Nightmare of the Imaginaries: A Critique of Socio-technical Imaginaries Commonly Applied to Governance

Essay by Paul Waller: “This essay aims to analyse and debunk several technology-related concepts commonly discussed in papers, reports and speeches by academics, consultancies, politicians and governmental bodies. Each reflects a presumption about how technology, the internet in particular, and technology-enabled social and political processes might affect the practice of governing. The discussion characterizes the concepts as “socio-technical imaginaries”, a term for ideas that link the socio-political environment with technology. Socio-technical imaginaries start as a description of potentially attainable futures, turn into a prescription of futures that ought to be attained, then become received wisdom about the present day. They are speculation that takes root through reuse and endorsement by authoritative figures, becoming an asserted present reality on the basis of little or no evidence. Once imaginaries become widely accepted and used, they may shape trajectories of research and innovation, steering technological progress as well as public and private expenditure. The imaginaries addressed are: Public Sector Innovation, Digital Transformation of Government, Co-creation & Co-production of Public Services, Crowd-sourcing, Wisdom of Crowds, Collaborative Governance, Customer/Citizen Centricity, Once-only Principle, Personalisation, Big Data, Nudge (Behavioral Insights), Platform Government/GaaP, and Online Participation.

Four questions are posed to critique each imaginary: What is the received wisdom? What does that really mean? What is the problem/what has gone wrong? What to do better/what should it be? As a whole package, these imaginaries represent a nightmare for liberal, representative democracy. Some may enable the “panoptic” state, others may undermine existing institutions to open a void for it to step into. Many have the likelihood of creating or reinforcing inequality of opportunity, outcome or influence. But their grip is hard to loosen. The notions that they are inevitable or that issues will be resolved in due course by technology itself need to be challenged by surfacing the human, social and political dimensions and actively addressing them….(More)”.