3 thoughts on “Can Scientists Engage Critically with Capitalism?

  1. Dear Andy, thanks very much for your thoughtful post about our letter to the SynBio 6.0 conference. I think the main point we were trying to make is about the technocratic mindset, and it’s not an accident that Alex Taylor’s response entirely missed that: this is the water that scientists swim in, so it is invisible to them. Or perhaps we might say it’s the language they speak and so find it very difficult to think outside of. So the real question isn’t ‘can they engage critically with capitalism’: many of them can easily see the ways that capitalism oppresses people by appropriating the products of their work and making the poor poorer, and they are genuinely unhappy about it and even take steps to overcome that, eg all this open source stuff. And by doing that they actually reinforce their own self image as the nice guys, and that makes it even more difficult for them to see that it’s their technofixes and the mindset behind them, and the way that works hand in glove with the capitalists’ drive for profit that’s the problem. So the important question is ‘can scientists engage critically with technocracy?’ and that’s what the letter was trying to help them do. The trouble is that to question that would be be to question all the things they have been taught make sense since they were teenagers or before (I know, I’ve been through that), which is generally a little too threatening. So they stick with their careers and try to be ethical and ‘responsible’. But they’re still digging.

    As for the tone, you should have seen the first draft! The letter was intentionally confrontational precisely because we wanted not to submit to the scientific discourse or to defer to its prestige.

    1. I agree that scientists might often observe similar problems with capitalism. Of course, this will vary from scientist to scientist and across context. I tried to say that synthetic biology makes for a particularly pertinent example because its major driving force (to adopt engineering practices in the design of organisms) is thoroughly connected to industrialisation. In this regard it shows more clearly how the practices and processes of science can be invested with particular political and economic mechanisms. Rather than being invisible to synthetic biologists I think these practices are – in many areas in which the field is consolidating – the very objects of work. As you will know, the efforts employed in computing, automation of processes, standardisation and engineering of material are often done with the clear remit of bringing about the promised ‘second industrial revolution’. In this space questions of industrialisation are particularly acute and available to discussion and debate. As such, I think it is important that we try to find critical tools that we can use collaboratively across disciplines to interrogate these practices.

      You also point to technocracy, which in a simplified form and adopting some of the phrases you use, I think we could see as being the combination of a scientific will to do good (through technical development), a corporate will to profit (through exploitation of technical development) and a governance will to foster innovation (through managing technical development and relations between academic science and industry). This combination is certainly diffuse and – in being part of education, training and the day-to-day of working life – quite transparent. For my part, collaborating with scientists on making these connections more visible and available to critique and change is an important direction for the notion of responsibility. I don’t know if you intend to suggest that all technical innovation necessarily produce further problems. In this, I think I would look for more nuance. Technical objects certainly embed and sustain certain social relations but they can also embed alternatives and open up possibilities for change in relations.

      Tone is something I mention because it is part of the realm hidden by more knowledge-based concerns. In collaboration and discussion I find that the affective, emotional dimension of the chains of relations between humans and objects is overlooked too frequently. These are vital to finding modes of working together. I understand the impetus to challenge certain incarnations of the norms of objectivity, rationality, dispassionate evidence and so on. However, it is also important to welcome others into one’s own norms and values, and to find spaces that can be shared, in which things are open to friendly and hospitable contest in both directions. It is a difficult game to play and finding a balance between the challenge and the welcome is vital.

  2. Hi Andy,

    Well, I’m going to be quite critical of your comment, but you should understand it as friendly criticism. Generally, the thing I go after is clarity, including clarity about differences. I think this is a useful discussion that highlights different ways of thinking about technology and I look forward to pursuing it.

    I agree that synthetic biologists will have to think about what it means to force living systems into an industrial/engineering model. But I would imagine that their discussion of that would tend to lack a fundamental critique of that model as such, or any sympathy for the suggestion that there might be a problem in subjecting living organisms to it. Can you point to any examples of either of the above, either in the published literature or at the conference?

    Your definition of technocracy is really a general description of the status quo and doesn’t really cover what I mean by the term. (By the way, I would protest at the assumption that scientists are defined by a will to do good – a lot of the time, they would say they’re just to try to find out how things work). What I mean by technocracy is a whole regime of power over nature and society, through technology and technological discourse. Some aspects of technocracy are: (i) the manipulation of nature without any limit; (ii) the imposition of engineering criteria such as efficiency and uniformity upon all aspects of the natural and social world, resulting in a general rationalisation; (iii) the creation of technicised problematics that mandate technological solutions (technofixes); (iv) all the above are defined as modernisation and progress and are supposedly apolitical – but in fact, of course, such ‘depoliticisation’ is the most political thing one can imagine: the ‘solutions’ always serve the interests of those in power who define the problem, for example through commodification, capital intensification etc.. All the above are evident in synthetic biology and surrounding discourses, and I find them highly objectionable, don’t you?

    I was quite shocked by your remark that, ‘I don’t know if you intend to suggest that all technical innovation necessarily produce further problems. In this, I think I would look for more nuance’. Where did that come from, where did I say anything like that? To be honest it reads like a classic scientist/technocrat’s response to a fundamental critique of technocracy – ‘Oh these Luddites are just against technology and progress’.

    I would also quarrel with your formulation ‘Technical objects certainly embed and sustain certain social relations’. It’s not just a matter of how social relations shape technology: a critique of technocratic capitalism argues that technocracy actually constructs social relations: the Industrial Revolution would be a prime example.

    As for embedding alternatives, that’s a strong claim. Of course, science and technology can create genuine benefits for people, no one can deny it: Luddism is an anti-technocracy, not an anti-technology, movement. But embedding real alternatives to existing social and economic power relations? I’d like to hear your suggestions of such examples. For nearly every example of such claimed changes it can be argued persuasively that such technologies are adopted because that’s the direction capitalism is heading anyway.

    So, to respond directly to your challenge: at this point in history, in this technocratic capitalist society, pretty much any technical innovation will reinforce rationalisation and the megamachine. That’s pretty much a condition for innovations to be adopted and marketed by the corporations that own and control them. I leave the military out of it. You have to start from a position of suspicion, which is not to say that technologies can’t be proved innocent. Sometimes people succeed to some extent in finding ways to use technologies for purposes other than those for which they were originally designed and marketed, and that’s kind of nice, but it doesn’t really change the overall impact of that technology.

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