Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: American Ethnological Society
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Students
Primary Theme: Technology
Secondary Theme: Science
Techno-optimism — the idea that science and technology will lead to economic, political, or social good — is a mainstay of business, government, and popular culture. For entrepreneurs or political leaders, promoting the promise of scientific and technological progress can lead to publicity and financial investment, draw the attention of development agencies, and attract enthusiastic employees and clients. While a charge of techno-utopianism is often taken as an insult, techno-optimism is something that some technology writers and activists embrace. Authors like Cory Doctorow (2011) have made the case for techno-optimism, presenting it as a cautious hope balanced by modest concern.
In this panel, presenters explore the nature of the hope that science and technology can make the world a better place. Drawing in particular on Jasanoff and Kim’s (2015) conceptual framework of sociotechnical imaginaries, we ask, how is techno-optimism produced–and what are its consequences? How do techno-optimistic imaginaries work in the world, and what kind of analytical purchase do they provide?
As a partial antidote to the media’s obsessive focus on Silicon Valley as the source and center of techno-optimism, papers draw on cases in Latin America and Africa. This panel focuses on techno-optimism that arises outside of (and in some cases in response to) Silicon Valley. It explores, critiques, and contests the role Silicon Valley plays in shaping techno-optimistic moral visions around the world. Panelists show the many roots of techno-optimistic imaginaries and challenge us to understand the work of these imaginaries with greater historical and ethnographic specificity.
Panelists pay special attention to the power-laden sources of techno-optimism, including unequal capacities to shape sociotechnical imaginaries. A focus on localities, material practices, and material relations highlights the power-saturated and uneven political terrain on which imaginaries are produced, thereby underlining the interests that particular forms of techno-optimism may represent.
By drawing out the performances, ideologies, and corporate practices that produce and promote techno-optimisms in particular places and for particular audiences, panelists point to ways in which techno-optimism – even when cast as world-spanning – is produced and negotiated in localized ways. Some papers focus on the failures and aftereffects of particular techno-optimisms (Ames, Little), others on their political productivity (Gardiner, Centellas). All expand our ethnographic understanding of an under-theorized phenomenon.