Techno-optimism and its social overflows

Organizers: Alex J.S. Lee (Rice University),  Liza Youngling (DePaul University), and Georgia Hartman (Pitzer College)

This panel is concerned with the ways in which manifold technologies harness, obscure, and reformulate human sociality. We understand technology as both the material application of scientific knowledge and as the application of technique. Data-driven digital technologies obscure the sociality of taste, value, service, and more. Zillow’s “zestimate” for example, makes the interpretative, context-driven work of property valuation appear as an objective and calculable process. Crowd-sourced technologies such as blockchain promise to facilitate public trust in record keeping for functions heretofore in the domain of the state such as election certification and cadastral maintenance. In so doing, blockchain harnesses social interactions, reformulating them into quantifiable and objective fact. Centralized technologies of care invert this formula, reifying authentic social interactions and obscuring the standardized, programmed elements of care work so as to appear as genuine human interaction. In-flight service, for example–embodied in the customer service techniques of flight attendants, and in the space and materiality of the cabin–is carefully curated the present an “appropriately” gendered, racialized, and classed experience.

Against the backdrop of such empirically grounded and theoretically informed examples, this panel asks the following: How might technologies make use of and simultaneously transform social relationships? How do technologies add value or allow for the extraction of value? What categories of difference, such as gender, class, or geography, do technologies obscure and legitimize? Finally, how does techno-optimism quell anxieties over efficiency, transparency, authenticity, and accuracy even as it reinforces these metrics?

Please submit paper abstracts to,, and by March 31.