Theory Seminar: Models as Viral Assemblages
In this theory seminar, Marit Tolo Østebø presents from her latest book Village Gone Viral: Understanding the Spread of Policy Models in a Digital Age
Models and modeling are not new phenomenas. Throughout history, various forms of models have been used to explain and predict “real-world” phenomena, inform policy, and govern human behavior. Yet, the burgeoning of models and modeling practices in our contemporary world suggests that we live in a modeloscene: an era in which models and modeling have become increasingly hegemonic as forms of knowledge and tools of governance. The COVID-19 pandemic has, perhaps more than anything else, revealed the effects of this “model reality.” Models are no longer confined to policy experts or scientists but have become unprecedentedly public and popularized. Graphic models depicting and comparing the spread and consequences of COVID across geographical areas have been the front-page of major news outlets, and numerous newspaper articles and op-eds have been written about predictive modeling. Models have come to govern our lives, informing us of what the future could look like if we fail to wash our hands or comply with physical distancing rules.
In this theory seminar, Marit Tolo Østebø uses the example of Awra Amba, a small, rural village in Ethiopia that has become a transnational model for gender equality and sustainable development to consider the widespread circulation and use of modeling practices in an increasingly transnational and digital world. What are models and how do they come into being? What facilitates and fuels a model’s virality? Why do some models go viral, why others do not? And what are the effect of the model status on the models themselves? Drawing on assemblage thinking, Gabriel Tarde’s social epidemiology and lessons from virology, Østebø suggests that a model – whether it being a mathematical model, an algorithm, “best practice” or a lived-in model village – best can be understood as a “viral assemblage”: a messy, fluid, socio-technical process and constellation of non-human and human actors, things, unpredictable events, and relations that have contagious and affective qualities.
The talk is based on Marit Tolo Østebø’s recent book on Stanford University Press: Village Gone Viral: Understanding the Spread of Policy Models in a Digital Age.