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The Discourse of Emerging Technologies

As part of our Tech War project, we are looking at technologies that attract particular political attention. In a previous post, I’ve sketched a theoretical framework how and why technologies become salient in international politics. But which technologies become status symbols? Previously, I have argued that emerging technologies are ideally suited for that. They are forward-looking and indicate modernity and capability. They are also uncertain and it is precisely this uncertainty that makes them amenable to the kinds of „leadership“ and „competition“ narratives we are interested in.

Emerging technologies as Discourse

We use „emerging technologies“ as a shorthand to refer to this suite of cutting-edge, „high“ technologies. And that led me to look at the notion of „emerging technology“ itself. This has become an established term in politics, academic writings, and the popular media and everyone sort of understands what it is about. But a quick Ngram check shows that the term has a history. (The Google Ngram viewer plots the frequency of search terms in the entire catalogue of works in the Google Books database, limited in this case to English-language works.)

Clearly, „emerging technologies“ emerged over the latter half of the twentieth century. I haven’t been able to trace the term to any particular ur-text (suggestions are welcome!). The take-off in the mid-1970s and spread into the 1980s is probably due to economic stagnation in Western countries and fears of losing economic competitiveness vis-á-vis a rising Japan, although this is merely speculation.

More Research Is Needed

I would love to learn more about the genealogy of this concept. As far as I can tell, there has been no discourse analysis of „emerging technologies“ but I am secretely hoping to be proved wrong. Searching is a bit difficult due to the term’s popularity so you will get a lot of results, often pertaining to single technologies (nano tech and learning technologies seem to attract a lot of scholarly attention).

Furthermore, most of the management, business, and science studies literature takes a more positivist approach. There, emerging technologies are treated as something „real“, albeit difficult to define, but I want to understand the process by which a technology is constructed as „emerging“. This flips the script: Instead of identifying characteristics of a technology and then classifying it as „emerging“, I would ask which characteristics are typically ascribed to a technology that is considered „emerging“.

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