Friday, October 11, 2013

Science, technology and ignorance

Following on from an earlier post, I want to consider the relationship between technology and knowledge, and the illusions to which our thinking about it is subject. In this piece, John Kay provides examples of two such illusions in the space of four lines or so:
Knowledge is more than additive. What we learn when we bring two bodies of knowledge together may be much more than the sum of each alone. That is why the technological improvements that make it easier to gain access to that knowledge are so important. We do not know what we will discover, only that there is a lot still to be discovered. (emphasis added)
 Technological innovation, Kay assumes, necessarily adds to our knowledge about the world - but does not do so in a straightforwardly linear ('additive') way. Secondly, that 'there is a lot still to be discovered' about the world qua object of natural-scientific investigation. The first is not necessarily false, but it is only part of the story. The second, however, contains an actually false view of the relationship between science, technology and the world scientific research investigates.
Lunar Eclipse (from

The problem in both cases is Kay's refusal to acknowledge the relationship between science, technology and ignorance - which is, to be precise, that technological innovation (whether through the translation of scientific research, or more commonly, through tinkering and bricolage) creates ignorance as well as knowledge. Scientific research too can create ignorance, insofar as new discoveries reveal new aspects of nature about which we know nothing. But leaving this aside for a moment, the issue with technological innovation is that it is an engine of novelty. It adds things to the world that, as I noted in the post referred to above, tend to condition our lives and transform them in unexpected ways.

If we focus on the significance of this for our knowledge of the consequences of innovation, however, then Kay's errors become clear. As Joachim Schummer has pointed out, the production of new technologies (and particularly the 'naturalised' kinds I wrote of earlier), by adding new entities to the world, extends our ignorance. How will these entities behave in relation to already existing entities (natural in origin or not). In this sense, it is not so much that so much of the dark continent of ignorance still remains to be explored, but that through our creativity we are adding to it all the time, even as we simultaneously domesticate more of it. The assumption of linear progress behind Kay's remark about discovery is therefore entirely incorrect.

Certainly, innovation may enable us to add to our knowledge of the world. But the multiplier effect Kay casts in an optimistic light is not so unambiguous either. As Ian Hacking has pointed out,1 the combination of different bodies of knowledge may achieve precisely the opposite effect to that Kay describes. A particular technological artefact may be dependent on two or more different bodies of scientific knowledge, as much in the case of Hacking's entirely unromantic example of baffles developed to prevent fly ash pollution from chimneys, as in synthetic chemistry, biotechnology or nanotechnology. Yet neither body of knowledge may be capable of providing any basis for predicting the behaviour 'in the wild' of the artefact in question. Nor may the two bodies of knowledge necessarily be unifiable through something like a set of 'bridging laws' that allow propositions from one to be translated into propositions from the other.

In such cases, the existence of emergent 'interference effects' cannot be predicted - though, Hacking writes, it may be generally expected. While Kay writes in his article that the two technology commentators to whom he listened, one pessimistic and one optimistic about the prospects of technological innovation, both convinced him, his own viewpoint seems - epistemologically speaking, anyway - wildly optimistic. For the reasons laid out above, innovation makes it difficult to assess the consequences of what we do before we do it. But if we are less convinced than Kay seems to be that there is a fixed quantity of ignorance in the world, then we may decide we are not sure whether we want to find out what these consequences might be. And this creates ethical and political dilemmas.

1 Hacking, I. (1986). Culpable Ignorance of Interference Effects, in Values at Risk. D. MacLean. Totowa NJ, Rowman and Allanheld: 136-154.

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