In this post I want to briefly explore a useful distinction between ‘looking into’ and ‘looking at’ the future. I first became aware of this distinction when I read Contested Futures: A Sociology of Prospective Techno-Science, and drew on it in a paper entitled “Nano Dreams and Nightmares” published in Journal of Futures Studies. ‘Looking into’ the future is the familiar domain of forecasting techniques, and other forward-looking methods, used to articulate expectations of (and views about) the future. In contrast, some Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars have theorised, and brought attention to, the ways in which “futures and expectations are enacted and performed” with a focus on how this influences technological innovation and scientific practices (Borup et al. 2006). Thus, ‘looking at’ the future attempts to grasp the politics of the future and to scrutinise the phenomenon of future-orientation.
In Contested Futures, some STS scholars frame this inquiry as follows:
The intention here is to turn the analytical gaze towards the phenomenon of future-orientation itself. The purpose of this analysis is not the future per se, but the ‘real time’ activities of actors utilising a range of differing resources with which to create ‘direction’ or convince others of ‘what the future will bring’. As such, our purpose is to shift the discussion from looking into the future to looking at how the future as a temporal abstraction is constructed and managed, by whom and under what conditions. (p.4)
Important topics and questions include: issue of agency and power relations in the mobilisation of ‘the future’ and definition of visions/expectations; the performative aspects of expectations (e.g. their influence in innovation processes); and how futures are actively contested, with what effects (e.g. discursive struggles over future expectations) and under what conditions. Furthermore, STS scholars examine the contexts and practices whereby futuristic discourses are produced and circulated.
A major claim of these STS scholars is “expectations are both the cause and consequence of material scientific and technological activity”; i.e. they are performative (see Borup et al., 2006).
Australian sociologist of science Alan Peterson (from Monash University; see info here) similarly argues that the roles, formation and implications of expectations are under-appreciated and under-studied. For example, he seeks to reveal “their significance in shaping social priorities and social arrangements” (Peterson, 2011, p.23). Peterson’s research focussed on medical biotechnology and the sociology of health and risk. Beyond emerging technologies, his argument that the formation and sustaining of expectations is a political process has much wider applicability.
For interesting STS analyses of this sort also I recommend Robert Chile’s paper on the discursive struggles over potential “in vitro meat” production (which asks “How are expectations about in vitro meat shaped by hype, retrospectives on past technologies, and ideological commitments?”) and Robin Williams’ study of the roles of Gartner Research in shaping technologies.
(Re)Considering green technology and the promise of green futures
Recently I read the book Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology by Alex Madrigal, in which Madrigal addresses some of these themes (especially in Part 5 ‘Innovation and the future’). For example, the chapter on nuclear power’s rise and fall notes the early utopian visions of “Atoms for Peace” and “energy too cheap to meter”, and the key battles between proponents of alternative energy futures. Reporting similar dynamics to those in nanotechnology, Madrigal writes that “the nuclear community was caught between visions of apocalypse and utopia” (pp.226-227). He contends that key players such as General Electric shaped expectations, making grand technical promises and “establishing future facts” (that’s Madrigal’s phrase) about rapidly growing energy demand – which never actually materialised in the real-world. Nonetheless, at the time, these “future facts” influenced politicians and helped to mobilise enormous sums of capital.
Legitimising political narratives were also central to support for nuclear power from the 1950s to the early 1970s, despite the fact that the economics of the nuclear power did not stack up. Madrigal writes: “for example, the foreign policy objectives of the United States helped nuclear power gain prominence and support, despite its expense. Beyond the military R&D that went into reactors, being able to offer a world torn between capitalism and communism a way to abundance was important. Nuclear power became a major part of selling the American dream” (p.232).
The chapter entitled “The Five-Cent Turbine and the Siren Call of the Breakthrough” addresses the frequent hype and (often later) disappointment that is endemic to emerging technologies and high-tech industries. It notes the confident claims made by some firms in the 1980s that their technology would “revolutionise” the wind power industry, and the related hype and disappointment cycles and flip-flopping policy that have plagued the US wind power sector. This chapter covers themes and dynamics that are being theorised by STS scholars (see the Sociology of Expectations).
The final chapter, “Rehumanizing Environmentalism”, is equally interesting. It deals with the broader ‘technoscientific imaginaries’ and related deeper perspectives on current and desired relationships between technology and the environment – revealing Madrigal’s own preferences.
STS research goes further than Madrigal’s analysis. We should also ask how such imaginaries interact with and shape research and development processes, and become enacted in practices. Nonetheless the book usefully provokes greater thinking about social processes shaping scientific research, green technology development, innovation, and the adoption of new technologies.
How could this perspective be used?
First, it is a useful perspective when seeking to understand social processes and outcomes. I drew on the Sociology of Expectations in my study of nanotechnology and society in Australia. For example, the study revealed competing attempts to mobilise the future (by proponents and opponents) and the influence of expectations in the early stages of innovation processes. It suggested proponents were unable to maintain positive expectations, efforts to frame it as a “second industrial revolution” increased the level of opposition, and many actors are abandoning “nanotechnology”. I also showed that ideological factors strongly shape actors expectations about “nanotechnology”.
Since completing this study I have observed similar processes in diverse domains like: ‘3D printing’ (e.g. those who have an ideological preference for localisation and distributed systems tend to have stronger positive expectations, or hopes, than those who don’t); ‘synthetic biology’ (e.g. proponent efforts to mobilise the future stimulated a similar range of opponents who articulate very different envisaged futures); and ‘gerontechnology’ (e.g. efforts by proponents to frame futures in which ageing societies require new technologies, in an effort to secure additional funding and support).
Increasingly, I also think it is a really useful perspective to adopt when considering sustainability debates and issues. These are crucial spaces in which to consider (to again quote the STS scholars) “how the future as a temporal abstraction is constructed and managed, by whom and under what conditions”. The formation, sustaining and influence of expectations – e.g. about future resource scarcity, environmental risks, and/or future opportunities and shifts (more broadly) – are crucial aspects of these debates. Alan Peterson’s research indicates this analysis could draw on additional theoretical perspectives such as the social construction of knowledge and politics of knowledge.
In this way, we can also ask critical questions about how sustainability issues (and related scenarios and futures possibilities) are represented, and how this is done to advance particular goals – both the practices and goals of activists, and of those opposing major changes. For example, the concept of “tipping points” is increasingly used to justify major and urgent societal changes and activists argue that we face a “sustainability emergency” which may lead to a civilisational collapse.
This could also be a useful perspective when examining the use of futures methods and processes (e.g. the CSIRO’s convening of “future forums” on energy futures and climate change [see here]) – such as examining the goals of actors (e.g. to establish or sustain expectations) and the influence of these activities (e.g. whether, and how, they shape social priorities and arrangements), or examining the conditions under which such methods are used or effective. For instance, social field theory predicts that novel and intense forms of interaction (e.g. multi-stakeholder participatory scenario processes) are a central feature of “episodes of contention” during which there is a shared sense of uncertainty.
Thus, we can ‘look at’ how the future is mobilised and constructed in environmental and innovation governance, with what effects, and under what conditions. We can examine which expectations gain traction and why, and if and how these expectations shape priorities and social arrangements. This could, in turn, help with designing and facilitating effective interventions and policy.
Borup, M., Brown, N., Konrad, K. & van Lente, H. 2006, ‘The Sociology of Expectations in Science and Technology’, Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 285-98.
Brown, N., Rappert, B. & Webster, A. 2000, Contested Futures: A Sociology of Prospective Techno-Science, Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Aldershot, England.
Peterson, A. 2011, The Politics of Bioethics, Routledge.