Science, Technology, and Society Seminar: STS Circle at Harvard (Zoom)


Monday, October 25, 2021, 12:15pm to 2:00pm


Online Only

"Electricity and Empowerment: Towards a More Critical Energy History"

Attend this event via Zoom (advance registration required)


Abby Spinak, Lecturer in Urban Planning and Design, Harvard School of Design.


Emily Neill

Co-sponsored by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

This event is online only. Please click the "Read More" link for full instructions on how to attend this seminar.


Sheila JasanoffFaculty Associate. Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Harvard Kennedy School.

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Please note: This event requires registration in advance in order to receive the meeting link and password.


My aim in this talk is to question how and why people have long conflated networked energy infrastructures with social empowerment in the United States. From early experiments with hydroelectricity to nuclear power “too cheap to meter” to solar microgrids, designers of new energy systems have promised consumers not just greater mechanical power but also more control over their lives: more time for leisure and family, a healthier relationship with the natural world, easier access to culture, politics, and education, and more opportunities to talk with neighbors and participate in their communities. Of course, such lofty rhetoric has been realized only partially and unevenly in practice, but, I argue, it has significantly positioned energy development as a “public good” in modern American thought. In this talk, I draw on my research on New Deal-era rural electrification projects to interrogate this promise of empowerment as instrumental to the construction of high-energy modernity. Examining some of the ways networked energy systems have also been disempowering, I raise critical questions about “energy” as a category of Western thought and practice that has shaped and continues to shape our sense of the possible — particularly in regards to recent discourse on “energy transitions” and decarbonization. I ultimately ask what methodologies we might bring to historical studies of energy systems to turn our gaze more directly to “energy” itself as a contingent, contextual, and evolving historical object, and I argue for a more pluralistic epistemology of “energy.”