Archive for April, 2012


 

Organization of Essay

 

 

            This short essay offers preliminary analysis of the March 2012 Emerge: Artists + Scientists Redesign the Future conference at Arizona State University, which I will characterize as a three-day exploration of what ASU president Michael Crow has termed “knowledge enterprise redesign”.[1] My main concern is to consider Emerge from a critical stance informed by STS scholarship and research on the governance of emerging technologies.[2] For the STS lens, I utilize Sheila Jasanoff’s work on the three roles an STS researcher should seek to occupy: instrumental, interpretive, and normative.[3] (See footnote 1) The instrumentalist role, which as Jasanoff notes can border on “pliant and unquestioning”, is well-suited to offering basic knowledge of key features of the event through description, quotation, and preliminary critique The second and third roles counterbalance descriptive and sympathetic readings and present increasing opportunities to problematize and critique structures and dynamics of the event in light of fundamental questions about the co-production of science and society. I conclude, as is fitting, with suggestions for further research.

  1.  

The Emerge conference was initially envisioned as a half-day showcase of eight provocative ASU research programmes in a large public venue. [4] (See footnote 4) One key feature of many of these research programmes is that nature, culture, and social systems are now technically considered objects and processes capable of being consciously redesigned. The success of any one of these eight showcased programmes—radical military human enhancement, for example—could plausibly reconstitute contemporary economic, social, and environmental dynamics, altering the function of democracy in the process. The technical capacities are emerging from institutions worldwide such as ASU.

However, technical objectives like redesigning specific features of nature, culture, or society are likely to be much easier to accomplish than human objectives such as social sustainability, fairness, resilience, or the pursuit of happiness.[5] To achieve human objectives, and the institutional changes that encourage them, is more than a technical problem. As a result, there is immense importance to the experimental quest for knowledge about how to constructively engage various publics.

The normativist STS research question here is concerned with which publics, experts, and policymakers get to deliberate and decide upon technical objectives and human objectives. There may always be counter-publics struggling to secure alternative public spaces in which to promote alternative technical and human objectives. In light of the bigness of the earth, with a population of 7 billion growing by over 1 million per week, these fundamental issues of power and access will remain ever salient.  

The crucial inspiration for the final form of the Emerge conference sprang from discussions of the possibility that storytelling and the arts could be crucially important to the experimental search for forms of science and society interaction that could become semi-permanent institutional features of the American research university. The genre of “design fiction”, which I will discuss in detail below, was selected as an organizing principle for a more broadly-conceived engagement with various publics.

The finalized format of Emerge included the aforementioned eight-programme plenary showcase, nine independent 1.5 day workshops, a campus-wide Digital Culture Festival, and a 500-seat auditorium event featuring eight closing keynotes and presentations from each of the workshop leaders delivering their final products and workshop summaries. Oh, and now there is a traveling art exhibit.

With this commitment to combining science and the arts in new ways, Emerge can be viewed as a manifestation of a trend at ASU that includes new institutional redesigns such as the Center for Science and the Imagination, which will bring science fiction writers together with potentially thousands of designers, engineers, scientists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and policymakers who are willing to initiate large infrastructure projects.

From the role of an interpretivist, there is some question as to what alternative discourses might best describe what is really happening here. In part two, I will consider a superficiality objection to the Emerge conference. The superficiality objection is the result of interviews I conducted with prominent ASU faculty in the aftermath of the keynote lectures on Day 3 of the conference. Some prominent members of ASU’s faculty disagreed passionately with a perceived lack of sustained intellectual rigor in dealing with the redesign of the human species, global climate dynamics, and the implications of such technical capacities on human values, social dynamics, and cultural transmission. Reliance upon gimmicks like novelty 3D printing technologies and short videos for captivating local audiences, on this view, does not a successful conference make.

But first, I will examine in closer detail the two key structural concepts of the conference: “design fiction” and “knowledge enterprise redesign”.

 

Design Fiction

“Design fictions are objects, videos and performances – firmly grounded in technological reality – that resemble visitations from the future meant to roll home movies on the inside of our skulls about how we might desire our future to be. It’s not just about gear, it’s about narrative.”[6] – Joel Garreau

    

“Design fiction is a mix of science fact, design and science fiction. It is a kind of authoring practice that recombines the traditions of writing and storytelling with the material crafting of objects… The conclusion to the designed fiction are objects with stories. These are stories that speculate about new, different, distinctive, even mundane social practices that assemble around and through these objects.”[7] – Julian Bleeker

 

Emerge’s main activity consisted of nine 1.5 day workshops that explored a hybrid genre called design fiction, which in the past has been successful at “suspending disbelief about social change”[8] in fields such as 20th century advertising[9], 21st century microchip design[10], and contemporary science fiction. Here, immediately, from an interpretivist role, there is cause for caution in pursuing an objective of “suspending disbelief about social change”. In a context of microchip market research or 20th century World’s Fairs, the phrase suggests deliberate modulation of public perceptions based upon the style and historical objectives of advertising. Care must be taken to ensure that “suspending disbelief about social change” does not merely privilege “Official Futures” over plausible alternatives that might only get communicated if the production of the design fiction is responsive to the experiences, intuitions, and perhaps poorly-articulated views of non-experts or even “outliers”.[11] Especially when the design fiction is hoping to facilitate deliberation about plausible alternative futures, considering the power dynamics involved in being the expert group of design fiction personnel “suspending disbelief” about the world being depicted should give us pause.

To highlight the pitfalls of using design fiction techniques from industry or the arts in order to facilitate constructive science and society interactions regarding emerging technologies, consider the popular glass manufacturer Corning’s 2011 “A Day Made of Glass” video.[12]  The idea is to introduce audiences to a plausible world, perhaps 20 years in the future, where specialty uses of high-performance glass are ubiquitous. Nearly 20 million internet users have watched Corning’s production, with most comments being unabashedly positive. It seems people just cannot wait to live in Corning’s world. However, as the television models touch their specialty glass at the immaculate bus stop and in the multi-million dollar home, all these houses, bus stops, and people in Corning’s world merely to cater to a target market.

Corning’s design fiction is a fine advertisement, but this is not what many publics would expect from a socially responsible science and society interaction. Who has access to this wonderful world, and who is excluded, and should the world look that way in 20 years? As Sheila Jasanoff and other STS researchers make clear, the role of the scholar is not to become a “pliant and unquestioning consultant.”[13]  

To address these concerns, design fiction has to be redesigned. From an instrumentalist perspective that borders on “pliant and unquestioning”, I submit that exploding the previous boundaries of the design fiction genre was precisely what the Emerge conference aimed to achieve. In the prescient words of Bruce Sterling, one of the genres leading exponents, Emerge 2012 represented “a watershed moment in the history of the genre.”

But what exactly does design fiction design? The goal of Emerge’s redesigned design fiction was to co-produce through iterative feedback with a reflexive and socially committed group of 20 collaborators the bread-and-butter product of design fiction: diagetic prototypes.

The term “diagetic” points to technologies of narration, from epic poetry to science fiction and from epic sculpture to contemporary cinema. In cinema, the camera itself, its motions, set designs, actors in costume, phony accents, and post-production editing techniques function as narrative devices for structuring and hinting at features of a depicted (diegetic) world populated with the unique experiences of characters, rather than actors, and features of depicted objects, rather than props. “The audience constructs a diegetic world from the material presented” through such technologies, experiences, and features.[14] In ancient epic poetry the bard reciting the epic invokes the Muses, changes voices and cadence corresponding to different characters, etc. These are techniques for suspending disbelief through the artful projection of diegetic objects: words, images, or objects.

Importantly, even scenes, characters, and features that are not depicted on the screen, as it were, may contribute to the diegetic world that gets constructed by specific audience members. In cinema this is familiar: someone walks off screen and the audience believes there is a world into which the character walks. In the context of the Emerge workshops, constructing these worlds in 1.5 days in an artful way is surely quite difficult in itself. Doing so in a way that suspends disbelief, while also eliciting responses to deep questions from an audience about what the human species should become, how we might discuss the future of democracy, and how we might modulate power dynamics to increase responsible innovation practices, well, this is daunting. As a result, many of the workshops were filled with mixtures of anxiety, occasional absurd laughter, and determined effort.[15]

Diegetic prototypes, in the context of Emerge and design fiction more broadly, are design objects that narrate a future world with the potential to induce in a variety of publics a suspension of disbelief about the need to consider radically weird, yet plausible, futures. From the critical interpretivist role, which seeks “to speak meaningfully to power”, the difficulty I observed in specific workshops was the difficulty of immersing the audience in the diegetic world through the vehicle of a diegetic prototype that was constructed in a few hours.

Such prototypes are to be thought of as artefacts from the future, with all the feats of imagination that this leap seems to require. In cinema, enormous screens and elaborate cinematography, set designs or CGI, often with brilliant acting, screenwriting, and directing, together provide the ingredients of a genuine suspension of disbelief.

How much detail is required for audience members to have an experience of immersion? What combinations of discursive modes and affect-driven questioning work best to get various publics engaged in a constructive science and society relationship? These questions suggest that the Emerge conference might best be considered “exploratory research,” as design fiction seems not to have been utilized for these unique purposes in any preceding time period. As can be readily gleaned from the analogy to cinematic history, the capacity of diegetic prototypes to take on radically different styles and subject matters cannot be exhausted by nine exploratory workshops. Cinema’s great triumph is to have developed such a broad range of nuanced diegetic worlds. Perhaps film has even co-evolved with “cultural imaginaries” that respond to its modes of diegetic production as if through a native language. It is not clear whether repeated exposure to design fiction production, for example as a pedagogical platform, would produce a more potent innovation community or more fruitful boundary between science and society. It is possible. In the next section I will explore some of these questions while situating the Emerge conference within ASU president Michael Crow’s rubric of “redesigning knowledge enterprises”, which includes a pursuit of experimental learning platforms as an element of a “new organizational genetics.”

Overall, at this preliminary stage of analysing the Emerge workshops and other conference activities, it is difficult to determine whether the diegetic prototypes produced “successful” design fictions, or if they could become more successful through more collaborative innovation. What effects would successful design fictions have on the performance and reproduction of science-society dynamics? Perhaps future attempts could democratize the diegetic design process by institutionalizing design fiction in a boundary organization[16] similar to the Decision Center for a Desert City (DCDC) currently located on the fringes of the ASU campus. I will suggest only that design fiction does seem capable, in principle, of democratizing discussions about governance of emerging technologies while alluring various publics into a more lasting engagement, simply because design fiction’s modes of knowledge production are flexible and hinge on effective storytelling, characters, and other narrative capacities that are developed quite naturally through enculturation and socialization practices. Design fiction might in some cases overcome the drawbacks of the hegemony of discursive expertise and the politics of talk by allowing various publics to simply critique art.

Redesigning Knowledge Enterprises

In what follows I will emphasize the instrumentalist STS role, bordering on “pliant and unquestioning,” shifting by turns to an interpretivist role in order to maintain a critical stance. This serves a function to elucidate a sympathetic view, without entirely “going native.”

ASU President Michael Crow offered the introductory keynote on Day 3 of Emerge. Crow suggested an etymology of the word “emerge” with two key features: to move out and away from something, and to come into view. The questions become:

1) What is the conference moving out and away from?

2) Just what is it that comes into view through the conference?

Crow said Emerge was a manifestation of a university-level move away from “routinized, bureaucratized science and technology”. The structure of the traditional university allows scientists and engineers to narrow their focus to such an extraordinary extent through specialization that this institutional culture “contributes to broader societal lack of vision” and lack of options in the face of global challenges. While specialization is important for robust innovation, and some scientists and engineers cannot function in collaborative interdisciplinary knowledge enterprises, there needs to be an active systems-level push to “dynamite” the disciplinary boundaries and redesign knowledge enterprises “from the rubble.” On top of this, Emerge represents a move away from students who are uninspired because of a 19th century pedagogical model that separates natural sciences from social sciences. Teachers are boring to these students because most teachers are symptoms of the problem.

Dr. Crow’s view of an ossified innovation system that needs to be exploded in favour of collaborative research teams focused on facing global design challenges could be viewed as a complete, almost caricatured acceptance of the positive obligation to commercialize academic research suggested by national policymakers in the US in recent decades, as exemplified by the Bayh-Dohl Act of 1980. There are reasons for giving this view some thought.

“In 2010, researchers at Arizona State University submitted 187 invention disclosures, received 17 patents and launched four start-up companies. In addition, the university signed 63 agreements with private companies, allowing them to use and market ASU-generated technologies.”[17]

 

            In light of the demonstrable affection ASU has for commercialization, Emerge could be viewed as a manifestation of what Mohr 2011 calls a “politics of talk,” whereby cutting-edge market research masked in language of “participatory democracy, public engagement, and the democratization of science” allows industry to solicit “passive users” in the developing an emerging technology prototype.[18] Brice Laurent provides a case study of this dynamic and the social activist backlash it produced at a nanotechnology research institute called the Ideas Laboratory in France.[19] Laurent calls these contested and potentially objectionable dynamics “technologies of democracy,” which highlights the sense in which democracy can be viewed as a highly constant, contested co-production between science and society.

If this “politics of talk” objection were applied to Emerge, the commercialization for design fiction is most likely to be for a learning platform and an innovation paradigm. This is actually not as objectionable as the Ideas Laboratory example, since design fiction is more like an artistic genre than an emerging technology. Dr. Crow suggested in his Day 3 keynote that the conference exemplifies “new emergent ways of organizing genius.”  With a list of participants and invited speakers in hand, this is hard to argue with, even if it does trend toward robust self-aggrandizement.

The question remains an instrumentalist perspective, whether this particular way of organizing genius, through interdisciplinary workshops and diegetic prototype “jam sessions,” offers improvements to historical weaknesses of the “academic-industry complex”. Jasanoff 2011 suggests that the institutional pressure to commercialize publically funded research at a rapid pace might be “depriving the public of an important critical resource in debates on science and technology without demonstrably furthering the cause of socially responsible innovation.” (Jasanoff 2011, 630) Does the Emerge conference “demonstrably further the cause of socially responsible innovation?” If it does not, does design fiction hold enough promise for attaining this goal that it should be pursued further and elaborated in future adumbrations?

Socially responsible innovation is often associated with innovation cultures that actively and effectively seek solutions to environmental and social problems such as toxicity, pollution, poverty, or waste. Innovating in a socially responsible way implies considering a range of stakeholder groups and relevant publics throughout the R&D and innovation process. It also implies considering the natural environment and the needs of future generations. How much of this can be accomplished in a 1.5 day workshop?

There are several limitations caused by these arbitrary time constraints. I will speak of the Games and Impact workshop as a case in point. Important normative questions were posed about the potentially disruptive economic, social, and environmental consequences of future generations of 3D printers and the broader transition “from consumerism to Makerism”. Could 3D printers be of many varieties, with drastically upgraded or downgraded design capacities depending upon cost? Could this be ethically objectionable, and if so, would it be important to develop a game design that addresses this future concern while influencing today’s Maker ethos in a positive direction? The answer to such questions from the beginning of Day 1 was, “We can do anything that is technically possible in 1.5 days.” What was technically possible in 1.5 days? In order to provide a deliverable product (“a whisp of a possible gaming experience, rather than a gaming experience”), workshop organizers imposed a significant amount of discursive hegemony at key points in the 1.5 day workshop. University hierarchies were in many ways important features of producing a deliverable within time constraints, which suggests that perhaps a longer time frame would democratize the design fiction production process. Software programmers from the workshop did build a short demo of a gaming environment in which action was organized according to a provocative question: Is there a future for Conscious Makerism?

Workshop coordinator Alan Gershenfeld’s brother Neil Gershenfeld is credited as a key originator of the global Maker movement. Neil’s “How to Make (Almost) Anything” course at MIT has spawned a global FabLab movement that brings digital fabrication through 3D printing to publics from rural India and Ghana to the Scottish highlands. Alan Gershenfeld has utilized the Maker ethos as a basis for learning platforms through the ASU Center for Games and Impact. What the Emerge workshop provided was a unique interdisciplinary mix of sustainability scientists (including one Nobel Laureate), software programmers, education professionals, and talented students. The resulting normative idea of Conscious Makerism appears to be a novel design paradigm. Thus, despite severe time constraints, a simplistic demo was presented to an audience of 500 at Neeb Hall of a diegetic world in which 3D printers are imbued with immense data analytic capacities, social networking capacities, sustainability research knowledge, and entertainment value.

However, following Jasanoff, the instrumentalist question is whether the knowledge production process of Games and Impact improves over existing academic conferences, industry game developers, and efforts at facilitating constructive science and society interactions. These are important questions to consider, but addressing them is beyond the scope of this essay.

Without further experimentation with design fictions, there is no way of determining what setbacks would beset a large group of similar expertise and dynamics with a longer duration to innovate. Further research could also consider larger and smaller workshop sizes. Perhaps the genre of design fiction could be developed into a variety of genres or styles, similar to the development of cinema into many styles. Considering the enormity of the earth’s population, the accelerated pace of some technological developments, and the diversity of political, academic, social, cultural, economic, and ecological situations available for co-producing science and society interactions, a profusion of sub-styles could arise using design fiction as an organizing principle.  

The Superficiality Objection

            My ethnographic research brought me into conversation with several faculty and students. The most interesting conversations took place after the final keynotes on Day 3, after all the workshop leaders had presented their deliverables to an audience of 500. The word “superficiality” was used many times as a criticism of Emerge.

            What was superficial? For some professors, the Emerge conference keynotes and workshop performances run counter to what is most precious about the university system, namely, dedicated, long-term careers in rather boring, specialized research disciplines. Dr. Crow’s view of ossified science and technology, on this view, extends beyond science and technology, to every nook and cranny of every department. His obsession with dynamiting every disciplinary boundary and redesigning knowledge enterprises from the rubble is just a snazzy word for micromanagement and disrespect for the heroic legacy of dedicating one’s life to building theory, advancing knowledge, and exploring what it means to be human.

            Others I interviewed after the conference said Emerge carried with it a consistent organizational Attention Deficit Disorder, and that the conference as a whole may represent some form of multi-factorial research disability. Symptoms of this condition were said to include the incapacity to remain ensconced in the thick of major problems with a group of collaborators, and the unwillingness to reconcile all the disparate pieces into something digestible for an audience of 500 that did not attend the first 2 days of the conference.

Importantly, none of these indictments came from individuals who had participated in workshops or attended Day 1 plenaries. Perhaps these views coming from audience members suggest a separation between audience and participants that members of the audience resented? Or perhaps the short duration of workshops and fragmented Day 3 workshop deliverables are weaknesses of this particular attempt at organizing a large scale conference with hundreds of participants?

The STS instrumentalist is tasked with asking what could be done to improve the outcomes and procedures of a happening. I would however make a few basic guesses as to what may have contributed to these objections.

First, Cynthia Selin’s story about the origins of Emerge in a showcase of 8 ASU research programmes suggests an overarching contingency to this three day event. These idiosyncracies could actually be encouraging for those who consider the design fiction genre as meriting further attention as a tool for bringing together various publics with scientists, artists, and others to deliberate on science and society relationships. Perhaps the personalities of the event organizers and the relatively closed-doors nature of the 3 day schedule were recipes for eliciting a sense of bafflement and in-group/out-group affectivity on the part of both participants and audience groups. In the words of one event organizer, “This is jazz, not an orchestra performance.” This could mean that the musicians may experience the event differently than the audience. It may mean that messiness and puzzlement are ambiguous experiences that develop one’s faculty of judgment through repeated encounters with the subject matter. This statement and the many manifestations of musical expertise in various Emerge events demonstrates a phenomena I alluded to at the beginning of this essay: Emerge was a complex happening, and it could be analysed through many analytic frameworks. I chose the STS critical stance as a preliminary investigative strategy as it allowed me to combined “pliant and unquestioning” descriptive sympathy with a counterbalance from STS and other scholarship, along with an outlet for deep problematization and criticism.  

 

 

Bibliography

 

Adriana Delgado. June 2, 2011. “Commercialization of technology boosts economy, saves lives” http://entrepreneurship.asu.edu/2011/06/02/commercialization-of-technology-boosts-the-economy-saves-lives

Alison Mohr. 2011. “Publics in the Making: Mediating Different Methods of Engagement and the Publics These Construct”, Sci Eng Ethics 17: 667-672.

Brice Laurent. 2011. “Technologies of Democracy: Experiments and Demonstrations”, Sci Eng Ethics 17: 649-666.

David Collingridge. 1980. The Social Control of Technology

Joel Garreau. 2012. Emerge: Artists + Scientists Redesign the Future. Main website. http://emerge.asu.edu/workshops.php

Julian Bleeker 2009. Design Fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact, and fiction. Near Future Laboratory.

Sheila Jasanoff. 2011. “Constitutional Moments in Governing Science and Technology”, Sci Eng Ethics 17: 621-638.

Peter Schwartz 2011. Learnings from the Long View. CreateSpace.

Yale University Film Analysis Web Site. Accessed April 2012. Chapter 1: http://classes.yale.edu/film-analysis/htmfiles/basic-terms.htm

 


[1] As I discuss in part I, ASU president Michael Crow identifies knowledge enterprise redesign as the overarching description of the larger university initiative of which the Emerge conference is a manifestation.

[2] Joel Garreau, who came up with the name for the conference, framed the 3-day event explicitly in terms of a problem of governance of emerging technologies. “What it means to be human is changing. Emerging technologies are transforming our minds, our relationships, everything we own and the very landscapes in which we live. What kinds of humans will we become? What kinds of humans should we become?”

[3] Sheila Jasanoff 2011, “Constitutional Moments in Governing Science and Technology”, Sci Eng Ethics 17: 621-638. “Instrumentalists do not necessarily question pre-existing policy framings, preferring to concentrate on the most efficient means of meeting policymakers’ proclaimed goals.” The instrumental role borders on “pliant and unquestioning”. “It is the responsibility of [interpretivists] to provide up-to-date discourses with which to analyse what is happening” in a given science and society co-production. Normativists must address “those questions that power must ask if it wishes to remain responsible in its uses of science and technology… what makes innovation responsive to the needs of society; how can the relations between science, technology and society be managed so as to meet those needs; are we making progress in linking changes in S&T to changes in democratic expectations; how can one tell; and can we do better?”   

[4] The conference began with a half-day of plenary showcase-style speeches from provocative ASU researchers introducing a bio-chip medical diagnostic device, algal biofuels, synthetic telepathy research on monkeys, military human enhancement, games as learning platforms, and environmental sensor networks. *Cynthia Selin, one of the other conference organizers, explained Emerge’s humble origins in a conversation I had with her while preparing for the Emerge event ethnography.

[5] From David Collingridge 1980, The Social Control of Technology: “Success for the moon programme was the landing of a piece of hardware carrying a man and its safe return to the Earth. The Green Revolution is quite different. Its objective was not a technical one, but a human one. The Revolution’s aim was not the breeding of high yielding cereals, but the bringing of food to the very poor.”

[6] Joel Garreau. 2012. Emerge website. http://emerge.asu.edu/workshops.php

[7] Julian Bleeker 2009. Design Fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact, and fiction. Near Future Laboratory.

[8] Bruce Sterling, Plenary Address, Emerge, March 1, 2012. Sterling spoke of the function of design fiction in terms of supporting an audience’s imaginative leaps into plausible and adjacent possible futures. 

[9] World’s Fairs and early automobile advertisements are nice examples of design fictions in action.

[10] Brian David Johnson, who acts as Intel’s futurist, utilizes elements of design fiction in his “science fiction prototyping” work. Johnson envisions future users of Intel microchips in mid and long-term settings.

[11] Peter Schwartz 2011. Learnings from the Long View. CreateSpace. This is an insight gleaned from scenarios planning exercises. Schwarts relates how demanding only Official Futures prevented the Government of Mexico from steering clear of the collapse of the peso in the 1990s, despite a sophisticated attempt at scenarios planning.

[13] This criticism emerged from discussion of Corning’s video with PhD students and faculty from Arizona State University. Thanks to John Carter McKnight and others for their input.

[14] Yale University Film Analysis Web Site, Chapter 1: http://classes.yale.edu/film-analysis/htmfiles/basic-terms.htm

[15] I participated in the Games & Impact workshop as an event ethnographer, documenting the affective responses to time constraints in the presence of contested ideas and negotiations of group status. While there were a few clear leaders who wielded immense power over the others at times, there were many long stretches where full professors and a Nobel Laureate struggled quite naturally with undergraduates and PhD’s for enduring group support. Or am I demonstrating a tendency toward mythogenesis? The truth lay somewhere between.

[16] Boundary organizations “are organizations that sit at the boundary between science and politics, and

thus both manage and are constrained by the needs of these two institutions.” Jasanoff 2011.

[17] Adriana Delgado June 2, 2011. “Commercialization of technology boosts economy, saves lives”. http://entrepreneurship.asu.edu/2011/06/02/commercialization-of-technology-boosts-the-economy-saves-lives

[18] Alison Mohr 2011, “Publics in the Making: Mediating Different Methods of Engagement and the Publics These Construct”, Sci Eng Ethics 17: 667-672.

[19] Brice Laurent 2011, “Technologies of Democracy: Experiments and Demonstrations”, Sci Eng Ethics 17: 649-666.

ImageEngaging transhumanism is becoming a preoccupation of many academics in departments including law, religion, literature, and anthropology. Humanities departments are getting generous grants from places like the Templeton Foundation to deal constructively with contested claims over mankind’s future. This seems part of a growing trend in academia toward considering the ethical, social, and legal implications of various emerging and converging technologies.

 

As of yet, transhumanist topics haven’t impacted American political party platforms. If the hype over tech development keeps building, however, these are clearly going to be defining issues of tomorrow’s politics. James Hughes in a recent conference talk at Arizona State University laid out the polling figures he compiled as head of H+ mapping the transhumanist demographic onto the American political spectrum. In 2007, 47% of responders to H+ questionnaires self-identified as Left-leaning, up from 36% in 2004 and 39% in 2005. There are, of course, right-wing transhumanists such as libertarian transhumanist Glenn Harlan Reynolds who think leftist-transhumanists will likely endorse totalitarianism. There is a spectrum of right-wing bioconservatives that bunch together in groups to oppose or counter transhumanist trends, and liberal/progressive groups such as IEET and the Global Bioethics Initiative that wish to promote ethical responsiveness to incremental advances toward transhumanism. Responsible bioconservativism and ethical progressivist transhumanism often agree on many details, such as the need for oversight of the incremental advance of enabling technologies. American politics has not been forced to deal with transhumanism in a highly politicized fashion because the technologies are only beginning to emerge.

 

But what about the sites of scientific and technological production where incremental advances are in progress? Since the Human Genome Project began in the 1990s, the US government has written into controversial R&D enterprises authorizations for research into the ethical, social, legal, and environmental implications of emerging technologies. The National Nanotechnology Initiative, for example, called for societal implications research that resulted in a network of research centers pursuing this function, including the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University (CNS-ASU). Research institutions around the globe are funding these types of programs, from the Netherlands to Australia.

 

There are many ways to analyze efforts to influence the development of enabling technologies by directly engaging their sites of knowledge production. One useful framework is the stream metaphor: upstream, mid-stream, and downstream. Upstream engagement efforts focus on technologies in early conceptual or R&D stages that haven’t diffused throughout society through finished products and productive entrepreneurship. The benefit of engaging many segments of society in discussion of social implications and ethical research at this phase is that specifics of the future haven’t been locked into a single development trajectory. The need to seize this opportunity to shape the development of a technology is often explained in terms of the Collingridge Dilemma: “When change is easy, the need for it cannot be foreseen; when the need for change is apparent, change has become expensive, difficult and time consuming.”

 

Mid-stream modulation entails engaging scientists and engineers as they are researching and developing such emerging techologies. There are many programs underway in this category, including the SynBERC and STIR projects.

 

If the funding comes through, I will soon be involved in efforts at mid-stream modulation at a “transhumanist laboratory” in Tsukuba, Japan through the Socio-Technical Integration Research (STIR) project at Arizona State University. Specifically, I will be working at a molecular computation laboratory where efforts at integrating molecular computers with human neurons are underway.

 

Both upstream and mid-stream interventions in the development of emerging technologies justify this research in terms of ethical reflexivity, capacity-building, steering, and other such language.

 

What strikes me from reading the publications of avowed transhumanists, however, is that they too are concerned with responsible innovation, ethical leadership, technology assessment, and the like. Terms like “technological determinism” often combine in the popular imagination with scenarios like Kurzweill’s Heaven of superintelligence and the end of suffering and Bill Joy’s Hell of grey goo to produce a stereotype of the transhumanist as ethically reckless. The more I read, the further from the truth this stereotype becomes.

 

Consider Nick Bostrom’s Transhumanist Declaration:

Research effort needs to be invested into understanding these prospects. We need to carefully deliberate how best to reduce risks and expedite beneficial applications. We also need forums where people can constructively discuss what should be done, and a social order where responsible decisions can be implemented.

In light of Bostrom’s declaration, it becomes clear that just about everyone wants to use the methods of upstream engagement and mid-stream modulation to do just about everything in contemporary society. Bioconservatives use these techniques to alert people to the dangers and lobby Congress for a moratorium. Transhumanists use the same techniques to encourage responsible progress toward ethically-acceptable transhuman outcomes. Academic researchers with little concern for transhumanist discourse use the techniques to make their careers as social scientists concerned with emerging technology. Policymakers clamor for these techniques to ensure economic competitiveness, prevent cultural backlash, and distribute risk.

 

The tools we use for thinking critically about transhumanism are boundary objects. In other words, upstream engagement and mid-stream modulation exercises can be utilized to simultaneously address the concerns of a massive number of conflicting perspectives on transhumanism. The very same laboratory engagement study at a “transhumanist laboratory” could convince bioconservatives that progress is being made toward a bioconservative agenda, progressive transhumanists that their agenda is on track, academic researchers that quality research is being conducted, policymakers that a broad capacity for making responsible decisions in the public interest are on-going, and various publics that someone is looking out for their children’s children. Even the scientists themselves can be convinced that they are thinking reflexively about the social implications of their research.

 

But the technological determinist perspectives loom. Can all the upstream and mid-stream intervention in the world prevent what’s coming down the pipe?

 

Are we not collectively in a situation of knowing that we have a power in theory that we cannot really exercise in practice? Are we attempting to build capacities that cannot be developed sufficiently to actually accomplish the sort of steering that we recommend for the species? Are we fooling ourselves?

 

Such is the view of the technological Stoic. On this view, wisdom comes from intense inquiry into separating what is under your control from what is beyond your control. Successful inquiry leads to a peace of mind that ensures fulfillment, The Good Life. Failure in this quest is sure to produce suffering. Failure can take many forms, including the belief that what is not in fact under your control really is under your control. This belief causes the individual to pursue control anyway, exhausting attention and wasting time. Better to inquire deeply and clearly, discover the impossibility of control, and accept the difficult task of controlling what can actually be controlled.

 

Is this our situation in light of transhumanism?

 

For some, the answer is yes. For these folks, perhaps a libertarian view of minimal regulation and personal choice takes over. Others pursuing this view could advocate community cohesion, developing interpersonal relsationships that will endure whatever comes to pass. Using the same logic, one could argue for worshiping a personal god who takes over responsibility for the development of technology by subtly controlling the humans who cannot control technology by their own lights.

 

In the absence of real capacity for steering technology, the question of whether or not anyone is in control becomes a boundary object in itself. That is, the question itself organizes all views, allowing a forum for competing responses. Academic and public engagement venues can be constructed for asking the question, answering the question in a thousand ways, developing solution options for coping with the uncertainty of mankind’s role in its own Overcoming.

 

If the answer to the question of real capacity for social control of emerging technologies and transhumanism is ultimately No, social actors of all kinds can still proceed as if it were possible to shape outcomes and determine the character of whatever future transpires. If they do succeed in shaping outcomes, does this mean that they had control?

 

Perhaps control is a matter of degree and stylistic preference. It depends how you wish to talk about technology and human agency in the presence of the bigness of the earth and the diversity of the human condition.

 

In truth, I think the situation is characterized by such uncertainty that all questions and answers related to social control of emerging technology are open. In the words of Henry Miller, “It takes all kinds to make a world.” We are doomed to struggle as always to shape our lives and the lives of others. There are incommensurable disagreements and no clear ways of adjudicating disputes except for those we or our ancestors might have devised. We can espouse a variety of ethical convictions and pursue these convictions to the hilt. The future of technology and its social impacts will be shaped by these efforts, but I feel the earth is much bigger than we want to admit. The great North-South inequality question is ever important, for example. Perhaps anticipations of the post-human future of Kurzweill where human suffering is comprehensively overcome, North and South, are more comforting than the realization of earth’s bigness.

 

I’ll conclude with words from a masterful presentation by Dan Sarewitz:

 

…If we were to imagine a better world where humans and humanists are better, it would be a world with more justice, more equality, more peace, more freedom, more tolerance and friendship, more beauty, more opportunity. Such conditions, and the social and political changes that can encourage them, are not internalizable in the technologies of human enhancement. Even less can they be designed to emerge from the aggregate efforts of enhanced individual traits in many humans. Transhumanism and the technological program of human enhancement turn out to be the mirror of, not the cure for, the modern human condition.

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