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Futures of Digital Industry: Techno-Managerial or Techno-Political Utopia?



This article examines the political function of state-sponsored proclamations of future technological developments with regard to the German example of 'Industrie 4.0'. Building on a comparison of two classical texts of the literary genre of utopianism, Bacon's Nova Atlantis and Morus' Utopia , the article argues that the future visions of 'Industrie 4.0' can be understood as a techno-political utopia. As such, it is a discursive strategy consisting of three elements: social mobilization for national competitiveness (nationalism) towards a profitable industry with "men at the center" (solutionism) and without industrial conflicts (corporatism). These elements limit an open political discussion on desirable digital futures. The article concludes by demonstrating how critical social sciences could contribute to open the discourse from a mere techno-managerial towards a techno-political utopia. 99
BEHEMOTH A Journal on Civilisation
2020 Volume 13 Issue No. 1
Futures of Digital Industry
Techno-Managerial or Techno-Political Utopia?
Philipp Frey, Simon Schaupp
Keywords: Digitalization, Discourse, In-
dustrie 4.0, State Politics, Futures, Utopia
Philipp Frey works as a doctoral researcher at the Institute for Technology Assessment and
Systems Analysis. Email:
Simon Schaupp works as a research and teaching assistant in sociology at the University of
Basel. Email:
This article examines the political function of state-sponsored proclama-
tions of future technological developments with regard to the German ex-
ample of ‘Industrie 4.0’. Building on a comparison of two classical texts of
the literary genre of utopianism, Bacon’s Nova Atlantis and Morus’ Uto-
pia, the article argues that the future visions of ‘Industrie 4.0’ can be un-
derstood as a techno-political utopia. As such, it is a discursive strategy
consisting of three elements: social mobilization for national competitive-
ness (nationalism) towards a protable industry with “men at the center”
(solutionism) and without industrial conicts (corporatism). These ele-
ments limit an open political discussion on desirable digital futures. The
article concludes by demonstrating how critical social sciences could con-
tribute to open the discourse from a mere techno-managerial towards a
techno-political utopia.
BEHEMOTH A Journal on Civilisation
2020 Volume 13 Issue No. 1
“Industrial policy strategies are experiencing a renaissance in many parts
of the world; there is hardly a successful country that relies exclusively on
market forces to accomplish its tasks”, writes the German Federal Ministry
for Economic Aairs (2019, 8) in its National Industrial Strategy 2030.
These industrial policy strategies often come in the form of state-sponsored
proclamations of future technological developments. Following the world-
wide economic crisis of 2008, such techno-managerial utopias[1] became an
important discursive strategy[2] of statesmanship. In the US, the ‘Advanced
Manufacturing Partnership 2.0’ initiative has been announced, China
launched the ‘Made in China 2025’ program and Germany proclaimed an
‘Industrie 4.0’. All these techno-managerial utopias are examples for a state
politics in the mode of an announcement of technological visions. We will
demonstrate this with regard to the example of ‘Industrie 4.0’.
‘Industrie 4.0’ departs from prior techno-managerial utopias in so far as
it moves away from the vision of full automation and even promises the
‘reshoring’ of industrial jobs from low-income countries and sugarcoats its
innovation oensive with a rhetoric demand for human-centred design. In-
stead of more classical forms of automation, it emphasizes digital production
control. In this, however, it depicts the factory as a unied cybernetic system
without any internal frictions (Schaupp/Diab 2019). Because ‘Industrie 4.0’
is a unied system, there is no place for conicts of interest and therefore for
politics that would jeopardize the stability of the system. We will argue that
therefore, this techno-managerial utopian dimension of the Industry 4.0 is
not unpolitical. Rather, it is itself a policy: the politics of the end of the poli-
tical.[3] In this sense, it is an anti-political utopia. Thus, the discursive en-
closure of a wide scope of heterogeneous social actors seems to be at the
centre of ‘Industrie 4.0’ both on the level of state politics and industrial rela-
In the rst section of the article, we draw a distinction between technolo-
gical and political utopias, based on two of the founding texts of utopia as a
literary genre: Bacons’ Nova Atlantis and Morus’ Utopia. The second section
concludes that ‘Industrie 4.0’ is a techno-managerial utopia insofar as it as-
sumes political constancy while simultaneously proclaiming technological
disruption. It is a discursive strategy of state-led corporatist mobilisation,
which aims at veiling dierences of interest in industrial relations, thereby
creating a ‘Harmony 4.0’. In the third section, in contrast, we emphasise the
political character of industrial digitalisation. We argue for a techno-political
instead of a techno-managerial utopia of digitalisation, which discloses the
oftentimes implicit anticipatory assumptions and normative content of so-
cio-technical futures and enables an open discussion on the means and ends
of technological progress.
Political and technological utopia
Although every production model is necessarily forward-looking, there is
little research on the utopian dimension of production models. It is re-
peatedly bemoaned though that management systems follow less and less
linear developments or assumptions of rationality, but turn out to be fash-
[1] In the context of this article, we sub-
scribe to a descriptive understanding of
utopia as introduced below rather than a
normative-empathic understanding of
utopia (cf. Flechtheim 1972).
[2] We understand political discourse as
closely intertwined with political institu-
tions, primarily through its mobilizing
function (Carstensen/Schmidt 2016).
[3] We understand ‘the political’ as the
inherently conictual (re-)negotiation of
social order.
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2020 Volume 13 Issue No. 1
ion- and myth-driven so that the most diverse, partially contradictory con-
trol principles would be wildly combined (Brinkmann 2011). A systematic
analysis of the utopian dimension of production models is largely lacking. An
interesting exception is ten Bos (2000), who observes and laments the cent-
ral role of utopian thinking in management fashions. From this observation,
he develops a juxtaposition of the terms “fashion” and “utopia” and tries to
promote the former against the latter concept so as to be “able to get rid of
utopian tendencies.” (ten Bos 2000, 14) Ten Bos describes the utopian mo-
ment of management pejoratively as “unworldliness” (ibid.). However, if we
understand utopia as the concept for an ideal socio-technical order, a non-
utopian model of production is an oxymoron. Any new production model is
necessarily unworldly to the extent that it is innovative. However, ‘un-
worldly’ must not be confused with ‘unrealistic’. The conception of each pro-
duction model has to strike a balance between two poles: On the one hand, it
must be unworldly insofar as it promises productivity leaps or other poten-
tial benets, on the other hand, it must be concrete in so far as it cannot be
eective without realistic implementation proposals. In the following, we
will bring together these two aspects of unworldliness on the one hand and
the ecacy on the other hand to sketch the concept of techno-managerial
utopia. By drawing attention to the utopian dimension of the current dis-
course on the future of production, we strive to further illuminate the appa-
rent disconnect between the oftentimes far-reaching proclamations re-
volving around the so-called ‘Industrie 4.0’ and the frequently quite modest
job-oor realities. At the same time, we will argue that the characterization
of the ‘Industrie 4.0’ as a techno-managerial utopia helps to better under-
stand both its normative brunt and political one-sidedness. To gain a better
understanding of the relevance of the term of ‘utopia’[4], let us rst return to
its beginnings: The publication of Thomas Morus’ state novel Utopia (1516)
represents the founding moment of the modern literary genre of utopia. In
it, an island state is described, which in its technical development is about
the same as the one the author knew from 16th-century England. Radically
dierent, however, is the political and economic condition of the island. This
is marked by communism in the economic sphere and a council democracy
in politics: “Wherever there is private property, where everything is mea-
sured by the value of money, it will hardly ever be possible to pursue just or
successful politics”, one of the famous sentences of the novel reads (Morus
2017, 44). The political administration of Utopia is organized by a kind of
citizens’ councils composed of delegates from dierent neighbourhoods
(53f.). Morus’ design can thus be classied primarily as a political utopia: It
is ‘unworldly’ regarding the social order, but ‘realistic’ with regard to techno-
logical development.
To understand the specic utopian dimension of ‘Industrie 4.0’, it is
worth to briey contrast Morus’ utopia with that of Francis Bacon. In Bacon’s
Nova Atlantis, the framework is very similar to that of Utopia. Here, too,
sailors land on an unknown island, which bears the name Bensalem. The
achievements there, however, form the counterpart to those described by
Morus. First, Bacon begins to praise Bensalem’s orderliness. There is “barely
a more chaste people under the sun like Bensalem’s and no one so clean of
lth and delement” (Bacon 2017, 200). The main part of Bensalem’s de-
scription, however, is Bacon’s praise of the technology available to the is-
[4] We use this term here as a topical
analytical concept. We cannot, however,
go into the extensive cultural studies li-
terature on the topic (for an overview,
see Andersson 2018).
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2020 Volume 13 Issue No. 1
landers. He describes in detail the “various mechanical arts” (ibid., 209) by
means of which nature is completely controlled on Bensalem. Not only
mechanical “humans, quadrupeds, birds, sh and snakes” are constructed
(ibid., 212), people, too, are subject to technical control, to a degree that the
islanders “can fool the senses of men innitely” (ibid., 213). Signicantly, the
publisher of the posthumously published script explains that Bensalem’s
technical order was more important to Bacon than the political one (Saage
1998, 63). We only learn implicitly that Bensalem must have been a classic
monarchy, as Bacon knew it from England. The only dierence is that the
king is not advised by politicians, but by scientists, especially by engineers
(Bacon 2017, 213.). Bensalem thus seems to be a technocratic monarchy.
However, what we are explicitly told is that the political aairs on Bensalem
are settled once and for all. Thus, the king is sure that public order “can be
turned in a thousand ways for the worse, but hardly any for the better”. So he
decides “to set those institutions that were so well founded and secured in
their time, for all times.” (ibid., 192)
Thus, Bacon’s utopia is essentially a perfect techno-managerial order
(with technology consciously coming rst). This order is characterized by its
complete functionality: It is constructed on the model of an all-encom-
passing clockwork, which works perfectly because each gear wheel is xed in
its place. Because it is a unied system, there are no conicts of interest and
therefore no politics that would jeopardize the stability of the system. The
techno-managerial utopia is therefore not unpolitical. Rather, it is itself a
policy: the politics of the end of the political. In this sense, it is an anti-poli-
tical utopia. Its strenuous eorts to ban all conicts and all politics, however,
reveal what is at stake: Techno-managerial utopias are never without alter-
natives, but the result of negotiation processes between competing visions of
the future. Luc Boltanski (2010) calls this the ‘hermeneutic contradiction’.
He thus points out that every regime of domination depends rst and fore-
most on dening what is. For the knowledge of what is forms the basis of the
knowledge of how we have to act. The central problem of all regimes, how-
ever, is that the ocial interpretation of reality remains potentially contes-
table at any time. In the case of ‘Industrie 4.0’, this contestability means that
various institutional actors (state bodies, employers’ associations, compa-
nies, science, trade unions) with diverging interests are involved in the nego-
tiation of the techno-managerial utopia. Every regime therefore aims to hide
this contestability. With regard to techno-managerial utopias, this applies
not only to the question of what is, but also to the question of what will be.
For, as Dierkes and others (1996) have shown, technical visions of the future
essentially full a guiding function in action.
In the digital age, techno-managerial utopias that work in a similar pat-
tern to Bacon’s Nova Atlantis play a central role. It seems to be exactly their
anti-political character that makes the techno-managerial utopia attractive
again in the digital age. Thus, the production model of ‘Industrie 4.0’ can be
understood on the discursive level as a techno-managerial utopia. By that we
do not mean a general idea of society like in the concept of socio-technical
imaginaries (Jasano/Kim 2009; 2015). Instead, the concept of techno-ma-
nagerial utopias deals with visions of the future which are limited spatially
and socially to the same extent in which they are concrete. Like Bacon’s de-
scription of Bensalem, they consist of a set of concrete ideas of future techno-
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2020 Volume 13 Issue No. 1
logies and organizational concepts closely linked to those technologies. Cen-
tral to this is that technology and organization form a unied system. That is,
the technical aspect of utopia is essentially organizational, and conversely,
the organizational aspect is essentially technical. At Bensalem, technology
organizes not only the natural environment, but also the islanders them-
selves, down to their biological existence. The administration, on the other
hand, is a technical one: Politicians have been replaced by engineers who
construct society like one of their machines. The aspect of ‘unworldliness’
inherent in every utopia does not extend to the political in the techno-mana-
gerial utopia. In Bacon, almost all social institutions of early modern
England are copied to Bensalem: Religion, customs and state rule are
idealizations of the English status quo rather than utopias. What is un-
worldly is instead imaginary technology, which becomes the central refer-
ence point of utopia. On the one hand, this fact pulls the critical sting that
characterizes political utopias, as shown in Morus. On the other hand, this
makes the techno-managerial utopia appear realistic, which in turn is condu-
cive to its practical eectiveness. Of course, the two forms of techno-utopias
reconstructed here are also partially overlapping. For our use of the terms as
to-pical analytical concepts, however, an ideal-typical division between the
two seems to be useful, as we will see in the following.
Techno-managerial utopia
This specic relationship between seemingly visionary techno-managerial
imagination and anti-politics is constitutive for the ‘Industrie 4.0’ discourse.
To be sure, when analysing the genesis of ‘Industrie 4.0’, there is no lack of
political involvement: Tracing back the label to talks involving members of
German ministries and meetings at the World Economic Forum, Pfeier
characterizes the pervasive presence of talk about “Industrie 4.0” as “rst
and foremost the result of professionally managed agenda setting” (2017,
112). And although Hirsch-Kreinsen frames “Industrie 4.0” as a promising
technology and suggests that the practical impact of the “Industrie 4.0”
should be understood as an emergent result of heterogeneous actors linking
their strategic interests to the propagation of “Industrie 4.0” rather than “the
result of a master-plan of a controlling agency” (2016, 11), he too highlights
the importance of political actors in its development and dissemination. Ac-
cordingly, by anti-politics we do not mean simply the lack of involvement of
political actors. In case of ‘Industrie 4.0’, the involvement of political actors
even extends beyond the spectrum of immediate state politics and includes
engagement with trade unions. Instead of propagating fully automated
factories – as has been the case in the previous utopia of computer integrated
manufacturing (CIM) – the mantra of human-centred innovation and pro-
duction is ubiquitous (Pfeier 2017). What, then, constitutes the anti-poli-
tical dimension of ‘Industrie 4.0’? Although political actors of various kinds
have been central for the development of the techno-managerial ‘Industrie
4.0’ utopia, there has been remarkably little discussion on the question what
ends are being advanced by it. To some degree, this is understandable, as one
could argue that the ‘Industrie 4.0’ has been conceptualized as an answer to
a shared challenge: nding a way to frame a renegotiation of economic prio-
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2020 Volume 13 Issue No. 1
rities to manage the national economy in the wake of the global nancial
crisis (ebd.). Accordingly, ‘Industrie 4.0’ features a clear nation-state, not to
say nationalist, frame of reference. At the centre is always the comparative
national advantage of Germany with its high-tech industry. This is also ex-
pressed orthographically: the German ending -ie was defended by the patrio-
tic inventors of the label internationally against the English ‘industry’. Thus,
‘Industrie 4.0’ helps stabilize an economic primacy, an unquestioned dedica-
tion to improve competitiveness on a global level. All other needs and in-
terests have to adapt to this central demand. A central tool for this homoge-
nisation are state-led mediations such as the “Dialogue Process Work 4.0”,
in which the positions of employers and trade unions were consolidated into
aWhite Paper “Work 4.0”, which has been accepted by most social actors
(Kal 2020). It would thus seem appropriate to speak of a “Harmony 4.0”
that is being formed around “Industrie 4.0” (cf. Arlt et al. 2017, 83.).
In this way, this vision contributes to a constellation in which concerns
regarding technological and societal developments or the expression of de-
sires that are incompatible with the competitiveness-orientation of ‘Indus-
trie 4.0’ tend to be quickly pushed aside by a built-up of normative pressure.
Accordingly, the vision helps to stabilize and perpetuate existing social rela-
tions, rendering it structurally conservative at its core: Rather than enabling
an open democratic societal debate on political, social and economic possi-
bilities, it limits societal discussion on socio-technical innovation to an ex-
tremely restricted question (how to best increase national competitiveness in
global competition) whose pursuit can then be openly discussed, or rather:
managed. In this respect, the relationship to the future in the ‘Industrie 4.0’
discourse bears strong resemblance to that of neo-conservative futurology
criticised by Flechtheim (1972) in which references to “the future” distract
from necessary discussions of social and political change. Instead of discus-
sing possible social and political innovations that could address contempo-
rary challenges, this kind of futurology, according to Flechtheim, tends to re-
legate the solution of societal problems to the future. Today, this kind of logic
seems to experience a resurgence in the form of so-called solutionism which
has been identied as a key feature of digital capitalism and relegates the
solution of societal problems to technological development (Nachtwey/Seidl
2017). This way of thinking bears striking similarities to the mix of social
conservatism and technological utopianism characteristic for Francis Ba-
con’s Nova Atlantis.
The limiting eect and dominance of this core-orientation is illustrated by
the fact that attempts to redirect the discussion around ‘Industrie 4.0’ stay
within the connes of the larger goals dened by this vision – for instance,
the German unions have resorted to arguing for a ‘worker participation 4.0’
by stating that worker participation is an advantage for the German eco-
nomic location.[5] This argumentative position might lend itself well to a co-
managerial understanding of unionism, but it quickly becomes precarious
once considerable conicts of interest arise and the interests of workers are
labelled as obstacles to national economic success.
From this perspective, the anti-political dimension resurfaces: Everyone
is welcome to talk about disruption and radical innovation – as long as
everything stays the same. It is a peculiarity of the ‘Industrie 4.0’ discourse
that a feature of the capitalist mode of production – to innovate in order to
[5] A textbook example of „a pattern of
one-dimensional thought and behavior
in which ideas, aspirations, and objec-
tives that, by their content, transcend the
established universe of discourse and ac-
tion are either repelled or reduced to
terms of this universe” (Marcuse 2007,
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2020 Volume 13 Issue No. 1
stay ahead of the competition (or at least keep up with it) – that has been
well-known for more than 150 years is being advertised as something radi-
cally new.
The pervasive eect of the ‘Industrie 4.0’ discourse was not just dening
for much of the public debate on technological innovation in the past years –
it also dominated most of scientic research on technological innovation in
Germany in the past years. Although there have been some critical interven-
tions (see above), most of the research has been focused on helping to de-
velop the notion of ‘Industrie 4.0’ and work towards its implementation. This
holds particularly true for research in the applied technical sciences, but also
for most of the social sciences. Countless studies were published that for in-
stance focused on the impacts of ‘Industrie 4.0’ on economic growth and/or
on aggregate labour demand. In a telling example of how societal demand
and scientic research converge, social scientists strived to provide orienta-
tion in the ongoing innovation process. With the orientation towards the ‘In-
dustrie 4.0’ vision, however, research runs at risk to be ‘contaminated‘ by the
normativity transported by the ‘Industrie 4.0’. To give just one example: In a
study on “Economy 4.0 and its labour market and economic impacts”,
Wolter et al. conclude:
There ultimately is no other way – if Germany's [sic] unable to
implement Economy 4.0, other countries will still do so. And
the assumptions which have a positive eect on Germany in
the above scenario (pioneer, additional demand abroad, com-
petitive edge) will then count against Germany as a business
location. Decreases in production and further unemployment
will result (2016, 61).
Studies like these are then in return quoted by state actors to alleviate
fears of technological unemployment, a powerful dystopian motive impeding
technology acceptance by the general public. The discussion of automation
anxiety in the aforementioned Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Aairs’
White Paper“Work 4.0” is a case in point: Invoking the debate on technolo-
gical unemployment, these concerns are largely discarded by referencing a
number of long-term forecasts that broadcast little to no losses due to tech-
nological development. Despite acknowledging their uncertainty and epi-
stemic limitations (BMAS 2017, 47.), they nonetheless seem to be accepted
as the scientic foundation of the BMAS’ assessment that radical changes to
the social security system need not be discussed (ibid., 180).
While honesty regarding one’s normative orientation should be welcomed
in research, one should reect whether the normative commitment displayed
in studies that rmly rearm the basic assumptions of the ‘Industrie 4.0’
might be misguided. On a more fundamental level, however, the social con-
servatism that is part of the ‘Industrie 4.0’ vision is matched by a conserva-
tive moment of scientic prognostic itself: Since a prognosis of future states
of aair has to build on retrospective knowledge and data, it is necessarily
designed to prolong past and present social conditions into the future.
As Tetens (2013) argues in his introduction to the philosophy of science,
scientic prognosis is limited to talk about the future based on knowledge
regarding existing structures and the laws governing them and their dyna-
BEHEMOTH A Journal on Civilisation
2020 Volume 13 Issue No. 1
mics. Projecting them into the future might seem unproblematic in many
cases – for instance concerning the assumption that gravity will persist in the
future. Yet, delivering a prognosis of future development not only requires us
to make assumptions regarding the behaviour of these structures. To make a
prognosis of the future development of a societal system furthermore re-
quires us to make a plethora of assumptions regarding the status of various
variables aecting this system – that by themselves are again error-prone.
Even more nuanced scenario approaches then are necessarily informed by
precarious knowledge and heavily laden with (tacit) anticipatory assump-
tions. In a setting that requires social scientists to appear ‘realistic’, this
quickly introduces a conservative bias that leads to the selection of assump-
tions that deliver more or less status quo scenarios that are normatively in-
formed by a broadly shared, seemingly apolitical ‘common sense’. In such a
setting, even the most aggressive partisanship for a quite disputable program
such as the ‘Industrie 4.0’ initiative appears self-explanatory and techno-ma-
nagerial utopianism is matched and reproduced by studies that largely
amount to little more than pleasant background music. This is not to say that
these studies are poorly conducted by scientic standards or would yield no
interesting insights. Their epistemic limitations need to be reected more
widely however.
Techno-political utopia
For scientists who want to provide a critical corrective to such a narrowing
of public and scientic discourse, the question arises on how to respond to
the demand for scientic prognosis particularly and what to contribute to the
debate more generally. Reecting upon the character of scientic prognosis,
Adorno (1972) diagnosed that simply prolonging existing social conditions
into the future would contribute to rearming and perpetuating them. In-
stead, he highlighted the importance of transcending existing social relations
in investigating the objective material, technological basis for reasonable so-
cietal conditions and human emancipation (Bloch/Adorno 1978).
In this spirit, transcending the limitation imposed upon public debate and
imagination by standardizing visions such as ‘Industrie 4.0’ would, in a rst
step, demand of researchers dedicated to social progress to provide robust
knowledge regarding the likely technological possibilities aorded by the
ongoing technological development. More importantly, their public engage-
ment would need to follow an anti-technocratic impetus: disclosing and
deconstructing the oftentimes implicit anticipatory assumptions and norma-
tive content of socio-technical futures and enabling open discussion of the
ends of technological progress (Urry 2016).
In the context of ‘Industrie 4.0’, this would require critical scientists to
show that the apparent apolitical character of this techno-managerial utopia
thinly veils very real economic and political interests and threatens to im-
mobilize societal progress through an anti-political mobilization. This would
not, however, imply to shy away from the discussion of technological deve-
lopment altogether and emphasize solely political issues. Instead, it would
require scientists to explore ways to commission technology in the interest of
societal progress – while at the same time emphasizing that societal progress
BEHEMOTH A Journal on Civilisation
2020 Volume 13 Issue No. 1
will not result from technological development by itself, but rather might the
product of people striving to realize political utopias and the technologies
suitable to them (Frey/Schneider 2019; Srnicek/Williams 2015). Rather than
fetishizing either the political or the technological dimension of utopia, pro-
gressive techno-political projects would strive to reconcile the two in a push
for truly radical socio-technical change.
Starting out with a comparison of two dening early utopias – Francis Ba-
con’s Nova Atlantis and Thomas Morus’ Utopia – we gained an understan-
ding of two types of utopian thinking: political utopias with strongly critical
features that focus on transcending the existing social order with relatively
little regard for technological innovation. And techno-managerial utopias,
characterized by conservatism in regard to social institutions and visionary
technological thinking. We then characterized the ‘Industrie 4.0’ vision as a
modern techno-managerial utopia in the context of worldwide economic
crisis. It consists of three strategic elements: social mobilization for national
competitiveness (nationalism) towards a protable industry with ‘men at the
center’ (solutionism) and without industrial conicts (corporatism).
Furthermore, we discussed the constraining eect on the public debate on
poli-tical, social and economic possibilities aorded by technological devel-
opment that is exercised by ‘Industrie 4.0’. It is important to underscore,
however, that the discourse on ‘Industrie 4.0’ is by no means frictionless.
What we reconstructed here is a state-sponsored discursive strategy, which
can and is being contested by other actors, researchers possibly being one of
them. Thus, we introduced some fundamental features of a science dedicated
to enriching the public debate on socio-technical possibilities and to recon-
ciling the political and technological dimensions of modern utopian thinking
in the form of techno-political utopias.
In the recent past, rst bold proposals have been put forward in this spirit:
Whether they focus on appropriating the productive potentials of late-capit-
alist society to build a society that oers freedom, plenty of leisure time and
an end of scarcity for all (Srnicek/Williams 2015) or whether they focus on
technological possibilities for alternative ways to coordinate economic acti-
vities that transcend the anarchy of the market and capitalist competition
(Phillips/Rozworksi 2019), they share the common feature that they leave
the framework of capitalist competition to discuss the promises of technolo-
gies against a wider normative background and that they distance them-
selves from naive optimism by emphasizing the importance of political
action to realize these promising potentials. By presenting alternative socio-
technical visions, they move beyond the mere perpetuation of existing social
conditions into the future. Only by doing so can we hope to transcend our
historical situation characterized by escalating economic conicts, increa-
sing social polarisation and deepening ecological crises. Developing and dis-
cussing alternative techno-political utopias and ways to realize them might,
in this sense, be a key task facing scholars of technology today.
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2020 Volume 13 Issue No. 1
Adorno, T. W. (1972) Soziologie und empirische Forschung. In: Adorno, T. W. (ed.)
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... The real challenge would be to "find some reliable means of arriving at combinations that 'make sense.'" [1] (p. 26). In other words, having algorithms create something "novel" might be perfectly technologically feasible, but the result might not match human needs, which might themselves be difficult to elaborate beforehand. ...
... Lastly, they turn towards the challenges to emulate social intelligence, required in persuasion, negotiation, and care. They refer to progress in the research field of affective computing but nonetheless point out that "While algorithms and robots can now reproduce some aspects of human social interaction, the real-time recognition of natural human emotion remains a challenging problem, and the ability to respond intelligently to such inputs is even more difficult" [1] (pp. 26,27). Even in simplified settings, typical social tasks would likely continue to be challenging to automate, let alone complex ones involving negotiating skills or high levels of empathy [1] (pp. 24-27). ...
... Yet, this empiricism introduces a structural conservatism to these models: Ultimately, the scenarios derived by these models represent little more than a reproduction of the past-and the more concrete and detailed the economic modelling is, the less it is able to transcend the present and provide knowledge that could prepare policymakers and civil society for unexpected labor market disruptions or other crises. What is more, this approach is likely to be matched even when conscious assumption-setting takes place: Rather than assuming radically different dynamics of societal development than before, the submission to an empiricist logic makes researchers prone to selecting sets of assumptions that deliver more or less status quo scenarios, normatively informed by a broadly shared, seemingly apolitical "common sense" [26]. ...
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In recent years, fears of technological unemployment have (re-)emerged strongly in public discourse. In response, policymakers and researchers have tried to gain a more nuanced understanding of the future of work in an age of automation. In these debates, it has become common practice to signal expertise on automation by referencing a plethora of studies, rather than limiting oneself to the careful discussion of a small number of selected papers whose epistemic limitations one might actually be able to grasp comprehensively. This paper addresses this shortcoming. I will first give a very general introduction to the state of the art of research on potentials for automation, using the German case as an example. I will then provide an in-depth analysis of two studies of the field that exemplify two competing approaches to the question of automatability: studies that limit themselves to discussing technological potentials for automation on the one hand, and macroeconomic scenario methods that claim to provide more concrete assessments of the connection between job losses (or job creation) and technological innovation in the future on the other. Finally, I will provide insight into the epistemic limitations and the specific vices and virtues of these two approaches from the perspective of critical social theory, thereby contributing to a more enlightened and reflexive debate on the future of automation.
... The technopolitics of the state actors researched here was characterized by a mixture of subsidization and mediation of digitalization projects under the label "Industrie 4.0" [96]. At the institutional level, bodies such as the state-led "Plattform Industrie 4.0" brought together actors from business associations trade unions and engineering. ...
... At the company level, "experimental spaces" established new practices of corporate digitalization by consensually exempting these spaces from existing regulations [97,98]. 9 Both formats aimed at pushing digitalization forward in a consensual manner [96]. This constellation can be described as techno-corporatism 4.0. ...
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This article develops a multi-level frame-work for the analysis of a bottom-up politics of technol-ogy at the workplace. It draws on a multi-case study on algorithmic management of manual labor in manufactur-ing and delivery platforms in Germany. In researching how workers influenced the use of algorithmic manage-ment systems, the concept of technopolitics is developed to refer to three different arenas of negotiation: (1) the arena of regulation, where institutional framings of tech-nologies in production are negotiated, typically between state actors, employers’ associations, and unions. (2) The arena of implementation, where strategies of technology deployment are negotiated—in the German production model typically between management and works coun-cil. (3) The arena of appropriation, in which different organizational technocultures offer contesting schemes for the actual use of technology at work. Whereas most recent research on digitalization of work conceptualizes workers as mere objects of digitalization processes, this paper focuses on worker agency as a “technopolitics from below.” It thus demonstrates how workers influence the concrete outcome of digitalization projects.
... One year later, the EU announced its plan to increase investment in AI research by at least €20 billion by 2020 (Dyer-Witheford et al., 2019, p. 40). These programs may be interpreted as techno-political responses to the financial crisis on the state level (Frey & Schaupp, 2020). ...
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The COVID‐19 crisis witnessed a major rise in investment in software for the digital organisation and rationalisation of work, while investment in robotics is continuously lagging behind expectations. This article argues that we can understand this development as the continuation of the rise of algorithmic management as a technological fix for profitability crises. Thus, in the face of falling wage rates and a structural overaccumulation of capital since the 1970s, algorithmic management has become an alternative to automation. The article reconstructs the history of algorithmic management in connection to economic crises. This allows for periodisation of the rise of algorithmic management from 'computer‐integrated manufacturing' to remote work in four waves. In times of crisis, algorithmic management functions as a substitute for investment in 'tangible capital' such as robots. Structural economic forces thus interact with labour conflicts at the company level, shaping the rise of algorithmic management.
... Why should researchers from disciplines such as STS, technology assessment or the sociology and philosophy of technology be interested in emancipatory perspectives on technology? The public sphere has been buzzing with technology-related discussions in recent years: in Germany, the vision of a socalled "Industry 4.0" was the focal point of technopolitical debates [9][10][11], but there have also been lively discussions revolving around the implications of autonomous driving [12,13], the use of digital systems in healthcare [14,15], the impact of digital media on democracy [16][17][18], the transformation of energy systems [19,20] or even a Green New Deal [21,22]. Therefore, scholars increasingly turn their attention to the rise of (new) technology in different fields of implementation, while still remaining highly ambivalent in their claims about socio-political and economic conditions: while one part of research has shifted to more or less restricted and biased commissioned research, not least because of its economic dependence on third-party funding, the other, more critical part has dedicated itself predominantly to self-sufficient analytical deconstruction. ...
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Since industrial trade fair Hannover Messe 2011, the term “Industrie 4.0” has ignited a vision of a new Industrial Revolution and has been inspiring a lively, ongoing debate among the German public about the future of work, and hence society, ever since. The discourse around this vision of the future eventually spread to other countries, with public awareness reaching a temporary peak in 2016 when the World Economic Forum’s meeting in Davos was held with the motto “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” How is it possible for a vision originally established by three German engineers to unfold and bear fruit at a global level in such a short period of time? This article begins with a summary of the key ideas that are discussed under the label Industrie 4.0. The main purpose, based on an in-depth discourse analysis, is to debunk the myth about the origin of this powerful vision and to trace the narrative back to the global economic crisis in 2009 and thus to the real actors, central discourse patterns, and hidden intentions of this vision of a new Industrial Revolution. In conclusion, the discourse analysis reveals that this is not a case of visioneering but one of a future told, tamed, and traded.
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Owing to the tendency of discursive institutionalists to conflate the notion that “ideas matter” for policymaking with the “power of ideas”, little has been done to explicitly theorize ideational power. To fill this lacuna, the paper defines ideational power as the capacity of actors (whether individual or collective) to influence other actors' normative and cognitive beliefs through the use of ideational elements, and – based on insights from the discursive institutionalist literature – suggests three different types of ideational power: power through ideas, understood as the capacity of actors to persuade other actors to accept and adopt their views through the use of ideational elements; power over ideas, meaning the imposition of ideas and the power to resist the inclusion of alternative ideas into the policymaking arena; and power in ideas, which takes place through the establishing of hegemony or institutions imposing constraints on what ideas are considered.
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STS research has devoted relatively little attention to the promotion and reception of science and technology by non-scientific actors and institutions. One consequence is that the relationship of science and technology to political power has tended to remain undertheorized. This article aims to fill that gap by introducing the concept of “sociotechnical imaginaries.” Through a comparative examination of the development and regulation of nuclear power in the US and South Korea, the article demonstrates the analytic potential of the imaginaries concept. Although nuclear power and nationhood have long been imagined together in both countries, the nature of those imaginations has remained strikingly different. In the US, the state’s central move was to present itself as a responsible regulator of a potentially runaway technology that demands effective “containment.” In South Korea, the dominant imaginary was of “atoms for development” which the state not only imported but incorporated into its scientific, technological and political practices. In turn, these disparate imaginaries have underwritten very different responses to a variety of nuclear shocks and challenges, such as Three Mile Island (TMI), Chernobyl, and the spread of the anti-nuclear movement.
The Future of the World is devoted to the intriguing field of study which emerged after World War Two, futurism or futurology. Jenny Andersson explains how futurist scholars and researchers imagined the Cold War and post Cold War world and the tools and methods they would use to influence and change that world. Futurists were a motley crew of Cold War warriors, nuclear scientists, journalists, and peace activists. Some argued it should be a closed sphere of science defined by delimited probabilities. They were challenged by alternative notions of the future as a potentially open realm. Futurism also drew on an eclectic range of repertoires, some of which were deduced from positivist social science, mathematics, and nuclear physics, and some of which sprung from alternative forms of knowledge in science fiction, journalism, or religion. These different forms of prediction laid very different claims to how accurately futures could be known, and what kind of control could be exerted over what was yet to come. The Future of the World carefully examines these different engagements with the future, and inscribes them in the intellectual history of the post war period. Using unexplored archival collections, The Future of the World reconstructs the Cold War networks of futurologists and futurists. [Publisher's abstract]
How do different movements enact certain visions of emancipation and technology? In this chapter, Frey and Schneider discuss Marx’s classic framework of emancipation from and emancipation within work and its relationship to technology. The chapter combines this critical tradition together with a social-constructivist framework of technology and analyzes how certain visions of emancipation and technology are enacted in different activist practices. The empirical cases of the post-work movement in the UK and the maker movement highlight how progressive actors are using imagined and actual digital technologies to construct imaginations of better futures. The authors argue that STS should turn its attention more toward such “concrete utopias” to make constructive and possible emancipatory alternatives to the status quo more visible and to help shape societal dialogues on the future.
Especially in Germany, a vivid public debate about “industry 4.0” has developed in recent years. It advances the argument that industry 4.0 is the fourth industrial revolution that follows on from technological revolutions brought about by water and steam power (industrial revolution 1.0), electric power (industrial revolution 2.0), and computing/computerised automation (industrial revolution 3.0). In 1845/46, Marx and Engels wrote The German Ideology. 170 years later, we live in the time of digital capitalism that has its own peculiar forms of ideology. This paper argues that “industry 4.0” is the new German ideology, the digital German ideology. Image: By ChristophRoser,, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Why is it that people in organizations seem to be so vulnerable to management fashion and guruism? And why is it that both phenomena are loathed in traditional academic thinking about management and organization? In this book, René ten Bos argues for a more philosophical rather than scientific understanding of management fashion. In doing so he questions the positivist and utopian orthodoxies that have pervaded management thinking. Ten Bos contends that management fashion is a cultural phenomenon that deserves serious reflection not only because it is so immensely widespread but also because its seems to satisfy particular philosophical needs among its consumers. Building upon some rather unusual sources in postmodern theory, the author argues that management fashion might encourage the practitioner to engage in philosophical self-experimentation and to adopt alternative forms of understanding. However, it is also argued that management fashion often fails to keep up to this promise because it remains paradoxically incapable of laying off its rationalist cloak.René ten Bos is a philosopher and management consultant. He works for Schouten & Nelissen and took his PhD at the Catholic University of Brabant.
Soziologie und empirische Forschung
  • T W Adorno
Adorno, T. W. (1972) Soziologie und empirische Forschung. In: Adorno, T. W. (ed.) Gesammelte Schriften Band 8. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp.