I have doubled my reading list. In addition to the Lorax, there is one more book that tells anyone interested in emerging technologies –nano, syn bio, geo or whatever – almost everything they need to know, even though it was published before any of these things were imagined. Or perhaps because it was published before they were imagined.
David Collingridge’s The social control of technology presents a beautifully simple dilemma. The more we know about the impacts of a technology, the less able we are to control it. We need to govern technologies as they are emerging, but we will always do so in a state of ignorance.
Collingridge tells a story about the Royal Commission on the Motor Car, established in 1908 to explore the opportunities and uncertainties of this emerging technology. The most serious problem they identified was that cars would kick up dust from untarred roads. No mention of drink-driving, kerb-crawling, carbon-spewing, pedestrian-slaying, the reshaping of America or the crowding out of alternative forms of transport.
The German philosopher of technology Alfred Nordmann has been one of few people to say truly insightful things about the social context of nanotech. Nanotech is, he says, ‘an enabling technology . . . [which] cannot be tied to any particular social or economic agenda . . . an amorphous technology that promises to change everything, but nothing in particular.’
The comparison he draws is with plastics. It would have been impossible to predict the eventual applications or implications of plastics at such an early stage of their emergence, but their use has reshaped our world.
Collingridge is more fatalistic than I would be. He regards foresight as futile. The only thing science policy can do is to constantly work against technological closure and lock-in, keeping open alternatives and options. I would hope that open-minded horizon-scanning has a role to play, if only to remind policymakers of the limits of the need to keep their options open.