The potential of innovations to creatively destruct, invites an imaginary of technologies for alternatives futures that is richer than the wish to bring modern societies to a higher tech level. This blogpost reflects on the purpose of innovating and developing technologies, and calls for an exploration of innovation and technological development from a critical perspective without endorsing a technophobic attitude.
This blogpost was written for the PhD course “Philosophy of Responsible Innovation” from the Dutch Research School of Philosophy (OZSW) and 4TU Center for Ethics and Technology, January 2023.
The dominant understanding of innovation is that it is technological innovation we are talking about, coupled to economic purposes. Put differently, innovation is about bringing technologies to the market. Innovators or entrepreneurs are characterized by solving problems inventively, consumers are willing to pay for such valuable solutions (i.e. marketable). Great innovations are not just a gap in the market, but change the market itself (i.e. disruptive).
“I wonder whether necessity inspires new courses of action or rather prompts acrobatic fixes”
Aside from a commercial understanding of innovation, theorists such as Marianne Boenink point out there is almost always a moral drive present in innovation. Consider the Waterboxx that makes it possible to bring back green in parched environment and allows farmers all around the world to grow vegetables again. Jeroen van der Hoven even argues that technologies can help overcome moral dilemmas because where once you had to choose between two moral obligations, a technology can allow you to do both. For instance, a security camera designed with new data systems so privacy is protected as well. Responsible innovation, he holds, leads to moral progress. Indeed, Marianne Boenink adds that while innovations are value-driven, they are not inherently good. Take self-parking slippers for example; ultimate comfort? Perhaps. Really improving quality of life? Probably not. Plato’s “necessity is the mother of invention” was quoted by Jeroen van den Hoven in his lecture. However, I wonder whether necessity inspires new courses of action or rather prompts acrobatic fixes.
“ […] the power of technologies, and innovation in the broader sense, is to ‘creatively destruct’, disrupt and transform society”
Food security is for instance an important issue regarding global warming and climate change. A recent technological development is so-called smart (precision or digital) farming, which applies information and data technologies to farming. As described on an official website of EU, this refers to technologies that observe, measure and respond to varieties in crops, fields or animals in order to optimise water use, nutrition intake and reduce use of pesticides among others. A higher yield. A greater efficiency, a higher yield, a bigger profitability. Overall it will enhance food security. My first concern is, however, that overconsumption or ineffective consumption (read eating meat) are not sufficiently addressed, thus smart farming is partly a tech-fix for a problem that is also social in nature. My bigger concern is that this technology will be mostly deployed by big agribusinesses (who can afford these new machines), thus smart farming will essentially tweak a broken system of intensive agriculture and bioindustry. The digitalization of agricultural practices certainly disrupts small, family or peasant farm life: the “soft impacts”, as Tsjalling Swierstra coined, of such a technology can be a decline in farming skills, lost contact with animals (while an affective relation is important for their well-being), a need to get educated in data analysis and management for becoming a successful farmer. In short, proponents frame smart farming as enhancing food security, which is not untrue, but what is missing is a more critical attitude about the greater purpose of the technology: what kind of world does it support, does it help bring about a better world?
“Stating that smart farming can, in principle, be deployed in many ways, not anticipating who is probably going to benefit from it, is either painstakingly naïve or deliberatively ignorant”
Often those critical of technological development are portrayed as technophobics. People resist change for various reasons. Phil Macnaghten and others (2015) listed some dominant narratives such as: the boundless desire that drives developments will at some point have a boomerang effect; we go too far in meddling with nature and are desecrating life; and, technologies can always fall into the wrongs hands. But one does not have to be technophobic to be critical of innovation. Those fond of technologies, can also have good reasons to refuse further development of certain technologies, or demand specification on conditions of use (who can use, how to use). In case of smart farming, the way drones can help dairy farmers switch to permaculture while maintaining quality of milk are preferred uses over enhanced fertility monitoring systems that boost already big businesses. Stating that smart farming can, in principle, be deployed in many ways, not anticipating who is probably going to benefit from it, is either painstakingly naïve or deliberatively ignorant.
“ […] to refresh innovation practices by exploring innovations that are non-material and/or social in nature”
The crux is to conceive of technologies and innovations as emancipators. As Vincent Blok (2021) points out, recalling Joseph Schumpeter’s work, the power of technologies, and innovation in the broader sense, is to “creatively destruct”, disrupt and transform society. To see technologies being used to conform to current practices, tweak, enhance or optimize modes of production fall short of imagination, and also saddens a technophile. In speculating about better and just futures, technologies and innovations can play a key role, in my view, in breaking up current power dynamics (predominantly monopolizations). Just like the youth rebels, emerging technologies rebel. Think for example about the rise of blockchain and (its application in) cryptocurrencies after the worldwide monetary crisis in 2008. Cryptocurrencies are inspired to enable people to take control over their money and in that sense demonopolize banking industries. Blockchain technology supports this drive for independence because it, for example, allows for reliable storage of records without relying on third parties. There is something to fear from innovations as they can change the “world order” (Blok, 2021).
“But one does not have to be technophobic to be critical of innovation”
Entertaining an emancipatory and critical view of technologies with a clear orientation toward alternative systems, would entail that technologies actively challenge hegemonic systems. They can set in motion a “deep transition”, a notion Johan Schot and Laur Kanger (2018) propose to unmake unsustainable systems. This line of thinking is, I believe, the most exciting one in studies on innovations and technologies. A first step in this direction could be to liberate technologies and innovations from the economic paradigm. As discussed, this could mean getting rid of technologies that are not transformative enough, or if they are, condition them in such a way they help realize alternative futures. Another strand is to refresh innovation practices by exploring innovations that are non-material and/or social in nature. The Post-Growth Innovation lab of University Vigo in Spain, for instance, speaks of cultural and institutional change that affect social life and social order. Initiatives such as car sharing rather than producing new electric cars. Especially in the Global South innovative practices are developed that diverge from modernization and the aim of a high-tech society (e.g. buen vivir). This area of study provides fruitful ground for further exploration. Yet, an initial reflective question on my part would be in what sense a change in practices can be considered an innovation instead of a social-political reform. Another question I have is how viable non-commercial technologies and innovations are in light of finding financial resources for research and experiment. Moreover, emancipatory technologies sound impressive, but it is the nature of innovation that one can never fully know what the consequences will be. Hence, change cannot be enforced. These are some reservations about the otherwise thrilling idea of emancipatory innovations and rebelling technologies. In the end, certain changes can be made more plausible, likely and attractive by carefully considering what technologies to develop (or not) and how other forms of innovation can bring about sustainable and just societies.
Emma Hissink Muller
Research master student Philosophy (metaphysics and epistemology), Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen
Blok, V. (2021). What is Innovation? Laying the Ground for a philosophy of Innovation. Techne, 25(1), pp. 72-96.
Schot, J., Kanger, L. (2018). Deep transition; Emergence, acceleration, stabilization and directionality. Research Policy, 47(6), pp. 1045-1059.
Macnaghten, P., Davies, S., Kearnes, M. (2015). Understanding public responses to emerging technologies: a narrative approach. Journal of Environmental Planning and Policy, 21(5), pp. 504-518.