This week we are interviewing Andreu Belsunces, design and technology sociologist, whose research focuses on how the technology industry, public policy, finances and infrastructures are entangled with social expectations to produce certain forms of knowledge and collective views of the future.
You are a sociology graduate and have wide experience researching the convergence between technology, design and digital cultures. Can you give us more details about your training and professional field?
As I think happens with many other people, my professional field is not determined so much by my formal education, as by my own curiosities and the people that I have been lucky enough to cross paths with during my life.
As you’ve already mentioned, I studied sociology (Universitat de Barcelona) and then I did a Master in Information and Knowledge Society (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya). During this time, I took part in various social movements, I started to write literary criticism, and I worked in the UNESCO office for MERCOSUR in Uruguay.
In the thesis for my Master, I became interested in transmedia narration, the audio-visual-digital industry and forms of participation through storytelling. This opened up the possibility of publishing chapters in two books, one in Spain and another in England, and I started working as a journalist and university lecturer in Uruguay.
During this time, around 2012, I started to discover the intersection between critical theory and media studies, something that continues to be a central part of my way of thinking and acting. Later on, and along the same lines, I worked with Hangar and the CCCB, where I learned not only the whats, but more importantly the hows.
Other areas that have been key for me to understand research as a rigorous exploration, but without limits, were festivals like Transmediale in Berlín or The Influencers in Barcelona. Besides finding new references and ways of acting, these festivals have been essential for meeting people with similar interests and practices and whom I admire, and some of whom have become great friends.
Over the last 6 years, I have worked on researching non-academic contexts like a public laboratory for social innovation and a design studio that builds interactive experiences through physical data viewing. I have taken part and still take part in different university learning areas, and between 2018 and 2020 I co-directed a research team on critical and speculative design, together with David Falagán in Escola Massana. In the middle of the pandemic, this led to a summer school which asked whether thought and speculative practices could provide responses to the challenges that were emerging in the meantime.
Another context where I learned a lot and where I participated as a researcher and have now returned as a doctorate candidate, is the IN3 CNSC/Techno-political group at UOC. Here we find a convergence between theoretical, empirical research applied to the public and the common, activism, and growing experimental ambition, which I could not find anywhere else. As part of this group, I will develop the research that I have already started independently in the Engineering Fiction project, which I will explain later on in this interview.
Your main study objective focuses on the relationship between technology, fiction and power. Can you explain what this is about and its role in producing collective imagination?
Every technology implies a design process (more or less explicit, deliberate or conscious) and performs different agencies in different ambits and scales. It is intertwined with energetic, environmental, cultural, social and political systems to operate in infinitely diverse, and often uncontrollable, ways.
Technologies (both hard and soft), in their own constitution and «collateral effects», code and copy the assumptions of whoever has designed them. The technology philosopher, Andrew Feenbergy explains how, often, the agents involved in a technological system respond to the inertias (flows of impositions that constitute “the normal” through knowledge, practices, protocols, forms of organisation and understandings about what progress, justice, useful and efficient is, for example) that emerge from the interests of the industrial elite and their system of priorities. These inertias end up crystallising in forms of interaction; political subjects moulded in the form of archetypes of users, clients or citizens; regulations; education systems; forms of governance; city models and business plans, among many others.
It is in this multidimensional ordering of the world, where technology has a power (which works silently and opaquely, leaving to one side the flamboyance of corporate marketing) that extends beyond trying to determine the uncertainty that lies ahead. In this respect, technologies (and sciences) incorporate and reproduce possible worlds. Some conform to the values of the industrial elite who have produced them, or, in other words, project futures that guarantee the continuation of certain hegemonies. This is made evident in the business plans and promises made by CEOs, in corporate videos about technologies that still do not exist, in certain articles in the techno-celebration press and in development financing programs like the Next Generation EU funds.
Obviously, nobody can describe in-depth what will happen in the future, and so what industry does is mobilise what I call socio-technical fictions, epistemic objects that intensify future visions and which are part of rational and material practices involved in techno-scientific production.
In this respect, fiction is not entirely opposed to «fact» or «reality», and is instead a gradient that operates through «fiction loads», used, among other things, to give tangibility to ideas that are abstract or too speculative.
Although fiction does not become reality if repeated many times, when it is disseminated from industry in the form of promises, it can generate expectations which end up installing themselves in collective imaginations that accept these futures as inevitable. So, these fictitious objects start to shift from the realm of the speculative to the realm of material stability.
Through which mechanisms does fiction in relation to technology end up materialising into social reality?
To respond to this question, the concepts of emergency and sociotechnical stabilisation are relevant. In terms of scientific and technical development, a hypothesis, a concept or a prototype are emergent objects, which belong more to the area of fiction than stable reality, or in other words, these things have a very high fictional load. As tender, nascent objects, their definition is still unclear, but at the same time, they condense a very high futureability. They are in themselves future promises embedded in a complex system of beliefs, practices, infrastructures, institutions and knowledge, which constitute the sociotechnical field.
Fiction is in these objects to help them to start existing. If we run an adventurous causality test, it could be said that fiction is installed in the promises underlying these techno-scientific objects, it projects itself towards tomorrow and generates expectations about what could be or happen. The embodied experience of expectation is anticipation, and this, in turn, underpinned by uncertainty, declines into illusion on the side of hope, and into anxiety on the side of fear. Here, fiction is somatised and moves economic, environmental and human resources to try and stabilise itself.
Let’s think about Artificial Intelligence, this hyperobject (or hyperfiction) that has been trying to become a reality, at least, since the 1950s. If we take a look at part of its history, we will see how its development has been closely related to exaggerated expectation peaks (hype) regarding what the academic world, and much later, industry, would be capable of doing (for example, in the 1960, translating a text automatically).
If the agents issuing these promises (made up partially of sociotechnical fictions) failed to turn them into facts (stabilise them in the techno-material realm), they caused frustration and deception, and the consequence of this was the reduction or disappearance of funds to continue researching and advancing in this technology. This (feared) phenomenon has been dubbed as the «Winter of Artificial Intelligence «.
Today, AI has become an infrastructural element in our societies, present in regulating traffic, automatically improving photos we take with our telephones, and in increasing the energetic efficiency of our cars. It is also present in all kinds of virtual assistants, a product that is much closer to what science fiction has not said artificial intelligence would be like.
What has led this specific fiction to move from the field of emergence to stability? The interest of academic and public institutions, the market, citizens and the press; the ability to produce comprehensible, desirable and useful results for the academic world and industry; the availability of materials and tools to process them accordingly, and a social and technical context capable of reproducing a community of people who continue developing this technology.
At last year’s Biennial of Thought, you talked about the concept of sociotechnical imaginary and how this reinforces certain future visions to be pursued and avoided. How does this influence the processes of change between technology and society?
The sociotechnical imaginary concept is useful for understanding the close relationship between apparently opposite dimensions, such as the symbolic and the material, the discursive and the infrastructural, the imaginary and the scientific, and the present and the future.
Basically, it refers to that group of collectively supported future ideas, which are (re)produced by a set of institutions like government institutions, media, companies and social movements, and which include implicit conceptions about how life must be lived, how to distribute resources and manage social and environmental relationships through science and technology.
These imaginaries can be observed also in regulatory documents, in public policies, in publicity, scientific presentations, trade fairs in the technological industry like the Mobile World Congress, ecosystems for start-ups, the art world and communities like biohacking, cryptocurrencies or the Maker movement.
Every imaginary community reproduces different sociotechnical agendas and practices, i.e., it imagines different futures and uses different resources and strategies to stabilise them in the present day as soon as possible. The amount of financial, institutional, human and cognitive energy available and activatable, will be key to the various agents involved succeeding in disseminating and materialising their imaginaries.
An example for understanding this, and which I already pointed out in the Biennial, is the difference between transhumanism, which is a future vision that tries to «update» and increase the human being through technologies produced from the industry, without questioning their deliriously extractivist and capitalist rationale, and without considering the potential dangers they imply on the level of individual and collective sovereignty. Elon Musk is one of its main components.
On the other hand, post-humanism is a type of sociotechnical imaginary that is increasingly popular and at the antipodes of trans-humanism, aiming to generate a non-anthropocentric and ecological framework to understand human beings and establish ethical, political and epistemic co-ordinates that are radically different to those of modern times – seen as a historical process based on exploiting all kinds of living systems. Obviously, from this cultural structure, the type of technologies imagined are also radically different in their appearance, their way of working and their objectives.
Since February, CCCB has been hosting an exhibition on Mars, where you have had the opportunity to show a piece of work entitled Sporae Vita. Can you talk to us about the project?
Sporae Vita has been a means to continue researching an issue that has been on my mind for years: can fiction be a useful tool (method) for analysing social and techno-political phenomena? Until now, I had addressed this question from the sensitivity of social and cultural theory, and the research-action between collaborative, experimental and speculative design.
In the case of Sporae Vita, I tried to free myself from the disciplinary tracks I usually follow so as to approach the question from the artistic research point of view. I started with two co-ordinates: the one CCCB had given me, imagining a future scenario in relation to Mars, and an internal contradiction, Does it make sense investing in cognitive and material resources to go to Mars when here we are not able to detain the inertia of industrial ecocide?
From here, I started to project a post-collapse world where the techno-natura cultures finally overcome Eurocentrism and anthropocentrism. Therefore, I defined a new civilisational myth: the “re-enchantment”, that emerges as a combination of the global trauma produced by the great extinction, and humanity’s capacity to restore life on the planet thanks to the advances in bio and geo-engineering.
Sporae Vita appears in this speculative context as the space polinisation agency of this new world order, which aims to produce the conditions for indigenous life to emerge on other planets. To do this, the agency recruits humans who voluntarily become «spores» of the planet Earth, and are launched on Mars to fuse through life with the infrastructure that has been installed there to allow new life to flourish.
In terms of form, the installation consists of two posters. The first one introduces Sporae Vita and the world in which it exists. The second one shows research done from STS (Science and Technology Studies) on Sporae Vita, also circumscribed within this future world. The research analyses how this agent works to stabilise this new civilizational hegemony. Therefore, the diagram describes the way in which the space agency generates scientific knowledge, how this is presented and performed, how it intervenes in educational programs, and ultimately, how all this ends up producing a global consensus (imposition) about the value of life and its relation to progress.
In short, Sporae Vita presents, on the one hand, an object of fictional study (the space agency), and on the other hand, research on this, and it reflects how techno-scientific programs regulate future imaginaries.
In Engineering Fiction, your most recent work, you present an area of research which you have called Science, Technology and Fiction(al) Studies. What are you looking for here?
Science Technology and Fiction(al) Studies (STFS) are a discipline which, for the moment, is fictitious in the sense that it has no epistemic or institutional infrastructure beyond itself. It aims to understand fiction both as an agent, a thing that does things, and at the same time as a form of valid research in social sciences.
STFS combine, on the one hand, a form of more traditional theoretical and empirical research, with speculative and artistic research approaches, to get closer to the phenomena linking the production of the social experience of time, public policy and industrial practices.
Sporae Vita is an example of an artistic-speculative research slant within STFS: from the construction of a world, its myths and its techno-scientific institutions, this work allowed me to explore the complicities and contradictions between accelerationism, degrowth and the vitalist philosophy from the concept of sociotechnical imaginary. It also helped me explore the role of large techno-scientific institutions like NASA in constructing collective future visions to be pursued, while also limiting other forms of development (or in other words, they become devices of productive and epistemic homogenisation).
This has helped me generate new points of analytical entry on how contemporary institutions produce forms of knowledge that crystallise into frameworks that constantly (re)define categories that guide collective behaviour and the relationship with the ecosystems that we are part of.
Also, you are the co-founder of Becoming, a research study that uses interactive design, cocreation, games and conflict to explore emerging scenarios. What relation does this study have with your personal practice?
Just like Sporae Vita, for me, Becoming is also a vehicle for experimentation, in this collective case. In 2017, we started talking to Raúl Nieves about Marxism, the class struggle, speculation, ecology, cybernetics and social change.
This led to Becoming, which is basically an experimentation context where various people with different profiles meet to act and think about ecosocial transition and techno-politics. The languages and formats that we use range from interactive facilities, to games and collaborative research spaces where the relationship between politics, technology and the future are always present.
A little while ago, we started a kind of merger with the transition design co-operative Holon, with a view to being able to co-ordinate our artistic and speculative practice with their good work in strategic design orientated towards the transformation of public policies or the creation of organisational and productive alternatives to contemporary exploitation rationale.
In response to your question, first and foremost, Becoming is a shared learning space on many levels (particularly personal). It has also been a place where I have found great complicity to dig deeper into these issues about the function of fiction in techno-political research. Today, I think that this is part of the collective DNA, and it is very interesting to see how it is taking shape as other sensibilities and interests take over the project.
The pandemic has modified many of our habits and routines, not just in the field of work, but also in the personal and social arena. Do you think that these changes are already being anticipated in imaginary disseminated by the technology industry?
As I said earlier, an essential part of the production of sociotechnical imaginaries are the promises made from scientific research and industry. The pandemic has meant that many of these promises, framed in that mixed bag called digital transformation, end up coming true. It was a process that a series of agents were trying to force, presenting themselves as a desirable future, and which the management of the pandemic has rendered inevitable. It is not by chance that the big tech companies have seen how the value of their shares and the profits they make have multiplied over the last eighteen months.
Bearing in mind that the digital transformation is not intrinsically a bad thing and that it helps to streamline a great number of processes, I think that some of its acceptances reproduce a series of myths that were already present in the pre-GAFAM digital culture: in the 90s and 2000 people said that the Internet would democratise access to information, that everyone would be able to have a voice that was heard, and that the new subject in digital media would be the prosumer. Today we see that traffic on the Internet is focused on a few nodes that extract great value and build powerful hegemonies by commercialising the attention and interaction of their users. The same has happened with the productive economy. Today there are only a few actors who are an access platform for small business (Glovos, Ubers, etc.), which adds to the precarious nature of the labour market which, in itself, was already in a serious condition.
To end off, can this imaginary dimension contribute to social change?
On the one hand, today it seems that there is a cultural climate prone to recognising the transformative power of fiction. I attribute it roughly to the fact that it has failed repeatedly in positively transforming production and institutions. For example, Yanis Varoufakis has just published a science-politics-fiction book where he imagines what would have happened if the cycle of social movements that occurred between the first and second decades of the 21st century had achieved its objectives. In some cases, it seems to me that the imaginary dimension is explored as a last option.
Having said that, authors and authoresses such as Donna Haraway, Richard Sennett, Max Haiven recognise that we are living in a moment of imaginative paralysis due to the weight of what Mark Fisher calls capitalist realism (or the neoliberal maxim which says that “there is no alternative”). At this point, it is important to stimulate other imaginaries that make tangible, radically different sensibilities, political, ethical and aesthetic relationships effectively stimulate other ways of thinking and acting. The infinite number of texts and speculative works in post-humanic and post-anthropocentrist directions is an example of this. The challenge lies in finding mechanisms capable of invoking these futures and stabilising these fictions in the techno-socio-material dimension of the present continuous.
Recommended citation: Mosaic. Interview with Andreu Belsunces. Mosaic [online article], July 2021, no. 195. ISSN: 1696-3296. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7238/m.n195.2131