We are currently taking a deep dive into the world of industry trade shows, expos and other events where diverse groups of IT actors come together to make sense of their work. Such events are full of developers and designers, vendors and marketeers … and understandably very few social scientists. Much of what is said about the actual technology is dry, technical and often incomprehensible to non-expert outsiders like ourselves. Yet when talk turns to ‘use cases’ of how these technologies can be applied in the ‘real world’ scenarios then the discourses become more familiar … and certainly more interesting from a social science point of view.
Of course, much of what is being claimed on the part of these emerging technologies (such as our own interest in facial recognition and facial detection) remains highly speculative. In this sense, one obvious social science move is to frame these discourses as instances of Jasanoff and Kim’s ‘sociotechnical imaginaries’ – i.e. ‘collectively imagined forms of social life and social order reflected in the design and fulfillment of nation-specific scientific and/or technological projects’ (Jasanoff and Kim, 2009, p.120).
As Sheila Jasanoff and others have shown over the past ten years or so, engaging with these imaginaries can be a highly generative way of making critical sense of technologies that are otherwise technically opaque and certainly not yet in mainstream societal use. In particular, listening to IT industry actors spin their visions of ‘desirable technology-driven futures’ can tell us much about IT industry values of what is deemed undesirable, alongside wider shared understandings of what forms of social life and social order might be attainable through continued development of whatever technology is being spruiked.
Studies of social-technical imaginaries can certainly reveal much about industry attitudes toward governments, publics, societies and the ‘problems’ that end-users are presumed to face. Also, in a more practical sense, engaging with these speculations and expectations can be a powerful way for academic researchers to engage with the tech industry on its own terms (see Brown and Michael 2003). In contrast to the well-worn stereotype of academics only interested in pursuing esoteric concerns and theoretically-driven obtuse issues, engaging with corporate imaginaries is more direct means of critically engaging with corporate tech interests and priorities. Critiquing imaginaries at least meets IT industry actors half-way – in a manner that talking about Heidegger and Haraway does not.
Of course, it is important not to take what is being said at these industry and trade events at face value. As Sergio Sismondo (2020, p.505) reminds us, even within industry circles these imaginaries are “typically contested, changeable, flexible and loose around the edges”. More seriously, perhaps, are recent criticisms that academics engaging with these scenarios serve mainly to give credibility to industry imperatives – further legitimising corporate messages in the minds of policymakers, civil society and other social actors struggling to keep up with the relentless societal application of emerging technologies.
So, humanities and social science researchers certainly to take care to establish boundaries around any study of tech industry speculation, hype and imaginaries. Indeed, Lee Vinsel (2021) derides what he sees as the ‘‘Academic Business Model’ of those ‘critical’ researchers who make a name for themselves by “playing along with hype to score cash money and prestige”- what he derides curtly as “lend[ing] credibility to industry bullshit”. This chimes with Nordmann’s (2007) concerns over critical social scientists whose work consists of little more than developing critiques of ‘if/then’ scenarios that engage credulously with dramatic corporate claims over ‘incredible futures’ driven by ‘technological hubris’.
The dangers here are obvious – research of this type runs the risk of reproducing (and even increasing) the hype surrounding emerging technologies. Such academic work can lend unwarranted legitimacy to industry promotional claims simply by taking them seriously, overstating the abilities of tech firms and/or the capabilities of their imagined/emerging products. As well as compounding unrealistic expectations, Nordmann argues that academic work of this nature acts ultimately as a distraction from far more urgent concerns and dangers arising from already ‘actually-existing’ technologies.
Against this background, then, our own work on the discourses emanating from IT industry trade shows needs to very clear about how – and why – we are choosing to engage with this material. As Nordmann (2007, p.42-43) puts it, we should such take “such scenarios seriously enough to generate insights from them and to discover values” that help us reflect upon current technosocial arrangements. However, we should not “take them seriously enough to believe them”.
In this sense, our rationale for engaging with these imaginaries begins with the ability to pursue the following critical lines of inquiry
- What is being said about emerging technologies … and to whom? For example, what shared visions of the future and cultural world building is taking place? Moreover, who are the intended audiences for these visions and stories? For example, are these discourses directed to potential purchasers of these new technologies, as distinct to those likely to be the direct ‘end-users’?
- What is not being said about emerging technologies? For example, as Vinsell & Russell (2020) point out, is this ‘innovation-speak’ distracting us from ordinary problems of technology and infrastructure, including maintenance, repair, and mundane labour?
- What weaknesses, vulnerabilities, uncertainties are apparent? Much of these trade show discourses involve different elements of the IT industry talking with each other. As such, these discourses can often foreground accepted limitations and acknowledged frailties of the technology that are otherwise not voiced in more outward-facing arenas. These discourses can also provide valuable insights into local variations and competing factions within any ‘innovation community’ (Konrad 2006)
- What are the wider logics implicit in the imagined roll-out of any emerging technology? What do tech developers, investors and vendors see as possible through the application of these emerging technologies within society? How are corporate actors identifying problems (often framed in terms of risks) that they feel able to profit from? How are these problems (and attendant technological solutions) being used to give definition to the roles and duties of IT industry actors, as well as guiding activities, providing structure and legitimation, attracting interest and perhaps even fostering investment (Borup et al 2006)?
Borup, M., Brown, N., Konrad, K., & Van Lente, H. (2006). The sociology of expectations in science and technology. Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, 18(3-4), 285-298.
Brown, N. & Michael, M. (2003) A sociology of expectations: retrospecting prospects and prospecting retrospects. Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, 15:1, 3-18
Jasanoff, S., & Kim, S. (2009). Containing the atom: Sociotechnical imaginaries and nuclear power in the United States and South Korea. Minerva, 47(2), 119.
Konrad, K. (2006). The social dynamics of expectations: the interaction of collective and actor-specific expectations on electronic commerce and interactive television. Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, 18(3-4), 429-444.
Nordmann, A. (2007). If and then: a critique of speculative nanoethics. Nanoethics, 1(1), 31-46.
Sismondo, S. (2020). Sociotechnical imaginaries: An accidental themed issue. Social Studies of Science50(4):505-507.
Vinsel, L. (2021). You’re doing it wrong: notes on criticism and technology hype. STS News, 2nd February, https://sts-news.medium.com/youre-doing-it-wrong-notes-on-criticism-and-technology-hype-18b08b4307e5
Vinsell, L. & Russell, A (2020). The innovation delusion. Random House