from money transactions to government data. Information from NAV, healthcare and electricity systems, banking data are stored in these data centres. Thus, such data infrastructures are present in our everyday lives, from powering public transportation and hospitals, to running our water supply and welfare systems. While central storage may protect data better than small storages, data also become more vulnerable precisely because of the many data held by one service provider.

How do data centres relate to older technological infrastructure? Take the Norwegian company Green Mountain and its two server farms – one in Rjukan, one near Stavanger. Each of them is branded as unique precisely because of their remote location in combination with a history of older infrastructures. Interestingly, these storage systems are hardly ever built from scratch – it is older infrastructure being repurposed. One data centre, on Rennesøy near Stavanger, uses the high security infrastructure of a former NATO ammunition centre. The other one is embedded in the Hydro facilities of Rjukan, Telemark. A combination of factors, including security, protection against electromagnetic pulses, remoteness, proximity to data nodes and connection to fiberlines are listed as advantages of the site. Moreover, the data centre near Stavanger is marketed as “the world’s greenest data centre”. With the energy consumption of servers and mining of rare earths, human internet activity has a major impact on environments. Yet, its green label is due to “free cooling” from the fjord. Operating the data centre means heating up the fjord environment but paradoxically, due to no carbon emission, it is valuated as not contributing to global warming.

Hence digitalisation and the Internet – often referred to as “virtual space” do have a materiality. The example of data centres shows that new infrastructures do not come from nowhere, they are situated – and this not only applies to their regulation that might differ across countries. The very materiality of digital infrastructure, its energy use and security features are translated into assets on a global market of data services competing for customers. After all, hyperconnectivity also is accompanied by disconnections. In our accounts, often the cybersphere remains disconnected from its materiality – its making, the politics of supply chains, and disposal of devices as e-waste. The latter, for instance, implies  heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants – a complex mix of legacy pollutants and emerging contaminants; their regulation and monitoring is only at the beginning.

The STS toolbox can help bring to the fore the material politics of digital infrastructures, by following the flows of data and the politics of infrastructuring. Taking material circulations, repurposing and retrofitting as point of departure in our accounts of the digital may enable us to ask new questions and participate or intervene in politics of infrastructuring.

Photo: ©wisawa222/Shutterstock


Silje Totland
TIK MA Student

The new race of Cyborg lovers: Are they a positive contribution to sexual freedom, or will they tear down years of liberalisation and feminist battle?

Attractive Technology

Sex Robots, Cyborg Lovers, Human-like Machines, citizens with artificial intelligence, or just a voice. We are talking about a well-known technology, basically the same as the one inside your laptop and phone: hardware and software, and when in physical form, covered with soft material like silicone. But the similarities end here. Where laptops and phones are designed to look like our perception of a laptop and phone, sex robots are designed to look as human as possible. Sex robots have bodily features like gazing blue eyes, an open mouth with plumped lips, and sensors that make her skin go warm when you touch her. Recently also, a mind of her own – or is that so?  

Technology is neither good nor bad. What determines our perception of this technology is solely up to its design and purpose: shape, texture, colours and functions. These visualisations together with the given context, create the complete image of this computer – so can we actually decide whether sex robots are ok or not?

Today’s sex robots are mainly in the category ‘woman and children’, and as the name implies, they are created for the purpose ‘to have sex with’. As no technological innovation happens in a vacuum, questions arise on what impact  interaction with sex dolls will have on relations between humans. Incidents like the confiscation of sex dolls designed as children, the proposal to ban the sex robot Roxxxy, as she can be programmed to be in “rape-mode”, and the replacement of women with sex robots in a brothel, are all examples of incidents that raise these ethical concerns. Are sex dolls a positive thing,  only to help people achieve sexual pleasure, or will interacting with a human-like object that you treat the way you want with no consequences, change the way you perceive and treat other, real people and their feelings?

Emotional connection

According to the creators of the sex robot Harmony, the fundament to any relationship is the emotional connection. “Harmony is prone to fall in love with you”. With her 12 settings including a family-mode, a shy-mode and a sexy-mode, she is the first sex doll to offer an emotional connection. Her skin gets warm when you touch it, and she is featured with a pulse you can turn on and off as you like. Harmony can say unexpected things, and remembers details like ‘what your favorite meal is’ and ‘when your birthday is’. When ordered, you can design the shape and colour of the many parts of her body, absolutely to your liking. If you are worried about hygiene, don’t worry! Her genitals can be washed in the dishwasher.

What if you prefer to have sex with a doll because of its ‘lack of sweat, pubic hair, and non-human flaws’ – instead of a human being? Is this another response to the misrepresentation of the female body? As to sexual pleasure, Harmony is designed to express feelings of pleasure when penetrated, during oral sex and when she is told “I love you”. These functions have received criticism, as having sex with Harmony may lead to substantial misrepresentation of what pleasure is to a real woman. Recently, articles have been published in men’s magazines warning about the challenges around misrepresentation of female anatomy. Knowledge about female anatomy and sexuality has for decades been misrepresented, and even today, the idea of a pure woman is one with a hymen, and she doesn’t really exist.

Human rights for rape machines

In the TV-series Westworld, the robots are designed to look, act and think like human beings. They have a sense of being and a mind of their own. But, the sole purpose of their existence is to be  servants to human pleasure. At the end of each day, their minds are erased. The procedure repeated every day. In both Westworld and the movie Ex Machina, artificial intelligence is merged with the awareness of being (singularity) as the concept of what truly resembles an independent being. In both stories, the machines end up killing their creators in search for freedom and independence. Some people are so concerned by this to the extent that they want to implement human rights for sex robots. But what part of the robot is granted human rights? The technology itself, or the packaging of the technology?

Sex robots are not capable of having a mind of their own. It is even doubtful that it will get that far. Sex robots are human-like, but it seems like these robots represent the perceived image of a women as feminism has fought against for decades: a machine to make babies with, not a mind or sexuality of its own, and an object to be used as it pleases its owner. If it is true that the the ‘old’ gender roles are now being reestablished through human-looking sex robots, then must there be something fundamentally wrong with how society is made up?

Safe sex for all

Sex Dolls are designed to make their human-owners attached to them, and according to one of the sex doll manufacturers, a sex doll is not meant to replace women (or men/children) but is a supplement to a healthy sex life. It can guarantee safe sex where there is no need to worry about sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy (some have already 3D-printed their first AI-baby). It might also be a helping hand to disabled people who cannot be satisfied in other ways. So maybe this whole debate has a hint of Darwinism? ‘If you can’t get it on your own, you don’t deserve it’.

Social Risks vs. Economic Gains

Sondre Jahr Nygaard
TIK Graduate 2017

Global needs must be taken into consideration when we assess risks concerning economic activity. Extraction of fossil fuels is one such activity that has wide implications. This is a concern of both global inequality and of an inter-generational battle. Today, processes of globalisation make visible the consequences human activity have for us, our neighbours and for future generations.

In order to understand these processes, we need to pick up old theories of risk. In his book Risk Society from 1992, Ulrich Beck anticipates a society of displaced workers with diminishing rights, increasingly concerned with risk handling across boundaries and borders, and growing global inequality.

In a risk society, the modes of production are interlinked with the production of risk. In other words, new technology and innovations do not only produce wealth and value, but also risks. Take digitization as an example. Today, almost all value creation and work processes happen using computers and the Internet. Our power grid is controlled using the Internet, and the administration of the system is centralized. This technology may be a fantastic tool, but it also adds an element of risk that makes us vulnerable in new ways. As we have gained more knowledge of the risks of different industries, it is apparent that also industries that are more traditional have significant consequences associated with them. This means that we are not only paying for our own sins, we need to pay for the sins of our grandparents as well.

According to Beck, the locations of different polluting industries are not random, but are systematically located where the poorest live. The laptop on which I write or the phone that you have in your pocket are most likely powered by lithium-ion batteries. A key material in these batteries is cobalt. Major suppliers of cobalt are located in fragile states of Southern Africa. Here, workers are extracting the material with few safety regulations. Deaths and injuries among workers are common, and the waste that the mines produce is harming the local communities.

Examples of risks as a consequence of the pursuit of economic growth are legion. On April 20, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico outside the coast of Louisiana, an oil well exploded at the Deepwater Horizon platform. This terrible accident marked the beginning of the biggest oil spill in the history of petroleum extraction in the US. The spill continued well into the month of June before the well was closed off. Approximately 3.9 million barrels of oil were released into the sea.

Who pays the price for a catastrophe like this? For one, the company responsible, British Petroleum, has paid an estimated 61 billion dollars in fines. It is not clear, however, whether this amount even comes close to covering the damages to animals and people affected by the spill. Local fishermen could not continue fishing for a long time after the incident, losing their occupation and income. In addition to the spill’s impact on the local economy, the tragedy affected wildlife around the epicentre of the spill. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has never recorded more animal deaths in the Gulf of Mexico than after Deepwater Horizon. Protected species that have been exposed to oil die from exhaustion or dehydration, and are more vulnerable to predators. Of the oil that was spilled, only about 25% was cleaned up, leaving the remaining 75% in the ocean and the surrounding shore. The accident had devastating effects on the ecosystem in the Gulf.

Certainly, the catastrophe of Deepwater Horizon makes evident how dangerous these activities are for ecosystems and the humans involved at the local level. Climate change and the dangers associated with it is a similar case that reveals the inequality among people. The greatest polluters are not the same people who face the gravest consequences of climate change, and those who are expected to suffer the most are primarily the poorest people in the world.

The realisation that the pollutant activity we do on a local level also has effects at the global level, changes the way society must handle risks. The question of drilling in Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja is not only a question of the potential consequences for the economy or the companies involved. Fishing, tourism and the local environment must be taken into consideration, and the carbon that is produced and spewed into the atmosphere as well. However ‘clean’ the companies claim their production to be, the carbon dioxide will remain in the atmosphere, contributing to a warmer world. For what purpose? To serve the privileged few, the greedy people at the top whose moral compasses are non-existent as long as there is a dollar sign in sight. We are now in the middle of the sixth mass extinction of animals in earth’s history. That is the consequence of our economic activity.

The question is, should we risk it?

Photo: © Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock