Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Entrepreneurial Technoscience Is A Bust

Contrary to the still prevailing theological hyperventilations of the pop tech venture capitalist informercial press, entrepreneurial technoscience is a big bad bloated bust.

So many "tech" companies fail to find ways to translate real basic research accomplishemts into profitable products, and even companies that manage to do this enormously profitably for a while find all too often that they cannot sustain their success for long in the face on ongoing technodevelopmental churn. This remains true even when research commitments in venerated commercial institutions like Sun and HP are substantial and their practices sound. Meanwhile, many more "tech" companies -- indeed, the majority of the concerns that peddle themselves as such -- fail to be more than promotional marketing funnels for hyped unoriginal never particularly useful repackaged crap, when they manage to be more than self-promotional vehicles for wannabe celebrity CEO wannabe soopergenius wannabe tech guru techbros in the first place.

Taken together, these two all too typical failures suggest to me the preferability in general of a public grant model for research and development, in which public investment yields non-proprietary and non-secretive knowledge for the public good and accessible to the inquiring and critical public. Further, ideally, this would occur in the context of universal basic healthcare and free lifelong education and a universal basic income guarantee to secure the conditions of possibility for lifelong dedicated work in basic research without risk to working scientists, scholars, and artists in the service of actually sustainable technoscience and polycultural progress.

The benefits of such a model are all the more obvious when we recall that "progress" isn't, after all, some indifferent accumulation of blandly decontextualized data points or brutally amplifying technical capacities, but a matter of the most equitable distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of technodevelopmental change to the actual diversity of the stakeholders to that change by their lights. Researchers and investors are rarely the stakeholders most impacted by the real world consequences of research and development, but are usually the ones who reap the benefits while externalizing costs and bemoaning risks while failing ever upward. This is an inherently anti-democratizing distribution of authority over technoscientific change that conduces to real progress only accidentally and incidentally.


Unknown said...

Jay here. I spent a good deal of time in startup technology companies, mainly in hardware (software is somewhat different).

Researchers and investors don't belong together in your last paragraph. Researchers are just the people who make the tech; the people who make the deals get nearly all the money, if there is any, which there almost never is. Yes, I'm a bit bitter.

Democracy and science are never going to be entirely compatible. Democracy gives authority to the people; science is an understanding of how nature works. Since nature doesn't care in the slightest about authority, the two can be reconciled only to the extent of the people's understanding of nature, which is basic.

Dale Carrico said...

Researchers and investors don't belong together in your last paragraph.

Most of this post is premised on the distinction you are making here, between those who seek short term profits and those who seek understanding and testable results. But I must disagree, in the last paragraph my point is that change impacts a majority of which researchers and investors are a part but a minor one.

As a pluralist I eagerly concede that scientific, moral, ethical, esthetic, legal, political values differ. But I don't agree that their reconciliation is so difficult as it is often made to be -- one is reasonable to the extent that one's beliefs are warranted by the criteria appropriate to the relevant domain. Science is a set of practices that are embedded in norms, systems of signification, institutions, affordances, and so on.

To prioritize "understanding" at the expense of authority too often requires a host of indicatively political disavowals of the politics involved. If anything, I would say democracy and consensus science have great affinities -- as I said ages ago in an early post here at Amor Mundi: Is Science Democratic?

Unknown said...

Jay again. The main friction between science and democracy occurs when democracy demands results that scientific knowledge insists are impossible. Clean coal comes to mind. Reproductive freedom without rising poverty in a finite environment is another good one, as is "sustainable growth".

Democracy has similar problems with other sorts of uncommon knowledge, as any expert on Iraq might have told you circa 2003.

Dale Carrico said...

I don't agree that democracy demands "clean coal" -- I believe that a plutocratic minority lies about the possibility of clean coal to fend off the threat to their parochial short-term profit-taking of the democratic demand for a livable world. Also, if reproductive freedom means giving women access to knowledge and family planning then that is manifestly compatible with addressing rising poverty -- give women power and pregnancy rates always plummet to the benefit of both sustainability and commonwealth.