Compromised Agency: The Case of BabyLegs

Keywords: intellectual property, open science, making and doing, feminist technology, environmental monitoring


The concept of agency is ubiquitous in STS, particularly regarding cases of alternative ways of knowing and doing science such as civic, citizen, and feminist sciences, among others. Yet the focus on agency often glosses over the constraints placed on agents, particularly within asymmetrical power relations. This article follows the case of BabyLegs, a do-it-yourself monitoring tool for marine microplastic pollution, and the attempt to keep the technology open source within an intellectual property (IP) system set up to privatize it. The tactics used to design BabyLegs as a feminine, silly, doll-tool to discredit the device in the eyes of an IP system that valued traditional gender roles lead to the eventual success of keeping the device open source. Yet, those same tactics also reinforced and reproduced the structures of power and essentialism they were designed to resist. I characterize this technological ambivalence as compromise, and argue that all agency exercised within asymmetrical power relations is compromised. This is not to say resistance is futile, but that agency is never pure, and this recognition lets us be more intentional in how we might compromise as practitioners of diverse scientific knowledges. 

Author Biography

Max Liboiron, Memorial University of Newfoundland
Assistant Professor, Dept of Sociology and Geography
28 Sep 2017
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