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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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Last week I had the pleasure to attend the "Who owns the Story of the Future?" even taking place at the British Library, playing host to William Gibson, Cory Doctorow, Diane Coyle and Mark Stevenson as part of their Out of This World series. In case you haven't seen the exhibition and series of related events, I suggest you check it out. Also worth checking out is Diane Coyle's own blog post on the evening, which gives an accurate and balanced summary of the evening.

William Gibson

Much of the event was concerned with notions of progress and utopianism, which is the topic I want to write about briefly here. This began when Cory Doctorow proposed a new strain of utopianism for his coming works, a rebuff to McCarthy's The Road set in a world where the adult is suspicious of everybody the child encounters when all they really want to do is help. From there, particularly Mark Stevenson and Diane Coyle fragmented into one camp, who (rightly) extol the advances science has made in reducing life expectancy, eradicating horrific diseases and furthering our knowledge of the world. However, Cory Doctorow point out (also rightly) that the term progress is ideological, which provoked fierce debate from the other two while Gibson appeared to sit wholly in the relativistic camp.

I agree with Doctorow, but that doesn't mean that I don't think science has achieved wonderful things. One such instance: I contest Stevenson's contention that we live in "the most peaceful period in mankind's history". My life is fairly peaceful. This does not apply, as I raised in the first question of the evening, universally. Those living in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya etc. are, to understate wildly, hardly having a peaceful time. In many ways, the peace in my life has only come about because technology has managed to distance me from the killing my nation undertakes. It is a more peaceful existence for our pilots to drop bombs via computer systems than to bayonet people to death. This does not mean the killing, for the victim, is any more humane; it just makes it easier and more "peaceful" for the killer. It is science that has "achieved" this.

As I pointed out: science in itself, as the pure disciplines, has a notion of progress that is wonderful. Its progress is towards inter-subjectively verifiable and repeatable knowledge claims and, in this sense, there exists a non-ideological notion of progress. However, science is not pure; it is applied. In many cases, such as vaccines, progress also exists but perhaps with a less than sound ethical history. A more prominent example: the atomic bomb. We live in the most peaceful era(?) under the most destructive weaponry ever conceived. Gibson himself pointed out that the internal combustion engine now has the capacity to cause the largest extinction of animal life in our planet's history. What about the examples consistently given throughout the evening of lowered mortality rates? I queried, again, the disparity between different localities as a result of the implementation of the science being highly linked to unethical (occidental) economic practice. At the extreme and hugely contentious end of the pessimism spectrum lies Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment which even goes so far as to propose that the rationalization and bureaucratization, previously formulated by Max Weber, sits at the heart of the subjective substitution principle that made the extermination camps of World War II possible. Under each of these examples (perhaps best to exclude the last), science has been socio-economically compromised. Its progress has become ideological.

So: where does this put us? Stevenson suggested that we should drop the cynicism with which science can too often be viewed. I have to stand in limited partial agreement. Climate change denial and creationism are dangerous phenomenon which favour an unenlightened ignorance and blind faith over the unequivocal evidence to the contrary. I live because of the drugs that science has made it possible to produce. However, to adopt an almost turn-of-the-century positivist approach is no longer viable. Surely science's own precepts would have as look at the past examples demonstrating this soci-economic corruption of its own notions of progress and, at least, be wary of the grand narratives it proposes? Scientists are not evil monsters ("playing God" as, no doubt, the Daily Mail might put it [istyosty proxy]) and the vast majority undertake their work for the benefit of human kind in the hope of fashioning a better world (well, with a little profit motive thrown in too, I'm sure). Until, however, it can be guaranteed that the progress science obtains, in its own hermetic bubble, will be met with a similar applied "progress" in the socio-economic spheres, it is not right to ask the public to blindly believe in scientific advance as leading the charge towards an unqualified utopia. This is, in fact, one of the key reasons that science must engage with the public, because it was never divorced from reality, it always has been engaged, entwined with politics, economics and, as Doctorow put it, ideology.

Image of William Gibson from a different event by snowblink under a CC-BY-NC-ND license.