Art, Freedom and Science

This post is part of a series about Governing Emerging Technologies that I’m writing for a UCL course of the same name.

Early this November, the seizure of a staggering 1,500 artworks lost during the Nazi era was made public by the German police. The find includes works by many key painters of the last century: Picasso, Kandinsky, Matisse, Klee, to name just a few. They all shared one commonality: The Nazis branded them Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art).

I read about this in the Independent article “When the fascists tried to tame the modern masters”. It contained this quote by Goebbels:

Art Fascism“The freedom of artistic creation must keep within the limits prescribed, not by any artistic idea, but by the political idea”

It is not obvious that this has anything to do with emergent technologies. But because I spent the morning reading about technology governance before I picked up this newspaper, I experienced the classic case of a prepared mind connecting new information (the quote) to existing information (a lot of thoughts on governing technologies). Continue reading


MAKING a better world?

This post is part of a series about Governing Emerging Technologies that I’m writing for a UCL course of the same name.

Last month, I was fortunate to visit Rome for the first time. I was there to present a UCL project I am involved in – Darwin Toolbox – at the European Maker Faire.

Maker Faires, MAKE magazine, and the world wide growth of Fab Labs (Fabrication Laboratories), including UCL’s own Institute of Making, are all part of the wider Maker Movement, a currently trendy form of DIY and DIWO – do it yourself and do it with others. Making has blossomed especially around technologies such as home 3D printing, and accessible “maker-friendly” microcontrollers.

The Maker Movement is at the heart of user-centric innovation. In Democratising Innovation, Eric von Hippel asserts that technology developed by users usually has a better market-fit. This does not sound surprising. Indeed, MIT‘s Neil Gershenfeld, one of the pioneers of “personal fabrication”, has described the “killer app” of Making to be the process of creating products for the “market of one”, ie. a truly personal product. This is maybe best exemplified by the current obsession in 3D Printing – at the Maker Faire in Rome alone there seemed to have been hundreds. These days when “3D Printing” comes up in conversations it strikes me as having an symbolic quality. A 3D printer turns into an almost magical device, akin to a replicator from Star Trek. Continue reading

To Anticipate Emerging Technologies, Read Science Fiction

This post is part of a series about Governing Emerging Technologies that I’m writing for a UCL course of the same name.

An overarching theme so far in the Governing Emerging Technologies course is the difficulty of anticipating the long-term consequences of new technologies. What we are interested in is not a piece of tech in isolation, but a holistic view: Its impact when it has become ubiquitous, its interplay with other technologies, social systems, nature, all those messy things. Prediction seems impossible. (Was Asimov serious when he conceived of Psychohistory?)

But are there tools of thought we can use that allow us, if not prediction, at least anticipation of a landscape of possible futures?

A science fact fiction story collection?

A science fact fiction story collection?

Earlier this year, I came across a book called “BioPunk: Stories From the Far Side Of Research”. BioPunk is a collection of science fiction short stories that explore potential futures of biotechnology and their ethical implications. But this anthology tries to differentiate itself a little bit from any old science fiction collection. Supported by the Wellcome Trust, editor Ra Page commissioned the short stories to be based on actual current science research. Authors were paired up with research scientists who were to fact check stories scientifically and presumably also acted as a source of inspiration. Scientists and ethicists furthermore contributed an afterword commentary to the stories, all adding to the impression that this book is somehow a more serious endeavour than “normal” science fiction. Indeed, the stated aim of BioPunk is “to predict some of the potential ethical side-effects of the groundbreaking biomedical research currently being developed.” Did you spot the p-word? Continue reading