A recent World Changing post reacts to a CRN (Center for Responsible Technology) blog entry on the potential uses of nanotechnology. The World Changing essay warns against focusing on technology as the perennial silver bullet to societal ills, and is especially critical of "technophiles" who tout future technology in lieu of taking viable action today. As an example; why focus on nanotechnology to solve malaria problems when mosquito nets that are currently available can be used to help prevent this serious disease?
The point is well taken, and certainly it's nice to see people coming around to articulate this. But it seems to me that CRN's blog is a somewhat weak rhetorical launch pad for such an argument. So I could leave it at that, but the World Changing article and its juxtapositon to the CRN article motivate me to make a couple counterpoints. The WC article strongly distinguishes between two types of "technophiles", those who hue to a "technoprogressive" agenda, and the others;
"market libertarian technophiles who like to handwave about abstract indefinite futures in which injustice will somehow evaporate so as to help justify their own ugly indifference to injustice today".
With a flourish of typing and disdainful curl of the upper lip, the author categorically divides the sage "progressive", from the ignorant "market libertarian technophiles". It's a tempting idea, but I suggest we consider that "market libertarian technophiles" don't suffer from "ugly indifference to injustice". Perhaps they evolve their thinking via patterns something like this:
Budding scientists quickly learn that attaching social significance to grant proposals piques interest and justifies pleas for scarce and competitive funding. This optimism is carried to non-scientific venues, where fairly tedious, time-consuming, trial and error lab science -- arcane work, gets abstracted by scientists for public digestibility. At cocktail parties, for instance, when asked "What do you do?"; savvy scientists know that lines like "I'm working to cure cancer via nanotechnology" generate interest and nods of approval; whereas stating the unvarnished truth such as, "I toil year after year to develop dual-FRET and peptide-linked molecular beacons and magnetic nanoparticle probes for deep tissue imaging, but wait, there's more...", will cause audience eyes to glaze over and people to sashay away.
So before you know it, all the scientist's friends from other disciplines -- the humanities, political science and business, are talking about the weird little gadgets that their cool science friends make which will surely cure cancer. They're all excited technophiles now. Vanilla technophiles.
Then the business friends move to corporations where the home pages claim "we're curing cancer" and two clicks away assure bleating stockholders with; "we're raking in gobs of money". Their political friends get elected and quickly realize that they can only raise taxes for stadiums--never schools or health. They lobby for market liberalization so that "everyone has access to cancer cures", and are incidentally rewarded with campaign money from their business friends for saying so. Now all the business people and politicians are libertarians because according to their very realistic world view, capital for funding technology comes from corporations not taxes.
All the while people in humanities stay in school forever to teach upcoming generations about technology, democracy, and equal opportunity.
Libertarian politics may not look pretty, but there is a coarse reality to the notion that money encourages technology progress. As far as "ugly indifference" goes, if you follow my more or less realistic narrative, do progressives really look more idealistic then "market libertarian technophiles"? To put it bluntly, at the far end of one ideological spectrum, 'bombs should be banned', looks just as pie in the sky as the opposite "abstract indefinite futures" of libertarians.
Technology manages to be a fairly neutral investment vehicle, so perhaps progressive and libertarian "technophiles" both turn a blind eye to politics. Perhaps they listen too literally to innocent 'cocktail party" optimism. Perhaps naivete collectively tricks us all into denial and social inertia, tricks us into throwing all our bets at technology so we don't have to face the odious task of negotiating with those who we consider to be imperialists, facists, covetous or greedy humans, pirates, or terrorists. Perhaps techno-centrism is a evil evolutionary trick so that we selfishly focus on our own success, our own families and pensions.
Scientists (who generally don't refer to themselves as technophiles) aren't always in control of the societal outcome of their work. But it doesn't mean most don't think seriously about it, and lobby for the positive influence of their work. They have to, or else they wouldn't get funding.
Perhaps all technophiles should think even more about politics. Maybe all progressives who tout equality for the 80% of the worlds poorest should live in a populous, oppressed countries, rile up revolutions, then witness the destruction necessary before "equal access" is wrested from autocrats to see how impossible achieving democratic freedom is. Perhaps Adam Smith reveling market optimists should labor day in and day out at the very bottom rungs of a corporation for twenty years or so to figure out just how much "freedom" flourishes there then not be able to retire because they have no social security or their pension got wrested away in a fit of corporate bankruptcy debt restructuring.
Ultimately science is as political as anything else, but we all need to know science in a realistic way and engage in technology discussions that both forward science and encourage understanding and participation. Perhaps we need to reassess our habit of encapsulating science for short, entertainment seeking attention spans. Maybe not. Whatever we do we need true science understanding on juries to vouch for DNA results, on school boards to vouch for evolution, and on presidential advisory panels to assess embryonic stem cell culture. I think it's unlikely that we could check everyone at the door first to make sure that their definition of "progress" appeals to our political sensibilities before allowing them to participate.
Above all, we need technophiles and scientists from all political persuasions who tolerate both people who lean towards free market optimism and those who lean towards social welfare optimism. We need people from all side willing to listen to the reasoning of each other.