In the last very few years, we are assisting to a growing opinion stream highly concerned about the dangers and risks generated by a hugely fast and extremely wide-ranging technological innovation, mainly driven by digital technologies, increasingly experimented by many as “out of control”.
To be honest, we have to admit that the fears about technical innovation are nothing new: examples range from the luddite movement in late Eighteen century Great Britain up to the concerns of Max Weber, one of the founding fathers of Sociology, at the beginning of the last century about the “iron cage” represented by rationality and control, and includes among the major figure the Us historian and intellectual Lewis Mumford and his warning, in mid-twenty century, against the rising of a “mega machine” and the authoritarian consequence of technological innovation on human life.
Nevertheless, what happened since the popular diffusion of the internet in the mid-90s has been the proliferation of a sort of illusion about the eminently positive consequences of the so-called “digital revolution”. Economic players and politicians foreseen in digital technologies new possibilities for economic grow and development; radicals and left-wings activists understood digital tools as weapons to contrast authoritarian powers and to establish global network of protest; artists discovered that new technologies could enhance their expressivity and expand sensorial communication in an unprecedented way.
Intellectuals and social scientists also were keen on revealing how digital communication was not producing an artificial experience, but was rather a rearticulating of long standing human beings’ attitudes to interact and communicate by means of some kind of medium or artefact. Be the way scholars like me, interested in the relationship between technology and society, spent the last two decades to show that technology is not evil, it is just as any other pieces of our life: messed and complicated, but nothing to oppose against.
Embodying this shift of the perspective on the role of technology in society, “The Ethics of invention”, the most recent book by Harvard professor Sheila Jasanoff, a leading scholar in the field of the social study of science & technology, is an invitation to reflect in a more solid and nuanced way on the backsides and the problems produced today by technological innovation. The major answer posed by Jasanoff across the book is: how can we restore democratic control over technological forces that appear too rapid and unpredictable to be answered through traditional political recipes?
To build up an answer, Jasanoff starts by considering that, despite all the benefits “technological civilization is not just a bed of roses” and that the acceleration of innovation is today putting at stake the very meanings and values we attribute to human beings. As said, going along this pattern, Jasanoff embrace a shift of perspective about the consequences of technology in society, a shift that can be retraced easily in today’s society’s reflections about technology.
Take for example the case a father of the personal computer, Bill Gates, that is now calling for a tax on those robots in manufacturing that he has contributed to create along his career; or the episode involving the co-founder of Twitter, Ed Williams, who apologized for his platform’s role in the unhappy election of Donald Trump as US president.
More profoundly, this shift is emblematized by the u-turn of perspective by one of the most prominent internet scholars, MIT professor Sherry Turkle, who in since the 80’s contributed – especially with his books “The Second Self” (1984), and “Life on the screen”, (1995) to point out the positive role of computers in people lives and psychologies, but who has now turned herself into a fierce critic voice against the role of mobile devices in our lives, warning us that that “caring machines challenge our most basic notions of what it means to commit to each other” (S. Turkle, “Reclaiming Conversation”, 2015).
All this is to say that this need to radically rethink the consequences technological innovation in society and, to fight for regaining control over the direction we are going thanks to technology represents an increasingly recognized and transversal concern. Back to Jasanoff’s book, at the beginning she points out what she thinks are the three major treats that the current technological innovation is posing to us.
The first are the risks of potentially catastrophic dimensions that technological development is bringing in sectors such as environment (especially climate change), nuclear conflict (coming back today to be an actual menace for the first time after the fall of the Iron Curtain), new infectious diseases or even economic risks for people and workers, favoured by the disruptive business models of firms such as Uber or Amazon.
The second major treat is represented by the inequality of the benefits that technological innovation is producing across the globe and different social classes. Life expectancy is increasing fast in developed countries, but is far to increase proportionally in African regions; at the same time, within rich countries, we see that the benefits of innovation and globalization are more easily perceived by upper classes, located in advanced urban areas, than in peripheral zones (something we observed in the political divisions during the recent US presidential election and Brexit vote).
Finally, a third and crucial issue is represented by the change of the meanings and values we recognize in human nature and human beings due to technical advancements. On the one hand, we assist to an increasing pressure to social fragmentation and to the weakening of those social ties that for long time have characterised the way we understand ourselves as humans; on the other, as Jasanoff points out, “endless new discoveries, especially in life sciences and technologies, tempt humanity to play out scripts of self-fashioning and control that could transform nature and humans in manipulable machines”.
All these three issues highlighted by Jasanoff (risks, inequality and treats to the human nature) today raise ethical legal and social dilemmas that call for deeper and wider responses. Once the major treats have been recognized, how is possible to unfold a revitalized reflection over the role of technology in our society? The basic answer proposed by Jasanoff is to avoid simplistic formulas to understand the implications of technology in society.
These simplistic formulas can be summed up by three misleading concepts highlighted by the Harvard scholar. The first is the tendency to conceive the power of technology in terms of “technological determinism”, i.e. the idea that technology, once invented, will turn into an autonomous and unstoppable force able to reshape society on the basis of its own logic.
The second is the idea of technocracy, that is the belief that technology should be imagined and produced mainly by experts and specialists, while citizens and end-users are only late adopters and therefore passive subjects in the process of technological innovation. The third and last is the idea that technology produces negative outcomes largely in forms of unintended consequences or collateral effects, expressions that imply the fact that it is not possible nor needful to imagine in advance the negative implications of innovation and foresee the things that could eventually go wrong.
What Jasanoff points out is that approaches influenced by technological determinism, technocracy and unintended consequences are wrong because they “tend to remove values, politics and responsibility out of the discussion about technology”, while “governing technology widely and democratically require us to look behind the surfaces of machines, at the judgements and choices that shaped how lines were drawn between what is allowed and what is not”.
Starting from this theoretical standpoint, across the nine chapters of the book Jasanoff focuses on several of the major problems about technology innovation and reflects on the most useful solutions for governing technology. The overall aim of the book is to show that technology is in fact far more “plastic and amenable to ethical and political oversight” than what we are induced to believe by the common discourses about technology as well as by catastrophic perspectives. “Only if we acknowledge the power of technology to shape our hearts and minds – Jasanoff concludes – will the discourses of governance shift from fatalistic determinism to the emancipation of self-determination”.