Category: Technology innovation in the 21st century

By Tim Jackson, University of Surrey, UK A guest blog in the Alternative Perspectives on Technology Innovation series Are we a clever species or a stupid one?  It’s not a trivial question. Put our society in the dock with a jury of our future peers and the verdict would be far from clear cut. Exhibit A, m’lud: the leaf-blower. Here is an instrument of profoundly meaningless intent, powered by increasingly scarce fossil fuels. Pumping pollution directly into the atmosphere, the modern leaf-blower has a power rating of around 2,500 watts.  Its task: to chase leaves into hidden corners, from which, in the course of a couple of days with the onset of the next cold front they will be blown onto the streets again by the wind. But that’s OK, because we can send out the workforce a second time, ears muffled ineffectively against the relentless din, to repeat the task. And guess what? These adventures in mindless pollution will contribute positively to the Gross Domestic Product of the economy. Over and against the humble broom, you can clearly see how great an advance this innovation represents in the progress of a clever humanity. Hm yes…

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By George Kimbrell, International Center for Technology Assessment, and the Center for Food Safety A guest blog in the Alternative Perspectives on Technology Innovation series Andrew asked us to write about “how technological innovation should contribute to life in the 21st century.”  Technological innovation is often blindly referred to as “progress.”  The question is — progress towards what? We live in the age of technology.  In past generations, most people spent the majority of their time in nature, and then in later years more often in social settings.  In the modern world, most of us spend an ever-increasing amount of time in an interconnected web of machines.  I’d like to say I’m writing this on a riverside, but unfortunately I’m not – I’m in my office typing on my laptop, with my email open on a different web browser. What currently drives this technological innovation, this technological bubble that defines our age?  In modern society, self-interest, greater productivity, greater consumption, the laws of supply and demand and the commoditization of the world are all drivers.  This economic system, which has now succeeded in global hegemony, dictates all our social interactions. Far from being a natural state of being, it is of course only as old as the United States (Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published in 1776) and not based on any natural law.

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By Richard Worthington, Loka Institute A guest blog in the Alternative Perspectives on Technology Innovation series My first scholarly engagement with environmental politics was an honor’s thesis written while I was an undergraduate at Berkeley in the early 1970s.  Back then, the term “environmentalist” was frequently deployed to profile someone held to be a naïve, irresponsible and possibly dangerous enemy of the American Way of Life. The simple fact, however, is that concerns about environmental decay and support for environmental improvement have been consistently voiced by most Americans since the 1970s.  The strategy of branding environmentalists as extremists was therefore eroded by the enduring reality that most people who are active in this arena were and are ordinary folks who are confronted by extraordinary problems.

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By Richard Owen, University of Westminster, UK A guest blog in the Alternative Perspectives on Technology Innovation series This article was first published in Planet Earth, an award-winning magazine funded and published by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).  It is reproduced here with permission from Planet Earth and Richard Owen. In 1956 one of my favourite films hit the big screen: a classic piece of science fiction called Forbidden Planet. It tells the story of a mission in the 23rd century to a distant planet, to find out what has happened to an earlier scientific expedition. On arrival the crew encounter the sole survivors, Dr Morbius and his daughter: the rest of the expedition has mysteriously disappeared. Morbius lives in a world of dazzling technology, the like of which the crew have never seen. He had discovered the remnants of a highly advanced civilisation, the Krell, and an astonishing machine they had developed, the Plastic Educator. This could radically enhance their intellect, allowing them to materialise any thought, to develop new and wondrous technologies. Morbius had done the same. But something terrible had happened to the Krell: not only did the Plastic Educator develop their intellect, it also unwittingly heightened the darker sides of their subconscious minds, ‘Monsters from the Id’. In one night of savage destruction they were taken over by their own dark forces, leaving their advanced society extinct. Now I’m not going to tell you how it ends; you’ll have to watch the film yourself. And it would be fanciful to say that we are heading for the same fate as the Krell. But it is fair to say that our relationship with innovation can at times be troublesome, with consequences that can on occasion be global in nature.

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By Jennifer Sass Ph.D. Senior Scientist, Natural Resources Defense Council A guest blog in the Alternative Perspectives on Technology Innovation series We need make sure that harmful or untested nano-scale chemicals are not manufactured or commercialized in ways that may lead to human exposures or environmental releases. I know, I know, I sound like a Luddite. Well, I’m okay with that. The Luddites were an organized social movement of skilled textile artisans that gained notoriety in early 19th century Britain for their protestations against mechanized weaving looms. The Luddites correctly predicted that their jobs would be replaced by industrial factories, cheap labor, and dehumanizing working conditions. The term Luddite or Neo-Luddite is now a disparaging tag slapped on anyone that opposes new technologies. But the socioeconomic and geopolitical impacts associated with such changes – the real concern of the original Luddites – are rarely adequately addressed.

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By Geoff Tansey A guest blog in the Alternative Perspectives on Technology Innovation series Andrew posed the question, “How should technology innovation contribute to life in the 21st century?” For me, working on creating a well-fed world, the short answer is: in a way that supports a diverse, fair and sustainable food system in which everyone, everywhere can eat a healthy safe, culturally appropriate diet. For that to happen, we need a change of direction in which the key innovations needed are social, economic and political, not technological. And the question is:  what kind of technology, developed by whom, for whom, will help; who has what power to decide on what to do and to control it, who carries the risks and gets the benefits.

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By Georgia Miller, Friends of the Earth Australia A guest blog in the Alternative Perspectives on Technology Innovation series The promise that a given new technology will deliver environmentally benign electricity too cheap to meter, end hunger and poverty, or cure disease is very seductive. That is why the claims are made with many emerging technologies – nuclear power, biotechnology and nanotechnology, to name a few. However history shows that such optimistic predictions are never achieved in reality. In addition to benefits, new technologies come with social, economic and environmental costs, and sometimes significant political implications.

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By Gregor Wolbring A guest blog in the Alternative Perspectives on Technology Innovation series First let me thank Andrew for inviting me to write a piece for his blog. Andrew states that his blog is about “how technology innovation should contribute to living in the 21st century” and about “providing a clear perspective on developing science and technology responsible”. I will focus on two aspects here. Under ‘Innovation for whom’ I look at disabled people and their visibility in the science and technology (S&T) and problem identification discourses. Under ‘innovation for what’ I look at the issue of goals and ableism.

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By Marcy Darnovsky, PhD, Associate Executive Director of the Center for Genetics and Society A guest blog in the Alternative Perspectives on Technology Innovation series Much appreciation is due to Andrew for his courage in soliciting “alternative perspectives” on technology innovation and life in the 21st century.  I can’t help but observe that his nervousness about doing so is one small sign that something is amiss in what he calls “the interface between emerging technologies and society.” One challenge we face in mending that interface is a tendency toward over-enthusiasm about prospective technologies. Another is the entanglement of technology innovation and commercial dynamics. Neither of these is brand new. Back in the last century, the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair took “technological innovation” as its theme and “A Century of Progress” as its formal name. Its official motto was “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms.” The slogan shamelessly depicts “science” and “industry” as dictator – or at least drill sergeant – of humanity. It anoints industrial science as a rightful decision-maker about human ends, and an inevitable purveyor of societal uplift.

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2020 Science is something of a labor of love – it’s a website where I explore my thoughts and ideas surrounding the interface between science, technology and society beyond the constraints of my “day job” (currently Chief Science Advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson Center).  I like to think I bring a balanced and, on a good day, sophisticated perspective to the stuff I write about.  So I was intrigued and just a little taken aback when Jim Thomas at ETC Group, recently pointed out that, actually, I’m quite obviously flying the flag for the established pro-technology innovation camp.

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Part 9 of a series on rethinking science and technology for the 21st century Writing about completing the circle of science and technology policy at the start of the Copenhagen climate summit seems particularly fitting.  Although the climate change context was far from my mind when I started this series, it stands as a stark reminder of the consequences of unconstrained science and technology, the possibilities of using science and technology to create a better future, and the daunting complexities of crafting policies that get us as a society to where we want to be. Whether it’s dealing with climate change or innumerable other issues, the way we develop and use science and technology needs to be responsive to the challenges we face as a society, and the social, political and economic environment within which we face them.  Simply funding scientists to do what takes their fancy isn’t likely to deliver the goods in a world increasingly dominated by the three C’s – Communication, Control and Coupling.  Yet heavy-handed control of the science agenda is clearly not the answer—autonomy and open-ended research are essential to scientific discovery and innovation. So what’s the answer?  How do we ensure our investment in science and technology as a society achieves what we believe it should, without over-indulging a science elite, or stifling discovery and innovation?  At the end of the last blog in this series I suggested that we need increased feedback in the policy process to make it work better. Feedback loops take some of the output of a process and feed it back into the input – they’re a way of regulating a process so that it remains responsive, and doesn’t get out of control.  Of course, the business of policy is full of feedback loops.  In fact the whole political

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