Why We Must Remain Modern
The first mathematical models that were applied to the financial markets were crude models of what really happens. They were of little direct use for actual investors because they were too weak to make predictions. Gradually, the models grew more sophisticated, and as a result they were increasingly used in everyday busiThe first mathematical models that were applied to the financial markets were crude models of what really happensness. Word got around that the complex processes of stock market trading could be captured in mathematical formulas. One of these formulas—the one that Fischer Black, Myron Scholes, and Robert C. Merton invented in 1973 for the pricing structure on the option market—was an important breakthrough in modern mathematical financial theory.The contractual right to buy or the contractual right to sell up to a specified amount of a designated security or commodity at a specified price and time following years showed an increasing correlation between the mathematical model and the observed prices because traders had begun to apply the model to identify and use for their own purposes the discrepancies between the model’s predictions and market prices, thereby reducing the discrepancy. The traders began using the mathematical formula as a tool for influencing the behavior of other market participants and thereby the social reality of the process. The formula developed a performative effect. It taught its users how to price derivatives and how to improve their risk distribution.
It is hard to imagine how the global financial market in derivatives could have grown from zero in the year 1970 to a total notional 134.7 trillion dollars in 2001 (as cited by MacKenzie) without the application of mathematics. Robert C. Merton, who was coawarded the Nobel Prize for economics (officially the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel) and who, as the son of the sociologist Robert K. Merton, may be sensitized to the dialectic between social reality and knowledge of social reality, remarked on this that “reality will eventually imitate theory.” This is one of many examples of how an economic theory not only describes real processes but is also capable of creating them. Econom-ics—and not only economics—is a performative activity.
Could the omnipresent invocation of innovation—but with the crucial difference that there is currently no theory of innovation—have similar effects? Could it become a self-fulfilling prophecy that ultimately sweeps everyone along with it and even give rise to an ideal like sustainable innovation? Why did this collective obsession with a term and with what it suggests arise precisely now? Part of the answer is anticipated in the self-evidence concealed in the question. What else but an increase in economic growth, a further turn of the spiral of productivity, and a continuous discovery of latent desires and social uses, of new products and markets, drives a global economy? What else but insatiable curiosity gives rise to the oversupply of knowledge-technological objects and the new knowledge with which science and technology create the pre-conditions for further innovation activity, even if the path to it is long and never direct?
But answers like these ignore the far-reaching changes that the production of knowledge and the science system are exposed to today. Such answers stop at the surface. They neglect the political economy of science, which, after the end of the cold war, was placed on new foundations that have a far-reaching effect on the organization and funding of research. The (relative) withdrawal of the state and with it of public funding for research has led to a wave of privatization that carries issues of intellectual property rights into every laboratory. Every university must face and must orient its management toward the question of its profile and its strategic goals. Industry’s support for university research has reached a strategic level. It is oriented toward, among other things, how well the universities can place their research internationally and regionally and how they can assert themselves in global competition for the best young scientists and engineers. Research policy on the levels of the European Union and the nation-state is pressing for better and faster implementation of scientific results in palpable competitive advantages on the market. It is accepted that basic research works in the longer term, but the expectation is clear that it, too, should contribute to use, to the implementation of knowledge in innovations. Political economy has caught up with science and the production of knowledge for good.
But things are not as simple as they may appear. Analogies can be drawn between Schumpeter’s distinction between inventions or the idea of the production of something new and innovation as the successful implementation and utilization of ideas and inventions in society and evolutionary biology (for example, between the physical causes of genetic and phenotypic variability in organisms and the factors that lead to the fixation of a preferred variant within a population). Coarsely simplified, invention can be characterized as the starting point, and innovation as the result and success. But neither in the history of evolution nor in human societies does the rise of a new quality or the selective production of a new combination permit predictions about the evolutionary, ecological, or cultural effect. Invention is a weak predictor of success.
So attention is directed toward everything that creates connections, gives rise to networks, or promotes interactivity. Producers and users belong to the same community when it is a question of promoting exchange and feedback that contribute as Robert K. Merton remarked as early as 1957, scientists were long convinced that the social effects of their research have to be useful in the long term. This credo had the function of legitimizing research activity but in fact is easy to disprove. It shows the mixture of truth and social utility that Merton termed the “non-logical margins of science.” See Robert K. Merton, Socfal Theory and Socfal Structure (New York: Free Press, 1957).To the improvement of products or inventing new applications. Communications and information technologies connect people and technological things technologically, socially, economically, and culturally. Their future lies in inventing and implementing new forms of interactivity, permitting an individual to communicate with many people—and many people to communicate with many people. Everywhere, the users, whether they already see themselves as such or not, are to be involved. In biology, the old dichotomy between nature and environment is being redefined as an evolutionary process of niche construction. For example, if earthworms consume a certain number of tons of earth per hectare and year, the amount of carbon and nitrogen in the soil increases, which benefits the earthworms and other organisms. Invention and innovation are connected by means of a complex feedback system that eliminates the rigid boundaries between the environment and the organism, between development and selection. Organisms actively con-tribute to shaping their environment; they influence their own selection regime, just as users are actively involved and them-selves become producers of new use functions.
How did it come about that we are now all “empowered” to build, like the earthworms, our own economic and cultural niche, to found our own companies, and to become the entrepreneurs of our own occupational biography and the directors of the numerous stagings of our selves, all in the knowledge that the probability of failure is great? Why are we willing to take part in television games and other media-conveyed interactions that simulate forms of communication that we know are not authentic—even if they are real in the sense of another kind of conversation, encounter, or creation of interpersonal relation-ships? Where is the resistance against the unfamiliar, the other, when we willingly accept what medicine offers us to provide our defective or aging bodies with replacement parts that are artificial or taken from other organisms? We see through the illusions that we thereby submit to. Nevertheless, we cling to them to continue building the niches in full knowledge that we can help shape them and are at the same time sobered in the knowledge of the limits to our self-determination and our possibilities of control.
We have remained modern—and will have to remain modern in the future, as well. Part of this is the deep-seated discontent and the odd ambivalence that consists in recognizing what we have created on our own and at the same time experiencing it as something external, alien, constraining, or limiting. Constructing a niche means accepting the unforeseeable interaction with what is arising and how it arises. If it is true that the brain construes a reality that seems stable to us, then perhaps the institutions that we have created also aim to create a social reality that seems more or less stable to us. The ambivalence that is a characteristic of modernity is a response to the tension underlying every controversy, every dialogue, every painstaking cogitation about the relationship between society and science. It is the tension between the demand for autonomy, self-determination, and human freedom and the inescapable fact of limitation, loss of control, and hegemony. On the one side is our knowledge about ourselves, our experience, our demands, and our wishes; on the other side is our knowledge of what is not ourselves, of the others, and of the world as it exists.
This contradiction and the friction resulting from it stood in the center of the creative work of modern art. The sensibility of the modern subject, which so often manifests itself as dis-content with modernity and as a form of rebellion against the material and institutional achievements that in turn have created the preconditions for the existence of the modern subject, has become an integral component of the project of modern art. From Baudelaire through Nietzsche to the representatives of postmodernism, a thread of discontent, inner conflict, and ambivalence runs counter to the technological optimism of their respective times. In painting, music, literature, and avant-garde philosophy, being modern is experienced as a regrettable or terrible fate and treated accordingly. According to Robert Pippin, many of the questions experienced as so problematical have less to do with traditional aesthetics than with the wrestling to understand the changes in space and time: how can historical time be lived at all, and with what means is artistic creation able to express itself in temporality? The question addresses the spatial anchoring of the self and of art at a moment that itself cannot be localized because the radical quality of the break carried out by modernity seems to prevent localization.
From this and many other artistic and literary testimonies speaks the voice of the despairing individual who is in conflict with herself and whose failure to achieve the ideals and aspirations she has set for herself can turn into a kind of contempt and self-hatred. The contrast to the free, rational, independent, self-determined, and self-determining subject could not be greater. It was left up to art and literature to find out which of the demands made could be successfully met and which were condemned to failure. The demands were primarily those that the individual placed on herself but also on the others and the society, and the artistic and literary experiments served to explore the complex social and existential dependence.
The modern bourgeois self-hatred is a phenomenon that arose historically in a niche and that built itself a niche. The impetus arising from the discrepancy between dissatisfaction with what one has experienced and the aspirations one has set for oneself and that were experienced as very risky to implement can take many different forms, including political forms, as the social and political movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries demonstrated. But as Pippin elucidated in his work Modernism as a Philosophical Problem: On the Dissatisfaction of European High Culture, these aspirations come from deeper layers. For modernity, it is the problem of freedom. Applied to the individual, this means the freedom to live in accordance with one’s own ideas and to identify with one’s own deeds and actions. It is the freedom to accept one’s deeds.
The radical breaks and changes that modernity brought and brings with it point in different, even seemingly opposite directions. On the one hand, an ever-tightening network of mutual dependence arises, among them the growing dependence on technology and on a culture molded by technology that sets standards of behavior, perception, and thinking. On the other hand, modernity brought unimagined freedoms that accompanied the breakup of usually close social communities, a political and social emancipation that, with the aid of technology and science, has expanded the radius of action for spatial and intellectual mobility and that, under the vague concept of self-realization, integrated the body and social identity in the modern imagination of shaping oneself. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are full of impressive literary, historical, and sociological testimony that took this process of compact interpenetration—the social compression as well as the condensation of time and space—as the object of its observation and analysis. The social pressure of the small community, whether the village or the narrow social circles of the upper classes, gave way to another kind of societal pressure to conform, one guided by economic success. It gave rise to the fears related to one’s own authenticity, to the “true” self that is at the center of many literary works.
The artistic and literary delving into themes like human and other organisms’ genetics, the erosion of boundaries that this leads to, and the struggle to find a language allowing the definition of human characteristics and new identities continues unabated. The free spaces that seem likely today promise unimagined possibilities of a neurochemically steered enhance-ment (and some would say, invention) of the self and of a changed (because more intimate) way of dealing with technology that is integrated in the body, is mounted or worn on the body, and becomes the manmade environment. But however seductive this interactivity-created intimacy might be, it presupposes the voluntary abandonment of knowledge of and control over the self. The view from inside must learn to interact with the view from outside and if possible to converge in a way that can societally stabilize the new knowledge-technological reality. The discussion about freedom of the will, for example, which was conducted on a sophisticated level in the features sections of newspapers, tried to break up part of the hegemony of the neurosciences by considering other forms of knowledge and the claim to autonomy. This can be achieved only if the ambivalence underlying the tension is permitted to become visible and is recognized as legitimate. The artistic and literary elites of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries mostly concluded that the concept of freedom and the premonition of the realization of a potential inherent in human beings to work together and to live together in peace are nothing but illusions. The findings are not yet in on the discourses and controversies that are being carried out today, but the verdict could be similar here as well, this time coming from the natural scientific viewpoint.
But modernity also consists in permitting varying view-points. The natural sciences must be prepared to accept part of the I-perspective; vice versa, the self with its personal experience must accept the way it is perceived from the perspective of natural science. But making judgments and decisions cannot be reserved for the experts. Modern societies have brought forth various forms of modern agendas, and modernity is not homogeneous. On the contrary, it consists of “multiple moderni-ties.” The intensified discussion between society and science makes many of the beaten tracks of dichotomies and differentiations (for example, between “rational” and “irrational”) outmoded. What is needed instead is more differentiation, more reflectivity, and the ability to see things from the standpoint of the other side. There is also more than one way of being scientific.
Another piece of evidence for multiple modernities comes from the inclusion of the public as part of the expanded under-standing of democracy. The discontent with today’s modernity has shifted from literary testimony to the public’s demands to be permitted to take part in decision-making processes that involve complex scientific-technological content and in setting research priorities and the future orientation of the production of knowledge. Register, site, and protagonists have thus changed. At the same time, bourgeois self-hatred has vanished with the bourgeois individual. In the same way, the tension between experience and expectation is defined by different parameters. Expectations that many people used to project beyond their own lifetimes have turned into things taken for granted. The extension of life expectancies creates new problems for aging societies. The historical experience of acceleration and other effects of science and technology on life and work have set the spiral of wishes moving upward and at the same time created an instantaneous, if only brief, wish-fulfillment. The time periods within which expectations can solidify are shortening. The feeling of living today for tomorrow is spreading, and uncertainty is increasing. What remains is the deep-seated ambivalence, the characteristic of modernity.
Cesare Marchetti, who for thirty years has investigated the regularities of the rise and station of competing systems, asserts that means of transportation like airplanes do not primarily aim to save time but that the majority of people, “from the Zulus to the American upper class,” spend an average of sixty-five minutes a day changing their location. Growing income may lead to the use of faster means of transportation, but primarily this merely extends the radius of the territory to be put behind one. Using the airplane does not so much save time as it permits the “control” of a larger area. Cesare Marchetti, Logos, il Creatore di Imperi (IIASA, Interim Report IR-04.043, September 2004).
What about our expectations today? In Europe, the major project of modernity, with its bundle of promises that were coupled with diffusely articulated but actually held expectations, passed its zenith in the 1970s. What followed were more negatively defined expectations that aimed to secure what had already been achieved—the avoidance or reduction of risks of various kinds, as articulated primarily by the protest movements that were preceded or driven by the risk society. As guidelines for future action, they can be reduced to a few principles. They are defined less by their content than by processes borne by the insight that the constantly changing content cannot be grasped—the principle of sustainability in our dealings with the vanishing resources of our natural environment and the precautionary principle in our dealings with uncertainty. But it is difficult to declare the instantaneous gratifications of the consumer society to be expectations, even if the indicators of market research label them that way. The horizon of expectations was leveled in the face of an oversupply of renewals in the search for latent desires and needs.
Of course, basic expectations remain—the concern for health, security, community and solidarity, and the fulfillment of the individual’s own inherent potential. The greater the changes, the stronger the wish for something change-resistant to hold onto. Where expectations and experience converge too closely and the open horizon of the future either shrinks to a tiny gap (allowing in only what passes the risk-precaution test) or suffocates on the oversupply of products that all resemble each other: this is where we observe the increasing attraction of a past that never existed but that is all the easier to imagine. But by themselves, the knowledge-technological visions do not contain an adequate image of human beings, much less an image that gives confidence.
The speed with which innovations arrive on the market leaves little time for enthusiastically greeting them. The movements of the first little robot probes on Mars were compared with those of a toy, and even the planet’s stony surface seemed familiar since it resembled that of the Atacama Desert in Chile. The spectacular and wonderful images of Saturn’s rings that were broadcast to Earth aroused fervent admiration, but they soon landed in the archive of visual memory in which a scientific, multimedia virtual reality must also compete for public attention. The U.S. president’s announcement that he wanted to have the American nation conquer space and to this purpose planned a middle-term moon expedition left even the experts cold (though for other reasons). A British commentator complained that such a mission belonged to the “past century.” The first moon landing stood for the success of Western technology over that of the former Soviet Union, a symbol of the free world that could be transformed into consumer goods and corresponded to the optimism of the 1970s, but little of this is left at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Science and technology cross the boundary between the present and the future with a certain ease and thereby move the future closer to the present. Nonetheless, the future seems fragile. The loss of temporal distance blurs the difference between what is technologically possible and what is already present in the laboratory, between imagination and reality, which is often a virtual reality. Having lost all utopias, the future presents itself as a sketch of technological visions that block out the social knowledge that is needed to live in a scientific-technological world—and to feel well in it.
It is no coincidence that the discrepancies among our claims to our own body and our power over it, the definition of the self, and the possibilities of intervention and alteration that result from the achievements of molecular biology, genetics, reproductive medicine, and other areas of the life sciences acutely reveal the contradiction between autonomy and dependence. This contradiction is promoted by two processes coming from different directions and meeting in the field of tension between science and the public sphere. The first receives its impulses from science itself or, more precisely, from the trans-formations that the science system is currently going through as a result of its increasing interlocking with society. Science is becoming societally contextualized, which means that prioritization within research—the relationships to use and application that, even in basic research, are at least potentially felt out and created, even as far as the specific determination of which living organisms under what conditions, what processes for creating new phenomena, and what hybrid constructions are subject to property rights—are coproduced by societal, economic, political, cultural, and ethical framework conditions.
Newly gained knowledge and new research instruments usually lead to new questions and problems that hadn’t been as was already the case in Galileo’s time. A changed context brings different societal values, preferences, and current framework conditions. The capacity to sequence genes raised questions of their patentability and the associated property rights. The possibilities arising from the acquisition of embryonic stem cells trigger heated moral debates. Which procedures resemble legal therapeutic interventions that are already used and which procedures place one kind of parenthood, social parenthood, above the other genetic kind? What possibilities are there to shape human reproduction democratically, assuming that the safety of the procedure can be guaranteed? Or what new, efficient technologies make it possible to analyze and screen large amounts of genetic data, large-scale projects that involve whole segments of the population for years and make it urgently necessary to answer questions of protecting the private sphere and the public interest or of the possibilities of interfering in existing rights?
But progress within science is not the only thing that drives the process of contextualization forward. If research is today regarded as the driving force of economic competitive-ness, then corresponding research investments must be made. When support from public coffers stagnates, competition for private research investment ensues. The latter often concentrates on the economically promising areas in the high-tech sector and in the life sciences. Forms of so-called public-private partnerships are fostered, and new forms of research organization develop. With increased private investment, the issue of when volunteers in a control group in longitudinal studies are expected to eschew in advance certain patients’ rights in the interest of a randomized clinical experiment. Intellectual property rights to research procedures and their results (for example, artificially produced life forms and organisms, gene sequences, and various sets of data) takes on acute significance. Like all property rights, intellectual property rights regulate relationships between people and not between people and things. They ensure that ideas, procedures, or organisms placed under limited-term protection can be used only after paying appropriate fees. The protected objects remain in the public sphere, but access to them and the way they can be used are subject to certain regulations and economic limitations. It is interesting to see that, under the pressure of increasing privatization, researchers are beginning to see themselves as the proprietors of their data and their research results. They no longer want to be “knowledge workers” but “knowledge owners.”
But the change in the foundations regulating the exchange of information and knowledge in the academic world, in which mutual trust is in part being replaced by contracts, is just one side of the coin. Science is also coming under pressure from another side. This arises in the name of democratization, which, with its demands for a voice for the public in complex decision-making processes that crucially effect that public, does not stop at the institution of science. Science’s (relative) freedom of action and its culture of autonomy are coming under the pres-sure of accountability to both the organizations that promote research and also the public. It is not enough for science to maintain relationships to the state and the market; it should also give civil society and its needs a place in the research agenda and in its mediation.
Privatization and democratization are interconnected in that both stand for the success so far of the highly industrialized Western democracies. Property rights and privatization stand for a regime that is regarded as an integral component of the Western industrial states’ success in economic growth. It is expected of science and technology, as the driving forces of this growth, that the principles underlying the increase of economic productivity can be profitably transposed to the production of new knowledge. The efficiency of markets, competition, institutions, and intellectual property rights is expected to develop its productivity-increasing effect also where the new knowledge, epistemic things, abstract objects, and symbolic technologies (which are ultimately the innovative potential) are produced. Equally, democratization of scientific expertise is the expansion of principles of governance that, up to now, have been service-able to the liberal Western democracies. Their citizens have achieved a historically unique level of education. They do not permit themselves to be overawed by scientific-technological achievements, however great they may be, nor are they willing to accept the opinions of scientific experts uncritically. By insist-ing that it be accorded adequate political representation in important decision-making processes, the public answers with a loud and politically articulate voice, just as investors and markets are in dialogue with science when they call for greater efficiency and productivity gains in exchange for private research investments. Both processes put pressure on science and change its nature as the public good it has been regarded, as least historically.
Unlike in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the struggle for the autonomy of the free individual no longer takes place primarily in art, literature, or philosophy. The private fears and defense strategies of a small cultural and social elite, as significant as its achievements are, have been sup-planted by the everyday fears of the great majority in the Western liberal democracies with their scientific-technological civilization. Now, issues like protecting the private sphere and determining whether and to what degree property rights are possible in relation to the human body and its genetic sub-stance are being thrashed out on the stage of everyday life. The discrepancy between, on the one hand, the claim to and the determination of one’s own body and the definition of the self and, on the other hand, the possibilities of intervention and alteration that result from the achievements of molecular biology, genetics, reproductive medicine, and other areas of the life sciences starkly reveals the contradiction between autonomy and dependence. Heated controversies have broken out over the definition of human life and the moment when it begins and ends. The discussion of risk focuses on the distinction between risks that the individual takes knowingly and voluntarily and risks that appear involuntarily and collectively. The conflict is over citizens’ ability to judge and decide in comparison with the evaluation of the judgment of experts. At stake is the constitutionally anchored freedom of inquiry and its possible limitation in the interest of other democratic rights. Compromises must be found for value conflicts in which religious and ethical standpoints are irreconcilable. The freedom that the one side demands is rejected as the irresponsible limitation of the freedom of the other side. “Society” has taken the place that was once reserved for an artistic elite. The discontent with modernity is part of modernity, as is democracy, which has become a medium of expressing and negotiating this discontent.
The controversies are not about science fiction scenarios but about decision-making situations and dilemmas that have begun to play an uncomfortable and unsettling role in everyday life. They call for a normative foundation, a basic consensus (which is hard to achieve), as well as legal and political regulations and their implementation. What the artistic and literary sensibility of modernity eloquently expressed had reached everyone by the beginning of the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, the heroic confrontation with the impossibility of living one’s own ideals and aspirations and of striving for an evaporating authenticity continued in what many experienced as the tensions of dealing with uncertainties and of asserting the self in practical life despite existing dependencies.
The question of whether it is possible to acquire too much knowledge—more than is good for people—seems a thing of the past. Roger Shattuck meticulously narrated the history of forbid-den knowledge, which is simultaneously a ban on knowing, and Hans Blumenberg set a lasting monument to it with his history of modern times as the history of newness. But the triumphant march of a secular science and its monopoly on explanations of the natural world stifles the questions of the natural limits of knowledge and of being permitted to know. The ambivalence also manifests itself in the concealed appeal to nature as the umpire over human libido sciendi, which violates the old religious taboo against wanting to know more than God in his omniscience permits.
But nature has no moral principles and does not know the future tense. Evolution, to which the expansion of human knowledge is also owed, knows neither set limitations nor a final destination. In the current debates on stem-cell research, genetically modified organisms, and the risks from nanoparticles, one thing constantly appearing is a recoiling from human knowledge and its consequences. This is not only an expression of the public’s distrust of science and of political institutions, as the results of opinion polls might suggest. The dithering and shrink-ing back from the consequences of curiosity also testify to the wish for reassurance in the face of a seeming excess of uncertainty. The ambivalence of modernity appears again. This time it is rooted in the impossibility of making final statements about what segment of the world our knowledge enables us to under-stand and what being human means in a world that we our-selves constantly change. It is inherent in the preliminary quality, the temporal context of all knowledge and in the difficulty in accepting this preliminary quality.
The ambiguity also applies to the instability of the wishes and the desire inherent in the promises of modernity. Henri Lefevbre writes that the growth and appropriation of desire and this explains the struggle for perception, for a conceptual understand-ing of the self and of identity, and for the possibilities of intervention and change in this self’s relationships as part of a cultural, human made evolution. That this ambivalence and its forms of expression are historically and culturally mutable has been shown by the anthropologist Pamela Asquith’s observations of the burials that Japanese primatologist have carried out for the monkeys killed in their research work. Pamela Asquith, The Monkey Memorial Service of Japanese Primatologists, D. Phil. thesis, Oxford University, 1981. The freedom to want inevitably raises questions of morality—of what the nature of our positive, meaning-creating dependence on others is and what we owe them in the light of this bond, as Robert Pippin aptly put it. The yearning or striving for freedom and for leading a life that corresponds to one’s own ideas necessarily has to deal with the wishes that others have and the ways that their striving with freedom is compatible with one’s own. In whatever this freedom consists—either material independence and money or power and thus the ability to evade the will of others—it cannot be achieved solely for oneself.
In Tomorrow’s People, a book written for a broad reader-ship, Susan Greenfleld shows a future in which people no longer wish for anything.109 The renowned British neuroscientist asks about the effects that interactive biotechnologies currently being worked on will have on human thinking and feeling. She thereby covers a broad spectrum—from the lifestyle of the future through how we will perceive reality, how we will think about the body in the face of progress in robotics, how we will spend our time, how we will work, how we will love, what family structure is probable, and what and how we will learn (including how to live with terrorism). But as scientifically and technologically plausible as the depicted future may be, it appears emptied of meaning and unworthy of striving for. The author considers it possible that a change in neuronal consciousness will bring a loss of human individuality, which will dissolve in a kind of hedonistic homogeneity. Since all wishes will be fulfilled, wishes will disappear, and the private sphere will make way for an all-embracing, self-organized collectivity.
But the author falls into the trap of her own naturalistic description, which is not societally situated despite the selected examples. In this world of tomorrow, there are no politics and no economics. It remains unclear who works for whom. Culturally, hedonism dominates. And yet it is very clear that Tomor-row’s People greatly disturb her. She tries to rescue the situation by making out an unexpected succor near the end of the book. This is to come from the “great majority”—the millions of people in this world who are still hungry, who cannot afford and do not want the technological luxury of the rich north, and who (she speculates) may prevent us from destroying human individuality. The people of tomorrow whom Greenfleld presents are pitiable creatures. They have left modernity behind them and have lost the capacity to imagine themselves in others’ situation and to understand others. With that, human diversity ends. And since these people of tomorrow are no longer able to understand each other, they forget how to deceive, defraud, and pretend to others. They lose the feeling for their own identity because they can no longer recognize what is “genuine” or “authentic” about themselves or whether they are ultimately controlled or programmed by institutions; they are thus other-directed. They lose the feeling for difference and for the ambivalence of modernity.
In her vision, thinking about the future will have become empty at the same time as it is overfull in comparison with the exuberant imagination with which looking into the future enlivened the past. The imaginary space loses what once gave it its attractiveness and vitality—that it was compensation for the present and a projection screen for hopes and fears that were connected with the granting of a postponement of all the unfinished agendas of the present. But this emptiness of the future, this poverty of socially relevant imaginative power, confronts a flood of information about technological and scientific innovations that have not yet found a place in the society of tomorrow and have not yet been accepted by the people of tomorrow. The language and the images that the innovations use are not necessarily created by the natural sciences and technology. They bear the latter’s trademark and claim that only they represent reality. But in precisely this point, they neglect the ambivalence of modernity. They ignore cultural phenomena whose assumptions are rooted in their claim to be part of reality. They deny the need for a change in the culture of consciousness, a change in the image of human beings, and a scientifIc-technological culture that does justice to contradictory viewpoints and knows how to relate them reflectively to each other.
The future and the people of tomorrow are still primarily conceived in utopian and dystopian images whereby utopians makes use of the genre of scientifIc-technological visions and their unconditional enthusiasm while dystopianism prefers the literary or artistic narrative form and posits that things are headed for catastrophe. But both the scientifIc-technological visions and their complement, the dystopian images of the future, attempt to suppress the ambivalence of modernity. This ambivalence teaches us that the people of tomorrow will no longer be the people we know today. Nor will they be cyborgs and androids, the hybrid figures of science fiction, who fascinate us because we do not know the ways in which they resemble and differ from people like us. To understand them, we must put ourselves in their place and estimate the possible effects of our actions on them. In this way, we make another of the many attempts in history that have been made to find a foundation for our own behavior—a foundation that asks what the nature of our positive, meaning-creating dependence on others is and what we owe them in the light of this bond. Ultimately, this is the only way we can be self-determining and know who we, the people of today, are. If we want to conceive the future outside of the categories of utopia and dystopia, we have to start out from the people of today.
Technological systems require a degree of compatibility in their standards and components that the social systems cannot have because they must remain open. We expect that techno-logical systems must be foreseeably reliable and secure. Only then are the selected technological solutions stable enough to solve the problems posed to them. By contrast, social systems— and societies—constitute themselves from their members’ knowledge of each other. They are not subject to any process of closing and must remain in continuous openness. We know what the world’s top scientific laboratories are working on today, and yet at best this allows us to derive scientific-technological visions that fit within a system that has been made to be consistent within itself. These visions can say next to nothing about forms of social organization, mutual relations among people, and emotional energies that the people of tomorrow will invest in ideas for or against each other or in things and institutions whose continuity they believe in. This lack of social knowledge makes these technological visions blind, even if they are able to gauge a limited number of “impacts”—of foreseeable effects whose corresponding consideration ought to be self-evidently a component of the process of generating technology. For as John Maynard Keynes remarked, the unavoidable never happens, while the unexpected always occurs.
This knowledge that the people of today have from and about each other includes information and knowledge of exist-ing mutual dependence. It is tied to collectively acknowledged norms that are subject to a historical process of change. These norms presuppose the ability to judge and the knowledge of when and how they are to be applied. Collective attribution of meaning grows out of a culture shared with others, which in turn presupposes normative obligations and collective experiences. Innovation as the collective bet on an uncertain future therefore cannot content itself with technological visions. However proper it may be to work from the great natural scientific discoveries of the twentieth century, as represented by atoms, computers, and genes, and to conclude from them that the quantum revolution, the computer revolution, and the biomolecular revolution will shape all further scientific-technological achievements through to the year 2050, this in no way implies that we can see in this the foundation for the beginning of an imminent planetary civilization. The vision remains one-eyed even if it professes to look far ahead. Predict-ing the broad lines of development (for example, the convergences already taking shape between bio, information, and nanotechnologies) does not yet mean being able to predict the outlines of the society in which the people of tomorrow, who are just now constructing their next niche for themselves, will live.
That is why innovation cannot be oriented toward a specific goal. It is a process in which the space of possibilities is opening up and opportunities that usually arise unexpectedly should be used. As a process, innovation is never temporally or spatially finished. It is something preliminary whose dynamic pushes forward but knows no end point or arrival. It is thus more self-sufficient and at the same time more pragmatic than the technological visions that its pragmatism includes. Breakthroughs occur; they cannot be planned. Failures are part of the learning process, and the possibility of failure is always present. And so is the possibility of tipping over, standstill, or stagnation. Society can refuse, and resistance can grow strong. Will reality in the end imitate theory, as happened in the financial markets? The answer will depend on whether we are willing to remain modern in the future—for a future that, as the construction of a special kind of niche, requires ambivalence as a cultural resource.