Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities
Special issue

Special issue of Public Understanding of Science

Kjetil Rommetveit and Brian Wynne are the editors of 'Imagining public issues in the technosciences?' a special issue of the journal Public Understanding of Science.

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Main content

This special issue originates in various research collaborations, mainly in European projects dealing with public dimensions of technosciences inscribed in the universe of information and communications technologies (ICTs). Work on the special issue started to take a definite shape during a workshop at the Centre for the studies of the sciences and humanities, University of Bergen, in early 2013. The contributions focus on the interrelations between technoscience and publics, and their mediations in collective imaginations. To explore this topic, we have brought together a set of quite different articles, describing and analysing different technologies, publics and issues, and using different conceptual inroads. Our aim was not so much to propose a unitary approach or to reach some kind of theoretical or descriptive consensus. Rather, it was to explore some shared themes, and to use these to explore the intersections of technoscience and publics at a specific point in time. Here, we especially mention three themes as central throughout the discussions that led to this publication:

A first theme tried to articulate a sense that ‘something has changed’, not only inside the research labs, clinics, projects and innovation networks, but also in the broader public-legitimatory functions performed by the technosciences. This sensibility was not an easy one to pinpoint, and was a topic of much discussion: if there is change, in what exactly does it consist? How do we describe it? Is it not, rather, the case that the sciences were always technologically constituted (and so already ‘technosciences’), and their unfolding always deeply entangled with the social and political? Only towards the end of the process did we have some kind of clarity on this, since the anchor reviewer helpfully proposed a Foucauldian concept of ‘intensification’ to make sense of gradually changing meanings, practices and forms of legitimation (see Pellizzoni, 2017).

A second theme, deeply entangled with the first, was a diagnosis of something like a loss of collective vision and direction. This loss of direction became especially visible through the absence of public mobilisations following the worst economic downturn of the Post World War II (WWII) period, manifest since 2008. Such lack of mobilisation also seemed to us spurred on by an increasing focus on security and a generalised preference towards ‘the public goods’ articulated by powerful actors with little or no input from publics in the classical sense (among which we count Deweyean publics). However, the diagnosis was not limited to the publics, but also to their alleged representatives, since similar developments could also be spotted in other, higher places: we identified and discussed a certain ‘innovation desperation’ becoming manifest in main policy arenas, as no economic or social progress seemed to be forthcoming in spite of years of effort to turn Europe, its nation states and its knowledge-worker citizens into the world’s ‘leading knowledge economy’. Rather, it seemed to us that there was a reflex-like response to this underlying condition, which did not instigate much doubt, humility or reflexivity on the side of its main promoters. The implicit, and sometimes also explicit, realisation of this situation seemed rather to intensify the drive towards technology-induced innovation, imbued with imagined-possibles, with threats and wonders. It is our contention that this increasing collapse of imagined-futures into the making of agendas and policies in the actual present has worked to further promote the conflations of technoscientific innovation with political agendas of various kinds.

A third topic was of a more theoretical kind, namely a certain dissatisfaction with the ways in which social scientists (in general) and science and technology (STS) scholars oriented towards publics and public issues, come to terms with, and pick up on, such developments as those just mentioned. This feeling would be unevenly distributed and not equally agreed upon among the various authors, and is expressed differently in various contributions (as well as various social scientific or STS lines of research). Since we had already singled out the works of John Dewey as a focal point, one goal of the special issue was to provide a reminder that publics are not merely constituted, or constitute themselves, through ‘materiality’ or ‘ontology’ (however these are interpreted). Whereas certainly important, these dimensions are themselves also constituted through symbolic orders and meanings, as imaginations and imaginaries, and are embedded within the broader political economy of a neo-liberal age. This emphasis seemed warranted by the increasing emphasis on visions, possible futures and ‘creativity’ in the configuration of the knowledge economy, and articulated in other strands of STS dealing with publics and public meanings. Insofar as the works of John Dewey make up a central frame of reference for all the contributions, we wanted to demonstrate that his works also lends itself to these other approaches more focussed on meanings, imaginations and imaginaries. Yet, in saying this, we also hasten to point out how this performative role of imagination itself emerges as problematic, since these dimensions are themselves deeply imbued with the problems to which we point. As seen in several of these contributions, technoscientific imaginations (and imaginaries) also hinder articulations of public problems, and so posit problems for publics to recognise themselves as parties affected by certain conditions.

Exploring these overarching themes, the reader will find a number of concepts re-occurring throughout all of these contributions, for the simple reason that they were circulating in the collective discussions had throughout the process. Apart from those included in the title of this issue, several of the contributions turn around concepts such as public displays, exploratory action, promise, the imagined-possible, expertise, ontology, security and control.