Paths of Curiosity – The Wish to Control the Unforeseeable
Technology also knows many paths—and many paths not taken—that lead from the first inventive idea through countless hurdles and selection criteria to the successful product or process.
Depending on the site, the search for ideas on the micro level can be distinguished from the implementation and develop-ment of large socio-technological systems. Inventors’ search strategies have been compared to “Klondike spaces” (a metaphor borrowed from the Yukon gold rush) in which the coveted gold is where it is found—sparsely distributed and without clear indications of where one should look for it. But Klondike spaces are typical of problem-solving and search strategies in situations that demand sudden insight, as in human inventions and bio-logical evolution. The suddenness of recognizing and finding, the breakthroughs in understanding or producing, and the punctuated equilibrium of evolution in which sudden transitions in adaptive form occur are characteristic examples of similarities between human discovery and invention, on the one hand, and the strategies underlying evolution, on the other. Human constructors can work with ideas and concepts that lead to alternative sketches, which in turn can be developed into competing prototypes whose emerging problems lead to revisions not only of the sketches but also of the original concept. In addition, a poor concept can lead to a good one, and a prototype that does not function can lead to a functioning one. The limits of the possible, however, are more pronounced for biological evolution than for human inventions, which are able to vault over them in a leap of imagination. But nature has at least two advantages: its time scale is much longer than that of human existence, and it can carry out massive parallel operations. Up to now, nothing invented by humans could keep up with this.
In the laboratory, the new finds entry through cracks and fissures and leaves again in changed form if the epistemic and technological things are to have further effect. Similarly, the technological solutions and prototypes, the models and sketches, the designs and architectures developed in computer models ultimately must find a way outward to find their place in the technological macrosystem or in a niche within one or between several such systems. Characteristic of large-scale technological systems is that their technological dimension is integrated with other economic, cultural, or political dimensions. traffic systems, for example, require not only the necessary technology but also investments, infrastructures, and regulatory systems. They are based on cultural presuppositions, like the value attributed to collective or individual mobility and preferred energy sources. Elaborate delivery systems and infrastructural facilities must be present. Well-planned control and information systems are needed to secure coordination. Historians of technology describe the emergence and development of such large-scale technical systems as the course of “technological trajectories.” These generally leave several possibilities of further develop-ment open at the beginning, whereby chance constellations can often decide what direction is then taken. There are repeatedly bifurcation. But to the degree that one of the technological trajectories prevails, it gains stability and intrenches itself. It can grow to the point of impermeability and irreversibility, thus achieving a state described as a rigid, “locked-in” technology. Every change is accompanied by high costs. Technological innovations, if they are to prevail, must thus either find their place in one of the macrosystems or themselves belong to an innovative technological cluster that will grow together to produce a macrosystem.
Nothing in the precise historical analysis of the various paths that curiosity and innovations take within and between institutions indicates a technological determinism, nor are there lines of scientific development that follow one and only one logic. The motto for such developments could be, “This is how it is; it could be otherwise.” But precisely this openness is the source of the problem of society’s dealings with the new. If the paths that curiosity will interactively take or overleap in the laboratory between the objects of knowledge and the technological apparatuses can be neither planned nor foreseen, and if the Klondike space lures gold seekers who are uncertain about how much and where gold will be found, then a paradoxical double game ensues. On the one hand, focused efforts will be made, and new plans drawn up. Strategic goals will be put in new order or defined by foresight exercises, whose goal is to guide the new, which is either not yet present or is known only in vague con-tours, into certain directions. On the other hand, it even appears that the more the new is able to elude intention, the more plan-ning and strategies are employed to capture it.
This results in a dilemma for every institution that seeks to foster the new: it wants to bring forth the unforeseeable and yet keep it under control from the beginning. It seeks to find applications and uses that no one knows yet, and at the same time it seeks to eliminate or minimize unintended side effects and possible risks. The new, which initially always arises only locally, should spread by the path that leads through new contexts of application to the market and to societal and economic uses. The double game consists in optimizing the production of the new and then being able to put it all the more selectively into specific forms and send it in specific directions. There are as many selection filters as there are economic and legal frame-work conditions, organized resources and interests, cultural values, politically organized spaces, and various forms of organization. Added to this is what already exists. It has a power of persistence based not only in values but also in the things them-selves. Successful technological innovations therefore often make use of an already existing form, thus ensuring they can function compatible.
The technocratic certainty claimed to know society’s needs, which was systematically organized to fulfill state-supported research. It was manifested in many large-scale projects, whose realization was in no way restricted to totalitarian regimes. The confidence of a worldview that thought it “could see like a state” laid its comprehensive claim to shape the future that it asserted it could foresee. The irony of history is that many of the utopian visions of the future from the extremely politically and ideologically charged period of the 1930s have been realized or outdone today. And yet there is no perceptible slack-ing of efforts to use research to drive forward economic growth. The thread running through it all, which the British crystallographer and Marxist John Desmond Bernal presented in his 1939 study of the societal function of science, is timelier today than ever before, though under the opposite sign of a neoliberal ideology. There is broad agreement that more money should be invested in research (that is, that science and technology must continue to expand) so that society’s affluence and well-being can increase. This is to be achieved by putting the unexpected and new that comes out of the laboratory into the widest possible variety of contexts of applications to produce in them new knowledge that in turn brings forth new abilities and continues to spread in society. The statist viewpoint of “seeing like a state” was replaced by the neoliberal credo that attributes newly dis-covered, sensual qualities to the market. Now it is the market that claims to know people’s most intimate needs and the relationships between technological things and between people and things and that has discovered in the omnipresent network structures the most efficient structure of organization.
To take up Rheinberger, Jefferson, Pasteur’s quadrant, and Bernal (who thought science requires curiosity but that curiosity did not lead to science): curiosity is indeed not enough to bring forth the new or to win the collective bet that all highly technologies industrial societies have made on innovation. Behind it lie the void of an uncertain future that is to be filled and the competitive pressure exerted by many actors costaging a worldwide globalization (which in Greek bears the lovely name pankosmoiopoise). Curiosity nourishes itself on questions that point beyond or cast doubt on the usual and given to explore what lies beyond the obvious. It thereby resists premature commitment. It clings as long as possible to the playful and uncommitted impulse, whereas innovation already has allegiance to the introduction of the new and its integration in the given, even if this means the abandonment and disappearance of what already exists. As we have seen, scientific curiosity requires the interlocking interplay between epistemic things and technological conditions, as is present in the laboratory. But the attempts to tame this scientific curiosity, which begin soon thereafter, demand an extended perspective that leads outside the laboratory. The experimental systems do not remain isolated in their laboratories, nor can the laboratories be isolated from the surrounding societal, political, and economic contexts. What happens in the laboratories sooner or later feeds the innovation systems that have formed around them institutionally.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, when university and nonuniversity research laboratories emerged and the specialization of disciplines took shape at the universities (which distinguished for the flrst time between pure and applied research), the systematic search for the discovery of the new and for inventions was institutionalized. The space where curiosity could unfold achieved its critical density and a stable institutional framework. It was also granted the freedom to move in directions that cannot be pinned down in advance. Today, these institutional framework conditions are changing again at a speed that is redefining the existing rules, directives, and limitations. In this way, the public character of science is changing. The play of possibilities that was once curiosity’s very own game is becoming the game of many players, a game of innovation. Curiosity is challenged to continue its game under changed conditions that, on the one hand, want to give it directives and that, on the other, encourage it to continue acting subversively.
Once objects of knowledge and technological artifacts have initially formed in the narrow space of the laboratory, the computer screen, or the local workshop, their initially fragile reality stabilizes by means of their ensuing mobility and the new configurations into which they enter. The knowledge brought forth by the new becomes knowledge of the new. The epistemic-technological mobility of things then takes them to expanded spaces. These can be the spaces of societal and technological networks, but they can also conjure up that world of flows of objects, people, ideas, commodities, images, information, and ideologies that are all kept in motion by the processes of globalized unbounding. But even this flood of movements at some point leads to spaces of activity and negotiation—populated by a large number of actors with different interests, cultural resources, and values and with imbalanced power.
At this stage of realization and implementation in the various layers of societal and political reality, additional demands are made on the new’s stability, robustness, and suitability to be integrated in existing structures, technical objects, and their use. The initial fragility of the objects of knowledge that have not yet found a materiality that is emerging or intended for them makes way for a fragility and precariousness of another kind when they enter layers of reality other than those of the laboratory. The new is now to be integrated in society and made compatible with what exists. This entails conflicts, and resistance forms. Adjustments must be made; complex, already existing organizational arrangements must be overturned and rearranged. The scientific-technological components of the innovations can no longer be cleanly separated from the economic and cultural ones. Suddenly, the previously concealed nonsimultaneity of the old becomes visible in its historical constructedness. The old loses its privileged status of self‑evidence and must defend its vested interests. This leads to a growth in the pressure to manage this nonsimultaneity with the old by taking recourse to the simultaneity of the new, which makes its appearance in the imperative of the present. New uncertainties thereby appear and demand decisions that earlier were irrelevant or not desired. The epistemic fragility of the new demands a social robustness, new social forms, and its own language to persist in the societal space. The more that society depends on the technological-scientiflc culture it produces, the more robust and at the same time more vulnerable society itself becomes.