New scholars and professionals to watch: Cynthia Selin

A few years ago I was sitting on an exercise bike at a gym in Princeton, NJ, reading an article in STHV that used Latour’s much ignored model of diffusion to interpret the mobilization of “the future” in nanotechnology controversies. I remember thinking highly of the article at the time, and upon learning more about the “sociology of the future” realized that it was part of a growing movement in the social sciences, one that was far beyond (from what I understand as previous incantations of this) what Toffler was thinking about in Future Shock or the Third Wave

The STHV article was written by Cynthia Selin and entitled “Expectations and the Emergence of Nanotechnology” and was published in March of 2007 (vol 32; issue 2). Her abstract reads:


Although nanotechnology is often defined as operations on the 10-9 meters, the lack of charisma in the scale-bound definitions has been fortified by remarkable dreams and alluring promises that spark excitement for nanotechnology. The story of the rhetorical development of nanotechnology reveals how speculative claims are powerful constructions that create legitimacy in this emerging technological domain. From its inception, nanotechnology has been more of a dream than reality, more fiction than fact. In recent years, however, the term nanotechnology has been actively drawn toward the present to begin to deliver on the fantastic expectations. This debate over time and timing is loaded with paradox. This work examines how future claims work to define what counts as nanotechnology and reveals dilemmas that accompany temporal disjunctures. Science and politics converge in debates about the future of technology as expectations serve to create and enforce power and legitimacy in the emerging area.

Cynthia now appears to be at Arizona State University’s Center for Nanotechnology in Society where, in addition to her research, she teaches on analyzing the future and even has/had a course of “Justice and the Future.” In addition to being a professor, she is also a “scenario practitioner” (although I’m not entirely sure what that implies) and a strategy consultant.

Studying the future draws a lot of controversy, and I’d like to know more about it. From what I can tell, contemporary research often emphasizes the study of how “visions of the future” are used to mobilize networked-patterns of human behavior that characterize the present, and, therefore, there is no end to the number of applications.

For example,

  1. How does rhetoric about the future of a software firm shape their present circumstances?
  2. How does rhetoric about the future of marriage or divorice shape their present circumstances? 
  3. How does rhetoric about the future of a nation-state shape its present circumstances?

…and so on. To reiterate: it seems that there is no end to the number of potential applications. Still, as noted above, there is no absence of criticism to this type of work. I’ve heard it called everything from “non-science” to “poppycock” even during conference presentations about only tangential research regarding the future.

I don’t have a strong opinion other than that the idea that current rhetoric about the future shapes the present is either (a) a hidden-in-plain-sight insight of considerable magnitude or (b) that this insight is hardly an insight at all given how commonsensical it appears to be — or is that just the right mix of the two?

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  1. Pingback: Growing link between STS and Futures Studies | Installing (Social) Order

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