iHub seminar

2023-02-28 15:30 - 17:00 TBD - for non iHub members please register beforehand at: seminars-ihub@ru.nl

Massimiliano will look into the politics of technological innovation, and more particularly technoscience as a specific modality of scientific knowledge and its inherent societal dimension -and what this means for the (im)possibility of producing alternative types of technoscientific knowledge.

Technoscience refers to a number of recent disciplines (nanotechnology, synthetic biology, robotics, data science) that exemplify current scientific research. They can be characterized by a shift away from questions about actualities to questions about possibilities. For instance, synthetic biology is interested in what life can do, rather than what terrestrial life is. If the focus is on exploring ‘design spaces’ rather than testing theories about existing phenomena, the result is mainly ‘modal knowledge’: knowledge about the (im)possibilities, necessities, or contingencies of phenomena (materials, life, movement, intelligence).

Since technoscience mainly focuses on possibilities, it is often accused of ignoring the way in which these technoscientific applications will impact the actual environment and society. For instance, synthetic biologists are often accused that their applications (e.g. GMOs) are constructed without proper attention to their ecological impact. Similarly, AI scholars are often accused of not taking into account what effects their algorithms will have on e.g. politics or on the work floor.

My paper, however, wants to argue for an alternative approach. Instead of accusing technosciences of lacking ecological thinking, I argue that there is in fact an ecological thinking present in technosciences, but often an undesirable one. Any technoscientific application (from a synthetic organism to a self-driving car) requires certain environments in which it can function, often strongly reduced ones (sterile biocontainers or simplified roads to travel through). Since technoscientists often design these as well, they embody a form of ecological thinking, but typically resulting in technoscientific environments that threaten diversity. By diversity I am not just referring to biodiversity (synthetic biology), but also diversity of bodies (robotics) and diversity of thinking (data science). Hence, our choice is not so much between either ecology or technoscience, but it rather becomes a political choice between which technoscientific environments we find acceptable. Any reflection on potential technoscientific applications then also becomes a question of what kind of society we want.

Specifically, in this paper I will illustrate this through case studies from two fields. First of all, I will invoke cases from synthetic biology, in particular research on minimal genomes, that are proposed as a new platform technology from a whole realm of biotechnological applications. Secondly, I will turn to robotics, and more specifically research on exoskeletons. It is in this second group, so I argue, that a potential alternative ecology of technoscience is found that is more desirable.

Keywords: Technoscience, Synthetic Biology, Robotics, Ecology