Innovation in a Fragile Future – Innovation Fills a Gap
The Enlightenment’s dream that progress in the sciences and in technology would be the instrument for social and possibly even for moral improvements and would lead to political emancipation in the sense of an overarching rationality was short-lived. Science was in reality unable to free people of their passions—or it could do so but only by means of interventions in their neurochemical system, as depicted in A Clockwork Orange. Scientific and technological achievements have not pre-vented repeated regressions into barbarism, of which the twentieth century had its excessive share. Indisputable improvements in the quality of life and living standards and even in the standards by which people live with each other, as expressed in human rights, can be countered with a long list of intended and unintended side effects that are directly or indirectly tied to science and technology.
The risks that have spread due to interventions in the natural environment are firmly anchored in present-day consciousness. The shock waves triggered by books like The Limits to Growth or Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in the late 1960s and early 1970s led to a changed consciousness of our dealings with nature. The risk society became omnipresent. Risks are encountered in the area of health and nutrition, they threaten desired social security, and they escalate in official alarm levels to a bundle of old and new dangers, currently focused on terrorism. When Albert Camus wrote of the twentieth century as the century of fear, he had in mind the terrors of totalitarian regimes and the growing arsenals whose destructive capacity was enough to eliminate much of humankind. In the light of recent events, this fear has not diminished; only its profile has changed.
The fear in the foreground is no longer of a great catastrophe. Fear comes in smaller doses whose effect is all the more lasting. Many of the actual or potential risks that trigger fear remain invisible, and their consequences are long-term. Unfavorable consequences that arrive late overshadow the present, although the present can claim to have increased chances for a healthy, longer, and better life. The suspicion that many of the newest scientific-technological breakthroughs bear an invisible risk that is not yet recognizable but that will appear later all the more virulently does not seem destined to dissipate from the public’s consciousness. The ideological vacuum that has arisen after the disappearance of an often naive belief in progress has been overshadowed by the suspicion of the riskiness of all scientific-technological innovations—and yet it waits to be filled by something positive.
The great sociotechnological systems that were the trade-mark and pride of modernism have not disappeared. Their unsurveyability manifests itself as complexity, which can bring about “normal accidents”but which is—still—regarded as controllable, in principle. But the vulnerability of these systems meanwhile cannot be overlooked. The great spread of information and communication technologies has led to decentralization. The creation of economic value is being brought closer to the user as it is distributed spatially or shifted to sites where the availability of qualified but cheap workers is relatively high. The world of the factory, which was once characterized by planning and control, hierarchical structures, and the processing of mass commodities, has in part made way for a high-tech world based on the processing of information and knowledge. The hierarchies have flattened, and the technologies used stand in close relationship to other technologies and highly technologies products. Work itself, in the form of projects, is carried out by heterogeneously composed teams whose abilities and skills supplement each other in a highly qualified way. Activities that were once carried out directly by humans are now processed indirectly by software. Adjustment to a constantly changing environment is considered the guideline.
With the shift toward market forces, neither the jurisdiction nor the extent of state regulation has substantially diminished. What have become more permeable are the boundaries between states. Workplaces are outsourced, and incentives for investments are created elsewhere. Whereas the usual practices of management and engineers in the period between the world wars was greatly influenced by the managerial style of large corporations, after World War II, as Thomas Hughes shows, engineers and managers were confronted with the task of introducing new technological systems like computer networks and city highways. These systems are much more heterogeneous in their composition; they tolerate heterogeneity and engender it themselves. The expectation of discontinuous change is built into them. Their daily management is based on the principle of discontinuous complexity. Where “modern” project and technology management was based on hierarchical and centralized control mechanisms that found their material correspondence in tightly coupled systems, standardization, and homogeneity, the “postmodern” regime relies on flat, horizontal, networked control mechanisms that correspond to loosely coupled and heterogeneous systems. Control, we are reassured, functions in this technological culture without needing a nerve center. The disorderliness of complexity is accepted as part of the bargain to steer development in one direction or the other, depending on the signals coming from the market.
The expression technosciences, which increasingly appeared in the 1980s, is often used to signal the close connection that science and technology have entered into. Many scientific discoveries are pushed forward by new technological instrumentation, which in turn is the result of the production of knowledge in the context of specific technological problems or problems presented by users. The epistemic and technological things have found each other; they have become knowledge-technological objects. One result is that the sites where new knowledge is produced spread rapidly and multiply via the technological infrastructures, including research infrastructures. New research instruments and technologies and technologically supported methods can spread faster through the various disciplinary fields. interdisciplinary arises due to the pressure to apply or jointly develop technical infrastructures and methods in other disciplines. Transverse technologies create new practices and fields of practice across all existing disciplinary boundaries.
In the same way, the exchange between the laboratory, industry, and the service sector is intensifying. Released from the laboratory, the knowledge-technological objects enter a social environment that is itself technologically equipped and scientifically well-developed. In this way, according to the ideal, use is tied anew to users and new uses. The thus enriched potential for use can continue to have effects. The market ensures that the knowledge-technological objects are brought into the required flexible form tailored to specific purposes and desires. They are miniaturized, user-oriented, interactive, and much more so that they can fit into numerous, widely distributed networks that are heterogeneous, disordered, and complex. The connection between “knowledge what” (propositional knowledge) and “knowledge how” (prescriptive knowledge), referred to by economic historian Joel Moykr, has become extremely potent.
Other changes that affect the management of the spatial and temporal coordinates of knowledge-technological objects are the result of a shift from exotechnologies to endotech-nologies. Technology has developed since the early history of humankind, independent of (proto) scientific observations, theoretical speculations, and the search for systematic patterns of explanation. Technology offered protection to people living in social groups and gave them growing control over their environment, in which they learned to process and extend the tiny ecological niche they began with. Technology assumed the function that archaeologists and anthropologists have attributed to it—to compensate for and, step by step, overcome the biological limitations of Homo sapiens. Exotechnologies aim at the expansion of possibilities of controlling the environment. They have enabled people to travel greater differences in less time and to settle the space they found more densely and efficiently. The processing of found and extracted materials finally enabled the mass production of artifacts, the preservation of foodstuffs, and the erection of infrastructures that in turn made it possible to live comfortably in otherwise inclement climate zones.
In contrast, the regime of the endotechnologies—bio-, nano-, info, and other converging technologies—changes the dimensions and scope of action of the scientific objects. They from mostly invisible yet visualizable infrastructures that can penetrate into the smallest dimensions of matter or living organisms. Via the genetic regulatory mechanisms, on the one hand, and variations in the speed of information transmission, on the other, they change the rhythm and management of time. Natural aging processes can be slowed or sped up; the flowering of plants can be retarded or reversed. If the supply of electric current, an exotechnology, once extended the day far into the night and thus incisively changed societal life, now endotech-nologies can intervene in the circadian rhythms of living beings by switching genes on and off. The molecular and cellular interior of living organisms is becoming a realm in which targeted interventions can be made. Only the vaguest contours of the possibilities and consequences for the process of the origin of life, growth, aging, and decline on the various levels of organisms are thereby beginning to emerge.
In December 1959, Richard Feynman presented his now classic lecture, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” before the American Physical Society. In it, he addressed the possibilities of manipulating and controlling matter on the tiniest level. He foresaw that the interior of matter would become the primary site of the development of knowledge-technological objects and endotechnological procedures. On this level, which is the small-est currently accessible to interventions, atoms can be put together and manipulated at will. Today, artificial environments are created in which various surfaces are brought together to introduce completely new sensory, organic and inorganic, endo-crinological, or neurological connections and to make exchanges between them. The growing inter and transdisciplinary collaboration between biology, mathematics, physics, chemistry, computer science, statistics, and other areas of knowledge is beginning to converge in a common research agenda. The life sciences, among others, are striving for an integration from the molecular level upward that will include the organism.
What the scientific community has received with enthusiasm is creating unrest in the public realm. New questions are raised—for example, what being human will mean in the future. The possibilities of endotechnologies surpass all the promises modernity ever made—although the desires on which the promises are based have never been clearly articulated. The most recent wave of renewal did not come in isolation but forms a greater cultural pattern. The more radical the renewals are from a scientific-technological viewpoint, the higher the proportion of social knowledge must be if society is to be put in a position to appropriate them culturally and thus transform them in a way that gives them sense and meaning. The renewals require a language because everything they have brought so far is the sober, technological jargon of their specialist producers or the colorful, multimedia images of public relations and marketing. They have to be described—in a way that makes them relevant for the living contexts and images of the future of those who are to use them. In other words, they must become culture themselves.