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Science and Technology and the Future Development of Societies: International Workshop Proceedings C Science, Technology, and Society—The Tightening Circle GEORGE BUGLIARELLO Polytechnic University Since the beginning of civilization, the twin innate human quests of understanding nature in its physical, biological, and social aspect (what has come to be called science) and of modifying nature and building artifacts (the vast activity encompassing endeavors such as engineering, medicine, and agriculture, which we call technology) have had a fundamental impact on the evolution of human societies. They have also been indissolubly interconnected because to modify nature, we must understand it and to understand it, often we must manipulate it and build artifacts.1 It would be impossible within the confines of this paper to encompass the vastness, complexity, and, as Thomas Hughes (2004) put it, the messiness of the interactions among science, technology, and society; but we can attempt to adopt a systematic framework for addressing them and to exemplify some salient points.2 Repeatedly, the two unstoppable quests to understand and modify nature have changed societal views, have expanded the human reach, and have fundamentally transformed society, from the discovery of agriculture and metals to the industrial and information revolutions, to today’s biotechnological revolution. 1 At times science has preceded technology and vice versa, often with large time lags. William Thomson, first Baron Kelvin, who established the understanding of the existence of absolute zero temperature, insisted there were no conflicts between science and technology, practicing both as an academic and as a technological entrepreneur, helping get the first trans-Atlantic cable in place (Lindley, 2004). 2 The impacts assume at times transcendent qualities, as in the case of the Chinese invention of paper being highly regarded by early Muslims because it was being used for writing the words of God.
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Science and Technology and the Future Development of Societies: International Workshop Proceedings THE DOUBLE CIRCLE OF INTERACTIONS The two quests have affected the very core of societal beliefs, from cosmogony to the origins of life, have determined the fates of societies and nations, and have been impacted, in turn, by society, in a double circle of interactions (Figure C-1). The possibilities offered by engineering modifications of life are changing our very understanding of life and, for the first time, are providing us with the ability to modify life. The hard-fought acceptance of the concept of verifiable truth—the bedrock of science and technology—has pervaded many aspects of societies, from law to medicine to economics to education, offering a compass to guide an ever more complex world (making the issue of truth, in essence, also one of utility). Science and technology have transformed society’s views about the future, from the need to preserve our finite resources to the attempt to avert or mitigate the consequences of cataclysms previously believed to be acts of God and from pandemics to the glimmer of hope that one day we might be able to deflect some catastrophic asteroid hits. Equally immense but not always fully recognized is the influence of society on science and technology. The birth of astronomy responded to earlier religious needs for precise information about the movement of celestial bodies. Discoveries spurred by the school of Henry of Lancaster (Henry the Navigator) required the most extreme science and technology of the time, from mapping to nautical instruments to the caravels. Religious dogmas and political and social ideologies as well as different philosophies have in various periods exerted a determining influence on the course of science and technology (Pool, 1997), all the way to today’s stem cell FIGURE C-1 The double circle.
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Science and Technology and the Future Development of Societies: International Workshop Proceedings controversy. Clearly, the polarization between science and religion weakens societies and continues to be unresolved (Silver, 2006). The Greek philosophers believed in the fundamental unity and order of the world, leading them to scientific conclusions more from reasoning than from detailed observation. Greco-Roman law inspired a large segment of Islamic law. The five-element Yin and Yang theories of the Chinese helped the development of their scientific thinking, but, as Needham (2000) pointed out, their dominance simply went on too long so that China had no renaissance or reformation. Also, different philosophies affected the relation between time and science, with, for example, time for the ancient Chinese being one-directional and for the Hindus cyclical. The Chinese conception of harmony and the Hindus conception of the interpenetration of observation and observer (in a sense a forerunner of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle) have had profound impact on their science, as had, for the ancient Greeks, the conception of symmetry and balance. In the Koran, the concept of knowledge (ilm), the second-most recurring word, inspired inquiries in the areas of science, philosophy, and technology and led to respecting and preserving the texts of the ancient Greeks. As Needham observes, there is little to choose from between European and ancient Chinese philosophy with regard to the foundation of scientific thought, with Western scientific minds concerned with “what essentially is it?” and Chinese ones with balance; two equally important conceptions. In Europe in the seventeenth century, formal logic retarded independent thinking and became clearly inadequate to handle change. Thus, philosophical views set the stage for scientific and technological developments but can also channel and confine them. As Cyril Smith (1979) insightfully stated, if somewhat categorically, “discovery, from its very nature must at first be illogical, unforeseen and outside the framework that previously exists…. In moving beyond what is already known and well understood, logical thought is of less value than the complex reaction of the entire human being.” The Renaissance, with its new spirit of inquiry and discovery, opened the gates to new scientific and technological developments, and later, the French Revolution affirmed the separation between science and religion. Thanks to this new spirit, transportation networks that were the sinews of the Roman Empire, but had disappeared in the medieval fracturing, could be succeeded more than a millennium later in different form by the transportation networks of ships, roads, and railroads that supported the expansion of the British Empire and today’s global networks of telecommunications and aviation. The late-nineteenth-century creation of the research university became a mechanism for systematizing and accelerating the process of discovery, as first triggered by von Liebig’s laboratory in Germany. The industrialized battlefield in World War I and its exponential technological growth in World War II led to an unprecedented mobilization of science and technology and to the birth of formalized science and technology policies. And one cannot overlook the seminal influence of art over the millennia on the
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Science and Technology and the Future Development of Societies: International Workshop Proceedings development of science and technology, from the use of metals to Leonardo, and from the 1909 futurist manifesto to today’s new art media. Thus, society’s political systems, culture, and organizations are the essential ingredients for the creation and enhancement of science and technology. Only well-organized societies are able to build large public works and logistic networks. The culture of Japan made possible its rapid modernization after 1854; today global corporations, financial institutions, and venture capital have become key enablers of discoveries and technological development. In general, the culture of the nineteenth century encouraged a great flourishing of science and technology, which in turn led to the modernistic culture of the twentieth century. However, society is not a monolith. Scientific and technological developments may impact certain aspects or parts of society faster or differently from others, whether one considers laws, the attitudes of leaders, military prowess, commerce, health, or education. At times the developments are handicapped by the short vision of society’s leadership, as when Napoleon missed the importance of the steamboat or the British Admiralty before World War I that of the submarine. Furthermore, there can be vast societal and scientific underestimates of the time to future developments, as when Aldous Huxley in 1931 predicted that human spaceflight would not occur before 2970 (Barrett, 1990) or when Wilbur Wright reportedly said to Orville in 1901, two years before their first successful flight in 1903: “Man will not fly for fifty years.” THE TIGHTENING OF THE CIRCLE The circle of reciprocal impacts of science, technology, and society and their propagation around the world have greatly accelerated in the past 100 years and even more in the past few decades, as exemplified by the spread of automobiles and cell phones, by the diffusion of new forms of entertainment, by rapid changes in the global economy, or by the proliferation of nuclear weapons since 1945. The interaction of the science–technology–society circle with the environment is also tightening, as is evident from global warming or the deadly failures of societal responses to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and to Katrina. The circle is tightening not only in the interaction of science, technology, and society but also within each of its components—within science, for example, in the biological field with its impact on other areas of science; within technology, where innovations build on innovations; and within society, with accelerated changes in art, in our views of history, and archeology (Gere, 2005) and in concepts of human needs and rights. A significant factor in the tightening of the circle is technology transfer, a sociotechnological process that began when we emerged as a distinct artifact-creating species and the knowledge of our inventions spread from neighbor to neighbor. Today, more than ever before, the future of nations, economies, industry, health care, education, and other key human activities is profoundly affected
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Science and Technology and the Future Development of Societies: International Workshop Proceedings by the effectiveness of the complex sociotechnological aspects of that process and of national systems of innovation. Although accelerating, the circles of science, technology, and society interactions often have played out over very long periods of time and may continue to do so. Some 2,500 years elapsed from the Phoenician invention of glass to that of optics and the telescope; another 500 years elapsed before the invention, in rapid succession, of lasers and fiber optics, with their expanding societal impacts from communications to medicine. Similarly, 2,500 years separate the philosophical atomistic conception of Demokritus from Bohr, Seaborg, Fermi, and the subsequent nuclear military and civilian applications. Rocketry, probably an early Chinese invention and used extensively in India in the late 1700s by Tippu Sahib, eventually made possible intercontinental missiles, Sputnik in 1957, and the 1969 Moon landing, with geopolitical impacts from militarization of space to the concept of “Spaceship Earth,” to new international laws defining the limits of national sovereignty in space. Information is yet another example of recent acceleration of a long cycle, with a 1,600-year gap separating the Library of Alexandria from Gutenberg and the Reformation, 500 years separating Gutenberg from the first Apple computer, 22 years from the Apple to the Internet, and only four years from the Internet to the World Wide Web in 1993. CONSEQUENCES The speed of scientific and technological developments is straining the ability of society to adjust to them, as in the case of globalization; to control them, as in the case of nuclear weapons proliferation; and to take full advantage of the opportunities they offer, such as those of genomics and genetic engineering. The greater the speed, the greater is the penalty for being left behind and being unable to innovate, as happened to the Ottoman Empire after the seventeenth century, to China between 1500 and 1950, and more recently to the former Soviet Union. The greater the speed, the greater are the possible unintended consequences. The diffusion of the automobile, particularly in the United States, led to extended suburbs and has created the enormous geopolitical pressures we are experiencing today because of the need for oil. Industrialization is leading to global warming; information technology led, through the radio, to women’s active political participation in the United States and today is giving us unfathomable cyber vulnerabilities, the weakening of national sovereignty, and the centralization of diplomacy and the conduct of war (Bugliarello, 1996). Worrisome job dislocations result from globalization, and genetic engineering is provoking religious backlash and raising concerns about discrimination in insurance and in the workplace. We are still trying to determine the possible unintended consequences of nanotechnology and genetically modified foods (Ross, 2006). The ever-tightening of the circle
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Science and Technology and the Future Development of Societies: International Workshop Proceedings exacerbates the problem in that new technological inventions outpace by necessity the crucible of evolution that operates in the biological world, even if the extinction patterns of biological species and business firms might be guided by the same laws of failure (Kean, 2006; Ormerod, 2006). FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS Three fundamental questions arise from the circle of science–technology–society interactions: questions of science, that is, how can we go about understanding nature, and what are the limits to our understanding (for instance, is the origin of the universe knowable?); questions of engineering and technology, that is, how can we go about modifying nature; and questions of societal ethics, that is, how far should we go in doing so (Figure C-2)? These three fundamental questions lead to more specific derivative ones, such as: Science for whom? If something can be built, should it be built (the question of technological determinism, as in the case of cloning or of weapons of mass destruction)? What is the nature of the contract between science and society? Should there be one, explicitly or implicitly? What policies should guide it? (The control of science and technology by society is easy enough. The trick is how to leave room for new ideas, discoveries, and innovations.) What are the societal settings necessary for changes of scientific paradigms and technological innovations? Why do some societies develop through sophisticated science and technology while others stagnate? The questions of expectations and of progress loom large in the public understanding of science and technology, often leading to exaggerated expectation of further developments (Sigma Xi, 1993). A facet of the problem is an increasing blurring today of the boundary between superstition and science, which has sci- FIGURE C-2 Fundamental questions in the interaction of science, engineering, and society.
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Science and Technology and the Future Development of Societies: International Workshop Proceedings entists spending much time in attempting to promote scientific and technological literacy and in re-explaining established scientific principles to a general public that is not rationally informed. Unfortunately, the task is made more difficult because many branches of science and technology have become hermetic to the outside, and education has, by and large, failed to convey to the general public the criticality of the efforts of fact-finding and the anguish of decision-making in creating new technologies and in modifying nature. The question whether science and technology represent real progress inevitably arose after the hecatombs of World Wars I and II and also persists because of the enduring poverty of billions. Closely connected to these questions are those of the relation of science and technology to religion, ethics, freedom, and government, crystallized by the debates about stem cells or creationism and about the relation of scientific truth to other truths. The relation of government to science and technology is complex (Morgan and Peha, 2003): Democracy encouraged the development of Western science, but nondemocratic societies such as the Chinese, the Persians, the Hindus, and the Muslims also developed impressive science. In certain respects, this occurred even with some absolute forms of government, but the intrinsic lack of systems of checks and balances inevitably led to wrong turns, as in the direction of biology in the Soviet Union under Lysenko or the case of Galileo under papal absolutism. These questions and issues need to be revisited every generation and with every major new scientific, technological, and social development. The ability to do so is crucial to our future, a future that the ever-tightening double circle of interactions of society, science, and technology thrusts upon us with ever greater speed and consequences. URGENT ISSUES At the beginning of this century, a host of very urgent issues confronts us, as discussed in a recent publication (Bugliarello and Schillinger, 2004). Even a partial list underscores their criticality: (a) global sustainability in the light of the eco-environmental impact of the unprecedented growth of human populations and their exploding concentration in cities, which now encompass about one-half of the world’s population; (b) the need for a new paradigm for the role of human work in society as the dream of delegating work to machines begins to be realized, with humans being increasingly displaced by machines and automation and not any longer automatically definable through their jobs; (c) the seemingly irreducible problem of poverty, with still more than one-fifth of the human race below the poverty level; (d) our reliance on some technological systems so complex as to make it impossible, with potential catastrophic consequences, to completely predict their performance; the mitigation of disasters, made ever more dangerous by the concentration of populations in areas at risk; (f) the changing face of war, now more precise in its ability to reach physical targets, but also potentially more lethal; (g) the needed revolution in health care because of genetic engineering
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Science and Technology and the Future Development of Societies: International Workshop Proceedings and other technologies and also because of the enormously pressing questions of affordability and of the protection against pandemics, now enabled to migrate at unprecedented speed; (h) the sustainability of food and water resources; (i) the emergence of biomachines, combining attributes of both biological organisms and machines; and (j) the prospect of creating artificial life. The complexity of these issues demands ever more urgently a societal ethic to define what we should or should not do. Approaches and answers are different across cultures, but they need to be harmonized if a world endangered by the actions of humans and by natural cataclysms is to have a human future. Our species must endeavor to agree as to the fundamental issues it faces, forming, as it were, a superhighway of fundamental principles receiving inputs from various local ethics. That is, can our field of view be expanded to possibly identify ethical and behavioral aspects to which, consciously or not, all cultures subscribe? The ultimate responsibility of science and technology to society—and vice versa—is to give wings to moral force and to do the utmost for the sustainability of our world and the survival of our species. We are now in what could be the midpoint in the existence of the Earth, from its genesis five billion years ago to its possible end five billion years from now (Bugliarello, 2000). If up to this point natural selection and speciation have dominated and humans have adapted to the environment, the future of our species will be determined by the concurrent evolution in the social, biological, and machine domains. This “biosoma” evolution is the result of the ever-tightening circle of interactions of science, technology, and society, in all their complexity, their dangers, and their promise. It demands, if it is to have a future, the fostering of a new way of thinking. REFERENCES Barrett, D. B. 1990. Chronology of futurism and the future. In Encyclopedia of the Future, G. T. Kurlan and G. T. T. Molitor, eds. New York: Simon & Schuster, Macmillan. Bugliarello, G. 1996. Telecommunications, politics, economics, and national sovereignty: A new game. Technology in Society–An International Journal 18(4):403–418. Bugliarello, G. 2000. The Biosoma: The synthesis of biology, machines, and society. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 20:452–464. Bugliarello, G., and G. Schillinger, eds. 2004. Technology and science entering the 21st century. Special Issue, Technology in Society—An International Journal: 26:99–536. Gere, K. 2005. The Tomb of Agamemnon. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Hughes, T. P. 2004. Human-Built World. How to Think About Technology and Culture. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. Kean, S. 2006. Nothing succeeds like failure. Science 312:531. Lindley, D. 2004. Degrees Kelvin: A Tale of Genius, Invention & Tragedy. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press. Morgan, M. G., and J. M. Peha, eds. 2003. Science and Technological Advice for Congress. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future. Needham, J. 2000. Science and Civilization in China. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
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Science and Technology and the Future Development of Societies: International Workshop Proceedings Ormerod, P. 2006. Why Most Things Fail—Evolution, Extinction and Economics. New York: Pantheon. Pool, R. 1997. Beyond Engineering—How Society Shapes Technology. Oxford, UK and New York: Oxford University Press. Ross, P. E. 2006. Tiny toxins? Technology Review 108(2). Available at: http://www.technologyreview.com/read_article.aspx?id=16814&ch=nanotech. Accessed March 31, 2008. Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, 1993. Ethics, Values and the Promise of Science, Forum Proceedings. Research Triangle Park, NC: Sigma Xi. Silver, L. M. 2006. Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life. New York: Ecco, HarperCollins. Smith, C. S. 1979. Remarks on the discovery of technique and on sources for the study of their history. In The History and Philosophy of Technology, G. Bugliarello and D. B. Doner, eds. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.