This is the third or fourth blog I’ve started over the past 15 years or so, but I think they were in search of a reason to exist. Since I failed to supply them with one, they withered and died. Hopefully, this one will be different. To illustrate why, the first post is a review of sorts of a new book that attacks the need for socially responsible development in science and technology. It’s that interface, where S&T and society meet, that I also hope to probe and explore with this blog.
The book — Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies — was written by Dr. Andrew Maynard, a professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University. He also publishes his own blog, 2020Science.org, and is a prolific Twitterer at @2020science. I follow both, and you should too.
In the book, Maynard examines that public interface by looking at the relevant messages buried in various SciFi movies, and what lessons they provide for current and future innovation. The twelve examples range widely across major S&T areas e.g. Ex Machina for the dangers and possibilities of AI, Inferno for genetic manipulation, The Day After Tomorrow for climate change. It also includes one of my own favorites, The Man in the White Suit, an Alec Guinness whimsy from the 1950s about the invention of an indestructible fabric that threatens the then current industrial and labor norms.
He could have written a straightforward academic book on this subject, but his pitch is far more approachable for a general audience, which is what he seems to be aiming at. It was probably far more enjoyable for him in the writing, also, and allows him to expand at great length on the central themes of his argument.
“Each of the movies here has been selected because it provides a jumping-off point for exploring new and intriguing technological capabilities,” he writes, “and the challenges and opportunities these raise.”
His point is not to slam the dangers of emerging technologies, but to point out how our world is changing because of them, and what that might mean for the now and in the future. There are dangers for sure, and he doesn’t shy away from them, but there are also great gains that can be made. As he says, we live in incredible times, and the focus for that is “the often complex relationship we have with emerging technologies.”
For SciFi movie buffs out there, the examples Maynard chose are not all the best movie experiences (Elysium and Minority Report — meh!) but they do work for his goal of creating a narrative by which he can look at a number of trends in emerging technologies and what that means for society’s relationship with them. The book overall is entertainingly and well written, and should be welcomed and read widely. I hope it gets a big audience, because it’s one of the very few books that tackles the need for a thoughtful, moral and ethical approach to S&T innovation.
There’s a giant hole in the understanding of S&T by the general public, and even with those who should be more expert (looking at you, politicians!) After the blast of interest after World War II and the Space Race, public perceptions of S&T have swung almost 180 degrees, to where science is seen as an elite practice and technology is a sometime cesspool for rip off artists and thieves. But there’s no going back. Those people who want us to give it all up and revert to a simpler time, whatever that means, are living in a fantasy land. Our future IS one of S&T innovation, and we need to grapple with the complexities of that.
As Maynard says, there are many problems that S&T alone won’t solve. We can’t science the hell out of all of them. But, he writes, if we are smart about it and don’t fall prey to panic or become so enamored with the technology itself that we don’t recognize its downsides, “we have a decent chance of building a better future together by developing and using emerging technologies in ways that do more good than harm.”