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The Convergence of Science, Technology, and Nature

Brad Allenby writes that business interests have long worked to speed the creation, adoption and dispersal of new technologies into the economy; with the increasing global concern over climate change, they're also encompassing landscapes, biological operations and whole ecological systems, but to what end?

The rapidly increasing complexity of the anthropogenic world is driven not just by accelerating evolution within particular domains, such as science or technology, but by their convergence. The example of NBIC (nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and communication technology, and cognitive science) has been previously discussed in this column, but more difficult, particularly for environmentalists, may be the on-going convergence of science, technology, and nature.

In one way, the latter is simply a defining dynamic of the anthropogenic Earth, illustrated by, for example, the climate change and biodiversity dialogs. But these nascent efforts are heavily ideological, anachronistic and limited, and perforce so is our understanding; we are going to need to do far better if we are to perceive, and respond ethically and rationally to, that which our species has already created.

Students of economic and cultural history know that the current tight alignment between science, technology, and economic development is relatively recent. Western science accelerated past that of other cultures around perhaps 1600, whereas Western economies did not do so until the 19th century, indicating substantial lag time between scientific discovery and implementation in commercially viable technologies. That gap, however, has virtually disappeared. Not only are the lines between "basic" and "applied" research increasingly unclear and porous, but much scientific research has shifted from "curiosity driven" to "potential economic value" driven.

In large part, this reflects the enhanced role of the corporate sector, which now directly or indirectly controls increasing swaths of RD&D (research, development, and diffusion) in academia, governmental laboratories, and the like. This trend is strengthened by the dominance of market forces and globalization, which generate a hypercompetitive global environment inexorably driving firms, and nations, towards more rapid utilization of basic scientific and technological advances for economic or strategic advantage.

At the same time, globalizing science and technology (S&T) systems have become major mechanisms by which previously "natural" systems are integrated into human systems, especially global markets. This is happening, for example, with land, both through ownership and through derivative property rights such as carbon credits associated with specific uses; with biology, as wetware is converted to genomic and proteomic information, and then to intellectual property, and thus an economic system; and with resource systems such as fisheries, agricultural systems, and the like.

These trends have long existed, but are accelerating dramatically; moreover, they are increasingly coupled to each other. They also coalesce in a particular modern zeitgeist as "natural" systems are converted to commodities and thus internalized to the human project; "nature" not just as cultural construct, but as subset of the human.

That S&T is not just integrated with natural systems, but is also a major mechanism for their commoditization, has a number of cultural implications. To begin with, it means that accelerating S&T advances, and the integrated systems thus generated, increasingly reflect industrial values and interests. For the political left, this creates distrust of S&T because industry and globalization are generally distrusted; moreover, it confirms their suspicion that S&T is not "objective," but is in fact supportive of a particular, and normative, set of interests. Ironically, the right also increasingly distrusts S&T, because of its role in challenging social stability and existing belief structures, not to mention existing economic interests, per Schumpeter's characterization of capitalism as a "gale of creative destruction").

Thus, an increasingly radical integration of science, technology and nature fundamentally changes traditional perspectives on S&T. Both the left and the right, for their own reasons, begin to perceive S&T not as objective, but as an increasingly normative and aggressive challenge to cherished values (the sacredness of "Nature" on the one hand, and social and cultural stability on the other).

S&T is no longer understood to be establishing foundational truths upon which subjective dialog can be platformed, but increasingly as part of the subjective dialogs themselves. Accordingly, as in the current manifestations of the global climate change debate, factual statements are increasingly not understood as (potentially falsifiable) statements about reality, but as positioning devices valuable only to the extent that they enable assertions of power and authority.

This new dynamic seems to concern some of the scientists involved, but they would be a lot more concerned if they realized its deeper implications. For as S&T continues to become an ever more powerful mechanism for commoditization, just so it diminishes the particular claim to truth that has characterized Western S&T since the medieval ages, and feeds a continuing redefinition of S&T as simply another normative dialog.

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