Sticky technologies

—Tom Scott-Smith—

It is easy to love fluidity. Fluid movement implies grace and effortless beauty. Fluid materials yield and flow. Fluids fill gaps, change in response to new conditions and are inherently smooth and adaptable. These qualities have seemed particularly useful in development and humanitarian aid.

The Zimbabwe bush pump, as described in an article by de Laet and Mol (2000), is perhaps the best-known fluid technology with a clearly benevolent aim. It was fluid in its ownership, in its form, and in its results.

In a more recent article, Redfield (2016) revisits the notion of fluidity and its connection with humanitarian design. He compares the Zimbabwe bush pump with a more recent technology for providing clean water: the LifeStraw®. In Redfield’s sense, fluid technologies today are mobile rather than static, they work with the market rather than against it, and they embody a vision of individual survival rather than nation building.

Yet there are a great many other objects – particularly in humanitarian relief – that are, in fact, not fluid at all. These are top-down and controlling.

Introducing stickiness and viscosity into our theoretical vocabulary helps to demonstrate how fluid technologies come in a range of forms, from those that are expansive, frictionless and mobile (but also unstable and unsettled), to those that are firm, constrained, and bounded (but also paternalistic and inflexible). A good example is the peanut paste for therapeutic feeding, Plumpy’nut®.

When I first held a sachet of Plumpy’nut®, it reminded me of freeze-dried ice cream for astronauts, a novelty product from my youth. It comes wrapped in the same thick foil, and it has the same satisfying bulk and firmness beneath the silvery exterior. Each sachet weighs 92g, it is 12cm long, 6cm in width, 1cm deep, and filled with thick peanut paste. Slipped in the pocket, it is portable but powerful. The wrapper lists the ingredients and some instructions on how to use it, set out in a three-step consumption procedure: ‘knead the sachet’, ‘tear and open’, then ‘squeeze and eat’. This is easier said than done. Plumpy’nut® has been ‘packaged under protective atmosphere’ and its ‘sachets are air and humidity tight’, which gives it a long shelf life but makes it difficult to open. Once a corner has been ripped off, the paste oozes out in a light brown colour with an orange tint. It is sugary in taste, oily in texture, and very sticky. Plumpy’nut® has been packaged so that a single sachet provides a single person with exactly 500 kilocalories of energy. Anyone can count two or three sachets a day to provide a child’s necessary nutrients, ensuring they will rapidly gain weight and recover from malnutrition.

Stickiness is the key to the success of Plumpy’nut®. First it is sticky in form. It requires no reconstitution or preparation, it has a long shelf life, and it cannot easily become contaminated. Second, it is sticky in its use. Unlike a fluid technology it does not reach out to a wide community of people. Its boundaries are clear rather than fluid, and it works without large infrastructures. Its packaging is also designed to offer some protection against ‘unauthorized’ uses. Third, it is sticky in its ownership. It is covered by a patent, and although production of similar products have been be licenced in a number of ways, it is far from open-source.

Over the past few years activists have targeted the peanut paste for supressing structural change and distorting local markets. This opposition emerged most forcefully in India, where the Right to Food campaign suggested that Plumpy’nut® was a Trojan horse for the international food industry, failing to address the underlying causes of malnourishment such as poverty and powerlessness. Campaigners argued that Plumpy’nut® has simply narrowed the problem to a microscopic level, focusing on nutrients at the expense of structural injustices. They objected to the way Plumpy’nut® enabled treatment at home, arguing that any response to malnutrition should involve increasing points of contact between marginalized groups and the rest of society rather than decreasing them and relying on a sealed, non-fluid, inflexible product..

It is easy to love fluidity, but stickiness is another matter. In its early days, Plumpy’nut®was considered a dangerous challenge to existing in-patient feeding regimes. Later, it was accused of becoming a fetish, a distraction from longer-term structural change. The product seems unattractively paternalistic. Yet its stickiness is a source of success. Aid workers do not want technologies to be fluid and adaptable. Fluidity can be dangerous: they require something viscous, something that limits human behaviour in order to save lives. Many aid workers seek sticky technologies to provide a firm and effective intervention when everything is in flux. This, in the end, is what makes sticky technologies like Plumpy’nut® so useful: the stickiness of their form, the way they stick to certain kinds of behaviour, and the stickiness of their ownership gives these tools greater predictability, introducing friction to fast-moving conditions.

The full version (Scott-Smith, 2018) of this article will appear in Social Studies of Science 48(1) and is available online before print at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0306312717747418  .

References

De Laet M and Mol A (2000) The Zimbabwe Bush Pump: Mechanics of a fluid technology. Social Studies of Science 30(2): 225-263.

Redfield P (2016) Fluid technologies: The bush pump, the LifeStraw® and microworlds of humanitarian design. Social Studies of Science 46(2): 159–183.

Scott-Smith T (2018) Sticky technologies: Plumpy’nut®, emergency feeding  and the viscosity of humanitarian design. Social Studies of Science. Published before print, DOI: 10.1177/03