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.

Today the 1933 World’s Fair slogan seems altogether crass. But have we earned our cringe? We’d like to think that we’re more realistic about science and technology innovations. We want to believe that, in some collective sense, we’re in control of their broad direction. But are we less giddy about the techno-future now than we were back then?  Does technology innovation now serve human needs rather than the imperatives of commerce? Have we devised social and cultural innovations for shaping new technologies – do we have robust democratic mechanisms that encourage citizens and communities to participate meaningfully in decisions about their development, use and regulation?

I’m afraid that the habits of exaggerating the benefits of new technologies and minimizing their unwanted down sides are with us still. And in my view there’s huge room for improvement in our capacity for democratic governance of technology innovation.

Part of the problem is a lag in acknowledging how technology innovation now typically unfolds. Popular perceptions of scientific and technological development still feature white-coated researchers toiling late into the night for the benefit of humanity (or demented Dr. Frankensteins heedlessly pursing their own grand ambitions). To whatever extent these images may have once been realistic, they are now downright misleading. Technology innovation is increasingly dominated by large-scale commercial imperatives. Over the past century, and ever more so since the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act (an attempt to spur innovation by allowing publicly funded researchers to profit from their work), innovators have become scientist-entrepreneurs, and universities something akin to corporate incubators.

Commercial dynamics have become particularly influential in the biosciences. It’s hard to imagine any scientist today responding as Jonas Salk did in 1955, when he said with a straight face that “the people” own the polio vaccine. “There is no patent,” he told legendary news broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. “Could you patent the sun?”

Of course, entrepreneurial activity in technology and science often delivers important benefits. It can bring new discoveries and techniques to fruition quickly, and make them available rapidly. Some recent commercial technologies, most notably in digital communication and computing, are stunning indeed.

But how far have we come from the slogan of the 1933 World’s Fair? Technology developers still routinely present their plans either as “inevitable” or as crucial for economic growth. As for the rest of us, we have few opportunities to deliberate – especially as citizens, but also as consumers – about the risks as well as the benefits of technology innovations. Twenty-first century societies and communities too often wind up conforming to new technologies rather than finding ways to shape their goals and direction.

In considering the future of human reproductive, genetic and related technologies (this is the major focus of my organization, the Center for Genetics and Society), the prospect of conforming to the imperatives of science and industry carries a chillingly literal implication. Scattered but persistent voices advocate that we “design” or “engineer” the traits of our children and of future generations. Some enthusiasts acknowledge that this would likely exacerbate social inequality; they recognize the very real possibility of a GATTACA-like future peopled with genetic haves and have-nots. But they remain gung-ho. Others fail to challenge such visions on the shaky libertarian grounds that an individual’s choice to alter the human species should trump commitments to social justice and human rights.

Fortunately, these are minority views.  Inheritable genetic modification is opposed by large majorities in opinion surveys, and has been formally rejected in the laws of nearly 50 countries. Unfortunately, there is no such policy in the U.S. Nor does the U.S. meaningfully regulate assisted reproductive technologies as other industrial democracies do.

What’s needed now is a new kind of biopolitical thinking. Toward that end, here are five principles that I believe should inform deliberation about innovation in human biotechnologies (and other major technologies as well):

  • First, let’s acknowledge that the practices and products of science are inherently political [PDF]. They affect us collectively, shaping our communities and the larger world we share. That inescapable fact makes it legitimate—in fact obligatory—to subject powerful new technologies, including human biotech and related emerging technologies, to social negotiation and, when appropriate, to responsible control.
  • Second, we need systematic, inclusive, and robust public conversations about the consequences of technology innovations and the values they support or undermine. This is especially challenging for reproductive and genetic technologies because of Americans’ strongly divergent views about beginning-of-life matters. If we can establish habits of thoughtful deliberation about these technologies, we’d have taken a big step forward.
  • Third, the known and potential social consequences of technology innovations – not just their safety and efficacy – should be systematically included in our evaluations. We should particularly assess their impacts on socially and economically vulnerable populations.
  • Fourth, we should draw on the lessons of previous efforts by socially concerned scientists and their supporters—the “atomic scientists,” environmentalists, public health advocates, and others—to safeguard human health and the environment, bolster responsible science, and build a more just society. We should be skeptical of technological fixes for social problems, and of innovations that serve elite groups rather than the public interest and the common good.

The good news is that a new approach to biopolitics is taking shape, one that supports technology innovation when it serves human needs and socially defined goals, and when its broad directions are shaped by democratic governance. A growing network of civil society leaders, public intellectuals, and scientists is taking on the challenge. Contact CGS for more information.

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Marcy Darnovsky, PhD, is Associate Executive Director at the Center for Genetics and Society, a Berkeley, California-based public affairs organization working to encourage responsible uses and effective societal governance of reproductive and genetic biotechnologies.

More information:

Center for Genetics and Society www.geneticsandsociety.org

Biopolitical Times www.biopoliticaltimes.org

More about the guidelines for 21st-century biopolitics:

“Political Science: Progressives can’t—and shouldn’t—remove politics and values from science,” Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Summer 2009 http://www.democracyjournal.org/article.php?ID=6700

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