Accepted Paper:

Repairing Optimism in the Face of Routine "Failure"  


Christo Sims (University of California, San Diego )

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores how optimistic feelings and idealistic yearnings are maintained and repaired in well-intended sociotechnical interventions that routinely “fail.” The paper also examines the material-political orders that these morally-sanctioned repair practices help sustain and advance.

Paper long abstract:

Recent STS-inspired scholarship on maintenance and repair has helpfully drawn attention to the ongoing, and often overlooked and undervalued, work that keeps established sociotechnical systems intact and operating (cf. Star 1999; Graham and Thrift 2007; Jackson 2014; Domínguez-Rubio 2015). This paper explores how the endurance and extension of sociotechnical assemblages depends not only on maintaining and restoring environments, infrastructures, and artifacts, but often also on repairing optimistic feelings about, and idealistic yearnings for, unrealized techno-social transformations. Such repair practices are especially prevalent and important, the paper argues, in cases where expert technocultures attempt to remedy social, political, and ecological problems that are far beyond their reach. In such cases, breakdowns, dysfunctions, and "failures" are experienced as normal, rather than exceptional, and yet, curiously, routine setbacks do not so much erode confidence in the possibility of technoscientific solutions as help fix and extend technoscience into evermore facets of everyday life. By drawing on historical and ethnographic studies of international development interventions (e.g. Ferguson 1994; Li 2007), as well as techno-educational reforms (e.g. Tyack and Cuban 1995; Buckingham 2007; Sims forthcoming), the paper draws attention to how the ongoing repair of optimism for techno-social transformations helps overcome moments of disillusionment and, in so doing, contributes to the establishment, maintenance, and extension of what Mitchell (2002) has referred to as "techno-politics." To help make sense of these dynamics, the paper draws attention to the ritualized celebration of what I call "sanctioned counter-practices" in the ongoing rejuvenation of hope for techno-social breakthroughs.

Panel T007
Before/after/beyond breakdown: exploring regimes of maintenance