Techno-tales, Visions, and Sustainable Transportation

This romanticized image may be an accurate depiction of the charms of travel, but it was also created to sell plane tickets. We need to question these kinds of narratives if we’re serious about sustainability.

A few years ago, while I was working Canada Science and Technology Museum, I had a lunch-room chat with a co-worker about sustainable transportation. I argued that it is simply untenable for the personal car to remain the default means of passenger transportation. He was sympathetic to my point, but still his response was dismissive. He insisted that that would simply never happen, no matter how badly it was needed for sustainability. According to his reasoning, the majority of people could never be persuaded to part from the convenience afforded by the private automobile.

My co-worker’s argument is an excellent example of what Colin Divall (2010) calls a techno-tale. According to Divall, these are common narratives which serve to justify the adoption and continued use of certain technologies or technological systems. My co-worker was citing the techno-tale of inevitability, in which a set of technological practices is supposed to be completely unchangeable, with well-meaning engineers, policymakers and activists limited to superficial modifications to the technology and its uses. Another common techno-tale is that of progressive innovation, in which it is assumed that a major problem imposed by a particular dominant technology will be averted by some new innovation. The persistent spectre of the electric car, which is always “ten years out” is a good example of this narrative. In some cases, techno-tales can ascend to the status of techno-myths, which provide a strong sense of underlying identity to a community or individual. Various techno-myths of the automobile are prominent in a range of North-American cultures. I’m sure you can think of a few examples.

Techno-tales and techno-myths have the effect of undermining discourse aimed at systemic change. They are therefore very useful for those that have a vested interest in the dominant technological regime. If a car company is concerned that the public might stop buying cars due to concerns about sustainability or gas prices, then they can take advantage of either of the two narratives I just discussed to insulate themselves and the technological system they depend on from criticism. Divall argues that this is why historians have an important role to play in transportation policy. Techno-tales and techno-myths generally have a historical component, and by engaging with the public, historians of technology can help aid in the critical evaluation of these stories. Public history is therefore an important component for the facilitation of technological transitions.

Beyond Divall’s point, however, I think there’s another intriguing implication to hisidea of techno-tales. In an earlier post, I discussed the concept of visions in technology studies. A vision is a positive or negative narrative of the futureused by the backers of a radical niche technology in order to draw in support for it. Do a google image search for “liveable city” or “climate catastrophe” to see some good examples of the visions commonly employed to support new sustainable transportation technologies. I’m studying the role of discourse and culture in socio-technical transitions, so visions are an important concept for me, but I’ve been puzzling for some time over the opposite of a vision. If niche technologies must break through entrenched regime opposition in order to become widespread, and deploy visions as a discursive tool to help them do so, then what does the regime do in response? Techno-tales and techno-myths might provide the answer. Perhaps regime actors strategically deploy or re-deploy techno-tales through advertising, political lobbying, and other forms of promotion, when they believe they are under threat by visions of the future that would make them obsolete. Perhaps these techno-tales can evolve from the visions that were used to build support for a technological regime before it ascended to its entrenched position. The possibilities are interesting, and I’ll have to do a lot more thinking about them.

In the meantime, though, I think there is one more important implication to the idea of techno-tales. Divall concludes his article with a description of a museum exhibit he curated. This exhibit shows the development of an idea that it is desirable to travel, and shows that this idea has been intentionally created as a techno-tale to sell train and airplane tickets. It’s important to note, I think, that a version of this techno-tale has deep roots in progressive communities, who are normally very sympathetic to sustainability transitions. Travel is frequently imagined in progressive communities as a great equalizer, which can build empathy and cultural understanding with others around the world. This might be true, but we should nevertheless think critically about it. If, as Divall suggests, our discourse is full of techno-tales which encourage the continued use of dominant and potentially destructive technologies, then it falls upon us to critically examine the ways we justify our use of technologies, even if that means we can’t partake in quite so many enlightening cultural exchanges.

Further Reading

Berkhout, Frans., 2006. “Normative Expectations in Systems Innovation”. Technology Analysis and Strategic Management 18: 3/4. pp. 209-211.

Divall, Colin., 2010. “Mobilizing the History of Technology”. Technology and Culture 51: 4. pp. 938-960.