In recent years, one of the longest lasting discussions on the societal implications of technological development has been rekindled with full force: The question whether technological innovation leads to a reduced economic demand for human labor and what this might mean for society as a whole is being discussed in the media and by policy decision makers, trade unions and employers’ associations alike. My research project is set out to investigate three main questions:
- What possible sociotechnical futures dominate the contemporary discourse(s) on automation?
- What alternatives to the hegemonial way future development is conceptualized, however marginalized, are there?
- How could these alternatives be developed further on a theoretical level?
In a first step, I will map the current debate on technological unemployment in the US and Germany comparatively by conducting document analyses of publications by policy decision makers and both sides of industry and by conducting exemplary media analyses. I will reconstruct archetypes of sociotechnical futures from the empirical material and reflect them critically regarding their normative, cultural, political and economic content. On an empirical level, I am particularly interested in the question how sociotechnical futures are shaped by present societal conditions and how they themselves influence further societal development, for instance by narrowing the range of possibilities discussed. This critical reflection will be influenced strongly by both the ongoing discussions within hermeneutic technology assessment (TA) and vision assessment and the early Frankfurt school.
It is my observation that in this field the sociotechnical imaginations of policy makers as well as those of both sides of industry are strongly focused on economic objectives, framing technological development as an opportunity to boost economic growth and competitiveness. In contrast, it is of special interest to me to learn what competing emancipatory futures there are and to contribute to their development. This intention raises a number of issues: On what normative grounds can one contribute to the (further) development of alternative sociotechnical imaginations (what does emancipation for instance mean) and how can one do so in a methodologically reflected manner? (Where) can the line be drawn between a more or less active reconstruction of existing sociotechnical imaginations, their constructive critique and futuring? My methodological and theoretical considerations are meant to bring together current debates on visioneering within TA and critical social philosophy.
With my project, I aspire to enlighten the contemporary discourse(s) on automation by shedding light on the various factors that shape current sociotechnical imaginations in this field while at the same time contributing to the discussion of sociotechnical futures within TA. Furthermore, the critical reflection of the discourse(s) is intended to help highlight and constructively criticize alternative sociotechnical imaginations, developing them further in the process and adding to the democratic pluralism of one of the most heated discussions on technology of our time.