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Gábor István Bíró discusses a new theory of ‘sociotechnical imaginaries’, assessing how the science of technology has been shaping identities across the world over the past several decades.

Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim (eds.), Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power (Chicago University Press, 2015) 360pp.

What is the common denominator between Cecil Rhodes’ South Africa, the telecenters of Rwanda, recombinant DNA technology, the military-driven Cold War science and the free internet in Indonesia? By introducing the concept of sociotechnical imaginaries, Jasanoff and Kim calm some of the restless battles of boundaries and binaries Science and Technology Studies faces today. The concept offers a new approach to the relationship between technology and politics which cuts through many existing assumptions. Dichotomies of descriptive and normative, material and mental, agency and structure are seen here losing their charm in the face of a new analytical frame which cuts through some of these lines of demarcation. Boundaries of past, present and future are being readdressed by analysing the social imagining of communities of the past ‘dreaming’ about desirable or undesirable futures (and pasts) related to advances in science and technology.

The book features a range of diverse case studies which show how the idea of sociotechnical imaginaries could be useful in a huge range of very different contexts. The second chapter (by William Kelleher Storey) explores how Cecil Rhodes’ vision of South Africa included racist elements, business interests, politics and identities, ideas which were implemented and disseminated through scientific and technological means. Rhodes needed to envision and enact interrelated material and social orders to be able to share his imaginary with people of different interests. Workers, industrialists and politicians sought to join the “new vision of South Africa” for different, sometimes contradictory purposes and carried the imaginary from one sociopolitical setting to another.

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The third chapter (by Michael Aaron Dennis) readdresses Cold War science and the problem of state and military patronage of science. State policies and the freedom of science and scientists are approached here from a new angle focusing on social imaginaries. The fourth chapter gives an account on the visions of telecenters and technological innovation in postgenocide Rwanda. Transformative visions of ICTs are shown here on the one hand to provide the “average Rwandan” access to innovative technologies by the state, but on the other hand as having authoritarian control over users and the whole network from a top-down approach on the nation’s subjects. In an age in which state and corporate actors have increasing power over our movements via technologies, these case studies return to important examples from the history of technology to explore how science and technology have an incredible power to shape subjectivity.

As these examples desmonstrate, the book is properly geopolitical and not at all US or Euro-centric. Whilst some chapters discuss European contexts, others discuss Africa and contribution by co-editor Sang-Hyun Kim brings Asia into the discussion, focusing on the relation between sociotechnical imaginaries and social movements in South Korea. Likewise, the eighth chapter by Suzanne Moon and the ninth chapter by Joshua Barker both center around social imaginaries in Indonesia. Visions of the New Order and of Onno Purbo, of freedom fighters and guerilla engineers are analyzed in details. The tenth chapter addresses visions of genetically modified rice in China and explores the relation between the traditional view of rice (holds the nation together by easing the demographic tension) and the visions of biotechnology as both a threat to what is Chinese and an opportunity to secure order and coherence for the nation. These sections will be an important read for anyone interested in Chinese and pan-Asian politics.

The final five chapters turn to the global context directly and discuss how corporate, state, local and not-for-profit parties use and might use technological innovation to achieve their ends. Such discussions make us acutely aware of the power of technology and how we must be both wary of its potential and able to use and harness its opportunities. One focus is on sociotechnical imaginaries of different global securities. Visions of political, military and health security are addressed from individual, national and global angles. such approaches are truly internationalist and force the reader to think about the role of technology at every political level. The book concludes with another chapter from Jasanoff summarizing what can be found in common between the diverse case studies and developing further the theoretical framework of sociotechnical imaginaries in light of the fascinating connections between apparently diverse historical moments.

This well-written volume is recommended to anyone interested in how commonly held visions of science and technology might be seen crossing boundaries of past, present and future, as well as between ostensibly diverse spaces. STS scholars will find a new theoretical frame worthy of study and of developing. Others will be entertained by the immensely rich details of diverse case studies from the formation of Austrian technopolitical identity to the visions of genetically modified rice in China.


Gábor István Bíró is a PhD student of History and Philosophy of Science at Budapest University of Technology and Economics. He teaches history and philosophy of science, science studies, history of economic thought and economics. His current research investigates  the economic thought of Michael Polanyi.

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