November 29, 2008

Biotechnological determinism

TED recently posted a talk which I think was incredibly interesting from an intellectual capital perspective. The talk is given by Bill Joy, one of the co-founders of Sun Microsystems, who now is one of the partners of KPMG where he reviews business plans. Bill talks about the dangers of future technologies in education, environmental improvement and pandemic defense, which relates quite a lot to his article “Why the future doesn’t need us”.

The "dangers" of technology
Bill talks about incredible scientific discoveries, such as the carbon nano tube, before moving on to his take on what the future technologies may hold for mankind. Bill states in his cover story (as well as in the TED talk video) that “Given the incredible power of these new technologies, shouldn't we be asking how we can best coexist with them? And if our own extinction is a likely, or even possible, outcome of our technological development, shouldn't we proceed with great caution?”. His suggested solution and recommendations are focused on restricting the free flow of information, in particular those technologies which can be leveraged to create many to one ratios of cost to damage. Bill seems to have a mindset of a social deterministic nature, believing that technology always is developed with a particular societal purpose or objective to benefit those that are capable of funding its development. This stands in contrast to the technological deterministic perspective, which says that social changes come about as a result of the new capabilities that the new technologies enable.

Creating societal ethics
It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine which of these views that is the true way of seeing things. My viewpoint however, is that predicting the capabilities, utilities, opportunities and threats of new technology is close to impossible in an early stage and restriction at this stage could potentially stifle our societal development. That is also why I experience it as worrisome when Bill mentions that we should have policies in place to govern the innovation process.
Legislating to create ‘societal ethics’ is a phenomenon that biotech has a long history of and is still experiencing. An example of this is the national laws around stem cells allowing for artificial fertilization for research purposes in some countries, e.g. Sweden, Belgium and the UK, whereas it is illegal within the countries to extract stem cells from human embryonal cells in Germany and Italy (... but which are both allowed to import these from the formerly mentioned countries). Another example are genetically modified plant varieties which are patentable in the US, but which are to be protected by plant variety protection governed by UPOV, within the EU, to enable a more open approach to proprietary genetic information.

All in all, I think that ethical considerations are governed by so many other aspects than the law, such as education, so my hope is that there will be other ways than stronger legislation to make this happen in the future.

Tobias Thornblad


  1. An interesting post about stem cell patents was posted on the IAM blog this week:

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