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The Sociology of Expectations

Expectations (or visions, trend reports, forecasts or “hype”) are a fundamental driver for the development, advancement and implementation of technology in society. They are not neutral observations, but part of these developments.

The shared expectations of a future help all actors (developers, investors, politicians, etc.) to pull together and realise this vision1.

[Expectations] give definition to roles, clarify duties, offer some shared shape of what to expect and how to prepare for opportunities and risks. Visions drive technical and scientific activity, warranting the production of measurements, calculations, material tests, pilot projects and models. As such, very little in Innovation can work in isolation from a highly dynamic and variegated body of future-oriented understandings about the future. […] In a sense, expectations are both the cause and consequence of material scientific and technological activity.

An argument can be made that these expectations are in some ways more explicitly articulated in the last decade, but also normalised in public discourse before these technologies are even available2.

We also see the new normal in the long collapse of avant-garde novelty cycles, such that technologies become normal even before they become real. A.I. is already normal. Universal Basic Income? So August 2015! Driverless cars are normal and they aren’t on the road yet. Your mom was playing Pokemon Go! before some of society’s moral guardians knew to denounce it.

The analysis of a technology is therefore incomplete without a close look at the expectations associated with it.

  1. Nik Brown, Mike Michael (2003), A Sociology of Expectations: Retrospecting Prospects and Prospecting Retrospects, Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, 15:1, 3-18, DOI: 10.1080/0953732032000046024 

  2. Benjamin Bratton (2017), The New Normal, Strelka Press