Engines of Change
Almost every day science and technology bring changes. Some of the changes are evolutions of technology more than a hundred years old, for example, the automobile, now being propelled by our quest for pollution-free transportation. Other changes are based on relatively recent technology, such as increasingly powerful computers. Some changes, such as those in the wake of nanotechnology research, are almost entirely new. The changes never seem to let up. In fact, in their own lives many people have noticed that the pace of change – mostly change caused by technology – is increasing.
Coming at us more quickly and from many sources
Changes caused by science and technology are coming at us not from a handful of directions over the centuries but from dozens of directions – all at once and during the span of a person’s life. Someone who lived 100 years (say 1908 to 2008) saw the rise of the automobile, airplanes, telephone, TV, computers, and frozen food (among other things); all of which changed the fabric of their life. Between now and say 2050, most of the technology from the 20th century will continue to evolve, while adding many newer sources for change, for example: nanotechnology, genetics, and robotics.
Complexity grows on us
In the old days (a few decades ago), a car could be fixed with wrenches and some grease up to the elbows. To lift the hood on a modern car is to be confronted with not only a seemingly impenetrable wall of plumbing, but also the wiring of digital circuitry. Most sciences and technologies are increasing in complexity. Some, such as biology and physics are inherently complex; expanding our knowledge makes them more so. Then there is the increasing necessity for interdisciplinary research, which means overlapping areas of expertise, teams of researchers, coordination requirements…in short more complexity. Compared to other species, humans deal rather well with complexity; but not that well.
It is often the case with significant technological change that there is a spectrum of possible effects from very good to very bad. Think of radiation therapy, nuclear energy, and the atomic bomb. Reason enough to watch for coming changes, even if looking into the future can’t be done with precision.
SciTechStory Impact Areas
The pace of change is faster. The sources of change are multiplying. The complexity of change is increasing. These are reasons why tracking the impact of science and technology is more difficult than ever. As a response, the approach of SciTechStory is this: A splattering of any and all science and technology news is out. Tracking the impact of science and technology through impact areas is in. These are areas of scientific research and technological development with significant impact on humanity and the world we live in. For example:
• Nano-medicine: Nano-scale medical treatment and devices
• Artificial Life: Humans creating life from scratch
• Genetic Modification: Genetic engineering and repair of genes
• Climate Change: Significant changes in world climate, including global warming
As a start in the fall of 2009, SciTechStory defined a list of between forty and fifty impact areas. As a requirement, science and technology must be important to the impact area, as part of the cause and/or solution. Each area will be tracked by scanning many sources, both print and online (128 of them at the start) for relevant articles, blogs, and references. The impact areas function as a first filter. News entries will be posted based on importance within the area. Other entries will attempt to provide context and evaluate impact.
Impact – Is what?
In this context, what does ‘impact’ mean? Some impact areas, such as Pandemics, involve life and death. In fact, several areas, such as Asteroid/Comet Strike, involve a potential for disaster (human or environmental, usually both). Others, such as Extending Lifespan, will affect the lives of large segments of humanity. A few impact areas, such as Synthetic Life, involve philosophical and religious concerns with wide implications. Many but not all impact areas pose important problems. Most have embedded controversies. Generally, the more impact, the more controversy.
Judgement…a can of worms, or bait?
The selection of news to post, the content of analytical and descriptive information, the choice of impact areas and their definition – these are all matters of judgement. In short, they represent subjective choices. The choices may be well informed, or not – no doubt there’s a spectrum of ignorance. Obviously with forty or fifty impact areas, each representing vast areas of scientific and technological activity, no individual has comprehensive knowledge in all of them. Not even close. So SciTechStory needs help – it needs a community of people who are interested or specialists in various aspects of science and technology, and people who are generalists.
The feedback and participation of readers will hopefully become integral to the accuracy and effectiveness of SciTechStory. Exactly how this will come about is going to be a process of evolution. We’ll start with reader comment and other forms of communication and see where it goes. One important point of collaboration will be the list of impact areas: What areas are in the list, or should be added, or dropped? How are they defined? What is their ranking of importance? The list of impact areas should remind people of the totality of what we are facing; but it’s not definitive. It needs to be doggedly refined; a task in which readers can vigorously participate.