Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim, eds, Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power

Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim, eds, Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2015) 360 pp. $105.00 Hb. $35.00 Pb. ISBN: 9780226276496

Visions of the future, such as those contained within science fiction, involve depictions of social and technological change as closely related processes. Despite these familiar links, argues Sheila Jasanoff in her introduction to this edited collection, 'many nonfictional accounts of how technology develops still treat the material apart from the social' (2). Moreover, Jasanoff claims, much social theory about the processes by which nations and worldviews are constructed and sustained through imagination and everyday cultural activity pays remarkably little attention to the role of science, technology, and built infrastructure. Dreamscapes of Modernity aims to bridge the gap between social theory by articulating and analysing 'sociotechnical imaginaries', (SoTIs): 'collectively held, institutionally stabilized, and publicly performed visions of desirable futures, animated by shared understandings of social life and social order attainable through, and supportive of, advances in science and technology' (4-5).

This concept builds on Jasanoff and Kim’s earlier work on the coproduction of science, technology and society: the ways in which political world views are constructed alongside scientific technological systems, and vice versa. Coproduction has often focused on how differences in national or regional political culture lead to different epistemologies and approaches to the governance of new science and technology, for example between the European Union and the USA over genetically modified organisms. Although Jasanoff emphasises that SoTIs can belong to 'organized groups, such as corporations, social movements, and professional societies' as well as to nations, most chapters are organised primarily along national lines, with other groups entering to the extent that they come into contact with existing national imaginaries (4).

Individual chapters adopt rather different disciplinary approaches. Warrigia Bowman, for example, writes from the perspective of public policy on how Paul Kagame used information technologies to imagine a future for  reconstruction in post-genocide Rwanda, based on the belief that 'information and knowledge, powered by ICT, would be the primary source for job creation, wealth generation and redistribution, and rapid economic development' (82). Bowman traces the way in which this vision has been implemented in a top-down fashion, based on long traditions in Rwandan political history. From the perspective of the history of science policy. Michael Arron Denis describes the clashes between images of science as an ‘endless frontier’ and its role as a state contractor in the USA during the Cold War, and the ways in which these images were menaced by the fear of a monstrous relation between science and the state. William Kelleher Storey’s chapter on Cecil Rhodes adopts a more biographical approach, showing how Rhodes’s 'racist political vision' developed from 'his personal sociotechnical vision' based on mining, agriculture, and the architectural separation of bodies 'into a full-blown collective imaginary' which provided the infrastructure of the racist state during the twentieth century (34).

Other chapters address clashing visions of the scales at which agriculture and industry should be conducted in twentieth century Indonesia; the 'politics of freedom' associated with the internet in the same country; resistance to technology as part of Austrian national identity; South Korean social movements’ attitudes towards economic development and new technology; the differences between the governance of nanotechnology in Germany and the USA. As well as the national studies, two chapters deal with the emergence of global imaginaries of security and disease; one concerns scientific commemoration; and one is about a corporate imaginary of a genetically modified crop. Among the book’s greatest strengths is the specificity of the visions of the futures depicted in each chapter, and the careful depiction of the material and social resources mobilised to enact them.

In her concluding chapter, Jasanoff makes some suggestions about the links between different chapters in her conclusion, suggesting that they trace SoTIs through four phases: their origins among elite groups; embedding through association with tangible things and cultural goods; the resistance which they (often) excite; and the ways in which they are extended in the form of stabilised representations. Readers familiar with Science and Technology Studies will be familiar with these phases, but Jasanoff shows convincingly that SoTIs help us to see the mediation of scientific and technological ideas through existing assumptions based on local political culture, a process which 'calls for a situated re-embedding in order for translated imaginaries to take root and flourish in new soil' (333).

Despite this emphasis on local response and adaptation, however, the book is strikingly uninterested in the materials and mechanisms of cultural mediation. Rather than attending to the specificities of fictions about the future, Jasanoff argues, we should recognise that 'the political life of societies is itself a form of collective storytelling, a joint and several imagining of the purposes and the potential of living and working together on an Earth at once malleable and constraining' (338). There are only occasional suggestions that consuming fiction, reading newspapers, singing, sharing memes, telling ghost stories, listening to TED talks, attending football matches, watching science fiction films, following recipes, going to church, or any one of a thousand other cultural practices has a serious role to play in the maintenance of SoTIs. For example, Bowman’s chapter describes how the opening of a telecentre was accompanied by schoolchildren singing a song and performing 'a humorous skit that they had written themselves in which their lives would be transformed by the ability to use computers”, but the content of these performances is not discussed any further (79). While newspapers or television debates are mentioned, this is for their content rather than for any contribution they might make to the imaginary. The chapters about the internet do not reflect on its possible impacts on the ways in which stories are told and shared. This omission leaves major gaps in the account of SoTIs because it neglects whole rafts of literature in history and cultural studies which have shown just how these practices feed into participation in a wider polity.

In addition, there is a significant unaddressed ambiguity in Jasanoff and Kim’s treatment of the concept of imaginaries. For Charles Taylor, the concept of social imaginaries is a way of depicting the shifting common sense and tacit assumptions of societies at different periods. A significant aspect of at least some of these imaginaries is that they change the kinds of things which anyone can imagine: the rise of the imaginary of secularism leads to major shifts in the practices and attitudes of both non-religious and religious people, whether they like it or not. There is little indication whether Jasanoff and Kim think SoTIs can act at this deep, constitutive, level. Some chapters allude to controversies in which opposing sides shared assumptions about the role of science and technology in, say, economic development. A more general discussion about how, or whether, some SoTIs come to be very widely accepted in particular historical periods—not least because the definition of the term involves the claim that 'advances in science and technology' can contribute to the attainment of 'shared understandings of forms of social life and social order'. This idea is itself an imaginary: it is not shared by everyone, and it emerged under particular historical conditions. Taylor would, I suspect, want to ask about how we have come to take such beliefs for granted.

Despite these reservations, however, SoTIs are a useful conceptual tool for linking political culture and technological systems, and for wedding different approaches in social theory and STS. For readers with interests in literary representations and imaginative constructions of science and technology, many of the book’s  gaps will amount to interesting provocations. Its focus on the storytelling of everyday political activity, for example, invites questions of how fictions and media of various kinds impact on these narratives. It is a major contribution which will be of interest to scholars interested in science policy, sociology of technology, and cultural aspects of the construction of science and technology.

Matthew Paskins, Aberystwyth University