“The Godavarius”: Lost and Found — A field note

Noortje Marres

A short report of a guided walk organised as part of the CIM project Sampling Sounds of Coventry’s Future.

Last Sunday the musician Sarah Farmer took us for a walk along Coventry’s Music Mile.

She had brought along several speaker-balls which she handed out to us, quite casually, and, after a quick explanation, they pretty much turned themselves on, waking us up with strings rumbling and reassuring blue light.

We were pulled along by this sound emanating from the little speakers, sound that I have a weakness for, slow strokes along violin strings reveberating, as we walked from FarGo Village, into Gosford Park, and up along Walsgrave Road,  us following the sound, and Sarah Farmer, who, like a piped piper, walked in front, except she seemed quite unconcerned with us following her.

Image of trees in Gosford Park, Coventry

She, or rather the instruments she has brought along, let us hear different sounds of Coventry, as if picking up signals from the environment around us — Dub, Jamaican steel drums, folk violin play. As we walked, different melodies would emerge from the violin strings reveberating from our little speakers, then fade away, into the background.

I know Dub and steel drums from different places, but these were unfamiliar sounds, almost all unknown to me, a visitor of Coventry, still, after coming here regularly for six years now.

The different sounds had a searching quality, as if they too, were looking still, to figure out how to inhabit this city, which for several of us on this walk, though certainly not all, remains quite unfamiliar. Some of us just arrived in Coventry, literally from the other side of the world.

“Somewhere there.” Sarah, gesturing vaguely, across that wall, is Planet Studios, world famous, for the Asian artists who recorded there, Bhangra music, Asian fusion, and continue to do so, the studios are still going strong.

She points in the direction of the bandstand in Spencer Park, on the other side of the city centre — a park I know, a place to play, to hang out — and tells us the Godivarius may well have been played there, along side T.E. Dunville, who was described by Charlie Chaplin as “an excellent funny man.”

We hear other strings, played by a British Folk legend, unknown to me, who stuck the speaker part of a phone to his violin. Several of us nod, they know him well. He lived in Coventry for some years.

Sarah tells us about a remarkable habit of string instruments in general and violins in particular: when no-one one plays them and they are just sitting in their box, their strings may start resonating with sounds they pick up in their surroundings, when they recognise the pitch of their own strings — G, D, A, E. The technical term, I learn later, for this way of a violin being played by its surroundings is ‘sympathetic resonance.’

We walk into Ball Hill. I believe it is here my partner’s mother lived for several years, right after the Second World War, when she, age 10, arrived as a refugee from Lithuania. I only recognise it now, as we walk up the hill, past the Library, closed and with much reduced opening hours announced on the door, a sombre reminder of a cultural life not quite happening, so much reduced now.

And so we walk, in stops and starts, getting closer to the Coventry Music Museum, and the instrument we are drawn towards, the Godivarius, on display there. This mythical instrument, so it turns out, is also quite real, and can be found in a vitrine on the second floor of the museum, half hidden behind the label describing the man who created the instrument.

The Godivarius, a 19th Century violin, was crafted by a Coventry-based master, Arthur Rowley, who had trained in Italy with a tutor from Cremona (Italy) where Stradivarius is from.

Next time, when I hear “manufacturing” and “Coventry” in one sentence, I will think “violin.”

Entrance to the Two Tone village in Coventry

We arrive in 2 Tone village, where the Coventry Music museum is based, and I have a brief encounter with a man with a twinkle in his eye — he asks, how was it? I registered for this walk, he says, but then I realized it was people who are not from here who are behind it.

There it is, a line drawn between those who are and those who are not, from Coventry, or as Elena Ferrante has it, between those who stayed and those who left. He has a point, in questioning whether we know what we are doing: the Web page announcing the guided walk suggested a very long duration for this relatively short walk.

Cardboard cut out of Delia Derbyshire surrounded by instruments

Onwards, into the museum, where we find Delia Derbyshire, a lifesize cut-out figure, the sound artist and composer of electronic music, also from here, Coventry, and who worked in the illustruous BBC Radiophonic workshop.

She could become that person, at a time when electronic music was not yet the world of famous (mostly) men that it is now, well done. I think of Data Knitting, the book by Sadie Plant about the women coders who programmed computers before coding became associated with the male heroism that marks it now. She worked at the University of Warwick, did she write this in Coventry?

We walk back, past the pub where, appararently, the Specials played Ghost Town, to which I danced as a 16 year old, in a different country, a different city (Hilversum), loving the song without knowing the city it mourns, calls out and celebrates all at once.

23 October 2021

Photos by Nirmal Puwar (Sociology, Goldsmiths).

The guided walk by Sarah Farmer took place on Sunday October 17, 2021, and was organised as part of Sampling Sounds of Coventry’s Future, a series of events created by the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies and the Warwick Institute of Engagement, University of Warwick, for Coventry City of Culture.

Originally published on the CIM Blog.

Why we resigned from 4S Council

It is with regret that Ana Viseu and I announce our resignations from our positions as elected members of the Council of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S).

When we joined Council in 2018, the Society was playing a key part in the on-going process of transforming the interdisciplinary field of Science, Technology & Society (STS). We support the general principles guiding this project, those of accountability and transparency, and we are deeply sympathetic to the wider vision of developing transnational connections in 4S, strengthening STS in the global South, and de-colonizing STS.

But several decisions have recently been taken in 4S that we strongly believe contravene the above commitments. New committees and positions have been created without due consideration for their impact on the authority of Council and on existing 4S offices. In the last 6 months, all 4S officers have resigned.

Crucially, changes to the Society’s Charter have been proposed that, if approved, will have the effect of further concentrating power in the 4S President. These changes include a revision of the 4S election procedure, which weakens the role of Council in this process. The revised wording does not grant any formal power to Council, such as consultation and approval of the Election slate, moving away from what has been common practice in 4S.

Last week, 4S Council endorsed these changes with a small majority, leaving us with no other way to express our dissent than by resigning. The proposed Charter changes will now be voted on by the 4S membership during the 4S Business Meeting in Toronto.

Our decision to resign is thus motivated by concern about the dismantling of distributed governance in 4S and about the Society’s future. We continue to have confidence in 4S and Council to work towards the shared objectives of accountability, transparency, transnationality and participation in STS.

Noortje Marres and Ana Viseu

What does the future sound like? Sampling sounds of Coventry’s future



A participatory research project initiated with Nirmal Puwar (Goldsmiths) and Naomi Waltham-Smith (University of Warwick)

March-October 2021

What does the future of Coventry sound like? The emergence of futures depends on many forces, elements, actors, and events, and engaging with the future demands attention to both the expected and the unexpected. In our project, we are especially interested in the role of universities and more precisely, of interactions between the city and its universities, in the making of Coventry’s futures, and what that sounds like. What does the future of Coventry sound like?

What does the future sound like in Coventry? To respond to these questions and to attune ourselves collaboratively to the city’s futures, we will engage in various practices of place-based listening: field recordings, soundwalks, sonic compositions, and performances.

More info here

New papers

Then, this summer, three of my papers are published more or less at the same time:

Marres, N. (2020) For a situational analytics- An interpretative methodology for the study of situations in computational settings (proofs), Big Data & Society, July–December: 1–16, DOI: 10.1177/2053951720949571

Marres, N. & de Rijcke, S. (2020). From indicators to indicating interdisciplinarity: A participatory mapping methodology for research communities in-the-making. Quantitative Science Studies, first published online 29 June 2020, 1041-1055.

Marres, N. (2020) Review of Communities at a Crossroads by A Pelizza, Information, Communications and Society, https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2020.1781918

Innovations at the 4S conference in New Orleans

Im delighted to join colleagues for the 2019 Annual Meeting of the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S), and in particular the Opening Plenary on Innovations tomorrow:

Here is the Innovations Plenary in the words of 4S President Kim Fortun:

To innovate is to move beyond, out of line, skirting predictable directions and outcomes.  This is far from straightforward — imaginatively, analytically and logistically. To innovate means being outside usual frames, working counter-culturally, against intuition and usual method.  In many settings, innovation is a matter of great urgency: lives and prosperity depend on it. All to easily, however, innovation serves and even exacerbates entrenched hierarchies of privilege, creating something new but sustaining old structures (of wealth, authority, and so on).  Innovation is subject — even prone — to capture — becoming a carrier rather than critique of capital and empire. Innovation can also become an empty ideal, cover for business as usual. Innovation is pursued and promised in industry, government, education and NGOS — and in scholarly fields like STS.  Scholars need and promise to innovate; indeed, their charge is to create “new knowledge.” Their scholarly organizations — like 4S — promise to scaffold and help sustain this, though what this looks like in theory and practice often receives little attention.

With: Maria Belen Albornoz (FLASCO-Ecuador), Lesley Green (University of Cape Town), Noortje Marres (University of Warwick), Shobita Parthasarathy (University of Michigan).


Put to the Test: Critical Evaluations of Testing

International workshop, University of Warwick
10 and 11 December 2018

Supported by the ERC project BLINDSPOT, the Sociological Review, and the Center on Organizational Innovation, Columbia University.

With: Jonathan Bach (New School for Social Research), Nathan Coombs (University of Edinburgh), Francisca Grommé (Goldsmiths), Noortje Marres (University of Warwick), Daniel Neyland (Goldsmiths), Joan Robinson (Columbia University), Willem Schinkel (Erasmus University), Luciana de Souza Leão (Columbia University), Antoine Hennion (Mines ParisTech/CNRS), David Stark (University of Warwick/Columbia University), Martin Tironi (Catholic University de Chile), Janet Vertesi (Princeton University).

This workshop brings together established scholars and junior researchers from across science & technology studies (STS), sociology and related fields to discuss new topics and problems in the study of testing in society, and to outline a research agenda for the critical evaluation of testing.


US TV Test Screen from the 1950s

A test can be defined as an orchestrated attempt to reveal an entity’s potentially unknown properties or capacities. A driving exam, a drug trial and a planetary probe are all procedures designed to ascertain the properties of some entity. However, while tests and testing are well-established social forms, the role of test and testing in culture, economy and politics seems to be expanding. With stress testing of financial institutions, smart city experimentation, beta-testing in software development, pilot projects in crime control, and randomized controlled trials in economic development, the protocols, grammars, and logics of testing are becoming increasingly prominent as ways of intervening in society, managing organisations, and enacting public life.

In an age of digital innovation, testing seems to have become ubiquitous, as tests are routinely deployed as a marketing device, a form of governance, or an everyday practice to evaluate the self. Indeed, some have argued that we are increasingly “governed by pilot” (Grommé, 2015). What are the social and political consequences of ubiquitous testing? What are its implications for relations between innovation, organisations, public politics, and everyday life? And what remains of the potential for experimentation as an emancipatory form?

More info here

Testing technology in the street: what new competences for an intelligent future?

Friday 24th of August

Participatory Design Conference 2018, Keynote

14:00 – 15:00
Hasselt University, in the Old Prison

Over the last decade or so, intelligent technology testing has moved from relatively enclosed environments like the laboratory, the factory-floor and the home into public spaces, such as the street. This places new demands on the capacities of the actors involved – engineers, citizens, social researchers, policy makers and designers, … – to envision a shared, societal future. One way to sum up this challenge is by modifying a well-known and enigmatic precept: In the 1990s, engineering was defined as “sociology by other means” (Law, 1991), but to make this true today we need to add new elements, namely participation and design.

In her lecture, Noortje will unpack and advance this claim by investigating a series of recent street trials of intelligent vehicles in the UK and elsewhere. Drawing on empirical materials, from fieldwork notes to debate maps and a design exercise, Noortje will first show how some key elements go missing in contemporary street trials of driverless cars, and how, for this reason, they risk to fail in their attempt to put a proposed technological future to a societal test. Some trials bracket contestation among road users (drivers, cyclists, pedestrians), while others render the social environment passive, reducing it to a décor for machine performance. The result of this is not only to render the societal future unreal, but also, stupid.

So how, then, can design and social research be combined to re-introduce the missing elements, and stage a public encounter between actors, forces and visions – the car system, the ecological future – that so often remain mute to one another, and which, accordingly, fails to take place?

Photo by Luis Oliviera (2016)

From the Lab to the Street?

Mapping the Issues of Driverless Cars with Digital Methods

12 February, 2018, 15:30 – 18:30
University of Edinburgh

Joint Workshop
Depts of Sociology and Science, Technology and Innovation Studies

This workshop considered the use of digital methods of issue mapping to elucidate a substantive question: how have driverless cars been received ‘in society’? In the UK, street trials of driverless cars have been on-going since at least 2016 on motorways and in city centres. Social media provide a prominent site for analysing public engagement with this form of innovation “in society” and, as I will argue, they may even allow us to investigate how relations between debate forums and field sites are being configured as part of this innovation drive. The workshop will start with a presentation of the case, and of preliminary results of analysing driverless car tests in social media, in particular Twitter and Youtube. In the second half of the workshop, participants will be invited to produce an issue map of their own using social media data. We will conclude with a discussion about the capacity of issue mapping to render analys-able changing relations between field and platform, street and laboratory, in a digital society.

About fake news, social sharing and its blind spots

Studium Generale Lecture
Maastricht University

Monday 30 October 2017

This lecture has now been published as “Why we can’t have our facts back” in Engaging Science, Technology and Society (July 2018)

On 30 October, Noortje will give a lecture about the blind spots in social sharing at the University of Maastricht.

In reaction to scandals about ‘fake news’, digital services such as “Full Fact” have been developed to flag up dubious content online. Such services propose new ways to solve an old problem: how can we distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate information sources? However, today’s digital solutions to this longstanding “problem of demarcation” risk to reproduce an old blindspot: they suggest that the main problem is with social media content itself. But the ways in which content circulates online equally plays a role.

In this lecture, I will argue that the wider design principles that inform social media are partly responsible for the lack of respect for knowledge in the online public sphere. Platforms like Twitter rely on “social algorithms” to select sources for disclosure: they distinguish between valuable and invalid sources on the basis of how widely they are shared. Such principles are not very well attuned to the requirements of democratic communication. While many digital media algorithms are social, they are not sociological: they treat online activity as behaviour, and do not sufficiently appreciate the political effects that arise from interactions between media, technology and people.