When the news of the latest advance in human genome editing broke I by happenstance was reading this vividly written book by Christopher Coker, called ‘Future War’- and he reminded me of this theory developed in the late 1970’s by a then obscure academic called David Collingridge. Collingridge argues that humankind currently finds itself in a double-bind as far as technological advances are concerned. Essentially, we can’t predict the future implications of an emergent technology in the early stages of its development; and by the time we begin to comprehend its impacts, its probably much too difficult to undo. The second point, is often understood to be where power-comes into play- that is to say, the creation of vested interest in established technologies, in the economic and socio-political sense makes suppressing such technologies, or identifying and addressing inherent failings, such as the of reproduction of systemic inequality, much more difficult.
My suspicion, is that power also plays a greater role in the first aspect of the dilemma- (i.e uncertainly) than we perhaps realise. A given societies’ ability to predict the future implications of a technology, and identify winners and losers ( in terms both which technologies succeed, and also in terms of societal implications) is to an extent the result of political decisions. So while there will always be some intrinsic limits to our ability to predict the future- much of these limits are conceptual and material. This point is of course not controversial- it is part of the reason we have seen calls in many ‘democratize’ innovation policy- which have led to the establishment of technological assessment capacities in previous decades. It also relates to recent work by Sheila Jasanoff, who has identified national styles of governance in relation to biotechnology in this area.
A provocative, and perhaps unhelpful question, I have at the moment- is which futures are we set up not to see with regard to the militarization of biotechnology? And is such unseeing just a public activity? Or is there a disconnect between discussions in the military and public domain? I am not certain such disconnect would be unexpected, unusual, or even problematic- but it strikes me as an interesting problem space. In particular, in relation to thinking about what debates we should be having beyond those dictated by the existing US dominated national security, and international arms control imaginaries.
Would be interested in the thoughts of others on this. As well as reading suggestions, which I will collate below.
Cover Image: Unattributed image of the year 2000 from a series of commissioned 19th century postcards.