Asking the Right Questions: The TECHNOLIFE
By Matt James
The great scientist Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” When it comes to the conversation surrounding new emerging technologies, imagination can easily be dismissed in favour of hard facts, expert opinion and pragmatism. The closest we come to any form of imagined socio–technical futures is largely framed by policy makers, scientists and engineers.
Are we therefore missing something valuable from the conversation in terms of asking the public how they imagine the future? An EU funded project has recently taken up this challenge and has begun to look for ways to turn governance and ethics of science and technology into greater dialogical exercises. One of the highlights of 2011 for me was to be part of the end user panel for the project and attend the final conference in Brussels in November 2011.
TECHNOLIFE (or a Transdisciplinary approach to the Emerging CHhallenges of NOvel Technologies: Lifeworld and Imaginaries in Foresight and Ethics, to give the project its full title!) is an interdisciplinary research project on the ethics of emerging science and technology, coordinated by the University of Bergen. Using the power and influence of social media and films, the TECHNOLIFE team went about developing a methodology which would seek to better represent citizens concerns and imaginaries of technological and social development to policy makers and researchers. The issues and concerns posed by emerging technologies per se are very broad so the project focused on three main areas: biometrics, human enhancement and geographic imaging systems (GIS).
Online forums were set up and interested and concerned parties were invited to discuss ethical and social aspects of these new technologies using the short films as stimuli. The films contained various references, messages, counter–messages, images and perspectives to help give some initial frame of reference for discussion and debate. Nevertheless, the framework was not so neat so as to be too directional. Elements of estrangement and uncertainty were weaved into each one with the aim of causing the viewer to interpret the information communicated through the various forms, from their individual viewpoint.
Digital Globes starts off by describing the traditional role of maps before exploring the way in which maps and globes are digitalized in today’s world and their application in the management of natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods. Key questions which could arise from watching this film include Who makes the maps? Does this have a bearing on whether they could be trusted or not? Whose interests are being served through predominant models, predictions and forecasts?
Exploring issues of security and privacy, the Biometrics film focuses on an individual in a street who is identified as a ‘suspect’ by a software program. The suspect is then checked against various databases and their movements tracked and analysed before being identified as an EU citizen and confirmed as a ‘trusted individual’. Key questions posed by this film centre around whose interests are being catered for through such technologies? Do such technologies help to make a more ‘secure’ world? What potent sentiments could feed into and shape border management: Racism, Anti–globalism?
The Body film transports the viewer to the not too distant future and introduces the viewer to a medical doctor in an imagined medical research facility. Here he offers the promise of individualized, off–the–shelf enhancements for various major and minor ailments and imperfections. Issues of commodification are clearly covered in the film, alongside historical and cultural references in the form of the corset, Chinese tradition of bounded feet, African neck extensions and athlete bodies in 1936 Nazi Olympics.
I have to admit that up to this stage, the project seems to bare all the common hallmarks of a public engagement exercise. So where does TECHNOLIFE’s real value and significance lie?
From the outset the TECHNOLIFE team have been clear in stating that there were not setting out to run just another project but trying to establish a methodology. Alternatively, this could be summarized as: how do we set about asking the right questions? In brief, the TECHNOLIFE methodology consists of the following parts:
- A scoping exercise which helps to define the hot topics in a given technological field.
- Deliberation with KerTechno, specially designed online open source software in which citizens and stakeholders discuss the hot topics.
- An online KerTechno voting system allowing for quantitative analysis of results.
- A qualitative, analytic procedure that identifies the arguments, concerns, imaginaries and alternative frames of understanding raised by the participatory exercise.
One of the main premises for the project is that the publics organize around issues that of importance and concern to them. This does not hinge necessarily on the nature of the issues at stake (for example privacy or social justice) but also on the social or private backgrounds or communal affiliations of people. Therefore TECHNOLIFE perceived a public as a “polyphony” of the many attitudes and concerned voices of communities, both actual and potential. Based on this foundation, the project sought to engage and draw in those groups of people which possess knowledge and insights on socio–technological developments and which have the potential to enrich dialogue on these issues but who have tended to be sidelined or devalued in comparison to ‘expert knowledge’. Four main types of groups were identified by the team in this regard:
- Classical imagined communities
- Imagined communities /”interest groups”
- Groups or categories imagined by the researchers
- Groups of people encountered at points of interception and interaction with technology.
For example, in the context of biometrics and European borders, “European citizens” would constitute a classical imagined community, privacy/human rights could be type 2, groups of North–African immigrants could be type 3 while immigration officers could be type 4. Whilst TECHNOLIFE sought to engage with all four groups, group 4 were of particular interest based on the idea that those who engage with technologies as part of their everyday occupations may well have valuable experiences and insights to share that are not taken into consideration adequately in other assessments or engagement processes. In so doing, those who are actually in a position to shape and engage with an uncertain technological development through their social function are given the opportunity to reflect upon their role.
So having attended the final conference and listened to the conclusions formed by the project team, what are my thoughts on TECHNOLIFE? I offer a set of reflections and comments below:
(1) Attitudes and concerns are conditional
By seeking to establish a methodology which restored the value of imagination in dialogue exercises, the TECHNOLIFE project demonstrates how attitudes and concerns are conditional. If the public are simply asked what they think about a certain technology based on predefined criteria or asked to identify a list of pros and cons based on information provided to them, we should not be surprised that the general output is that the public was not too aware of the technology in question and that they are concerned about the risks whilst acknowledging the apparent benefits.
Surveys reveal that over 80 per cent of people have heard nothing or very little about new developments in new technologies. “If people learn that technology risk management is substantially voluntary at the same time they first learn about a technology, public concern would be expected to increase rapidly….The combination of low public awareness and polarising debates presents a challenging landscape for the socially–appropriate development of nascent technologies”.
However, if citizens are given the space to imagine future scenarios and applications, initially prompted by some introductory material which they can reflect upon and relate to their own experience, then a far richer and useful process can be established. New avenues of thought and ideas can be explored and ventured into which may have never been considered. There is power in asking the right question.
(2) The power of asking the right question
Asking the right questions can help to reveal the ethical values which help to shape the answer. This may not sound that profound but its simplicity may have previously been lost. The evidence of the TECHNOLIFE project points to the importance that could be found in bringing together ethical foresight with technology foresight from the very beginning. In so doing, a far more robost holistic framework could be established as opposed to trying to ‘bolt on’ an ELSI (ethical, legal and social implications) package to a particular technology’s path of development.
Typically ethical foresight has tended to lag behind advances in science and technology making it difficult to assess the ethical and social implications of new technologies at early stages of development. Leaving to the end of a particular application’s pathway of development means it can often be too late to contribute effectively and meaningfully to any sense of development.
Given the current global economic situation and crisis in confidence in the financial markets there is a pressing need for a resurgence in innovation which can help find to solutions to key problems with fewer resources. Crucial to this is the question of values and ethics which will shape how government, industry, and science go about making strategic long term decisions. Good practice, trust and accountability are terms which have taken on new importance in recent years and with a growing shift towards collaboration, there is no better place for upholding these terms and linking up technology and ethical foresight from the start and feeding it into the innovation and development process far earlier than simply amounting to garnering public perceptions of risk at a later stage.
(3) Values, values, values
Interestingly, regardless of how the TECHNOLIFE researchers framed the questions, the issues of social justice, equality and power were always returned to. To date, the Georgetown ‘mantra’, the set of medical ethics principles developed by Georgetown academics Beauchamp and Childress, has dominated the medical ethics conversation and has been largely carried forward into discussions surrounding new emerging technologies. The findings of the TECHNOLIFE project would point to the growing need to include alongside the Georgetown principles of justice, autonomy, nonmaleficence and beneficence the equally important values of social justice, equality, privacy and power into any new ethical framework for the future.
To ignore this, points to a further finding of the project. If concerns surrounding social justice are not adequately addressed by the public and there is the general feeling that people feel “blocked, discouraged, fooled or obstructed by governments, authorities or private companies” then they will resort to alternative means in order to meet their concerns and needs. It may not be as apparent as it needs to be at times, but the public are interested in the future of technology and want to voice their ideas and thoughts on the subject.
(4) Time to talk…but do we want to?
The startlingly fact is that the impact of advances in technology factors will be felt regardless of whether we have the foresight to see them or not. The time to talk about these questions is now. Who’s idea and perceived conception of perfection should govern and dictate human enhancement technologies? Are we happy to have Google define what should or should be on a map? Are we happy for increasing amounts of our personal data to be accessible by insurance companies, governments and other third parties? Do we want to live in a future world where the laws surrounding the use of biometric IDs are shaped and defined by the desires of advertising agencies and banks?
How the findings of such work then feed into the policy arena and are taken note of by policy makers remains to be seen. Posing the same question to the project team they do not have any definitive answers to how this could work. I would be interested to see how the TECHNOLIFE methodology might work with parliamentarians and their constituents dialoguing on issues to do with emerging technologies. Both groups may learn a think or two! Even applying the methodology amongst all parliamentarians and not just those on the select committees for science and technology may well help to raise awareness and understanding amongst those in power.
The TECHNOLIFE project helps to bring to the fore once again the need to create space for meaningful dialogue and debate surrounding advances in new technologies. In particular, TECHNOLIFE helps to rediscover the importance of imagination and personal experience which in the precise and pragmatic policy context can often be dismissed. Yet its use in revealing deeper value based issues is significant and may even open up new ideas and solutions. As the earlier quote from Einstein alludes to, imagination embraces the entire world and by doing so helps lead us on in our journey of learning, expanding our knowledge and understanding.
Check out the TECHNOLIFE films for yourself:
 K. Rommetveit, K. Gunnarsdottir, K.S. Jepsen, F.V. Bertilsson, R. Strand, (2011) “The Technolife Project: An experimental approach to new ethical frameworks for emerging science and technology”, p17 http://www.lancs.ac.uk/staff/gunnarsd/docs/Technolife-Experimental-Approach.pdf [accessed 4th January 2012]
 Gregory N. Mandel, “Regulating Emerging Technologies”, Law, Innovation and Technology Vol 1,1 (2009): 80
 TECHNOLIFE: Ethics with People – Key Results, Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities, University of Bergen (2011)
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