Spotlight: Robert Braun

Robert Baun is a senior researcher at IHS and currently working on the concept of post-automobility.

Let’s start by talking about your background – how did you end up at IHS?

I am Senior Researcher with the research group Science, Technology and Social Transformation. I was born and raised in Hungary, did my PhD coursework in the early 90s in the US at Rutgers University. After that I went back to Hungary: we all thought that’s where the action was. I was teaching, publishing books and papers, doing research, also got involved in politics. Later I did research in the Netherlands and in the US. Seven years ago, we have decided to leave Hungary with my family for Vienna. I first worked at the Lauder Business School and then was invited to join IHS five years ago.  

Recently you did your Habilitation at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic.

Yes, that’s an interesting story both personal and academic. Academically, it is of course an important milestone in one’s career. But for me, maybe more importantly, it was a very personal decision: a conscientious choice for a specific university. A hundred years ago my grandfather graduated from the very building I did end up doing my habilitation. He was an ambitious Jewish boy in Hungary, wanted to go to university but was prevented to do so by the “Numerus clausus” law that forbade Jews from studying. He spoke German so he had the possibility to go to Deutsche Technische Hochschule in Brno that is now the social science faculty of Masaryk University. Being able to study in Brno provided him with the possibility of a job in Romania, which saved him from the Holocaust in Hungary, where most of his family perished. I am humbled to have been accepted as professor in this very same university, very same room where my grandfather probably received his diploma. To place this into Science, Technology and Society (STS) studies, my field of research: it’s a nice case of technoscientific agency -- buildings have power to make live or let die.

What is your current research focus at IHS?

I work in the broad domain of STS. My work is currently on post-automobility: a critique of the extremely violent form of life that has permeated the earth in the last hundred years. With my work, I try to conceptualize what that means for human life.

Could you expand on that?

I consider automobility as a techno-social system that is not about the car. I see it as a form of life in which power is deployed in multiple forms to humans and non-humans, mostly coercing them into accepting different forms of normalized violence. Modernity is extremely closely intertwined with this “command and control” coercion. The way our life is ordered, how we as humans are entangled – cyborgishly – with technology, how this creates violence that we are made to endure: this is automobility. Automobility also conquered our commons. However, instead of addressing these problems head on the dominant narrative suggest that all problems can be solved through technological fixes. In the case of automobility that means electrifying, datafying, and creating autonomous mobility, or even moving to “new frontiers”. Next up is our urban air – by drones, air taxis and the like. It’s pretty dystopic.

What research areas are you involved in apart from your main focus on automobility?

It is my main focus in the sense that I’m currently writing about it. My last paper on automobility and violence just came out. My new book on post-automobility is coming out next year. But besides automobility, together with my colleagues, we look at what is called Responsible Research and Innovation and Quadruple Helix Innovation: concepts that aim to create more participation and engagement of multiple actors into science, research and innovation. We have recently published papers on RRI in Science and in Responsible Innovation.

Do you have a practical example?

Yes, we’re currently working together with ÖBB and trying to conceptualize “Commoning mobility” and how a train company (as they mostly see themselves) should transform to answer challenges of the present and the future. My colleague Anna Gerhardus, an aspiring and gifted young researcher is in the frontline of assisting efforts to create a mobility community of various stakeholders that transform mobility practices.

What other topics do you want to research in the future?

Well, I’m an academic so there are a lot of topics I would like to work on. For example, in the last 40 to 50 years there have been extremely critical narratives emerging within the social sciences that try to challenge the neoliberal technology and innovation-oriented worldview. However, most of these narratives have been sanitized and did not bring the transformative change that I think would have been required to create more livable and more equal society. What I try to interrogate is why these narratives became incorporated into neoliberal discourse and ended up strengthening the modernist worldview. What I am deeply interested in is what kind of paradigm change would radically address these questions. To refer to an almost forgotten Austrian, I try to follow up on the work of Paul Feyerabend on questioning Western rationality that his premature death left unfinished.

Do you have – preliminary – answers for these questions yet?

I don’t think anyone has the (even preliminary) answer yet. I believe that we are living in paradigm changing times, but paradigm change does not happen overnight. We see huge problems, from climate change and postcolonialism to inequality, and we’re seeing them as crises to which many are trying to apply old solutions. I don’t think there will be a silver bullet, but there are many different approaches to rethink those old approaches and maybe in a few decades from now something new will crystallize. We are not there yet, but I hope that my work on automobility and ontopolitical questions on techno-science will offer some minor bricks to build what is required to achieve this paradigm change.

Danke für das Gespräch!