Panel 25

Interesting failures to come: history, actors, and scenarios in unsuccessful digital technologies projects

Organizers: Olga Usachova (1); Ginevra Sanvitale (2); Paul Edwards (3)

1: University of Padova, Italy; 2: Trinity College Dublin, Ireland; (3) Stanford University, USA

Topics: Technoscientific promises, imaginaries and expectations; Innovation imaginaries, practices and policies

Keywords: digital technologies failure, unsuccessful technological development, maintenance and repair, consequences of tech failure, failure acceptance

For a long time innovation in the development of digital technologies has been portrayed only from the successful side. In contrast, the recent review emphasizes that “innovation projects [that] failed either completely or partly range from 40 to 90%” (Rhaiem & Amara, 2021). Unsuccessful digital technologies project development has been addressed from different fields, such as government information system (Pelizza & Hoppe, 2015), digital media (Magaudda & Balbi, 2018), organizational management of ICT project implementation (Ungerer, 2021), the environmental history of technology (Jones-Imhotep, 2017), the history of telecommunications (Lipartito, 2003). This evidence shows how failure is an unavoidable and multifacted process in the development of digital technologies.

Designing interesting worlds to come thus also implies expecting interesting failures to happen. And learning from past and present technology failure is a crucial step to future success in addressing the more-than-human challenges ahead of us. This panel will focus on two connected aspects of digital technologies failure. On the one hand, we discuss the controversies in current developments of digital technologies, drawing attention to the so-called unsuccessful development. On the other hand, we are interested in historicizing failure in the development of digital technologies, looking into both exceptional and recurring cases of digital technologies failures across time. We envision digital technologies failure as a societal, technological and political construct, typically resulting from the interaction of multiple human and non-human actors. digital technologies failure is therefore also a pointer to failures in our relationship with the natural environment, in our societal order and norms, in our technopolitical arrangements.

We invite submissions from science and technology studies, history of science and technology, and other related disciplines that address the following questions (but not limited to):

  • How can we define “failure” in digital technologies? What is the role of non-human actors in existing conceptualizations of digital technologies failure? How can discourses and practices in different contexts contribute to the definition of digital technologies?
  • What is the role of maintenance and repair practices in digital technologies failure? Which more-than-human alliances are implied by these practices? What is the relationship between digital technologies failure, more-than-human-challenges, and repair and maintenance practices?
  • What conditions underlie the institutional acceptance of technology failure? Why do some digital technologies failures receive more public attention than others? How do processes of accountability work in publicly-funded failed digital technologies projects?
  • What are historical and contemporary examples that address learning from digital technologies project failure? How are these learnings recorded and transmitted (but also forgotten and omitted) over time?
  • What is the relationship between digital technologies failures and the promises sustaining the implementation and diffusion of these technologies? Can technology promises be understood as a counterpart of technology failures? How do past technology failures inform future technology promises?