As we now are trying to understand Life, it would be nice if we had some tools for that purpose. Particularly tools suited for solving the problem or task. It is possible to hammer a screw in, but the result is undoubtedly neater if you can choose your procedure carefully and craftily.
By Anne Skare Nielsen
Tools traditionally used by the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies are megatrends and tendencies.
Megatrends are phenomena that are thought very likely to have great impact. Examples are economic growth, digitalisation, immaterialisation, etc. There's nothing new in stating that the world is complex. Nor is there anything new in speaking about globalisation, individualisation or immaterialisation, or in saying that the world is getting more technological. There's nothing new, either, in speaking about economic growth, higher levels of education, or that people will have more choices.
Megatrends and tendencies are still highly relevant - they have to be part of our concept. But they aren't enough.
Descriptions of society
Many have sought to capture the most important patterns of evolution in integrated descriptions of society.
On a large-scale level, we can describe our modern society at least three ways - three ways that are highly relevant when trying to understand the technological future. This article will focus on the Risk Society, the Information Society and the Dream Society. There are many other that could have been relevant (e.g., the Networking Society, though that is more about power structures), but for the sake of comprehension, we'll start by looking at a minimal model.
Descriptions of society all contemplate the world, but focus on different aspects. In academic terms, we're speaking about "social optics". A social optic - or discourse - is a pair of goggles through which we decode our world.
We look at the world through the goggles and use them to understand our present. The goggles prioritise a certain agenda that the society adheres to. E.g., if we believe in the dream society, offers and products must be measured by what effect they have on the consumer. Of course, there are many goggles - economical, ecological, socialistic, liberal, etc. - optics that make the viewers perceive the world differently.
In the following, we will review one by one the three aforementioned optics or types of society and their inherent problems.
The German sociologist Ulrich Beck asserts that we at present are living in a risk society. Unlike the industrial society, which distributes goods, the risk society is characterised by the fact that it distributes evils. It produces risks.
Risk are, according to Beck, the unintended consequences of the modern, industrial methods of production. For instance, we have dioxin in fish, anti-freeze in wines, hormones in sun lotions, and toxins in car exhaust. All the unpleasant things that we have to live with. An enlightened acknowledgement of the hazards of the world, and at the same time a "democratic" system in that risks are distributed evenly and can strike the high as easily as the low. It is of course possible to buy a less polluted place to live and spend money on healthy victuals, but the point is that you still have to be aware of these risks in order to avoid them. And it is this awareness that interests Beck.
Mankind has certainly always had to live with risks, but today, they are more nebulous. Things we do in our everyday lives can affect people on the other side of the globe, and vice versa. And at the same time, the normal ways of handling problems fall short. We have thus lost the causal connection between cause and effect, and hence also part of the ability to predict what will happen. As Beck writes:
"In the risk society, the past loses its force of determination over the present. In its place, the future - that is, something non-existing, artificial and fictitious - becomes the "cause" of our present experiences and actions. We act today in order to prevent, reduce or prepare for problems or crises that arise tomorrow and the day after tomorrow." (1997)
The technological future is very much a "Risk Society", and that becomes apparent in three ways:
These elements almost always crop up in debates about biotechnology, pivoting around assumptions about mankind's inherent dignity, integrity and vulnerability.
Risk society tells us the story about uncertainty combined with a lack of control, causality and power to predict. The arguments are that we first have to find the means to control, direct and manage (create certainty and reduce risks) before we open this Pandora's Box of undreamed-of technological opportunities.
The mother of the risk society is in many ways the information society, and the technological future is also embedded in the information society.
The information society is obviously about the distribution of an ubiquitous information. But it is also about the fact that there are demands made on our selection filters. Reality becomes hyper complex, as Lars Qvortrup calls it in his book of 1998 - a good book, but also a good example of how in describing the information society, one often ends up writing oneself into it, e.g. by an extensive use of technical terms.
The world is complex. That is a fact. According to BÝrsens Nyhedsmagasin, 6 billion kroner was used on consultants in Denmark last year, for management consulting, mind you. This can be interpreted as a confirmation of the fact that all that can be said for certain is that nothing can be known for certain. Because if we know something for certain, why pay others to confirm it for us?
Today, it is quite common to acquire external assistance when decisions are made - why? Because managers don't know their own companies or organisations? Because they don't know the world? Because they don't know their markets? Their consumers or customers? To a certain degree, yes! But after all, it derives from a desire to learn about the future and gain greater certainty in a world where nothing can be taken for granted. The new knowledge one possesses today is most likely common knowledge tomorrow, but knowledge in itself isn't "something". Once upon a time, power was in having access to knowledge; today, it is in interpreting knowledge and making it meaningful. But then you have to ask: knowledge about what? And meaningful for whom? What value has knowledge? How do you distinguish between "good" and "bad" knowledge?
"In contrast to before, when we only knew a little but could use it for a lot, we now know a lot that we can't use for anything."
The problem in the information society is that information and knowledge lacks a foundation. In philosophical terms, there no longer exists a privileged centre from which the world can be described. There's no "Grand Theory" about the world, or a great political conspiracy that can organise and supply information and knowledge with a goal.
The combination of information and risk society means that we may know a lot, but can't know anything for sure. When knowledge and information lacks a foundation that as a birthright can be accepted as true (e.g., in relation to God), then knowledge and information will always be open to interpretation.
The case of Novo Nordic:
After the settlement in the patent rights struggle in South Africa, Novo Nordic wants to invite a number of the critics of the industry to a debate about the corporation's social responsibility at a global level. This invitation comes forth even though the organisations in many circles have been criticised for having simplified the case about medicine for South Africa to a degree that resembles misdirection. Historically speaking, Novo Nordisk has had great respect for the political consumers and their organisations. This originates largely in a campaign that the American activist Ralph Nader in the 1960s lead against enzymes in detergents. the campaign was founded in the erroneous claim that enzymes caused allergies, but even though the claim thus could be repudiated, it cost a quarter of the employees in Novo's enzyme production unit their jobs due to a reduction in sales.
In situations like the case of Novo, it is absolutely immaterial how much information you add to your message of good. If the opponent has a higher credibility than you, the battle is lost before it has begun. When information society meets risk society, the best interpreter wins, and against the principle of caution, you often contend in vain.
The Achilles heel of the information society is credibility. The problem is that knowledge in itself never is enough, and that knowledge hence must be made meaningful for those with whom you wish to communicate. If knowledge and information represent the rational, the sensible, that which we can agree on, then there's a leap to the irrational, the meaningful and the emotional, that which we can't do without.
And that is precisely why the dream society has been such a great success, for dreams create meaning. The dream - or the good story - connects things, relations and products to people, provides them with a message and makes them part of a greater pattern.
The problem with dream society is that it doesn't have to be founded in values. It merely has to persuade you that it is, and it does that by manipulation. Dream society states that "when you speak to the heart, lying is permitted." In dream society, manipulation is permitted, it is actually legitimate to manipulate, and we don't rebel against being manipulated. We thus open-heartedly accept the advertisements' messages about health and freedom, even though the products rarely have anything to do with them.
Advertisements sell an emotion, but you don't feel an emotion if there's no resonance with a value. Most people value the freedom, aesthetic and macho image expressed by a Marlboro commercial, and in that way, it may not so much be about buying an emotion as about buying an identity fix. Consumerism can thus at an extreme be compared to emotional addiction or even abuse.
The essence in a dream is the moment of interpretation, hence the combination of risk society, information society and dream society can use 6 billion on consultants, for this world rewards those who can provide the most plausible interpretations of "reality".
The problem with dream society is of course that it lacks a "deeper meaning". There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but when we have to deal with e.g. biotechnology, it quickly becomes too superficial and emotional. And it is the deeper meaning that it is interesting to discuss.
The Life Society
The case of Novo Nordisk is a very good example of how information society, risk society and dream society feeds off each other. The technological future will involve all three types of society, and it is thus important to understand them and how they interrelate. Especially biotechnology plays on the full emotional register, speaks to both brain and heart, deals with emotions versus facts, and is sufficiently nebulous and abstract to call upon the principle of caution.
So far, so good, but an additional problem emerges because we speak of descriptions of society. We can all agree that we live in the three types of society, maybe all at once, maybe one at a time. But not all the time. We can all agree with the observations of risk society, and that we all have made its acquaintance, but that doesn't mean that we walk around in a constant awareness of risks. We acknowledge that smoking is dangerous - it says so on the package - but we accept it and go on smoking. We live in a world of information, but that's not relevant all the time, or for people without access to newspapers or the Internet. We all live in the dream society, but we would probably all be insulted by being described by that terminology alone.
There's nothing wrong with describing people according to the different social optics, but it isn't enough. We can examine the individual under influence of megatrends and tendencies - globalisation, use of technology, individualisation, etc., but that quickly gets very complicated and unwieldy. We lack a connection to the individual people - a theory or concept that can contain the fact that people are different, yet we all still have something in common.
In the Western world, many of us live under these conditions, but often with a somewhat laid-back attitude. We live life in the complex world of risks, information and emotions. New technologies and developments must hence increasingly attempt to become meaningful, for well-to-do people are more likely to reject than to select, all else being equal.
Is it possible to gather it all and formulate a concept of life as a project? As a hobby? With internal consistency and meaning? It is of course much more complex and many-facetted, but it opens the path to a better understanding of future mankind - a mankind that demands opinions, the real, and the true.
Read the first part of the article here.
Read the third part of the article - about Deep Life - in june 2002.