Too often we talk about emerging technologies as though they are all the same sort of thing. We, by which I mean social scientists and science policy sorts, are too quick to say that geoengineering or synthetic biology are the next nanotechnology, or that nano is the next GM. What does that even mean?
There are things that we can usefully discuss about all emerging technologies – their applications and implications are unpredictable and their effects have the potential to be disruptive in good and bad ways. But there is lots that divides them. Some emerging technologies are defined by how they do things. So called ‘platform-technologies’ or ‘enabling technologies’ like synthetic biology provide new ways of doing a whole lot of different stuff. So a synthetic biologist may use his process to create a new malarial drug, or he might be able to create a new biofuel. Jay Keasling, incidentally, has done both of these things. Nanotechnology shares some of these features, except that it is not as well defined. It bundles together a load of disparate research and innovation activity. For people interested in governance, the challenge posed by syn bio and nano is that they, as Alfred Nordman has described, promise “to change everything but nothing in particular”. The open-endedness of their futures separates them from GM crops, for example. We need to disaggregate the term so that we can useful discussions about particular research fields or technologies. In the early stages of imagination about such platform technologies, we typically see hilarious cycles of hype and doom – their possibilities tends towards science fiction. But these visions are nevertheless important and powerful. And they need to be opened up.
Geoengineering, on the other hand, is defined by its intentions (I wrote about this here). Its target is a future in which we are able to influence the climate. This doesn’t mean that geoengineering researchers desire this future. Many of them would despise such a prospect. But they are interested in it. So while nano and syn bio are defined by the how, geo is defined by its why. This invites different sorts of governance and difference sorts of public engagement.
The Royal Society’s Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative has been tackling this head on. Watch this space.