“Technological development does not tend to be the object of democratic processes of negotiation.”

Do we control technology, or does technology control us? Which processes push our technological progress forward? And, with this question in mind, who or what is crucial for determining the shape of the world of tomorrow? The science and technology scientist Daniel Barben joins ad astra in the Sonnepark St. Veit/Glan for a glance into the future.

Digitalisation is the buzzword of our time. The entire world seems to be leaping on board, worried about missing out. Where does this anxiety come from?

Topics of this kind tend to surface at regular intervals. This is linked to the fact that our societies depend, to quite a significant extent, on innovation processes. As a rule, innovations are developed under conditions in which they compete with others. If the aim is to reap the economic benefits of innovations, this creates pressure to get ahead.

Who are the active players?

These are usually companies that compete against each other for existing and new markets. However, for quite some time now, the political sphere has also regarded itself duty bound to intervene in this process, in order to carefully prepare the ground for “its” science and “its” industry. Today, innovation no longer occurs nationally for the most part, but rather transnationally, which is why the constellations of stakeholders can appear correspondingly dynamic and confusing.

Is the tone of urgency in the current discourses about digitization justified?

These discourses are not really new. As the years pass, one comes to realize that the appeals for exigency tend to repeat themselves: first ICT, then Nano, now digitization. Sometimes, the situation is exaggerated and we hear emphatic warnings that missing the boat will mean our doom. In fact, it can be a clear advantage to accomplish certain developments as runner-up and to learn from early mistakes. What is of crucial importance is to maintain a clear strategic focus on what the challenges pertaining to innovations may be and how best to master them.

The role of politics, which acts on behalf of the electorate, is surely rather difficult in this context. Whatever lies behind Industry 4.0 may cost entire swathes of the population their jobs.

Innovations often go hand in hand with manifold changes, which may also affect the world of work and employment relations. This has been common knowledge since the so-called Luddites. In the case of many innovations, which move forward in tiny incremental steps, it is hardly noticeable. Fundamental, disruptive innovations, however, are a different case entirely. As well as affecting the individual employee, they impinge on entire corporations and economy sectors. In this context, innovation due to inherent necessity means that one should not to rest too long on the accomplishments of yesterday and today.

Can you give us an example?

General Motors, once the largest car manufacturer in the world, found itself in such a serious predicament during the economic crisis roughly ten years ago that its survival depended on the assistance provided by the American State. Significantly increased fuel prices resulted in a collapse in sales of the primary product, the gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs. At the same time, they lacked alternatives in their product range, which could have served to meet the altered demand. If we consider the German automobile industry today, we must ask whether it has maybe held on to the diesel engine as a sustainable drive for far too long. Mainly thanks to Toyota, Japan is leading in the field of hybrid drives, and China has recently invested heavily in electric mobility. Clearly, technological change is also advanced by political change.

But the economy sets the pace.

Yes and no. On the one hand, within the context of the capitalist economy, many areas feature market-oriented businesses as the primary innovation spaces. However, universities and non-university research institutions as well as government research promotion schemes also have a role to play here. On the other hand, societal problem situations, political priorities and the needs of the consumers are perpetually shifting.

Does the state have the right to intervene in innovation processes?

Yes, but fundamental limits must be observed. Going back as far as the 18th century, Adam Smith stated that encouraging the emergence of new industries is legitimate, even in a liberal economy that is driven mainly by private self-interests. The state can do this by establishing research promotion schemes or creating legal frameworks that promote business start-ups. The qualification of the workforce for future fields of occupation is an additional factor. What the state must refrain from as a matter of principle is any kind of intervention in market-mediated competition.

Is it true that state and industry collaborate closely in the energy sector?

Indeed. In the first instance, this is quite simply due to the fact that the energy supply serves as key infrastructure for society. Nuclear technology programmes in particular cannot be realised without state subsidies. But the promotion of renewable forms of energy, which are essential for the transformation of the energy system, also requires the collaboration between state, industry and, not to be forgotten, civil society. This entails considerable challenges in the area of supply security, but also with regard to economic viability, as well as environmental and social compatibility.

Do democratic processes also have a role to play in the determination of the technologies to be studied? For instance, when I think about Robotics or Artificial Intelligence, I do sometimes experience a feeling of disquiet. And yet, as a citizen and as a voter, I am not convinced that I also have a say.

You have hit upon the sense of unease that is felt by many people, especially in relation to developments that are regarded as fraught with problems or seem ethically questionable. Generally, technological developments are not part of democratic negotiation processes, unless they make it onto the agenda of parliamentary decisions or – in direct democracies such as Switzerland – of referenda. As a matter of principle, liberal states under the rule of law consider the freedom of scientific research to be a basic right, which can only be restricted in the event of a conflict with goods endowed with similar legal protection. This includes the protection of health, the environment and human dignity.

In that case, who sets the rules? For ethical issues, for example?

Within the framework of the nation state, for instance, there are laws, or there are guidelines issued by professional associations or organisations, such as medical professionals or hospitals. By contrast, global sets of rules on ethics are precarious, we don’t have much to go on here. The situation with intellectual property rights is completely different; here, the TRIPS Agreement provides are very powerful regime. After all, whoever wishes to join the World Trade Organization is required to sign this basic agreement.

What is available in relation to ethics?

Once World War II came to an end, one of the aims pursued by the establishment of the UNO was the endeavour to institutionalise human rights globally. The corresponding charter is very general and requires further clarification with regard to new fields of research and technology. Notable examples of these include the biomedical sciences and genetic engineering. UNESCO has issued declarations covering these areas; however, they are not binding under international law.

Who negotiates these guidelines?

They are generally drafted by experts and tend to reflect a body of standards compiled in line with what one would expect from an interdisciplinary group of experts. Often these experts are natural scientists, lawyers, theologians, and sometimes social scientists.

Why is the sphere of ethics poorly institutionalised on an international level?

For one thing, as far as innovation is concerned, ethics does not have the same constituent status as patent law. Consequently, ethics is frequently treated as a supplement that mainly serves to aid social embedding and establishing legitimacy. For the other, there is the fundamental fact that a comparison of world regions and world religions will inevitably reveal massive differences in the perception of ethical problem situations. To give one example, there is the matter of how we deal with life.  There is no common understanding of when life begins and ends, and when technological interventions may be contentious. At what point are we dealing with a creature to whom human dignity is due? At the moment of fusion of egg cell and sperm cell, at a certain stage of embryonic development, or, as in Judaism, not until the birth? Even among the countries of Western Europe there are significant differences when it comes to technical interventions at the beginning or the end of a life.

What is the role of the individual as far as ethics is concerned?

The perception of individuals is certainly relevant. For instance, let’s look at genetic diagnostics: Who is authorised to request tests such as these; should employers or insurers be authorised? Who may be appraised of the results? Do the affected persons have a right not to know? There is a lot at stake here, such as insurance companies preserving the principle of solidarity or a shift in operational power relations.

These questions always have an interesting global aspect as well, as you have pointed out. And yet, there are decisions which are made at one location that have an impact elsewhere; just as in the case of the US exit from the Paris Climate Agreement.

In the face of global challenges cooperation is essential, while non-cooperation may exacerbate problem situations. This is true for climate protection just as it is true for the use of energy technologies, most dramatically for nuclear technology, which can have enormous spatial but also temporal repercussions. As a result of accidents like those in Chernobyl or Fukushima, stretches of land are made uninhabitable for thousands of years, and even today there is still no global solution for the final deposition of nuclear waste.

Let’s talk about sustainability: Current debates often create the impression that the economy cannot grow without the Earth simultaneously being destroyed. Is this true?

If we use conventional technologies – absolutely. But there are also ongoing efforts to uncouple economic growth from the consumption of resources. This might involve new forms of a closed-loop economy, using waste or residual materials, ideally also including CO2. Overall we need production processes that are as close to natural as possible. Concepts of a sustainable bioeconomy reflect the attempt to develop such prospects.

In this context we often hear demands for social innovation, for example for a Happiness Index instead of the Gross National Product.

Merely focusing on technological innovations does not reach far enough; it is important to consider social innovations as addition or as alternative, and increasingly they are being recognised, for example by the EU. Although the Gross National Product continues to offer the predominant means of orientation, the economic sciences, interestingly, are among those hosting intensive debates about alternative measures. These include the Happiness and the Human Development Index.

Are you optimistic about the future?

Yes and no. Considering much of what goes on nowadays, pessimism seems more appropriate. However, it is important to combine the two: optimism and pessimism. To try to develop and then implement productive prospects for a future worth living. To seek out promising approaches, which could serve as points of departure, thus creating momentum. You mentioned the USA and Trump: On the one hand, the supposedly most powerful statesman of the world is attempting to kick the Paris Climate Agreement into the dustbin, but on the other hand, this very same step is earning him massive criticism from cities, businesses and universities in his own country.

What should the world of the future look like?

A future world worth living in cannot be a world that is productivist or consumptionist. Satisfaction, well-being or living a fulfilled life are not adequately represented by economic performance indicators. Major social reforms will be necessary to reach that point. One reference frame, which is at least an ambitious attempt to achieve sustainable progress, is the Agenda 2030 with a target catalogue of Sustainable Development Goals.

Romy Müller for ad astra


About the person

Daniel Barben, born in Zurich, has been a professor at the Department of Technological and Scientific Research since 2014. He studied Sociology, Psychology, Political Science and Philosophy at the Freie Universität Berlin. Barben completed his doctorate in Political Science at the University of Potsdam in 1995. In the years that followed, he worked on various projects relating to technology, society and the environment at the Berlin Social Science Center, the TU Berlin, and at Bielefeld University.

This was followed by periods spent at Rutgers University and Harvard University as a habilitation scholar supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG). Having completed his habilitation in Sociology at the Freie Universität Berlin in 2004, Barben worked at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and at Arizona State University. He returned to Europe in 2010, following his appointment to the VDI Professorship/Chair of Futures Studies at the RWTH Aachen University.

Barben’s research interests focus particularly on the governance of science and technology, with one of his current projects addressing climate engineering and climate policy. In July 2016, he and his colleagues published the widely acclaimed analysis “Five cornerstones of a global bioeconomy” in the scientific journal Nature.

Daniel Barben im Sonnenpark St. Veit/Glan