ISSUE 2. Habitat, democracy and knowledge: an epistemic, ethical and political debate. By Aura R. Cruz Aburto


17 Nov

This is not embellish already concluded techno-scientific processes or to give them the license of “social sustainability”. The real challenge consists in bringing, or recognizing when they have begun, public participation and open democratic discussion into the initial phase of defining the technoscience agenda.  (Buchi, 2006, p. 95)

Preamble 

Not so long ago, Mexico's current president, López Obrador, made statements that were scandalous to the guilds associated with the design and production of housing: it had been decided to grant credits directly to the inhabitants for the self-construction of their homes, with a view to encourage the recruitment of local labor and thus benefiting the base of the pyramid. When this initiative was publicly exposed, reference was made to the results of the production of social housing resulting from the policies of the six-year administration period led by former president Vicente Fox, which continued until the administration prior to the current one, the effect of which was the construction of large housing developments of social interest, usually extremely removed from urban centers , which ended, on not a few occasions, in a state of free abandonment.   Presidential statements also alluded to the value of construction workers' knowledge, linking them to the country's ancestral builders, and questioned the need for the participation of architects and engineers. 

As a result, the guilds alluded took the statements as a public contempt for their knowledge and work. In  general, however, the complainers did not express any inconvenience with regard to the ethical and social questioning that was pointed out, underlying the enrichment of social housing developers and real estate corporations responsible for massive construction of dysfunctional housing complexes. 

Thus, a discussion was sparked within the architectural guild about the role of the professionals and the communities of inhabitants and how to understand the production of habitat itself. There were even round table discussions where various positions were addressed. On the one hand, the questioning of real estate corporations, the exchange of knowledge necessary in this process of housing production was raised. On the other hand, calling to maintain the diversity of the forms of supply housing production according to a market point of view. In other words, the goal of this text is to propose; under the light of the new ways of post-academic production "science (and technique)," the development of new forms of interaction between experts and society (Buchi, 2006), and the role of the media in exposing the work of technicians; the various aspects of discussion – epistemic, ethical and political – which are woven into this problem and if identified, this will allow to establish a more robust position with regard to the discussion, perhaps, will lead to the outline of a more complex and fruitful proposal for addressing the problem of the social production of the habitat.

Between political dimension of technique and epidemic impurity   

Some general background: Post-academic technoscience

 I will begin by setting out some general concepts from the Social Studies of Science and Technology, considering that both architects and engineers and, in general, certified technicians in habitat design and construction belong to the fabric of current techno-scientific production focused primarily on habitat production. 

In the current times, science occurs in a way that is quite different from that of the post-war "Big Science", as the social and political conditions of the world have also changed significantly. Gibbons, together with their co-authors (1994), have identified a number of characteristics of the Mode 2 of science production, current mode, among which, first, a difficult discernibility between scientific activity of the technique (the field of applicability); secondly, a vast diversity of agents involved in its production, in addition to the State and universities, knowledge producers have multiplied significantly by now, including private initiative among their ranks in such a way that it has eventually become a decisive Factor;  thirdly, this is a mode of production in which, as a result, the principles that guide this research go beyond traditional epistemic values, including a wide variety of ethical, economic, political values, among others. This new way of research production is much more local, contextual, and, because it is more applicability-oriented, often involving a wide variety of disciplines.

On the other hand, this science, referred to by Buchi (2006) as "post-academic" also faces much more intense public scrutiny than in the previous mode of production in part, motivated by the emergence of a society that has already experienced the effects of the first era of modern science and which, in a certain way, it recognizes its desirable and pernicious effects, that is, a society of risk that "inhabits" within Beck's "reflective modernity" (1986). Likewise, the role of the media plays an important role in science communication but not so much or not merely as a scientific disseminator. I would like a technocratic approach like Buchi (2006) proposes –as a space for exposing the effects of techno-scientific activity and its public scrutiny; that is, it is not necessarily a question of validated scientific work or evangelizing lay people, but of exposing scientific work as it has consequences on public life and not merely in terms of its epistemic purposes, as well as confronting this work with public opinion and its demands. 

Finally, the techno-scientific practice today also incorporates society or, rather, society  has been incorporated on the basis of hard political work,  which has led to phenomena such as citizen science and hybrid forums where the notions of producers and consumers of scientific production are blurred.

Epidemic impurity and inductive risk or how science is not merely a matter of truth (and so on) 

In the current context of science and technology, described in the preceding paragraphs, the actors involved have multiplied and with them the values and interests at stake. However,  there is more to notice. In  other words, the philosopher Heather Douglas, even at the core of  this practice, regardless of the increase in its complexity, it should be considered that both epistemic and non-epidemic values are involved not only contextually, but in its very intrinsic production process. On the one hand, Douglas points out that,  there are always values at stake at three times before and after scientific production as such: when selecting a research topic, in considering the consequences of certain use of the knowledge produced, as well as in the establishment of certain ethical limits in methodological processes. However, in addition to three external moments of the process of scientific research, there is a fourth area where values operate but, in this case, it happens inside, and it is related to the concept of inductive risk. 

To account for the aforementioned phenomenon, Douglas takes charge of the concept of inductive risk coined by Hempel and extends it. In principle, Hempel raises the idea of inductive risk as it arises when there is a possibility that the choice of a hypothesis will turn out wrong. This risk, typical of inductive processes where logical certainty does not exist, it involves a decision-making that bets on a certain hypothesis on the basis, Hempel will say, of certain epistemic values: reliability, extensivity and systematization. In addition to the role of epistemic values in the theoretical selection (hypothesis), Douglas recovers from McMullin that they play an important role also throughout scientific work such as methods selection, data collection and their respective interpretation. 

However, for Douglas, Hempel has fallen short as he has excluded the role of non-epistemic values in inductive risk, which she will introduce. In addition to the epistemic values at stake, in scenarios where the selection of a hypothesis involves clear non-epistemic consequences (ethical, political, economic problems, etc.) , then it will be necessary to focus on selection through non-epistemic values, such as precisely the scenarios in which risk is potentially serious. Douglas's work therefore also pays for the abandonment of the technocratic ideal free from the intervention of non-epistemic values (the supposed neutrality of the scientist and the technician)  and which, subsequently, will allow the problem of the relationship between technique and politics to be developed in more detail.

Technique and democracy 

No innovation without representation! (Latour, 2004)

The technocratic ideal, debated here, comes from the ignorance of the layman is the one that takes him away from the acceptance of techno-scientific initiatives. However, as Buchi (2006) demonstrates, this argument is difficult to sustain. In principle, today we witness an increasingly affordable transparency of scientific production processes where monolithic consensus does not necessarily exist in the scientific community itself on all subjects, in fact, it is possible to appreciate that in order to reach these consensuses various rival theories are discussed and this is rather the most common process of their production. On the other hand, as discussed in the preceding paragraphs, it is naïve and, paradoxically perverse to talk about value-free science, since, on the one hand, in terms of inductive risk non-epistemic values play an important role in the internal process of techno-scientific production, as well as there are obviously also present in the field outside the research process. 

Therefore, technocracy as an ideal of neutrality is not sustained and, although, at times, both politicians and society itself would like to find the backlog of, a unequivocal technical certainty, it is impossible to escape the prudential realm where debate, gamble and the assumption of responsibility is inescapable. This leads us to the necessary questioning of what are the truly effective processes of participation for decision-making in techno-scientific matters, that is, it confronts us with the problem of democracy.

Participation processes: from referendum to citizen science 

From the questioning of the technocratic ideal, it is possible to see that technoscience far from approaching certainty and moving away from the need for deliberation and, even more decisively, from the co-production of knowledge, it would have to bring us closer since it involves non-epistemic values and, moreover, has a decisive relevance in the making of the world today. It is also a space where the claim is no longer only limited to transparency, even if it implies it, but has also has seen phenomena such as hybrid forums and citizen science emerge that involves the political battle for the determination of research programs motivated by citizen interests that also coexist with agendas sponsored by agents of private initiative, among other forms of scientific production.

The case of housing: technical and political  

The hybrid nature of the objects of contemporary technoscience and the processes of co-production that give rise to it constantly contradict this illusion of neutrality. A safety belt with locks automatically, or a car programmed not the start if the driver has not fastened his/her safety belt, ensures the adoption of certain behaviors deemed safer or socially desirable. They are no longer mere technological objects but hybrids embodying a moral and socio-political vision. (Buchi, 2006) 

The production of the spaces we inhabit involves the encounter of technique with social imaginaries. This involves the dispute of world models for being materialized. Therefore, the fact that professional guilds as well as industrial groups see their activity questioned, which goes beyond the scope of technology, also implies a political dispute and, therefore, the confrontation of values. In the case that it is discussed in this text, the preamble has been exposed in the background: the Mexican federal government has launched an initiative that aims to mobilize the economy of the most unprotected from the impulse of self-construction, which has accompanied a critique of ethical conduct to housing industrialists and which, in turn,, has put on the table the questioning of the role of the architect and engineer in housing production while highlighting popular knowledge. From this event, various trade union debates were sparked. One of them, carried out among architectural professionals and convened by the architecture magazine Arquine, a number of arguments were presented from which it is possible to distinguish two fundamental positions: the expert-centered[1]  proposal,  from which it defended itself from the need for a space for the coexistence of initiatives that included more traditional market practices for the supply of urban social housing; and on the other hand, the position of social production of habitat where the importance of "exchange of knowledge" between architects and communities and the political potential of communities were central. In this way, we have three positions to discuss in the light of the theoretical approaches set out in the first section of this text: the government proposal, the technocratic cutting proposal and, finally, the proposal for social production of habitat. From overconfidence in individual ethics: the government proposal Housing policies from the last three previous presidential administrations were generally failed, particularly regarding the massive production of housing completely detached from urban centers and of dubious quality not only constructive but as spatial support for the development of existence. However, it is not enough to withdraw public policy from these practices and, while there are certainly a large number of people who have non-certified knowledge of construction, it is also true that the formation of a consistent and dignified habitat is not through isolated efforts but through the political organization of communities, which includes, or at least, could include its experts. Therefore, the direct allocation of economic resources, on the one hand, implies recognition of the popular knowledge about construction but certainly does not pay for the exchange and enrichment of certified knowledge nor does it encourage the political organization of the communities, that is where their bargaining force resides. Therefore, while the government proposal has the goodness of an act of rectification to epistemic injustices (Fricker, 2007), it omits exchange with recognized technical knowledge, leaving aside the very nature of the technical modes of production typical of these times (Gibbons et. al., 1994) and, moreover, suffers from the lack of a political dimension that restores citizens to their organized decision-making power (which, by the way, is not so strange if we cater to Ulrich Beck's criticism of the development of social democracy that diluted the political impulse of the collective in favor of the formation of atomized citizens, which later was certainly the perfect fertilizer for the development of the neoliberal model).

The technocratic model: Between producers and users of the technique In the context of the debate discussed here, the expert-centered or technocratic-focused model was intended to dilute antagonism with the proposal of social production of habitat by arguing that these were not two models in competition but could coexist since they met different market-specific demands (we already have a problem here if we think of the proposal of social production of habitat as a market issue). However, delving into the proposal, the work that was enrolled and exemplified consisted of the defense of housing production by real estate companies contracting architectural firms that, although they propose and defend the way in which the housing is also a city producer, it lack the participation of the inhabitants who, in this form of housing production, will be reduce. In any case, their consideration will end up reducing them to non-agency objects whose demographics and market preferences will serve to configure the "customer" profile. In this way, the model that this position defends continues to consider an old division between producers and consumers of technical artifacts, in this case, housing, where decision-making power will continue to be in the hands of those who assume that "know more". On the other hand, as already noted, putting the decisive emphasis on "the market" already gives away this position and its neoliberal budgets. It was also argued with this proposal that a democratizing spirit was shared, however, its approach was literally expressed as "democratization of knowledge", thus referencing the "evangelizing" stance of technocracy that is based on the necessary achievement between techno-scientific knowledge and development, which, once again, gives away an invisibility of citizens in regards to their active participation in habitat production and their associated knowledge. 

Finally, it was stated that "it was certainly important to consider what happened after housing was produced", that is, the processes of post-design appropriation and post-construction when referencing processes of community organization in the social production of habitat. The problem with this assessment is to think that these processes only appear once the housing production is completed, this once again denies the agency of the inhabitants from the production of their habitat and from the very process of design.                

In general terms, it was expressed first that excessively charged confidence towards knowledge of a certified expert and a separation between producers and users of the technique was maintained without even understanding the phenomena where epistemic networks are in fact active producing forms of existence from the exchange of knowledge, community organization, as well as dialogue and debate between values. It would seem that the starting point, as far as values are concerned, only considers those to which it attributes universal character and which, of course, are those of the expert.The political dimension of habitat’s social production Probably the most enriched position in terms of the relationship between technique and democracy is that of social production of habitat. This consists of the formation, on the one hand, of technical frames that know how to work with people and, on the other hand, the incentive of community organization and their respective political training. From the recognition and formation of these two collective agents, the development of social production of habitat is proposed which does not come down to the mere production of housing as a building, but extends to a way of inhabiting the territory both in its cultural dimension and in its relationship and knowledge of the environment. In this way, it is sought that the communities themselves recover and reevaluate their own knowledge, which is always linked to an in-depth knowledge of their context and that they have been pushed aside as a result of the experience of various epistemic injustices. In addition, this habitat production model emphasizes the fundamental role of knowledge sharing between communities and certified professionals. 

In this model it is undeniable the presence of epistemic networks where the idea between producer and user of the technique has been diluted. The work of recovering the power over themselves from the community and the political formation of the community puts on the table the recognition that producing habitats is more than just a technical action, it is an embodiment of values and willingness to develop ways of life. Likewise, the technician recognizes that his technical action involves, in addition to knowledge, also and without escape, ethical-political dimensions: the inductive risk of choosing a given technical practice has such clear non-epistemic consequences, so it is impossible to ignore the role of the corresponding values at stake. Moreover, it is not the technician who will choose technical practice, but will participate in the political process with the community for the deliberation that leads to the collective decision-making: an entire ontological dimension is at stake that must be clarified. 

A critique and the preamble to a future proposal   

Against technocratic architecture 

On countless occasions I have heard my architect colleagues talk about social and environmental responsibility. In various teaching forums I have heard that "the user has been taken into account"  (or even worse, the "client") because a series of demographic and profile data commissioned from a market research company has been collected. In relation of what has been mentioned, what is needed when talking about "social responsibility" is the concept of the political and the recognition of the agency of which it inhabits: to inhabit is not a mere technical matter, it is also a form of existence that does, of course, involve experiential knowledge but also involves non-epistemic values and even certain sensibilities. On the other hand, environmental responsibility, it is not just temperatures, humidity and solar graphs, is not even merely an inventory of species that inhabit the context, also involves bioethic dimensions but, even more radically,  involves ontological questions: how do we understand nature? As an object or activity?   Therefore, architectural technocracy, besides being unfair, is a short-sighted practice and an overwhelming simplistic.  However, this does not mean that it is sufficiente to abandon it, but that it is necessary to propose alternatives for a more democratic architectural practice, more sensitive and, paradoxically, less human and more earthly: it is necessary to understand the dignity of human life, but even more so, of life itself in its most widespread sense. 

Epistemic networks vs dichotomy between experts and lay people, science and society  

The Sharp distinction between the two categories –the producers and user of technoscience– breaks down, as we have seen, in face of the new configurations of science in contemporary society. Companies, patient’s associations, and environmentalist movements have become increasingly involved in the definition of technoscience agenda. (Buchi, 2006, p. 95) The first fundamental element for a practice of social production of habitat involves epistemic networks where it is recognized that this production is a citizen production. For this to be possible, communities and experts need to collide in an organization with a political dimension where the agenda is established in a dialogical way, based on the recognition and exchange of knowledge, but also from the extra-epidemic values involved. In this same sense, the inductive risk that shared decision-making involves depending on its non-epistemic consequences should be recognized. 

The emergence of the aesthetic issue and the teleological-ontological question 

On the one hand, speaking of responsibility, following Hans Jonas (1988) considering that current technoscience has reached levels of affectation on the environment that was previously considered stable and quasi-permanent, it is necessary to think of the environment no longer as a mere instrument of exploitation, but as an entity that, in other words Kant in the Criticism of Pure Reason, is more than the subject of scrutiny of science, the environment, life is activity: poiesis. It is not just a social struggle, it is about being able to give light to vital futures who can return habitability to this planet.


  [1] Arquine. (2020) Architecture, design and city from Mexico. In: https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=3192849090765314&ref=watch_permalink

References

  • Arquine. (2020) Architecture, design and city from Mexico. In: https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=3192849090765314&ref=watch_permalink
  • Beck, Ulrich. (20069. The Risk Company. Barcelona, Paidós.
  • Buchi, Massimo. (2006). Beyond Technocracy. Science, Politics and Citizens. Springer. Verlag, New York.
  • Douglas, Heather. (2000). Inductive Risk and Values in Science.  Philosophy of Science, 67 (December 2000), pp. 559-579
  • Fricker, Miranda. (2007) Epistemic Injustice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Gibbons, Limoges, C., Nowotny, H., Schwartzman, S., Scott, P. and Trow, P.(1997) The new production of knowledge, Barcelona, Comares-Corredor.
  • Jonas, Hans. (1995) The principle of responsibility. Barcelona: Herder

About the author:

Aura R. Cruz Aburto  Has a master degree in Industrial Design from the  UNAM, she specializes in the living environment and resistance practices of  civil society, she is currently studying a PhD in Philosophy of Science and Technology at the same institution, with a focus on Philosophical and Social Studies of Science and Technology. She also has a Bachelor’s of Architecture from the Tec de Monterrey as well as a degree in philosophy from UNAM.                

She has been a presenter and round table moderator at various conferences both in Mexico and abroad, her research has been published nationally and internationally. She has also worked as editor of books of architecture and urbanism such as México, Ciudad Futura, whose main author is Alberto Kalach and has arbitrated in scientific magazines of design. Currently, she serves the Latin American Federation of Semiotics and the Association of Visual and Space Semiotic Studies. Aura has worked in curator of architecture, design and art, especially in topics of the everyday world and the sensitive sphere that accompanies it. Since 2005 she has been in foray into this area in which she began as an assistant to Dr. José Castillo in the exhibition Mexico City Dialogues, Center for Architecture New York City.  

She has been a professor in the Master's of Theory and Design Criticism School at the National Institute of Fine Arts, in the Design or Industrial Research Center of  UNAM, in the Department of Architecture of the Universidad Iberoamericana and currently collaborates in the Masters of  Industrial Design at the Universidad Iberoamericana. She is in charge of the Coordination of the Field of Knowledge of Technology; as well as in the School  of Architecture Art and Design of Tec  de Monterrey, Campus Mexico City. 

Aura has collaborated in several renowned architecture offices such as TAX (Alberto Kalach) and I 911, particularly in areas of dissemination and research. She recently coordinated the Innovation Division of cactus MX, dedicated to the preservation of biocultural heritage from various design strategies. 

She writes for Arquine Magazine with La columna de las pequeñeces” rescuing the value of underground designs, those of non-professionals, and has collaborated with background articles on the printed version.

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