MPIWG Berlin, 24 Sep. Breaking Models

October 1st, 2021

Breaking Models: Data Governance and New Metrics of Knowledge in the Time of the Pandemic

Research workshop
Contact: workshop (at)

24 September 2021, 09:30 – 18:00
Hybrid event: online and offline at
Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
Boltzmannstraße 22, 14195 Berlin


The COVID pandemic has made us all familiar with graphs that predict the degree of collective contagion and, on a daily basis, warn the population about the risk of infection. Such a pervasive computational infrastructure for tracking, measuring and forecasting the behaviour of the social body is unprecedented in the history of healthcare and biopolitics, finding a parallel only in the “vast machine” (Edwards 2010) of global weather forecasting and climate science. The infrastructure for monitoring the pandemic was not created ex nihilo, in fact, but built upon existing digital platforms that already organise most of the social relations of the present (and that further consolidated monopoly positions thanks to the emergency). 

The interdisciplinary workshop BREAKING MODELS aims to study the influence of these vast computational platforms, predictive models and metrics not only on the knowledge of the pandemic, but also on society at large, that is on labour, education and scientific research. The workshop will analyse the epistemic frictions of three technical components of the COVID pandemic’s governance: platforms, models and metrics.

  • Platforms. The pandemic has been mapped through the same tools, namely digital media, that are also used for communication (messaging apps), commerce (online shopping platforms), education (video conferencing) and work (home office software, gig platforms). Digital networks are interchangeably employed for administrative and corporate purposes, for marketing and education as much as for health governance and data extraction. The workshop will address the function creep of these platforms: the fact that the means of communication and production have increasingly become the same as those of control and surveillance.
  • Models. The outbreak of the pandemic has challenged existing predictive models, proving their fragility and engendering an interest in new modelling techniques, such as machine learning. To what extent are these AI models and their correlations robust enough to forecast rare events and anomalies? The workshop will address the mediation of  statistical models in the representation of reality and, specifically in machine learning, the replacement of the traditional scientific episteme of causation by one of correlation.
  • Metrics. The relationship between models, data and reality cannot be understood without also considering the constitution of metrics: the decision about which features and dimensions of the social body have to be measured and monitored. New metrics of the social body such as geolocation and other metadata are key for the predictive models of the pandemic, but also for encoding labour, productivity and education. The workshop will address the deep political history of these metrics and taxonomies and their increasing implementation in the automation of the job market.

The workshop is organised by the KIM research group at HfG Karlsruhe (Matteo Pasquinelli and Sascha Freyberg) in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG) in Berlin. It is situated within the framework of the international research network All Models ( and funded by the Volkswagen Foundation program “Corona Crisis and Beyond.”

The interdisciplinary workshop addresses PhD students and scholars from science and the humanities, in particular science and technology studies, and will take place in a hybrid format. Contributors and participants will join from both the MPIWG conference room and online (in respect of the current safety measures). The final program will be announced in early September 2021. Registration to the workshop is free.

To register or propose a paper write to: workshop (at)



09:30-10:00 — Introduction

  • Sascha Freyberg (HfG Karlsruhe / MPIWG)
    Matteo Pasquinelli (HfG Karlsruhe) 

    Screening of Clemens von Wedemeyer’s
    Transformation Scenario (2018)

10:00-11:00 — The Politics of Predictive Models 

  • Kishor Bhat and Manish Gautam (Politically Mathematics Collective, India)
    “On the Ethical and Social Implications of Mathematical Models”
  • Max Grünberg (HfG Karlsruhe)
    “The Administration of Things: Automating Business Forecasts in the Case of Amazon Web Services”

11:30-12:30 — Data Infrastructures and Social Inequality

  • Arif Kornweitz (HfG Karlsruhe)
    “Friction, Leaks and Creep: COVID-19 Governance and Data Rights in the Netherlands”
  • Ariana Dongus (HfG Karlsruhe)
    “The Global Logistics of Vaccination: How the COVID-19 Pandemic Amplified Inequalities”
  • Yishu Mao (MPIWG Berlin)
    “AI Ethics Made in China: Technological Promises and Labor Realities”

14:00-15:00 — New Metrics of Life and Labour

  • Paolo Caffoni (HfG Karlsruhe)
    “The Digital Walls of the University: New Metrics of Labour, Education and Mobility in the COVID-19 Crisis”
  • Tania Rispoli (Duke University, Durham)
    “The New Metrics of Care: Feminist Perspectives on the Crisis of Reproductive Labour”

15:30-17:00 — Critical Perspectives and Final Discussion

  • Tobias Haberkorn (Berlin/Rome)
    “Modeling and the Media. Scientific vs. Political Logics of Expertise”
  • Oliver Schlaudt  (University College Freiburg / SciencesPo Nancy)
    “The Covid-19 Pandemic as a Challenge to Critical Science Studies”


With discussants among others:

  • Flavio D’Abramo, MPIWG
  • Xian Biao, MPI for Social Anthropology
  • Politically Math Collective, India




Adam, David (2020) “The simulations driving the world’s response to COVID-19” in Nature April 2, 2020. Online: 

Bates, J. (2017). The politics of data friction. Journal of Documentation, 74(2), 412–429.

Cepelewicz, Jordana. (2021) “The Hard Lessons of Modeling the Coronavirus Pandemic.” Quanta Magazine, January 21, 2021. Online:

D’Abramo, Flavio (2021) “The past and present of pandemic management: health diplomacy, international epidemiological surveillance, and COVID‐19” in HPLS (2021) 43:64. Online:

Edwards, P. N. (2010). A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming. MIT Press. (see esp. ch. 1 & 5)

Gelfert, Axel (2016) How to Do Science with Models. A Philosophical Primer. Cham: Springer Nature.

Haberkorn, Tobias (2021) “The great corona modelling controversy” in Berliner Zeitung July 25, 2021. Online:

Heaven, Will Douglas (2020). “Our weird behaviour during the pandemic is messing with AI models” in MIT Technology Review. Online:

Jones, David S. and Helmreich, Stefan (2020) “The Shape of Epidemics”, in Boston Review. June 24, 2020. Online:

Kornweitz, Arif (2021) “Function Creep: Change as a trace of dominant norms”, in A New AI Lexicon, AI Now Institute. New York. Online:

Leonardi,  Paul (2021) “COVID-19 and the New Technologies of Organizing: Digital Exhaust, Digital Footprints, and Artificial Intelligence in the Wake of Remote Work.” Journal of Management Studies, 58,  249-253.

Rispoli, Tania and Tola, Miriam (2020) “Reinventing Socio-Ecological Reproduction, Designing a Feminist Logistics: Perspectives from Italy”, in Feminist Studies 46.3 (SPECIAL ISSUE: FEMINIST ANALYSIS OF COVID-19). Online:

Tathagata et al. (2020) “What Modeling the Pandemic Reveals about Our Mathematics”. Online:


Politically Math (India)

Disaster STS Network:

Post Pandemic University (UK)

The Mobility, Technology and Wellbeing Lab, directed by Xiang Biao at the MPI for Social Anthropology:

The Coronavirus and Mobility Forum, facilitated by Xiang Biao at the COMPAS, University of Oxford (2020)


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