Letters from Abroad: Interview with Professor Kelly Joyce (Part 2)

We continue our Letters from Abroad interview with Professor Kelly Joyce—an old friend and one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known—currently a program director at the National Science Foundation, normally a sociology prof specializing in scientific, medical, and technological issues at The College of William & Mary.  She explores in the real world what science fiction explores through fiction: follows the introduction of technology and how it is adapted into society. Perhaps books in her field explore ideas that can be applied to science fiction, and vice versa. Okay, let’s get right into the interview. [Note: Some of the interview refers to her recent book on MRI technology, Magnetic Appeal: MRI and the Myth of Transparency.] Part 1 of the interview, on MRI, Dr. House, and diagnostic dogs, is here.

Q. You study technology and the aging. Can you tell us about that?

A. Recently, I took up the issue of technogenarians. That is, I looked at how old people actively use and shape technologies that may or may not have been designed with older bodies and abilities in mind. Meika Loe and I are the co-editors of Technogenarians: Studying Health and Illness through an Aging, Science, and Technology Lens, which will be published in 2010 by Wiley-Blackwell Publishers.

In this project we also challenge the stereotype that old people are technologically illiterate and show how they creatively adjust or invent technologies to fit varied needs. The book will take a look at the rise of gerontechnologies.

Companies and academic centers are busy creating new technologies to augment changes in bodies that might occur as we age. In business worlds, people are well aware of the aging populations in Canada and the U.S, and want to capitalize on these markets.

Q. Is there a stereotype that older people aren’t good with technology, and in your research you find this not to be true across the board?

A. Not everyone holds the stereotype, but its out there. Sociologists often look at the broad trend, but they also recognize exceptions (or even whole subcultures) exist. More importantly, look at how the stereotype puts the incompetency label on elders instead of looking at the assumptions built into the technology by designers. That is, its important to look at who the tech designers imagined potential users to be, and focusing on this part of the situation instead.

When you study what old people are doing, its quite inventive and amazing. They engage many technologies that are designed with youthful, able-bodies in mind, yet they come up with ways to adjust the technique to make it work for them. A very classic example of this is the tennis balls on the legs of a walker. But, there are many contemporary examples as well. (I am using the term “old people” intentionally as a way to challenge ageism.)

Q. What articles or subjects do you think we’ll see in your edited volume Technogenarians?

A. Everything from anti-aging medicine and aesthetic cosmetic surgery to the development of technologies for people who wander, plus health robot companions are covered. Case studies include examples from the United States, United Kingdom, Finland, and the Netherlands. There’s a lot happening on elders, technology, and health in innovation and business, but much of it is off the sociologists of science and technology’s radar. Meika and I wanted to bring these issues forward so that sociologists can engage them more centrally.

Q. Going back to your MRI research, you noticed in your research that the MRI machine was sometimes written and talked about as if it were some sort of “perfect machine” living outside of human society. Can you talk a little bit this idea of the “perfect machine”?

A. What’s interesting to me is how what counts as trustworthy changes over time. Right now if knowledge is human-made it is often considered subjective or biased whereas machine-produced information is considered objective or unbiased.

This way of understanding machines or knowledge has not always been the case in the U.S., and it may not be the case in the future. Attributing objectivity to and the celebration of the machine directs attention away from the immense creativity and skills of human beings, and instead projects these qualities onto technologies. This is a loss, and it would be nice to redirect some awe back toward humans.

Q. Nowadays I read a lot of articles in the NYTimes and other places about how MRI scans are fallible just like any other way of diagnosing illness. Are you glad that the results of your research are finally getting out there? Do you think people will ever stop thinking of high-tech image machines as infallible? Is there a difference, do you find, between what people believe about scans after they actually go through them personally, as opposed to when high-tech visual medical technology is discussed and written about in the abstract?

A. I am glad that NY Times articles were published, but I am not sure that is equivalent to “getting out there.” There’s a long way to go before a majority of people understand how MRI scans are made and used and what the limits of the technology are.

Even more importantly than focusing on MRI in particular, I would argue, is learning more about US health care in general and how it compares to other countries. It won’t work to simply develop knowledge and questions about one technology at a time. People need a framework with which to approach healthcare technologies, especially in the US where healthcare is big business and a political soccer ball.

Q. Finally, although perhaps this question should have been the first of the interview, can you give a brief description of the field of “Science and Technology Studies” or STS, the field which at least a part of your sociological research falls into?

A. Science and Technology Studies (which may also be called Science Studies or Science, Technology and Medicine Studies) gained momentum in the United States, United Kingdom, France and other countries in the 1960s and 1970s, and was part of a bigger move toward questioning authority, inequalities, and forms of power. Central to this approach is a passion for science and tech combined with analysis of how science and cultural, economic, and political contexts are intertwined.

As this way of thinking about science and tech gained momentum, professional associations and journals were created. For example, an international professional organization, Society for the Social Studies of Science [4S], was formed in 1975. The society hosts an annual meeting, and previous programs are posted on-line (see http://www.4sonline.org/index.htm). The European Association for the Study of Science and Technology [EASST] was founded in 1981.

Historians also ask these types of questions about science and tech; the Society for the History of Technology [SHOT] was organized in 1958. See: http://www.historyoftechnology.org/

Science and Technology Studies [STS] researchers may examine how various stakeholders helped develop standards of evidence in medical policy and practice or scientific research; the roles various sectors of the public play in creating and doing science; or how technology users creatively adapt tech design to suit their needs or impact design processes themselves. In such studies, STS scholars put the actors and contexts back into the doing of science to see how cultural values, economic incentives, institutional or government policies, and different stakeholders help create a particular technology or scientific practice.

The point is not to discount science or technology, but to better understand the values and points of view in science. This way we can be more aware of the values and politics in science and technology and their effects (both positive and negative) on our lives.

Q. I know you’re very busy as of late. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview for Tor.

A. You’re very welcome.

Comment below if you know something about health robot companions, anti-aging medicine, technologies for people who wander, and other technology targeted for old people. What science fiction books about the aging and technology? Might nonfiction books like the upcoming (2010) Technogenarians and Magnetic Appeal be a source of sf story content? Are there other nonfiction books, not by scientists but by people who study scientists, which you have already used as a source for sf stories?

Keith McGowan (the interviewer) here: Those interested in Kelly’s work can look at her William & Mary homepage (with cv) here and her book on MRI use in the United States, Magnetic Appeal: MRI and the Myth of Transparency, here.

From a couple of reviews of Kelly’s recent book:

Registered Nurse:Magnetic Appeal is a fascinating and superbly researched book… Relying on fieldwork at imaging sites, conferences, and interviews with medical professionals, Joyce focuses on how radiologists, referring physicians and technologists make sense of anatomical scans in clinical practice. We come to understand how the U.S. desire for scans reflects anxieties about the quality of healthcare, physician skills… The reader is drawn into the pressure-cooker of imaging units, where radiologists and technologists are under constant demand to accelerate their work practices.”

Canadian Review of Sociology:  “…thoroughly researched book about magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)… The book will certainly appeal to sociologists interested in science, medicine, and processes of biomedicalization… given its breadth, it will also appeal to sociologists in a variety of subspecialties. Sociologists of work will be interested in Joyce’s analysis of the hierarchies and assembly-line production found in MRI clinics. Political economists will appreciate Joyce’s description of the relationship between the biomedical industry and the astounding growth in MRI use.”

Keith McGowan is the debut author of The Witch’s Guide to Cooking with Children, which was named an “inspired recommendation for children” by independent bookstores nationwide. He is published by Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt & Company.

Kelly Joyce is a program director at the National Science Foundation and an associate professor of sociology who studies technology, medicine, and science at The College of William & Mary. Her book Magnetic Appeal: MRI and the Myth of Transparency is published by Cornell University Press.


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