Technological expectations and global politics: Three waves of enthusiasm in non-governmental remote sensing

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Space Policy, ISSN: 0265-9646

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Philipp Olbrich
Elsevier BV
Social Sciences; Economics, Econometrics and Finance; Earth and Planetary Sciences
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article description
Media, industry and academia frequently depict the commercialization of satellite imagery as geospatial revolution with transformational effects on global politics. In doing so, they follow an understanding that isolates technology from politics. While this division is still prevalent in International Relations, recent scholarship has promoted the intricate relationship of technology with politics as socio-material. Adding to this literature, I draw on the sociology of expectations to propose an alternative reading of non-governmental remote sensing. For this purpose, the notion of techno-political barriers is introduced to trace controversies about technological expectations of satellite imagery. Based on expert interviews and document analysis, I identify three waves of enthusiasm, which are characterized by particularly salient expectations and techno-political barriers. The first wave is fuelled by an enthusiasm about the general benefits of visual transparency as opposed to Cold War secrecy. The second wave turns towards non-governmental imagery intelligence for human security. In the third wave satellite imagery joins multiple data streams to support political and business decisions. Taken together, the three-waves model distorts the linear understanding of a revolutionary development but reveals the political and controversial nature of the ongoing commercialization of satellite imagery. As a part of this, non-governmental remote sensing has experienced a focus shift from visual transparency towards geospatial big data. Moreover, the three waves model highlights the persistence of expectations and techno-political barriers in the non-governmental sector with important implications for policymaking and the global impact of commercial satellite imagery.