20 September 2011

A Worke Unfinished

Or perhaps more appropriately, never possibly finished.

Allow me to explain. In 1626-ish (there's some discrepancy) Sir Francis Bacon (father of empiricism and the now common scientific method) posthumously published his grand scientific utopian vision -- The New Atlantis. Considering that the piece swiftly arrives at a somewhat abrupt end (there's dialogue about its grand completeness) and his utopian vision had yet to come into being, Bacon rather appropriately tacked on the subtitle -- A Worke Unfinished.

In brief, Bacon's scientific utopia describes a society centered on a specialized, state-funded research institution (i.e. Salomon’s House) that in many ways parallels (somewhat eerily) the modern research university. Now, Bacon was a strongly believed that science and technology could and undoubtedly should be harnessed to benefit mankind.  The research fellows at his utopian Saloman's House engage rather narrow-mindedly pursue of scientific knowledge in effort to increase man's control over nature while also advancing the comfort and convenience of humanity (i.e. increasing quality of life). Placing little currency in theoretical pursuits, Bacon advocates the advancement of science as a means to practical ends. In other words, what can science do for me/us/humanity.

Now, I certainly don't wish to paint Vannevar Bush as a proponent of 20th century Baconian vision. That said, it seems wise to pause for a moment and consider the influence of the Baconian paradigm (and subsequently enriched by various other scientific minds) on our 20th/21st century approach to technology and science.  Allow me to mention that I am enamored with V. Bush and am fascinated by his foresight and calls to action. However, much of what V. Bush is advocating requires a certain degree of engaged conscientiousness of behalf of the actor. Search for the means of expanding the powers/capabilities of human knowledge, need not necessarily (but undoubtedly should) involve a strong moral calculus.

Elaborating on this concept of unfinished-ness, I wonder if the project will ever be (or can ever be) finished. Sure technology and science have the potential to improve human life, but there is a whole lot of baggage that comes along. What of the social obligations? Not to mention the moral questions. I routinely grapple with ideologies and general cultural investment  in the techoscience fix (or, more strongly, savior). But, on the other had, I am captivated by technological and scientific innovations. Ah, the cognitive dissonance. What is science and/or technology without morally-cognizant actors? Technoscience run amuck might seem the stuff of science fiction, but as V. Bush emphatically reminds us, science has the capacity for the grim as well as the grand. To be frank, Science doesn't care which it accomplishes. But the scientists (and end-users) must.

Perhaps most pertinently, what is our contemporary "common cause" (to invoke some of V. Bush's terminology)? In this age of culturally self-perpetuating competitive infrastructure (to be fair, this notion of inherent and insurmountable competition is sort of a recurring historical theme), are "we" even capable of problematizing and conceptualizing (let alone working) commonly? What hub centers us all? Climate change? Economic collapse? Hunger? Conflict? We've all witnessed the ideologically unifying and solution-oriented (i.e. polarizing -- just in case the sarcasm doesn't come through clearly) power of these issues. But, I digress (slightly, all these thoughts and fragments are connected in my rhizomatic memex). To bring it back, full-circle to V. Bush, I am generally curious about the (perhaps unacknowledged) technological momentum (to borrow from T. Hughes) involved in many of our

Keeping in line with Bacon,

[The rest was not perfected.]