Fathomless Futures: Algorithmic and Imagined
Conference Theme Overview
We all live our lives forward, facing uncertain futures, yet social scientists feel most comfortable explaining the social world through causes rooted in the past or through the constraints and resources lodged in the present. Such explanations omit an important step: both historic and structural forces are refracted through the set of expectations people have about futures they imagine. Those forces are activated by the anticipation of what lies ahead.
We live in a time of rapidly growing predictive technologies, and spectacular prediction failures. Powerful algorithms are predicting and guiding our actions from economic forecasts, stock trading models, consumer research, hiring decisions, welfare administration, risk management, electoral mobilization, and political choices to the most mundane tasks of everyday life, like borrowing money, choosing books and movies, typing messages, filtering spam, and driving cars. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data are refashioning work, markets, governmentality, sociability, identity, and morality in unexpected ways and are redrawing the boundaries of what counts as valuable skills, knowledge, and culture. Their societal effects vary: they democratize access to information, but threaten privacy, help us with everyday chores, yet turn our personal data into a tradeable commodity. Improved efficiencies of prediction may bring great benefits in areas like healthcare and public safety, while trapping many in vicious cycles of accumulating disadvantages.
Just as predictive technologies proliferate, the world is becoming increasingly unpredictable. Our age is one of economic and political volatility that has presented ordinary people and experts alike with a series of great surprises, a heightened sense of uncertainty, and anxiety. With globalization both charging forward and in retreat, democracies in crisis, inequalities growing, institutions fraying, and large populations fleeing poverty and violence, exacerbated by our increasingly unstable natural environment, the future seems exceptionally inscrutable.
As no significant utopian political or economic alternatives are on offer, history appears to resemble a driverless car that is oblivious to our intended destination. The absence of a desirable and credible future in the public imagination makes inequality and injustice even harder to accept, fostering desperate resistance, resignation, or false nostalgia for golden pasts that never existed.
While this conference will feature papers all across topics of traditional concern for socio-economics, we especially welcome submissions addressing these changes in politics, the economy, and society at large. How can we understand the direction in which we are headed? What are the various ways to regulate these processes? How are these changes influencing inequalities, democracy, labor, communities, and the international balance of power? How should we think of time in social life? What role does imagination play in the economy? Will the mechanization of human cognition lead to a mindless social universe? How are identities being reconfigured? What has happened to human expectations, hopes, and predictions? How can we (re)gain control over our collective futures?
Established in 1989, SASE owes its remarkable success to the determination to provide a platform for creative research addressing important social problems. Throughout its three decades, SASE has encouraged and hosted rigorous work of any methodological or theoretical bent from around the world based on the principle that innovative research emerges from paying attention to wider context and connecting knowledge developed in different fields. SASE is committed to diverse membership and lively intellectual debates and encourages panels that include or are likely to include a diverse group of participants. This conference will also be an occasion to celebrate SASE’s 30th anniversary.