Back in 2007-11 I researched the field of “nanotechnology” and the social and political dynamics of nanotechnology development and policy in the Australian context. I re-read some of my thesis on the other day from the perspective of my doctoral research (see here, here). The case contains some key lessons which, although fairly straight-forward, I think are still insufficiently considered.
The extravagant claims that were increasingly being made about the ‘nanotechnology’ in the early-mid 2000s drew me and many others to the field (for similar hype dynamics today see synthetic biology, 3D/additive printing, or “big data”). What I found when I began my data collection was that these expectations had deflated, the work of many scientists had become problematically politicised due to the risk debates that developed and, overall, there was a palpable reluctance to progress nanotechnology and buy into its futuristic promises. Many actors were ‘moving on’ (so to speak). Crucially, I established that the shifts in expectations were largely a social construction – that is, no major safety incidents or “deal-breaker” research findings indicating greater technological risk had occurred that would account for the declining support for nanotechnology, and work in the research fields and on technological applications had progressed. However, some nanotechnology proponents were guilty of ‘overpromising’ and this, likely, contributed to the downswing that later developed.
At the time I was initially disappointed by my interview findings as interest in ‘nanotechnology’ was dissipating and it consequently seemed less important to study it. Later I began to recognise that the case provides insights into aspects of expectations that are often neglected and into the influence of actors’ expectations, and pointed to tensions in the governance of emerging science.
Also important was the fact the social processes and dynamics were influenced by a small number of actors who took on and sought to play strategic roles. I termed these actors the ‘lead actors’.
Further reflecting on this case, additional lessons are also apparent including the following lessons:
1) Scenarios and forecasts are often developed and used “strategically” (not in an unbiased or ‘disinterested’ manner) and often best analysed as forms of strategic action
This first lesson starts with some obvious but important observations. Nanotechnology proponents tended to make claims about the likely or potential benefits of future nanotechnologies and often developed positive scenarios to communicate this. Some academic observers criticised such views for presenting overly-optimistic perspectives and an almost “effortless” view of advances and benefits. Opponents developed scenarios focussed on risk and worst case scenarios that they argued are credible. This meant policy debates often centred on what expectations were credible and the role of government (e.g. if a nanotechnology revolution is viewed as being inevitable or imminent there’s no need for policies to support development and attention turns to regulation and controls).
A further implication is that few, if any, actors took a balanced or holistic view of the alternative plausible scenarios. Instead, particular aspects and possibilities were emphasised by different actors.
Additionally, many proponents and opponents of nanotechnology also had implicit political agendas and related beliefs they often weren’t open about (but became clear in the interviews). One reason why nanotechnology opponents communicated worst case scenarios was to further these agendas.
Following Farla et al (2012) the above actions can be described as actors strategically engaging in ‘expectations work’. Scenario-building and forecasting activities are often expectations work.
2) Representations of the future matter, especially for emerging science and technology
Emerging areas of technology increasingly inhabit an “economy of promises” whereby funding and investment is typically justified by claims about the future. This can, in some ways, be seen as a “game” that scientists and others have learned to play in order to succeed within a promises regime (also see the discussion in my thesis). More generally, Sociology of Expectations research shows that expectations are often a critical resource in innovation processes and ups-and-downs in collective expectations can have a major impact on innovation. This is evident in the case of nanotechnology.
A fancy social science term for this is performativity. That is, expectations about the future are performative when they shape the future they purport to describe (e.g. self-fulfilling prophecies). Sociologists such as Brown et al (2003) argue that “there is always a performative aspect to them [expectations]”, arguing they “perform a real-time purpose in shaping present day arrangements” and should be viewed as “part of the world of action” (emphasis in the original). The core idea that expectations should be viewed as part of the world of action is consistent with lesson one.
The case of nanotechnology also exemplifies the ‘political economy’ of expectations where hyper-expectations, fed by nano-proponents, fuelled counter-concerns and extreme counter-claims.
3) The politics of expectations have been insufficiently considered
This lesson is related to the first two and is well-captured by Alan Peterson’s work on the ‘politico-economic’ dynamics of expectations. The core idea and claim is that the generation and sustaining of expectations is a political process. Peterson asks: who has a vested interest in particular expectations (e.g. interests in high expectations for nanotechnology), how do they try to enact and maintain such expectations, and to what effect? In the case of nanotechnology, I found that actors with an interest in nanotechnology used a wide range of strategies to develop high expectations ranging from use of advisory bodies (e.g. the Prime Minister’s Science and Engineering and Innovation Council, etc) and peak bodies (e.g. ATSE), promotional activities, and mobilisation of professional networks.
Peterson argues that those with an interest in high expectations often go well beyond scientists or technologists. Others including legal scholars, ethicists, regulatory experts, and many others, can also be viewed to have an interest in such expectations (Peterson 2011). I found that this is also true in the case of nanotechnology. Moreover, groups seeking greater leverage with government (e.g. environmental activists) also benefited from high expectations for nanotechnology. This was one of the reasons that environmental activists typically framed nanotechnology as a ‘revolution’.
In my thesis I also made a related distinction between nanotechnology as a “socio-political project” and nanotechnology as a diverse set of research fields and technological application areas. The politics that developed shaped both the nanotechnology project and these research fields.
4) We need to consider the challenges facing actors under conditions of pervasive uncertainty
In novel and nascent areas of science and technology pervasive uncertainty and ignorance create governance challenges (Wickson et al. 2010). In my thesis I drew on Wickson et al’s argument that under “conditions of pervasive uncertainty … all stakeholders have little choice but to think about nanotechnology within the frameworks and worldviews already available to them”. They further argued that “discussions [about nanotechnology] typically employ well recognised narratives or stories” such as narratives “about the relationship between technology and society” or about “the relationship between nature and nanotechnology”, and that each narrative has a particular ideological underpinning.
Consistent with this I found that actors in nanotechnology debates tended to rely on the frameworks and worldviews already available to them, often reflecting environmental discourses.
5) Expectations can be self-fulfilling or self-negating
As noted above (as part of lesson two) expectations can be self-fulfilling if they prompt necessary supportive actions for realising such a future. In contrast the nanotechnology case, in the Australian context in the 2000-12 period, is a case of largely self-negating expectations, whereby those claims about the future stimulated socio-political dynamics which acted to slow or prevent the realisation of those futures. Nanotechnologists grappled with increasing politicisation, additional regulatory attention, risk debates, and more policy uncertainty. Unlike nanoscientists and nanotechnologists, other researchers (e.g. climate scientists) hope that their forecasts will be self-negating.
6) Expectations and visions are not historically constant and are now more prevalent
One of the most striking features of the case of nanotechnology is that representations of possible futures and speculative accounts of possible futures have been central to nanotechnology policy and related debates. This statement doesn’t only refer to the radical “molecular engineering” concepts that were popularised by Eric Drexler, or to futuristic images of nanobots in the human bloodstream; it also refers to accounts of future economic and/or social benefits, and environmental risks, told by diverse actors either to promote more investment in, or mobilise opposition to, nanotechnology. For example, ‘nanotechnology’ was framed as the ‘third industrial revolution’, as a ‘new frontier’, etc.
Sociology of Expectations research has found that future expectations and visions are not historically constant and the presence of these has become more intense in recent decades (especially in the domains of science, technology and the environment). This is true in at least two respects. As Peterson and Wilkinson (2014) assert “we live in an era saturated with the language and imagery of hope”. We also live in what Ulrich Beck terms the risk society, fixated much more on risk and potential catastrophes.
7) Innovation governance is becoming both more important and more prospective
Nanotechnology critics often emphasised innovation governance gaps and related concerns. My study, although exploratory, found that the drivers of disputes could be seen to go beyond risk and to point to innovation governance tensions and conflicting social visions – especially regarding the potential applications of nanotechnology (and other enabling and converging technologies) for addressing climate change, energy challenges and environmental problems more broadly.
Similarly, STS scholars have argued that public concerns are typically, and more fundamentally, about innovation processes and the purposes and interests behind these. Most recently this has given rise to new discourses and programs focussed on ‘responsible innovation’. Some responsible innovation frameworks adopt and promote a prospective notion of responsibility for the governance of emerging science and innovation (for an example framework see Stilgoe et al., 2013).
These lessons provide a stronger basis for understanding and considering the social and political dynamics of expectations. Additionally, the idea that expectations are often part of the world of action also usefully prompts greater consideration of expectations work and the ways it is carried out by actors, why, and to what effect (both intended and unintended outcomes). Linked with this, the specific case of nanotechnology also prompts consideration of: the evolving roles and influence of expectations in emerging areas of technology; the ways that technological hype can also have negative effects on innovation processes (e.g. see the ‘novelty trap’ effect); and related actor dilemmas.
More broadly, studying this case led me to be more attuned to both the politics of expectations and how expectations can be (or become) divorced from scientific realities. We should be skeptical about many of the hyperbolic claims made about emerging and novel areas of science and technology, and think critically about what motivates actors to make such claims. Why does all this matter? Because it shapes innovation processes, the prospects and evolution of areas of technological innovation, and our capacity to develop solutions to sustainability challenges. The case also points to tensions in the anticipatory governance of emerging technologies (also see Guston 2012, 2014; Stigloe et al. 2013).
Brown, N., Rip, A. & van Lente, H. 2003, Expectations in and about science and technology, Background paper for ‘expectations network’ workshop. (link to pdf)
Farla, J., Markard, J., Raven, R. & Coenen, L. 2012, ‘Sustainability transitions in the making: A closer look at actors, strategies and resources’, Technological Forecasting and Social Change vol. 79, no. 6, pp. 991-8.
Guston, D.H. 2012, ‘The Pumpkin or the Tiger? Michael Polanyi, Frederick Soddy, and Anticipating Emerging Technologies’, Minerva, vol. 50, no. 3, pp. 363-79.
Guston, D.H. 2014, ‘Understanding ‘anticipatory governance’’, Social Studies of Science, vol. 44, no. 2, pp. 218-42.
Peterson, A. 2011, The Politics of Bioethics, Routledge.
Petersen, A. & Wilkinson, I. 2014, ‘Editorial introduction: The sociology of hope in contexts of health, medicine, and healthcare’, Health, Forthcoming.
Stilgoe, J., Owen, R. & Macnaghten, P. 2013, ‘Developing a framework for responsible innovation’, Research Policy, vol. 42, no. 9, pp. 1568- 80.