Democracy versus innovation: the need to look critically at technological promises

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While all kinds of new technologies will affect our future world to a great extent, there is no proper democratic discussion about the desirability of these new technologies. This is mainly because there is no good idea in the public debate about how technological development works and with that there is no notion of how technology could be steered. But we have to realize that innovation is always made by people, which compels us to think about how to influence the choices of the people that make technology. Important in this is the role of promises made by technology developers. These promises are aimed at acquiring the resources needed to further develop a technology. The credibility and desirability of such promises is almost never approached critically, while it is precisely such a critical approach that could make a democratic debate about innovation possible.

It often seems that the arrival of new technology is something inevitable. Crispr-Cas 9, smart algorithms, the self-driving car, robots, nanotechnology and so on, are all seen as inventions that cannot be controlled by society. Yes, society can shout out ‘no’, but that is again seen as backward or overly romantic, because who doesn’t want progress?

This way of looking at technology is both incorrect and frustrating. First, it simply does not match the facts, and, secondly, it prevents us from making technologies that are better.

Where does this false image come from? A first reason is the idea that technology is applied science. As if a scientific discovery is to be destined to become a new innovation. That is nonsense, there are countless discoveries that have never led to a new technology. First someone has to come to the idea of ​​whether such a discovery has an application somewhere – the step from quantum mechanics to CDs is not at all an obvious step. There are also many technologies based on phenomena that are not understood by anyone, but hey, if it works, it works.

(Between brackets, it is much more sensible to see science as applied technology. All those laboratory setups, those computer models, tele- and microscopes, it’s these instruments that bring us new insights. What we see with our naked eyes is not trustworthy enough to be turned into facts.)

A second reason why the false image of an inevitable technology is maintained is that it is easy. If something goes wrong, nobody has to take the blame. This is not only due to laziness or the neoliberal (and very malignant) mantra that legislation hampers innovation, it is also difficult to blame someone for the possible negative consequences of new technology: usually these are unintended and also the consequences of an innovation depend on so many factors that you cannot almost never only blame its developer. In short, because of the absence of bad intentions and the impossibility to estimate the eventual consequences, it is unfair to hold an individual innovator accountable for cases in which a technology goes wrong.

We need to develop a different image of innovation, a correct image that helps us to understand how technologies are developed so that the process of innovation can be democratized and that, moreover, enables us to hold technology developers responsible for their actions, at east to a certain extent.

This correct image is based on the simple fact that a technology is always the result of certain choices made by people – a technology does not make itself. To be specific, it is about the choice to allocate resources. One of the most important resources is time: someone must be crazy enough to develop a technology. In this, the inventor who works for decades on the umpteenth perpetuum mobile in his shed is not different from the nerd from Silicon Valley who comes with a new app. Another important resource is money. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about companies that have to make financial means available for R&D or about start-ups that need investors to develop their product further – they all need money. Another resource is knowledge. The fact that technology is not an applied science does not mean, that knowledge is not needed to make today’s technology. In fact, today’s technology only becomes more complex and therefore requires more and more knowledge, just like it requires more time and money. But there are more resources, such as the institutions that should make the further introduction of the new technology possible (or in any case should not resist it). Laws, policies, the rules of the market, networks of actors that support the success of your technology, social support and so on.

If you want to study technology development, you should mainly look at the resources that are being spent. What you also need to look at are the motivations of those who devote their scarce resources to a new technology form which you never know whether it will have any success. There is the faith of the lonely inventor and there is the wage of the professional who works at a R&D department of a company. But what is especially interesting is to look at how someone manages to sell this belief to others.

That means we have to look at the promises a technology developer makes to acquire the resources he needs to make his technology a success. A first type of promise is that a new technology will make an investor money or that it will solve a business problem. Here, you could think of a new product or a new administrative system. Another kind of promise, which plays a greater role in the more fundamental forms of technology development such as genetic modification or nanotechnology, is that a new technology will help to solve a major social problem. Genetic technology and nanotechnology are supported by the medical and social breakthroughs that they can bring about. The climate problem also lends itself to all kinds of technical solutions.

All too often you can hear promise makers cry out that there should be no ban on genetic modification, because you do want fight global hunger, right? Please, invest in nanotechnology because maybe that leads to the cure of cancer. And besides, if the West will not do it, then the Chinese will. So just put your trust in us.

What also works is referring to previous successes. I already mentioned that without quantum mechanics, we would not have CDs, a willingly expressed argument to legitimize new investments in fundamental physics. Because you never know which gadgets we will have in the future due to science.

Someone who has turned making promises into a business model is Elon Musk. One success, the Tesla, is used to convince investors to put money into a host of other technologies – even though most of these are rather silly. So there is a mission to Mars, which should be the solution to the climate problem on Earth, there is the improved brain, which should be a solution for our limited mind, there is the Hyperloop that is to counter congestion, but mostly looks like a sewer system that allows you to flush people.

Promises that create great expectations therefore are essential for acquiring the resources needed to turn a technology into something real. There is a cyclical dynamic in which promises can lead to the fulfillment of these promises, which can support the legitimacy of new promises. In cases that a technology is not successful, it is precisely the shortage of resources that gets the blame: too little money, too much legislation, society was not ready. Promise makers have little difficulty to express such arguments while their credibility remains unexamined.

But is it all that desirable not to question big technological promises? What promises should we actually find worth pursuing. And how credible are these promises? Are the problem definitions that are intrinsic to a promise correct and do they not exclude alternative definitions?

We can go to Mars, but is that the solution to the climate problem? I don’t think so. Even if we can manipulate the climate on Mars in such a way that people can live there, the climate on Earth will still be much more attractive, even with a sea level rise of a six meter. If not Mars, what about geo-engineering, a solution proposed by others? Is that a solution? Perhaps if you see climate change as the main problem, but is it not so that the real problem is that that we are polluting too much and is it not more sensible to find a solution to that problem?

Does a sewer system for people really mean that we will not be stuck in traffic jams any longer? If it concerns one Tesla, then that tube will solve congestion, but not much will be gained if we all go underground. Though what we will have are seismic risks, a good target for terrorists and an endless series of lawsuits about fundamental rights.

The problem is that we do have discussions about the desirability of technologies, but never about the desirability and credibility of technological promises – while exactly these seem to be decisive. If we really start thinking about a democratic debate about the sort of technology we want and about the responsibilities we want to designate to technology developers, then we should talk about the promises that are made, about the expectations that are being cultivated, about which social problems have to be solved and about the extent to which you can ask promise-makers to account for their promises.

Further reading:

Bijker, Wiebe E (1997) Of bicycles, bakelites, and bulbs: Toward a theory of sociotechnical change: MIT press).

Borup, Mads, Nik Brown, Kornelia Konrad & Harro Van Lente (2006) ‘The sociology of expectations in science and technology’, Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 18(3-4):285-98.

Latour, Bruno (1987) Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society: Harvard university press).

Rip, Arie & René Kemp (1998) ‘Technological change’, in S. Rayner & E.L. Malone (eds), Human Choice and Climate Change (Columbus: Battelle Press): 327-99.


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