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Reader riposte: Technology as saviour

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COMMENTS

23 April 2012 14:25

Paul Harris, Deputy Director of the Australian National Institute of Public Policy at the ANU, writes:

Thanks for the link to the new documentary 'Surviving Progress' – hadn't stumbled across that until now. You might also be interested in Roger Pielke's talk here at ANU in February, based on his book 'The Climate Fix'.

What is most interesting to me is the sense that you get, even from the brief trailer, that while there is a growing awareness that technological innovation is the cause of some of our current problems, it can also be our saviour. The quote 'We have a chance to control our destiny' is telling. We see this all over the place at the moment, from Andrew Charlton's Quarterly Essay to a recent Pardee Center research report tracking global sentiment on key issues — 'knowledge and technology' is the only category where positive sentiment far outweighs negative, and is seen as 'a panacea for all global woes'. New energy technologies, synthetic biology, etc etc. 

So, we have all these problems caused by innovation, but somehow – magically – technology and innovation will solve them. Problem is, our policies and other approaches to science, technology and innovation haven't really changed much in the last few decades.

 

We know from a wide range of experiences through the twentieth century that technological change can bring economic and productivity benefits (for some more than others) but that this change also brings a range of other environmental, social and cultural impacts. I would argue that we experience this at the level of our daily lives too – we simultaneously enjoy the new gadgets and worry about things like privacy and work-life balance. This isn't new – back in the 1928, Lewis Mumford wrote about the 'ambivalence' of the machine. Innovation may solve some problems, but in the process it will inevitably also create a whole bunch of new ones.

At a forum on the Asian Century here earlier this week, we heard about Korea's major focus on 'green growth' and underpinning belief in the importance of technological innovation. In 2009, the Korean Government announced plans to lift total national spending on R&D to 5% of GDP, which would be the highest rate of R&D intensity worldwide. Professor Soogil Young called green growth 'the challenge of the Asian Century'.

In a way, green growth is a neat trick to try to break Pielke's iron law – to get economic growth as well as environmental sustainability. But what about the social and cultural dimensions of technological change? Truth is, we don't really know. Innovation policy is social policy, and countries in our part of the world are embarking on a huge hopeful gamble that we won't just make the same kinds of mistakes all over again.

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