03 June 2012

Technology and society: understanding the present by disentangling clichés of the past

Growing up, I was taught formally and informally to consider myself part of the first generation born on the lee side of a mountain of social progress made by virtue of technological advance. The impact of technology and science on society and the extent of the overlap between technological advance and social progress have always been questions of perception. However, these particular perceptions are remarkable for the frequency with which they are invoked by makers of political and historical narratives and projected, contemporaneously or retrospectively, onto their respective subjects. Social scientists of all stripes depend on a uniform zeitgeist to resolve disarticulated and inconsistent realities into a legible description of our environment; but sometimes, the contexts used to frame more particular arguments become clichéd and inhibit alternative narratives that could give us greater insight into the dynamics of our world. While anti-vaccination advocates and homeopaths are locked in a narrative that puts modern science at odds with human welfare, they are facilitated by clichéd histories of whole eras entranced by the bounty of technological advance.

Complementary to claiming a new divergence between social and technological progress is the process of ascribing to previous generations a mindset that holds social and technological progress to be coterminous. The public’s great confidence in technology at the end of the 19th century is anecdotally attested in specific histories tangential to the perception of science, for example, with respect to the ‘unsinkable Titanic’ and the exaggerated confidence of the actors in the lead-up to World War I. Although this is the conventional, received understanding, it is not a well-referenced account. On the contrary, a search of literature on the history of the perception of science attests to the timelessness of such confidence, especially on the part of scientists (e.g. Badash 1971), with dissenters throughout the century portraying themselves as being on the cusp of a confidence crash (e.g. Merton 1938; Handlin 1965; Mazur 1977; Marx 1987). Midcentury nostalgia is a well-drawn cultural cliché, but popular representations and conceptions of the postwar period tend to be rather rosier than the reality may have justified; the looming threat of nuclear war, rampant, institutionalized discrimination and worse health outcomes do not usually counterbalance attractive, invented images of drive-in movies and hearty cooking. This inspection leads me to suspect that the great, past public confidence in science may be at least partially a contemporary, retrospective invention borne out of a false sense that mistrust in science is new. Indeed, a review of studies of the perception of science show that skepticism is likely to be much more continuous than periodic; society does not go through cycles of trust and mistrust, but rather always accommodates a varyingly vocal skeptical cohort. My grandmother was not the first to lament the loss of the good old days; to an extent, that’s just what grandmothers do. However, examples of grandmotherly dissenters tend to work their way into modern consciousness as historical oddities instead of as examples of a broader trend. It is easier to consider the Luddites, for example, as irrational reactionaries, than as the by-product of more generalized anxiety about the implications of the industrial revolution.

One anxiety that does seem to be particular to our time is an explicit worry of unintended consequences. Previously, mistrust of science and technology reflected uneasiness with the direct implications of advancement. But now, we have a certain awareness of how technologies can backfire in unexpected ways: global warming, thalidomide babies and dead birds have demonstrated over the latter half of the 20th century that the impacts of technology on society and the environment are not only unpredictable, but inconceivable. We are increasingly aware that negative consequences are possible via unknown causal pathways: common anxieties extend past car accidents and labour obsolescence to grey goo and feature creep. Merton, cited in another context above, formalized the notion of unintended consequences in the 1930s, but the generalization of such mistrust appears to be much more recent. Cautiousness along the lines of the universal adage ‘better safe than sorry’ (Fr: ‘mieux vaut prévenir que guérir’; De: ‘Vorsicht ist besser als Nachsicht’, etc.) is a well-established philosophy with respect to known risks. However, widespread appreciation of the inconceivability of certain negative outcomes attached to new technologies has promoted a cautiousness that now extends to unknown risks.

An appreciation of such unintended consequences effectively removes the presumption of benignity on the part of new technologies. The Precautionary Principle in environmental and public health management grew out of the 1992 Rio Declaration  and puts the burden of proof on the proponents of a technology or proposal. Otherwise said, the Precautionary Principle holds that the default assumption is that a technology or proposal is unsafe, pending scientific consensus to the contrary. The codification of this logic as a policy to deal with technology’s role in society has empowered a calculus on the part of the public to the effect that avoiding the potential but unknown risks of a given technology may well be worth forgoing its benefits. The Precautionary Principle, as formalized and embraced by regulatory bodies, calls for inaction only when there is legitimate unsettled science as to the safety of a proposal or technology; however, scientific ‘controversy’ is routinely manufactured by vocal laymen, and the Precautionary Principle is appropriated to encourage inaction based on as-yet unknown causal pathways. While specific anxiety about unintended consequences is justifiable, it is almost impossible to channel it into a rational response: it is based in principle on our incomplete knowledge of cause and effect. And yet, there is a long list of technologies subject to very vocal opposition based on possible impacts via pre-hypothetical modes of action: GMOs, wi-fi, vaccines (partially)… Even though there is little debate as to the safety of these things within mainstream science, the possibility of as-yet inconceivable risks still dominates decision-making. Forgoing the benefits of these technologies due to potential unintended consequences is much closer to ‘better the devil you know’ than ‘better safe than sorry’ and correspondingly closer to paranoia.

Scientific advance has always coincided with an increase in the interplay between technology, society, economy and environment. Varying perceptions of these relationships explains the fragmented conception of implications for social progress that have been a constant fixture. The reasons behind the false sense of newness attached to this conception are elusive, but this phenomenon does explain the projection of an artificial sense of confidence onto times gone by. While these phenomena have been constant, an explicit and legitimized anxiety over inconceivable consequences arising via pre-hypothetical causal pathways is new. To see this is to disentangle convenient, clichéd narratives used to frame specific histories and social commentary.


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