Mapping the Politics of Technology

Some left-wing criticism of technological disruption. By Jen Sorensen, over at The Nib.

It’s trendy among internet politicos to cast aspersions on the traditional left-right political spectrum. There is good reason for this. It is a huge oversimplification to suggest that one group of people that guns, fossil fuels, and CEOs while another entirely distinct group likes biodiversity, taxes, and abortions. One popular solution to this is the political compass, which brings the spectrum from 1-D into 2-D space, to incorporate both the liberal/conservative economic outlook, and the authoritarian/libertarian spectrum. So libertarians, for example, can be either conservative Randians or progressive anarchists. Some have further complicated this, by adding a third axis for social issues, such as cosmopolitanism versus nationalism.

I am very sympathetic to criticisms of the left-right divide, and I enjoy efforts to refine the political spectrum into something with a bit more descriptive power. But critics of the spectrum are wrong, I think, to discount it altogether, because the left-right political spectrum can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you first figure out your political outlook, you are likely to look for people who agree with views you already have on certain issues. Having found them, you are then likely to also absorb their views on other issues, and believe them when they tell you that the people you disagree with on your favourite issues are also wrong about other things. Any political movement, furthermore, will make itself stronger by forming coalitions with other movements, even if the two have very little in common. That’s why we see free market economists teaming up with evangelical preachers, and environmentalists teaming up with LGBTQ groups. It pays to have friends. And so after a bit of consolidation, you can wind up with two big alliances of different interest groups.

However valid the left-right political spectrum is, however, it’s interesting that it doesn’t seem to easily map onto the left-right political spectrum. Liberals, for example, can sometimes be surprisingly conservative about technological change if it threatens labour interests. Conservatives, meanwhile, can actually be quite liberal when it comes to supporting radical new technologies. So I’d like to propose that, in addition to the traditional left-right political distinction, we can also make a separate distinction on peoples’ enthusiasm towards technological change. In addition to liberals and conservatives, there are also futurists, people who want to keep the status quo, and neo-primitives. When you put this on one axis and political outlook on the other axis, you get six categories, each of which I think we see reflected in existing debates about technology. I’ve listed them below.

My (very rough) sketch of a compass outlining the politics of technology.

Techno-Utopians are left-wing and futurist. They believe that radical technological change can bring about a changed economic and social order that will benefit the underprivileged by democratising the means of production. Examples of these include some 3D printing and self-driving car enthusiasts.

Liberal techno-conservatives are left-wing supporters of the status quo. They see new technologies as a threat to existing labour relations, but a threat which will harm workers more than managers, and they are therefore skeptical of new technologies. We have seen a lot of this view in recent criticisms of tech companies like Uber and Facebook, as well as the sharing economy.

Liberal neo-primitivists believe that current technology has already gone too far, by creating a hostile and alienating industrial order. They don’t necessarily want to turn back the technological clock, but they are inspired by older technological systems, and often experiment with incorporating these into their lifestyles. Many environmentalists fit into this group, particularly the Deep Ecology and permaculture movements.

Techno-Libertarians are conservatives who celebrate technology’s disruptive potential. They see new technologies as a way to escape the oversight of the state, and are often highly critical of government regulation of new technological systems. Boosters of things like Uber and Bitcoin often fit into this category, and this is the basic philosophy espoused in Atlas Shrugged.

Neoliberal Techno-Conservatives support both the economic and technological status quo. They believe that existing technological and economic systems, working together, have brought great benefits for humanity, but not by overturning existing relations. Instead, they see moderate technological development as part of the proverbial tide that lifts all boats. They will often point to technological development as an example of what makes capitalist societies superior to socialist or communist ones. Most neoliberal think tanks take this view; here’s an example of this philosophy in action from the Cato Institute.

Conservative neo-primitivists see some forms of technology as a morally corrupting influence. Like liberal neo-primitivists, they want to go back to a simpler time, but they want to do so in a way that largely keeps existing labour relations intact. Honestly, I can’t really think of very many good examples of this viewpoint. It might be embodied in some of the paranoia and social shaming around things like selfies, or it might simply be a view espoused by people who don’t use the internet very much. Some forms of survivalism might fit into this category. The most intriguing possibility is that it doesn’t actually exist very much in the real world, meaning that conservatives are actually very rarely conservative about technology. Comment if you have any ideas about this one!

Exercises like this are always going to be clumsy oversimplifications, and what I’ve done here is no exception, as shown by some of the extremely awkward terminology I have used to describe the different philosophies. But for better or worse, the way most people talk about political differences is based on the political spectrum. That means that if you want to politicize something, you will eventually have to locate it on that spectrum in order to situate the discussion. Since I think that our political discourse about technology is underdeveloped, this seemed like a worthwhile bit of speculation. We need to find better ways to map out the state of the political argument about technology if we want that argument to be more productive.


Book Review: This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein

A passage in Naomi Klein’s new climate manfesto, entitled This Changes Everything, stood out to me:

The southeastern [Indian] state of Andhra Pradesh has been the site of several iconic struggles, like one in the village of Kakarapalli, surrounded by rice patties and coconut groves, where local residents can be seen staffing a semipermanent checkpoint under a baobab tree at the entrance to town. The encampment chokes off the only road leading to a half-built power plant where construction was halted amidst protests in 2011. In nearby Sompeta, another power plant proposal was stopped by a breakthrough alliance of urban middle-class professionals and subsistence farmers and fishers who united to protect the nearby wetlands

Richard Branson tossed a globe around at a climate change-related press event. Naomi Klein argues that this image is illustrative of the fundamental political problems of climate change: We think we’re in charge of the Earth.

If you’re a bleeding-heart lefty like me, then that quote probably makes you very happy. After all, it ticks all the boxes: Pastoralism, nonviolent direct action, organized peasants, and a vaguely anarchist makeshift checkpoint set up under a tree. This, and other passages in This Changes Everything make climate activism seem like the culmination of all that the left has been working towards for decades. That, in fact, is precisely Klein’s argument: Climate change might be terrifying, but we can solve the problem with the same movements and policies that, by a convenient coincidence, fit exactly with the movements and policies that Klein already supports.

In case you haven’t detected it yet, I should say at this point that I’m somewhat skeptical of this thesis.

It’s not that Klein is wrong. Not exactly. Her argument can be broken down into two premises: Firstly, that climate change cannot be addressed without also changing the neoliberal economic order which prevails around the world today; and secondly, that existing left-wing movements already provide a template for how to create a low-carbon society. Klein’s argument in favour of the first proposition is entirely convincing. One chapter points out how international agreements to deal with climate change constantly run up against the free trade agenda. Another demonstrates how “green billionaires” such as Richard Branson are basically useless: at the end of the day, capitalism being what it is, they have to prioritize their investors over the climate. The first half of the book has a radical premise, but it is extremely well-supported by a unique synthesis of recent environmental history.

But once Klein is finished tearing down old systems, she devotes about a third of the book to building up an alternative. And this is where the problems emerge: Klein abandons the critical approach she applies to the prevailing right-wing order, giving the left-wing largely sympathetic treatment where the climate is concerned. Rather than taking up the difficult soul-searching that will be required to adopt even left-wing movements to the challenge of climate, Klein instead simply presents a series of tropes that have been staples of the left-wing echo chamber for decades. This approach isn’t always off the mark; it’s unsurprising that those who have been fighting against neoliberalism for three decades will have at least some of the answers when it comes to averting the harm it does to the climate. And Klein does indeed point to some promising movements for change. Her account of the role of indigenous movements in stopping pipelines and fracking is particularly compelling, particularly as she draws links between these and other kinds of on-the-ground resistance efforts.

But even in this case, she seems to have half-forgotten about climate change. In many of the cases she cites, the resistance is primarily motivated by concern about the local effects of the fossil fuel industries: Water tables poisoned by fracking, mountaintops destroyed by coal mining, and coastlines threatened by oil tankers. These are very real and pressing concerns, and we should support people fighting back against these harmful effects of the fossil fuel industry. But Klein leaves a very important question unanswered: If these impacts on the local environment are somehow mitigated, then can we still count on this kind of local resistance purely for the sake of the climate? If fracking is made healthier, coal mining is made less destructive, and fossil fuel transportation by ship and pipeline is made safer, then can we expect these movements to stick around purely for the sake of the climate? Perhaps there is an argument to be made that we can, but Klein doesn’t make it.

Another problem is that while Klein spends a good deal of her book excoriating the established environmental movement for its collaboration with industry, she falls hook, line and sinker for some of the cultural baggage that has been holding environmentalists back. Environmentalism, she argues, should be low-tech, democratic, and rooted in the need to protect local ecosystems. Klein makes an absurd comparison between view of conservation inspired by images like Earthrise and the Pale Blue Dot, and the image of Richard Branson holding up a big inflatable globe, as if he’s “in charge” (a favourite term of Klein’s) of the entire planet. If your environmentalism is inspired by an enterprise as technocratic of the space program, Klein argues, then you’re doing it wrong. Much better to fight to protect the lower-case earth: the ground beneath your feet. Klein’s stretched comparison between her own fertility struggles and the struggles of the planet to bring forth life reaffirm this view when she heavily implies that the naturopath she visited was far more effective in helping her become pregnant than the more traditional fertility doctors she had previously tried.

Klein’s fertility treatment is her own business, of course. But when combined with her thoughts about the Pale Blue Dot, it becomes clear that Klein’s book is based firmly in 1970s environmentalism, which was at its heart a reaction to industrial technocracy. This led to a deep distrust of scientists and engineers in favour of a personal, even spiritual engagement with nature. And forty-four years after the first Earth Day, Klein is pushing the same basic narrative, in which science and technology are primarily part of the problem rather than the solution. I bet you can guess what Klein thinks of nuclear power.

The thing is that nothing is that simple. Yes, technology has been poisoning the planet on a large-scale since the nineteenth century, and scientists and engineers have often done more harm than good. But this is not the 1970s, and many of the scientists now sounding the alarm about the climate are part of the kind of large, bureaucratic scientific institution that makes hippy environmentalism so uncomfortable. The engineers developing wind turbines, electric cars, and new kinds of bike infrastructure are also often very establishment figures, many of whom probably lack any kind of spiritual connection to nature. But we need all hands on deck to address the climate crisis. Yes, we need to challenge the prevailing economic order as well as our own rates of consumption. But we also need to leverage every single sustainable alternative we can get our hands on, regardless of whether it is centralized, local, high-tech, low-tech, socialistic, or capitalist. Because the climate doesn’t care about our political and economic preferences.

I don’t really mind if environmentalists prefer to see the planet as a space-ship, a goddess, a super-organism, or even a resource to be exploited, so long as that worldview is mobilized into a willingness to fight. But Klein’s distrust of scientific diagnoses and technological solutions is dangerous. The planet may well need its equivalent of naturopathic doctors who are capable of looking at it holistically and proposing low-tech solutions that take advantage of existing environmental processes. And it certainly needs dedicated activists ready to put their bodies on the line in the fight against fossil fuel companies. But the Earth also needs something more like traditional medicine: lab-coated scientists who use satellites, computer algorithms, and advanced chemistry to diagnose its problems, as well as ambitious engineers who can prescribe high-tech solutions. We need all of the above.

Anybody who has read more than a few posts in this blog can tell that I’m pretty left-wing. And that means that, naturally, I think that left-wing thought is a better approximation of reality than right-wing thought, including the centre-right consensus of the current economic paradigm. But it’s hubristic to think that any political ideology, which is an imperfect product of political alliances and historical contingencies, provides the perfect analysis of or solution to climate change, which is bigger than any political debate. Klein is probably right that right-wing ideology is inseparable from the practices that are causing climate change. But just because we on the left are more sympathetic to the problem, it doesn’t mean that we, too, won’t have to make political sacrifices. Real action on the climate demands that we seriously reconsider our positions on things like gentrification and technocracy. We need to fit our concern for the oppressed into the harsh facts of climate change, and find ways to help them that don’t make the problem worse. This difficult task is what Klein misses in her book.

A few thoughts on HS2

High-speed 2 certainly looks cool. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to improve the rail network.

Whenever a fellow academic hears that I’m studying British railway history, they almost invariably ask me my opinion on HS2. For those of you who are not familiar with British transport politics and related acronyms, HS2 stands for “High Speed 2”: A planned extension of high-speed railway track from London to Manchester and Leeds. (High Speed 1 refers to the only high-speed track that currently exists in the United Kingdom, linking London with the Chunnel). The plans are controversial, and in addition to the predictable NIMBYs, HS2 is opposed by a large coalition of environmentalists, public spending critics, and at least one one prominent railway journalist turned Mayoral candidate for London. I’m not going to try and critique the cost-benefit analyses offered by either side of the debate. I just don’t have the expertise (Though, as I argued in Manchester Policy Blogs, a cost-benefit analysis is not necessarily a useful approach when considering transport infrastructure that will last for decades). But there is an interesting discussion to be had about why, of all possible rail investment schemes, HS2 was chosen. I’m going to tackle that in this post.

High speed rail gets a lot of attention all over the world because it’s fascinating. It’s big, fast and futuristic. That makes it a very tempting project for any government that can pony up the cash and weather the inevitable storm of objections. But a more sober assessment suggests that it might not actually be as revolutionary as is commonly suggested. Anybody with a web browser can confirm that the railways in Britain are already considerably faster than the roads. In fact, all you need is a web browser. Google maps suggests that the fastest route from, say, Edinburgh to London by car will get you there in just under 7 hours. If you then have a look at the same journey by rail, the average time is about five hours, with some trips taking as little as four and a half. So trains are already a good deal faster than cars. And yet, people still generally prefer to travel by car. HS2 will only affect two routes in England, and on a trip to Manchester-its furthest destination-it will decrease journey times by about an hour-about a 50% cut in the time it takes. That is certainly useful for business travellers from Manchester who want to make a morning meeting in London, but does it really make rail that much more attractive to driving, which currently takes three and a half hours without traffic? I think that maybe if we could bring people onto the rails by making them faster than cars, the existing lines would have already accomplished that.

The problem is that even the fastest trains in the world don’t offer a solution to what transport scholars call the last mile problem. Before boarding a train, passengers must somehow get from their house to a station, and after arriving they will have to find a way from the station to their ultimate destination. These first and last legs of the journey can often be inconvenient, which is why a car, which completely eliminates the problem by providing door-to-door transportation, can be very attractive. In Britain, where many rural railways were gutted in the 1960s, the last mile is actually quite a bit longer than a mile. If you live in, say, Aberfeldy, then your nearest railway station is in Dunkeld, which is nearly 20 miles away. So the train is probably not much of an option to get from Aberfeldy to London, even if it is high-speed from Manchester onwards.

What this suggests to me is that a good way to encourage more use of the rail network is not to increase its speed, as HS2 proposes to do, but increase its coverage. Even after significant cost overruns, the reopening of the 100 mile Waverly Line from Edinburgh to Carlisle cost £348 million. At that price of between £30 and £40 million per mile, you could reopen somewhere around 1000 miles of more conventional railtrack to connect to regional centers in Britain with the £43 million estimated cost of HS2 (Some . That would mean fewer people with no choice but to lose their cars if they want to travel more than a few miles. There is an element of social justice to this as well. Rural communities without easy access to a rail network can suffer from social isolation, especially as fuel costs go up. From their perspective, then, a £40 billion government expenditure on a fancy high-speed rail network to connect England’s largest cities would not seem like much of a boon when they don’t even have a neighbourhood station. If the aforementioned business travellers are the ones who benefit most, then such a project seems decidedly contemptuous of both rural-dwellers and the poor.

But we’re not talking much about investment in local lines,  are we? High speed rail is big, flashy, and exciting, and the modest two-car trains that I take into the peak district are not. In democracies, then, projects like HS2 will always have a political advantage over their smaller counterparts. That’s a problem.  To solve it, maybe we should find a way to make regional transportation just as exciting as big and fast projects on the trunk routes. How? I don’t know. I’m not an engineer. But I do know that there are people out there who could come up with some neat ideas if they put their minds to it. We are on the verge of a transport future that involves self-driving cars, flying drones, and maybe even a hyperloop. Surely dreamers like Elon Musk can come up with something big and exciting to connect small villages to the transportation network, rather than merely speeding up travel between big cities which are already well-connected. Maybe it involves cheap comfortable, self-driving cabs. Maybe it involves laying some new light rail track through rural areas. Maybe it involves a new generation of buses designed to attract passengers who would normally shun bus travel.

People like big, flashy projects, and that means that they get funding. Rather than resisting that tendency, transport planners and environmentalists should take advantage of it! I keep coming back to the hyperloop on this blog, despite it’s fantastical nature, because it is an excellent example of how technological visions work. The Hyperloop captured the public imagination by releasing a single sixty page paper. So a new concept for regional transportation wouldn’t even have to be technically or economically likely. It would simply have to get the public excited about the idea of improving the transport links to small towns and villages. That would empower more pragmatic thinkers to find plausible ways to solve the problem. This doesn’t only apply in the United Kingdom, by the way. High-speed rail is a popular policy option among environmentalists in Canada and the United States, but that ignores the massive success enjoyed by, for example GO Transit, the Toronto commuter rail operator, in recent years. Places with GO lines tend to use them.

So is HS2 a good idea? I don’t know, although if it’s a choice between more rail infrastructure and more motorways, I’ll go with HS2 in a heartbeat. But maybe there are alternatives that would be more effective. And maybe we need to find a way to make those alternatives exciting. Somebody tell Elon Musk to get on it.


The Case for a Truly Public Internet

Cable and Railway monopolies

On the left: G. Frederick Keller’s depiction of the railway monopoly in California, 1882. On the right: South Park’s depiction of the cable monopoly, 2013. Comedic style has changed, but the basic complaint about infrastructure monopolies is timeless.

Right now, the American Federal Communications Commission is considering new rules that would essentially destroy net neutrality by allowing Internet Service Providers to give preference to the data from companies that pay a premium rate. In practice, this means that that companies like Comcast and Time Warner (who, incidentally, are about to have a merger) would be able to make the internet look a little bit more like a cable TV network, where whoever has the deepest pockets gets the greatest access to an audience. Big corporate websites will pay for the fast-lane, meaning that their websites will load almost instantly, at the expense of smaller startups, nonprofits, and personal websites, which would have to be content with whatever bandwidth is left over. Companies like Netflix, which competes with the ISPs’ cable TV services, could also suffer. Netflix, in fact, already has.

This touches at least three important political issues that I can think of. Firstly, business and innovation: The erosion of net neutrality will reduce the revolutionary potential of the internet by allowing entrenched interests to curb the threat it poses. Second, free speech: Most political speech today happens via the internet, and this could take a big hit if corporate interests start to limit bandwidth to parties who are critical of them. Third, social justice. A huge amount of interpersonal communication today happens via services like facebook, twitter and instagram, and if these suddenly see their traffic curtailed, or are forced to charge fees for a premium, faster service, then it will hurt the ability of marginalized classes to make their voices heard.

We have seen all this before, and not just in debates over the internet. The current rage against the monopolistic ISPs in the United States is virtually identical to the rage that was directed against utilities providing gas, electricity and railway travel as early as the nineteenth century. Before that, people raged against private turnpike operators. This kind of rage actually played a big role in the switch to a car-dominated transport system. The railways were seen as monopolistic, and so they were saddled with restrictive regulations that made it hard for them to compete with motor vehicles, which were far more flexible.

This problem seems to crop up again and again with any private industry that provides any kind of infrastructure. When somebody invests money to connect cable, phone lines, electricity, or railways to an area, they immediately secure a massive advantage in serving that area. If a competitor tries to come in and build their own infrastructure (which is usually not a very profitable business decision), the result will be a messy tangle of wires, pipes or tracks, and a massive waste of resources and space. So through business deals, regulations, or simple economic rationale, people run infrastructures like the internet tend to become the sole provider to a given area. This, of course, makes them a monopoly and makes it very tempting to engage in profiteering. This, as South Park has ably demonstrated, is exactly what has happened in the cable industry:

To solve this, governments often regulate these industries. But regulation has its pitfalls. It can be too stringent, in which case the old infrastructure is hobbled when a new competitor comes along. Or lobbying can make it too lax, so that profiteering happens anyway. The internet is already regulated, such as by the FCC in the United States, but the constant attacks on net neutrality seem to suggest that this is not a good long-term option. This problem isn’t limited to the United States, either. If net neutrality falls in the USA, then expect the internet companies to try and lobby for similar changes in other countries.

The recent development of Google Fiber suggests an alternative solution: Competition against entrenched commercial interests through the development of new technology. People like Google Fiber because it is breaking up the ISP monopoly. But this only kicks the problem down the road. Can you assume that Google won’t adopt Comcast’s practices once they dominate the internet service market? No, you probably can’t.

Others have suggested taking the infrastructure into their own hands, through what has been called the DarkNetPlan, and maybe in Google’s Project Loon, depending on how you interpret it. But this is likely to be far less efficient than a dedicated infrastructure built by a centralized provider, and at this moment the technology is very uncertain. It’s an interesting idea to work towards, for sure, but we shouldn’t count on it.

So maybe we need to look back at the solutions that have already been used in many places to avoid the monopolies of the railways and the electricity companies. What if we saw the internet not as a private for-profit business like cable TV, but instead more like roads: a public resource essential for society to function effectively in the twenty-first century? In today’s connected society, the internet is probably at least as important as roads. It has become crucial for everything from business to education to health. So why, then, should we be content to make exploitative private companies responsible for the internet? An alternative would be to make the internet a truly public service, run by a government corporation responsible not to its shareholders but to the electorate. Such a company could still break even or even turn a profit, but would have far less temptation to gouge the public or mount attacks on net neutrality. This would ensure that our connectivity is secure, and that it can be taken advantage of by everybody. At the very least, people in very remote areas, where internet currently costs a fortune, would probably appreciate the pooling of resources.

This plan is not without its problems. A public corporation might be more vulnerable to spying by groups like the NSA, for example, although the current corporate internet seems to offer little help on that front.  And even the utopian project of a ground-up, distributed internet could probably be hacked in one way or another So do we really have very much to lose on this front? Another problem lies in the ability of a public internet company to take advantage of the latest in technology such as Google Fiber. But such a company would be responsible to politicians who are ultimately responsible to the electorate, the rolling out of high-speed internet nationwide could be a very popular campaign promise.

Public utilities are not a perfect solution, but they do provide probably the best solution to providing socially just infrastructure that we have discovered yet. If infrastructure companies are beholden first and foremost to their shareholders, as ISPs currently are, then the outcome will always be monopolism and abuse. So we need to find ways to make them accountable primarily to their users and to wider society. This means that perhaps they should be more than a common carrier. Maybe they should simply be a public good.

It’s Time to Leave the Ivory Tower

Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences; a very striking feature of the city where the conference was held. The architecture is stunning, but public engagement with science requires more than expensive buildings.

Last week, I attended an early career researcher conference in Valencia, Spain. As an historian, I was a bit of an odd duck in a conference fairly dominated by more quantitative methods, but that’s a discussion for another time. Today, I want to address a much more pertinent issue that came up in a roundtable discussion. The roundtable featured four speakers from academia, industry, policy, and politics, who discussed the relationship between our academic discipline and the real world of innovation and innovation policy that exists in business, policy, and politics.

The discussion started out pretty tame. The representatives from the academic, business, and policy spheres each had interesting things to say. To me, the most obvious theme to all their talks was that academics in innovation studies are still in a bit of an ivory tower. There are, apparently very few ways for academic ideas to find their way into business or policy practices. People working in business or policy rarely read academic journals, and while some of these people may have postgraduate training, the theoretical knowledge gained from this is not always relevant to their day-to-day work.

These ideas however, they were somewhat overshadowed by the speech delivered by David Hammerstein, a Green Party activist who was invited to represent the political sphere. Hammerstein wasn’t kidding when he warned that his talk would be a little bit confrontational. His speech aggressively criticized what he perceives as the blindness of scientists and other researchers to their social context, and used some very choice words to describe some of his least favourite research policies. Among his targets were the European Union’s experimental fusion reactor, and the common practice of private companies to turn the findings of publicly funded research into proprietary corporate secrets. The general thrust of his talk was that scientific and technological research needs to be better attuned to matters of genuine public interest, and that we PhD students need to promote public debate about scientific and technological issues.

I think that Hammerstein had a point. The social, political, economic, cultural, and environmental influence of scientific and technological research today is massive. And yet far too often, scientists and engineers are assumed to function in a sterile, apolitical world where they are servants only to objective natural truths and (maybe) economic incentives. It will not do for either the public or the scientists themselves to go on believing this. Science and technology are as political as anything else, not least because scientists and engineers are human beings with political opinions. As long as new technologies have the potential to bring about radical social changes, the public will have a stake in what kind of research is done, and how it is applied.

There are a few promising developments which might help the public realize that stake. Crowdfunding of both technology and science are fairly promising, as is the precendent set by Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Penny4NASA campaign”. But for the public to constructively engage with science and technology, they need to be able to critically evaluate science and technology. The good news here is that this critical engagement has been going on since at least the 1960s in at least three academic fields. History of Science and Technology has a tradition of considering scientific and technological achievements in light of their social context, Science and Technology Studies critically considers the links between science, technology and society and Innovation Studies attempts to describe the circumstances under which new technologies and practices are created. The bad news is that the public remains mostly ignorant about all three of these disciplines. It isn’t enough for a handful of academics to be discussing these things at conferences. The material complexity of the modern world demands that the public engage with these ideas as well.

And so I believe that it’s time for scholars in all three fields to start popularizing their work. In the fifty-odd years since their creation, all three of these disciplines have matured considerably and have made some impressive findings. The time is now ripe to diffuse that work more publicly. We need televised documentaries about the history of science and technology that explicitly link scientific and technological developments to their social contexts, rather than depicting great men of science. We need scholars active in science and technology studies to start writing science fiction which incorporates their ideas. We need innovation theorists to get involved in the discussion every time a politician tries to use words like “innovation” or “excellence” in soundbytes. And we need to bring all this research to bear on crucial societal problems such as climate change and medical research.

This is much easier said than done. If, as the roundtable pointed out, academic ideas have so little traction in policy and business, then the task of popularizing them among lay audiences will be extremely difficult. It will take some very clever people to take the arcane, academic jargon of these three fields and translate it into something that will interest the public. But the task is absolutely essential. If we are going to have more informed debates about scientific issues such as climate change and vaccination, or about technological ones such as pharmaceutical development and fusion power, then we need to make academic research about these things accessible to the public. Hopefully this blog can be a small part of that effort.