i’m delighted to be publishing this interview with Carla Alvial Palavicino, PhD student at the University of Twente (Netherlands), as she is working on the topicof graphene ‘hype’. Here’s a bit more about the work from her University of Twente webpage (Note: A link has been removed),
From its origins the field of nanotechnology has been populated of expectations. Pictured as “the new industrial revolution” the economic promise holds strong, but also nanotechnologies as a cure for almost all the human ills, sustainers of future growth, prosperity and happiness. In contrast to these promises, the uncertainties associated to the introduction of such a new and revolutionary technology, and mainly risks of nanomaterials, have elicited concerns among governments and the public. Nevertheless, the case of the public can be characterized as concerns about concerns, based on the experience of previous innovations (GMO, etc.).
Expectations, both as promises and concerns, have played and continue playing a central role in the “real-time social and political constitution of nanotechnology” (Kearnes and Macnaghten 2006). A circulation of visions, promises and concerns in observed in the field, from the broadly defined umbrella promises to more specific expectations, and references to grand challenges as moral imperatives. These expectations have become such an important part of the social repertoire of nano applications that we observe the proliferation of systematic and intentional modes of expectation building such as roadmaps, technology assessment, etc.; as well as a considerable group of reports on risk, concerns, and ethical and social aspects. This different modes of expectation building (Konrad 2010) co-exist and contribute to the articulation of the nano field.
This project seeks to identify, characterize and contextualize the existing modes of expectations building, being those intentional (i.e. foresight, TA, etc.) or implicit in arenas of public discourse, associated to ongoing and emerging social processes in the context of socio-technical change.
This dynamics are being explored in relation to the new material graphene.
Before getting to the interview, here’s Alvial Palavicino’s biography,
Carla Alvial Palavicino has a bachelor degree in Molecular Biology Engineering, School of Science, University of Chile, Chile and a Master’s degree on Sustainability Sciences, Graduate School of Frontier Science, University of Tokyo, Japan. She has worked in technology transfer and more recently, in Smart Grids and local scale renewable energy provision.
Finally, here’s the interview (Note: At the author’s request, there have been some grammatical changes made to conform with Canadian English.),
- What is it that interests you about the ‘hype’ that some technologies receive and how did you come to focus on graphene in particular?
My research belongs to a field called the Sociology of Expectations, which deals with the role of promises, visions, concerns and ideas of the future in the development of technologies, and how these ideas actually affect people’s strategies in technology development. Part of the dynamic found for these expectations are hype-disappointment cycles, much like the ones the Gartner Group uses. And hype has become an expectation itself; people expect that there will be too many promises and some, maybe many of them are not going to be fulfilled, followed by disappointment.
I came to know about graphene because, initially, I was broadly interested in nanoelectronics (my research project is part of NanoNextNL a large Dutch Nano research programme), due to the strong future orientation in the electronics industry. The industry has been organizing, and continues to organize around the promise of Moore’s law for more than 50 years! So I came across graphene as thriving to some extent on the expectations around the end of Moore’s law and because simply everybody was talking about it as the next big thing! Then I thought, this is a great opportunity to investigate hype in real-time
- Is there something different about the hype for graphene or is this the standard ‘we’ve found a new material and it will change everything’?
I guess with every new technology and new material you find a portion of genuine enthusiasm which might lead to big promises. But that doesn’t necessarily turn into big hype. One thing is that all hype is not the same and you might have technologies that disappeared after the hype such as High Temperature Semiconductors, or technologies that go through a number of hype cycles and disappointment cycles throughout their development (for example, Fuel Cells). Now with graphene what you certainly have is very ‘loud’ hype – the amount of attention it has received in so little time is extraordinary. If that is a characteristic of graphene or a consequence of the current conditions in which the hype has been developed, such as faster ways of communication (social media for example) or different incentives for science and innovation well, this is part of what I am trying to find out.
Quite clearly, the hype in graphene seems to be more ‘reflexive’ than others, that is, people seem to be more conscious about hype now. We have had the experience with carbon nanotubes only recently and scientist, companies and investors are less naïve about what can be expected of the technology, and what needs to be done to move it forward ‘in the right direction’. And they do act in ways that try to soften the slope of the hype-disappointment curve. Having said that, actors [Ed. Note: as in actor-network theory] are also aware of how they can take some advantage of the hype (for funding, investment, or another interest), how to make use of it and hopefully leave safely, before disappointment. In the end, it is rather hard to ask accountability of big promises over the long-term.
- In the description of your work you mention intentional and implicit modes of building expectations, could explain the difference between the two?
One striking feature of technology development today is that we found more and more activities directed at learning about, assess, and shaping the future, such as forecasts, foresights, Delphi, roadmaps and so on. There are even specialized future actors such as consultancy organisations or foresight experts, Cientifica among them. And these formalized ways of anticipating the future are expected to be performative by those who produce them and use them, that is, influence the way the future – and the present- turns out. But this is not a linear story, it’s not like 100% of a roadmap can be turned practice (not even for the ITRS roadmap [Ed. Note: International Technology Roadmap for Semi-conductors] that sustains Moore’s law, some expectations change quite radically between editions of the roadmap). Besides that, there are other forms of building expectations which are embedded in practices around new technologies. Think of the promises made in high profile journals or grant applications; and of expectations incorporated in patents and standards. All these embody particular forms and directions for the future, and exclude others. These are implicit forms of expectation-building, even if not primarily intended as such. These forms are shaped by particular expectations which themselves shape further development. So, in order to understand how these practices, both intentional and implicit, anticipate futures you need to look at the interplay between the various types.
- Do you see a difference internationally with regard to graphene hype? Is it more prevalent in Europe than in the North America? Is it particularly prevalent in some jurisdiction, e.g. UK?
I think the graphene ‘hype’ has been quite global, but it is moving to different communities, or actors groups, as Tim Harper from Cientifica has mentioned in his recent report about graphene
What is interesting in relation to the different ‘geographical’ responses to graphene is that they exemplify nicely how a big promise (graphene, in this case) is connected to other circulating visions, expectations or concerns. In the case of the UK, the *Nobel prize on Graphene and the following investment was connected to the idea of a perceived crisis of innovation in the country. Thus, the decision to invest in graphene was presented and discussed in reference to global competitiveness, showing a political commitment for science and innovation that was in doubt at that time.
In the European case with its *Graphene flagship, something similar happened. While there is no doubt of the scientific excellence of the flagship project, the reasons why it finally became a winner in the flagship competition might have been related to the attention on graphene. The project itself started quite humbly, and it differed from the other flagship proposals that were much more oriented towards economic or societal challenges. But the attention graphene received after the Nobel Prize, plus the engagement of some large companies, helped to frame the project in terms of its economic profitability. And. this might have helped to bring attention and make sense of the project in the terms the European Commission was interested in.
In contrast, if you think of the US, the hype has been there (the number of companies engaged in graphene research is only increasing) but it has not had a big echo in policy. One of the reasons might be because this idea of global competition and being left behind is not so present in the US. And in the case of Canada for example, graphene has been taken up by the graphite (mining) community, which is a very local feature.
So answering your questions, the hype has been quite global and fed in a global way (developments in one place resonate in the other) but different geographical areas have reacted in relation to their contingent expectations to what this hype dynamic provided.
- What do you think of graphene?
I think it’s the new material with more YouTube videos (this one is particularly good in over promising for example) and the coolest superhero (Mr G from the Flagship). But seriously, I often get asked that question when I do interviews with actors in the field, since they are curious to learn about the outsider perspective. But to be honest I try to remain as neutral and distant as possible regarding my research object… and not getting caught in the hype!
Thanks so much for a fascinating interview Carla and I very much appreciate the inclusion of Canada in your response to the question about the international response to graphene hype. (Here are three of my postings on graphite and mining in Canada: Canada’s contribution to graphene research: big graphite flakes [Feb. 6, 2012]; A ‘graphite today, graphene tomorrow’ philosophy from Focus Graphite [April 17, 2013[; and Lomiko’s Quatre Milles graphite flakes—pure and ultra pure [April 17, 2013] There are others you can find by searching ‘graphite’ in the blog’s search box.)
* For anyone curious about the Nobel prize and graphene, there’s this Oct.7, 2010 posting. Plus, the Graphene Flagship was one of several projects competing for one of the two 1B Euro research prizes awarded in January 2013 (the win is mentioned in my Jan. 28, 2013 posting).
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Happy Holidays to all!