Crafting Stories of Technology and Progress: Five Considerations
A story, to triumph, must seize our imaginations. A story about technology’s role in social progress is no exception. Its characters must invoke love and hate. Its beginning must establish urgency; its middle twists and turns; and at its end, there must be resolution—though perhaps the best stories reserve space for sequels and future chapters not yet written. A story about social progress must accomplish all of the above while fearlessly engaging in difficult conversations. Conversations about crises and persistent problems: the equitable provisioning of basic human needs; long-term sustainability of our ways of living and producing; crises of climate, crises of capitalism, crises of employment, and crises of democracy.
These dilemmas are not academic. They are much more important, vital even, to issues of social justice, fairness, equality and policy, and to how we imagine as well as achieve a progressive future for all. Producing stories is not only our most fundamental method of making sense of experience, it is our primary and most effective way of compelling change. Storytelling is an inherently political act. For Hannah Arendt, stories were the principal means by which to open up public space for participation by active citizenship. For us—authors, academics, activists— telling the stories of technology’s role in social progress is not merely one of historical reportage and sharp narrative, but rather a strategy by which to propel and direct further progress.
In telling technology’s stories of social progress, we are right to celebrate unprecedented advances in health and education, transport and computation. But we must point out hidden costs, uneven distributions, and unequal access. We must open our stories to a wider cast of characters, be they heroes, villains, or those with ambiguous intent, and we must confront the individuals, interests, and institutions that propel technological change for better or worse.
This special collection of Technology’s Stories attempts to do just that. Four essays are produced here to mark the publication of Rethinking Society for the 21st Century, the ambitious final report from the International Panel on Social Progress (IPSP). Rethinking Society brings together more than 300 scholars from the social sciences and humanities, who contribute to 22 chapters across a diverse topic range. The report prompts conversation and debate on what “progress” now means. It provides knowledge, resources, and perhaps a spark of momentum to politicians, civil servants, the media, academics, teachers, charities, and campaign groups; all who believe in and strive for a redefinition of what global progress can look like and how it might be achieved. Within the report, the role of science and technology in contributing, or not, to social progress is drawn out across a special cross-cutting theme. Drawing on this theme, in this introductory article we reflect on five specific features vital to how the stories of technology and social progress might be told.
Social progress is technological and social
We seek to explain social progress as produced by social and technological worlds. We are sceptical of stories proffering deterministic explanations, be they technological or social. Simply put, there is nothing deterministic about how societies respond to technological innovation. Yet, we have only to glance at contemporary media headlines about the coming of the robots and the future of work to see strong techno-determinism in action. The danger in these tales of seemingly inevitable jobless futures is that events yet to happen are used as justifications for social regress, prompting moves to social adaptation and forgoing attempts at mitigating the harms of future technologies.
Scholars working in the fields of science, technology and society studies (STS) and the history of technology offer us concepts such as “socio-technical systems”, “assemblages”, “practices”, “routines”, and “scripts” with which to better gather the components of our stories. That is, the people, firms, organizations, sites, infrastructures, rules, institutions, technologies, and knowledges that are the subjects and objects—and very often heroes and villains—of our tales. Using these components, we can document what kind of alignments of knowledge, technology, and society produce better outcomes in terms of, for example, issues of poverty, climate change, or the distribution of power. We explain how these alignments are reproduced, by whom and by what processes and outcomes. And so our stories focus on the co-production of knowledge and the co-evolution of science, technology, firms, society, and socio-technical systems and infrastructures.
So, how might we produce a story that weaves in sociological as well as technological factors and processes which influence progress, while also paying heed to the socio-technical systems, practices and scripts? For example, a richer narrative, evident in Rethinking Society’s chapter on the future of work, includes contemporary stories of globalization changing demography. Revealing stories about the “recent history of work” documents how jobs at the bottom have been financialized and brought into other economies through a combination of new technologies, market arrangements and global firm structure. Meanwhile, other stories question the extent to which the very conception of work is bound up with ideas of paid and unpaid labour.
Science and technology advances through the work of many
A story of progress that focuses only on “winners”, fails. A diversity of characters is vital; many actors, including entrepreneurs, policy makers and experts, make innovative contributions in a myriad of ways. Diversity matters, not only in considering the users of technology but also those who produce it. Science and technology advances through high-tech research, development, and innovation processes from inside labs as well as through low-tech processes in sheds, garages, workshops, and barns; through dominant practices by powerful firms, and through minority practices in oppressed communities.
Our narratives must also pay attention to the remaking of social and technological configurations, drawing attention to the maintenance and repair of technologies and not simply their research and design. We might consider practices in the global south as well as the north, and among knowledge communities on the margins of society and culture, such as hackers and tinkerers. As self-evident as it seems, it is vital we tell stories which demonstrate that many different people may be innovators: women, citizen scientists, and the oppressed.
With the introduction of a diverse stage of characters, the focus of the storyteller shifts from one of following the appropriation of technology into society, to revealing the myriad of conditions and contexts of technology in use. Put another way, our stories shift from focusing on technologies that, as if by magic, appear in social settings (the black-boxed innovation process) towards examining technologies beyond mere individual use and into new contexts.
Ultimately, this way of telling stories recognizes the contribution of the many creators, carriers, and users of technology to social progress. So, for example, debating the efficacy of reports on the future of work can reveal a failure of imagination of experts who on the one hand are convinced the changing nature of work will lead to distress, but on the other see no reason to think the global capitalist system will fail to create new jobs. However, taking into account the perspective of a diverse set of people and a changing socio-technical configuration might reveal a different story entirely; a story for people for whom the present, let alone the future, is already far from okay.
Social progress unfolds along multiple pathways
Our storyboard is getting crowded. How are we to make sense of these often competing and contentious developments? Tracing the stories of many actors leads us down numerous pathways along which progress may unfold. STS and history of technology scholars have developed tools with which to reflect over alternative plot twists and narrative arcs by revealing these multiple pathways towards social progress. This can reveal hidden alternatives and path dependence, taking from studies of innovation the idea that history matters, and that which has come before influences future directions.
In telling technology’s stories, it is easy to focus on speed and lose sight of these pathways. Technologies such as cars, cell phones, and computers sometimes disperse quickly throughout global marketplaces. But on a great variety of technologies, from fossil fuels to agricultural biotechnology, neither official expert responses nor those of lay people have converged, even when there is strong scientific consensus about the nature of the risks and benefits. So, telling the stories that might catalyze the policies and institutions necessary to bring social progress about might demand flexability, working on various pathways simultaneously, thus keeping them open and responsive to long-term social pressures, such as social movements, or shocks, such as war, famine, or sudden mass migration. These stories transcend preoccupations with speed and velocity to involve considerations of the direction of progress.
Having to choose between alternative paths is often a significant source of tension in stories. Understanding who gets to set the direction matters, and brings into focus issues of participation in decision making and the distribution of agency to effect change. Indeed, progress itself may be redefined as a broadening out of potential pathways. These multiple pathways might direct progress towards alternative solutions for societal problems. Perhaps, for example, through new forms of participatory democracy we might incorporate a huge variety of knowledges and practices in future solutions.
Going beyond catching-up: connecting the local and the global
In spite of this attention to pathways and direction, there remains a requirement to report on specific, local appropriations of technology, not least for governments and agencies investing in economic growth or sustainable technologies. Transitioning from a fossil-fuel economy to one based on renewable energy production remains urgent. But reports and policies that seek to address such urgencies must go beyond framing the story as merely a matter of “diffusion” and “catching up”, which in doing so privileges some firms and countries as the sources of knowledge, narrowly consolidating power and agency to direct further progress.
Consider the building up of the global through the circulation of knowledge, and the distribution and appropriation of benefits of it. Historic circulation perspectives do not consider the United Kingdom to be the epicentre of an industrial revolution which was diffused outwards in the holds of East India Company steamers. Rather, it is a nation seen as a node in a wider network which appropriated benefits from other nodes around the world. These stories cast a different light on just who is responsible for compelling or repressing progress and what form progress might take. Social progress in this context might mean maximum flexibility for local appropriation and fair distribution of the benefits of circulation. We therefore narrate our stories of social progress by asking who is appropriating what from whom, is there appropriation from the marginalized, and on what terms? In doing so, we reject universal stories which rely on models of analysis and explanation based on harmonizing models, for these denude our narratives of local diversity. Rather, we focus on bringing together various scales of action—from the very local to global—and trace the relations between them.
Social progress is not given
Knowledge arises from social processes. This simple but powerful observation has important implications for anyone telling stories of technology and progress. Most importantly, social progress is not given. In representing progress, we need to be reflexive and responsible in how and why we select one representation over another. There is no innocent form of description, be it numbers, categories, definitions, visual representations, or indeed our rich narrative tales. Numbering, for example, is one dominant way which allows us to capture certain facets of progress while excluding others. However, qualitative representation is as deeply implicated in forms of closure as quantitative.
Again, our stories must advocate plural understandings of progress, rather than interpreting progress in a unitary and linear fashion. Practically, this means that when considering historic cases, we explore processes of choice and contingency. It means seeking out different and multiple expectations and imagined futures. And it means contributing perspectives on the conditions and contexts on which claims of knowing and description are based.
Stories permit us to situate knowledge in context. They will usefully reference sites of knowledge production, processes of knowledge construction, and the often deeply entrenched political conflict within and between these processes. By doing this, our stories permit us to reveal diverse knowledge communities, reinforcing our commitment to acknowledging that innovation and knowledge production involve many actors.
Stories for Rethinking Society for the 21st century
Each of the stories in this special collection draws on these perspectives:
- Judith Sutz confronts the challenges that lie ahead in mobilizing science, technology, and innovation in challenging inequality. She argues that the prevailing orientation of scientific and technological efforts, by concentrating on the well-off and not searching to solve the problems affecting most of the world’s population, reinforce inequality. Sutz’s stories suggest the need for a refreshed politics of development which might uncover hidden stories and recognize the knowledges and innovations already available to us, in order to orientate them towards addressing inequalities and, ultimately, achieving progress.
- Andy Stirling and colleagues draw attention to and exemplify the issue of directionality—the idea that technology progresses not only with a given velocity, but also in directions which are influenced, shifted, and steered along the way. Social progress, they suggest, is best realized not by concentration of power in vertical (top-down) global structures for planetary control, but by reinforcing the horizontal relations of solidarity that lead to more equal societies of people who are, in turn, incentivized to exercise greater care not only for each other, but also for the environments in which all live.
- Suzanne Moon explores the complex interplay of religion, technology, and science in the modern world, attending particularly to the stories we tell about religion and the consequences of those stories. She argues that understanding better the pervasively technological character of modern religious life as not an aberration but rather a normal state of affairs can make clearer how assemblages of religious and technological lifeways can be productive of human flourishing, or the lack thereof, of lives that people have reason to value or which prevent valuable lives from being possible. It is vital to recognize in stories we tell about religion the character of technoreligious life, and the ways that scientific and religious narratives may speak to each other, rather than merely against each other, in the context of social progress.
- Helga Nowotny and Johan Schot provide a summative view on the overall project of the social sciences from this past century or so, addressing the longue durée of technology and social progress and asking how it might be otherwise. Indeed, a major contribution of this piece is to suggest that the consideration of alternatives lies at the heart of the social sciences’ offer to society.
Why is the telling of these stories so urgent today? In a world where the legitimacy of experts and expert knowledge is under attack, what needs to be urgently reclaimed, according to MacKenzie Wark is not a state-maintained responsibility for progress, but rather, “an art of paying attention. … We need consensual stories about what is supposed to matter.” Rethinking the Future dares us to study long-term possibilities for the future, going beyond policy analysis and imagining how alternative sets of institutions can advance social progress, and ensure new senses of belonging develop which will nurture social ties between people. As this special collection shows, technology’s stories are deeply intertwined with social progress. And how we tell these stories—be they embedded within Rethinking the Future or elsewhere— is vital to the drivers of policy, the visions that inform social movements, and the formation of societal norms; what is considered right and what is considered desirable.
Johan Schot is Director of SPRU (Science Policy Research Unit) at the University of Sussex and Professor in the History of Technology and Sustainability Transitions Studies. Twitter: @johan_schot https://orcid.org/0000-0002-1943-1228
This essay is based on discussions and debate held at a series of History of Technology and Science and Technology Studies workshops at the IPSP coordinating conferences in 2016 and 2017, a specially convened workshop at Herrenhausen, Hanover in 2016 and at conference sessions at EASST 2016, SHOT 2016 and the SPRU 50th anniversary conference 2016. Support was gratefully received from the IPSP, and for the Herrenhausen workshop, VolkswagenStiftung, coordinated by SPRU – Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex. Contributors to these sessions and the cross-cutting science and technology theme included: Itty Abraham (contributing author to Rethinking the Future chapter 10); Saurabh Arora; Uli Beisel (chapter 18); Gili Drori (chapter 19); Ulrike Felt (chapter 14); Katherine Gibson (chapter 8); Max Hirsh (chapter 5); Sheila Jasanoff (chapter 9, 22); Raphie Kaplinsky (chapter 6); Erika Kraemer-Mbula (chapter 12); Eden Medina (chapter 11); Suzanne Moon (chapter 16); Helga Nowotny (chapter 22); Cian O’Donovan; Johan Schot (chapter 1, 22); Phil Scranton (chapter 7); Fred Steward; Andy Stirling (chapter 21); Judith Sutz (chapter 3).
 The issue of the framing of social progress is itself political, contested and beyond the scope of this essay. For an introduction to this debate in the context of the IPSP, see http://theconversation.com/is-it-still-possible-to-believe-in-social-progress-86112
 Schot, J. (2016) Difficult conversations http://www.johanschot.com/2016/09/01/a-difficult-conversation-on-social-progress/
 Flyvbjerg, B. (2006) “Five Misunderstandings About Case-Study Research”, Qualitative Inquiry, 12(2), p. 219.
 Arendt, H. (1958). The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Matthewman, S. (2011) Technology and Social Theory. (2011). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
Felt, U. et al. (2017). The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Fourth Edition. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press
 Rethinking Society for the 21st Century, Chapter 9. Forthcoming, IPSP.org
 Wark, M. K. (2017). General intellects: Twenty-one Thinkers for the Twenty-first Century. London: Verso
About Rethinking Society on Technology’s Stories
This article is one of a series of contributions drawn from or inspired by the International Panel on Social Progress. The IPSP is a global academic initiative of more than 300 scholars from all social sciences and the humanities who have contributed to Rethinking Society for the 21st Century https://www.ipsp.org/, a report on the prospects for social progress today. This special collection for Technology’s Stories marks the publication of the report and offers important insights from a cross-cutting IPSP theme that sought to examine the role of science and technology, as it contributes – or not – to social progress.
This special collection of Technology’s Stories was edited by Cian O’Donovan and Becky Ayre at SPRU – Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex. The editors gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Technology’s Stories editor-in-chief Suzanne Moon and her team.