Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power

Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power


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Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power by Sheila Jasanoff

Dreamscapes of Modernity offers the first book-length treatment of sociotechnical imaginaries, a concept originated by Sheila Jasanoff and developed in close collaboration with Sang-Hyun Kim to describe how visions of scientific and technological progress carry with them implicit ideas about public purposes, collective futures, and the common good. The book presents a mix of case studies—including nuclear power in Austria, Chinese rice biotechnology, Korean stem cell research, the Indonesian Internet, US bioethics, global health, and more—to illustrate how the concept of sociotechnical imaginaries can lead to more sophisticated understandings of the national and transnational politics of science and technology. A theoretical introduction sets the stage for the contributors’ wide-ranging analyses, and a conclusion gathers and synthesizes their collective findings. The book marks a major theoretical advance for a concept that has been rapidly taken up across the social sciences and promises to become central to scholarship in science and technology studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226276526
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/02/2015
Pages: 360
Sales rank: 1,300,789
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Sheila Jasanoff is the Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School. Sang-Hyun Kim is associate professor at the Research Institute of Comparative History and Culture at Hanyang University in Korea.

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Dreamscapes of Modernity

Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power

By Sheila Jasanoff, Sang-Hyun Kim

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-27666-3


Future Imperfect: Science, Technology, and the Imaginations of Modernity

Sheila Jasanoff

Technological innovation often follows on the heels of science fiction, lagging authorial imagination by decades or longer. One hundred fifty years passed between the youthful Mary Shelley's fantastic story of a vengeful creature brought to life by Dr. Frankenstein and the production of new life forms in twentieth-century biological laboratories (Shelley 2008 [1818]). Jules Verne's Nautilus, piloted by Captain Nemo, took to the ocean depths well before real submarines went on such long or distant voyages (Verne 1887). At the dawn of the Progressive Era, the American socialist Edward Bellamy (1889) foresaw an economy fueled by rapid communication, credit cards, and in-home delivery of goods; a hundred years on, those imagined revolutions have become routine. Aldous Huxley (1932) fantasized about an assembly line of artificial human reproduction to serve state purposes twenty years before the unraveling of the structure of DNA, which in turn paved the way for the currently forbidden cloning of human beings. Arthur C. Clarke (1968) created the scheming, lip-reading computer Hal thirty years before IBM programmers developed Deep Blue to beat chess master Gary Kasparov at his own game. And interplanetary travel was in the minds of such writers as H.G. Wells, Fred Wilcox, and Fred Hoyle appreciably before Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon with his "giant leap for mankind."

Belying the label "science fiction," however, works in this genre are also fabulations of social worlds, both utopic and dystopic. Shelley's lab-generated monster turns murderous because he is excluded from society by his abnormal birth and hence is denied the blessings of companionship and social life enjoyed by his creator. Jules Verne's Nemo, a dispossessed Indian prince driven by hatred of the British colonialists who exploited his land and destroyed his family, seeks freedom and scientific enlightenment in the ocean depths. Biopower runs amok in Aldous Huxley's imagined world, overwhelming human dignity and autonomy in the name of collective needs under authoritarian rule. Equally concerned with the interplay of social and material innovation, but reversing the emotional gears, Edward Bellamy's look backward from an imagined 2000 offers, first, an optimistic account of a new social order and only secondarily a foray into technological unknowns. And as a dystopic counterpoint, George Orwell's (1949) Nineteen Eighty-Four presents a world of totalitarian thought control overseen by a technologically advanced, all-seeing, all-knowing, 24/7 surveillance state — whose real-life counterpart Edward Snowden, the whistle-blowing, twenty-first-century American contractor, famously revealed in the US National Security Agency.

Oddly, though, many nonfictional accounts of how technology develops still treat the material apart from the social, as if the design of tools and machines, cars and computers, pharmaceutical drugs and nuclear weapons were not in constant interplay with the social arrangements that inspire and sustain their production. In popular discourse the word "technology" tends to be equated with machine or invention, something solid, engineered, black boxed, and these days most likely an instrument of electronic communication. Yet cars as we know them would never have taken to the roads without the myriad social roles, institutions, and practices spawned by modernity: scientists, engineers, and designers; patents and trademarks; autoworkers and big corporations; regulators; dealers and distributors; advertising companies; and users, from commuters to racers, who ultimately gave cars their utility, appeal, and meaning. Similar observations can be made about contraceptives, computers, cell phones, and countless other artifacts that serve our needs while, to varying degrees, arousing our desires. Technological objects, in other words, are thoroughly enmeshed in society, as integral components of social order; one does not need fictive or futuristic stories to recognize this truth.

Bringing social thickness and complexity back into the appreciation of technological systems has been a central aim of the field of science and technology studies (STS). Historians and social analysts of technology have worked in tandem to remind us that there can be no machines without humans to make them and powerful institutions to decide which technologies are worth our investment (Winner 1986). This literature resists the temptation to construe technology as deterministic. STS scholars tend to bristle at the evolutionary economist's language of strict path dependence (David 1985; Arthur 1994). STS accounts recognize that history matters, as indeed it must, but reject the notion of rigid lock-ins in favor of a more open sense of agency and contingency in society's charting of technological possibilities. Many aspects of the presenting face of technological systems are socially constructed (Bijker et al. 1987). The stamp of conscious or unconscious human choice and user preference marks the design of objects, their weighting of risks and benefits, and the behaviors they encourage, exclude, or seek to regulate (Callon 1987; Jasanoff 2006).

Less frequently encountered in the STS literature, however, are conceptual frameworks that situate technologies within the integrated material, moral, and social landscapes that science fiction offers up in such abundance. To be sure, the normative dimensions of science and technology do not fall wholly outside the scope of STS analysis. STS scholarship acknowledges that science and technology do not unidirectionally shape our values and norms. Rather, and symmetrically, our sense of how we ought to organize and govern ourselves profoundly influences what we make of nature, society, and the "real world." The idiom of coproduction explicitly foregrounds this two-way dynamic:

Briefly stated, co-production is shorthand for the proposition that the ways in which we know and represent the world (both nature and society) are inseparable from the ways in which we choose to live in it. Knowledge and its material embodiments are at once products of social work and constitutive of forms of social life; society cannot function without knowledge any more than knowledge can exist without appropriate social supports. Scientific knowledge, in particular, is not a transcendent mirror of reality. It both embeds and is embedded in social practices, identities, norms, conventions, discourses, instruments, and institutions — in short, in all the building blocks of what we term the social. The same can be said even more forcefully of technology. (Jasanoff 2004a, 2–3)

For all its analytic potential, however, the notion of coproduction does more to advance the Weberian project of Verstehen (understanding subjectively how things fit together) than the scientific goal of Erklären (explaining objectively how things come to be as they are). It lacks the specificity that might allow us to elucidate certain persistent problems and difficulties of the modern technoscientific world. Left unaccounted for by the bare idiom of coproduction are some of the biggest "why" questions of history — why upheavals sometimes seem to come from nowhere and why attempts to remake the world sometimes fail despite much concerted effort and expenditure of resources. Puzzles also include cross-national and cross-cultural divergences in technological development that lack obvious grounding in natural, economic, or social disparities. It is important to understand in a time of globalization why different moral valences attach to new scientific ideas and technological inventions throughout the world and why differences persist in what we might call the constitutional position of science and technology in the political order (Jasanoff 2012b; Dennis; Miller, this volume).

The idea of sociotechnical imaginaries confronts some of these challenges head on. Our starting point is the definition Sang-Hyun Kim and I offered in an earlier study of US and South Korean responses to nuclear power: national sociotechnical imaginaries are "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, 120). This definition, as we show in this volume, needs to be refined and extended in order to do justice to the myriad ways in which scientific and technological visions enter into the assemblages of materiality, meaning, and morality that constitute robust forms of social life. Sociotechnical imaginaries, as elaborated in the following chapters, are not limited to nation-states as implied in our original formulation but can be articulated and propagated by other organized groups, such as corporations, social movements, and professional societies. Though collectively held, sociotechnical imaginaries can originate in the visions of single individuals or small collectives, gaining traction through blatant exercises of power or sustained acts of coalition building. Only when the originator's "vanguard vision" (Hilgartner 2015) comes to be communally adopted, however, does it rise to the status of an imaginary. Multiple imaginaries can coexist within a society in tension or in a productive dialectical relationship. It often falls to legislatures, courts, the media, or other institutions of power to elevate some imagined futures above others, according them a dominant position for policy purposes. Imaginaries, moreover, encode not only visions of what is attainable through science and technology but also of how life ought, or ought not, to be lived; in this respect they express a society's shared understandings of good and evil.

Taking these complexities into account, we redefine sociotechnical imaginaries in this book as collectively held, institutionally stabilized, and publicly performed visions of desirable futures, animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order attainable through, and supportive of, advances in science and technology. This definition privileges the word "desirable" because efforts to build new sociotechnical futures are typically grounded in positive visions of social progress. It goes without saying that imaginations of desirable and desired futures correlate, tacitly or explicitly, with the obverse — shared fears of harms that might be incurred through invention and innovation, or of course the failure to innovate. The interplay between positive and negative imaginings — between utopia and dystopia — is a connecting theme throughout this volume.

In this chapter, I lay out the theoretical precursors that inform our work on sociotechnical imaginaries and outline the major methodological approaches by which we make the term analytically tractable. Imaginaries are securely established in interpretive social theory as a term of art referring to collective beliefs about how society functions. Yet, as I show below, little has been done to link that notion to modernity's grand aspirations and adventures with science and technology. This absence is all the more perplexing because the performative dimensions of a society's self-reproduction — the enactment and reenactment of its imaginaries — so heavily depend on experiment and demonstration, practices that are intimately linked to science and technology (Ezrahi 1990; Hilgartner 2000; Jasanoff 2012b). In contrast to social theory in general, STS theorizing affirms the centrality of science and technology in the making and stabilizing of collectives, although STS has paid relatively less attention to the aspirational and normative dimensions of social order captured by the notion of imaginaries.

Sociotechnical imaginaries as illustrated by the contributors to this collection occupy the blank space between two important literatures, the construction of imaginaries in political and cultural theory and of sociotechnical systems in STS (e.g., Bijker 1997; Bijker et al. 1987). The concept helps explain a number of otherwise troublesome problems: why do technological trajectories diverge across polities and periods; what makes some sociotechnical arrangements more durable than others; how do facts and technologies transcend and reconstruct time and space; and what roles do science and technology play in connecting the individual's subjective self-understanding to a shared social or moral order? The chapter then addresses the practical questions that arise in working with this theoretical concept: when does it make sense to invoke sociotechnical imaginaries and what methods and sources are most appropriate for identifying these constructs and their constitutive elements? Lastly, the chapter lays out a map of the major thematic connections among the empirical case studies that follow.

Imagination as a Social Practice

Modern societies prize imagination as an attribute of the creative individual. It is the faculty that allows the extraordinary person to see beyond the limits of constraining reality and to make or do things that are out of the ordinary. We rightly celebrate the seer, the visionary, the transformative political thinker. But imagination also operates at an intersubjective level, uniting members of a social community in shared perceptions of futures that should or should not be realized. Prior efforts to theorize the collective imagination constitute a fundamentally important strand in the genealogy of sociotechnical imaginaries.

More than a century after the seminal writings of Durkheim and Weber, we take for granted that vibrant societies share common narratives of who they are, where they have come from, and where they are headed. These stories are reflected in rituals of giving and receiving, producing and consuming, birth, marriage, and death. Uncovering these tacit ordering rules even in foreign and distant cultures was the project of anthropology from its colonial origins. Thus, the great structural-functionalist Evans-Pritchard (1937), who helped import Durkheim into anthropology (Kuklick 1992), attributed allegations of witchcraft among the Zande of Central Africa to a logic of averting the chaos of ignorance. Witchcraft on Evans-Pritchard's reading supported order by assigning otherwise inexplicable events to discernible social causes. His student Mary Douglas adopted a similar analytic stance in disentangling beliefs about pollution in premodern societies, eventually extending her ideas to relations between social structures and contemporary perceptions of risk in her work on cultural theory (Douglas 1966; Douglas and Wildavsky 1980). These studies blurred the lines between real and imagined realities, showing how observed facts of nature are refracted through collective desires for logic and order, producing authoritative representations of how the world works — as well as how it should work. In the language of STS, all these works can be seen as broadly illustrative of the phenomenon of coproduction (Jasanoff 2004a).

Early ethnographers did not fail to see that political systems make up a particular kind of imagined reality whose rules are amenable to anthropological investigation. Evans-Pritchard and Meyer Fortes, for example, edited a collection of essays on political systems in sub-Saharan Africa for the International African Institute (Fortes and Evans-Pritchard 1940). Notably, however, this kind of analysis was rarely directed toward modern societies; instead, realist accounts of states predominated in political theory, and little analytic room was left for such nebulous, hard to quantify factors as social imaginations. In his classic work Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson sliced through the divide between ethnography and political science with his now famous definition of a nation as "an imagined political community — and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign" (Anderson 1991 [1983], 6). Nationalism, on his reading, is a construct of minds that may never encounter each other in reality but nevertheless are tied together through shared practices of narrating, recollecting, and forgetting. Not only did Anderson's move provide a powerful explanation for what unifies something so heterogeneous and spatially dispersed as a nation, it also validated the cultural, historical, and comparative investigation of the psychosocial attributes of political collectives.

Following Anderson's lead, Charles Taylor (2004) expanded the analysis of collective imaginations to address grand patterns of historical and political thought. How, Taylor asks in the opening pages of Modern Social Imaginaries, did modernity come about, with its distinctive complex of new practices and institutions, new ways of living, and new forms of malaise? His explanation can be summed up in two words: imaginaries changed. But how does Taylor define an imaginary, let alone one that looks distinctively modern and social? Here is his answer: "By social imaginary, I mean something much broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about reality in a disengaged mode. I am thinking, rather, of the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations" (Taylor 2004, 23).


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Table of Contents

1.         Future Imperfect: Science, Technology, and the Imaginations of Modernity
Sheila Jasanoff

2.         Cecil Rhodes and the Making of a Sociotechnical Imaginary for South Africa
William K. Storey

3.         Our Monsters, Ourselves: Reimagining the Problem of Knowledge in Cold War America
Michael A. Dennis

4.         Imagining a Modern Rwanda: Sociotechnical Imaginaries, Information Technology, and the Postgenocide State
Warigia Bowman

5.         Keeping Technologies Out: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Formation of Austria’s Technopolitical Identity
Ulrike Felt

6.         Remembering the Future: Science, Law and the Legacy of Asilomar
J. Benjamin Hurlbut

7.         Social Movements and Contested Sociotechnical Imaginaries in South Korea
Sang-Hyun Kim

8.         Building from the Outside In: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Civil Society in New Order Indonesia
Suzanne Moon

9.         Guerilla Engineers: The Internet and the Politics of Freedom in Indonesia
Joshua Barker

10.       Consuming Biotechnology: Genetically Modified Rice in China
Nancy N. Chen

11.       Imaginaries of Science and Society: Framing Nanotechnology Governance in Germany and the United States
Regula Valérie Burri

12.       Corporate Imaginaries of Biotechnology and Global Governance: Syngenta, Golden Rice, and Corporate Social Responsibility
Elta Smith

13.       Globalizing Security: Science and the Transformation of Contemporary Political Imagination
Clark A. Miller

14.       Global Health Security and the Pathogenic Imaginary
Andrew Lakoff

15.       Imagined and Invented Worlds
Sheila Jasanoff

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