On Futures, Ignorance and Innovation: Helga Nowotny

The issue of the “future” has come to the forefront of late with the spectacular collapse of the banking system and the inability of journalists, economists and policy-makers to foresee the collapse. By now most of you have come across Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s very interesting views articulated in “The Black Swan” (more here). If you’re interested in a more philosophical and less testosterone driven analysis of how we can think about the future, science and innovation take a look at Helga Nowotny’s work.0262141035-medium

Helga Nowotny has written a fascinating philosophical reflection on innovation and its relationship with the future and curiosity entitled “Insatiable Curiosity. Innovation is a Fragile Future”. Let me begin by saying that I’ve been very interested in Paul Rabinow’s engagement with systems theorist Niklas Luhmann for the past several years. In “Marking Time” Rabinow writes about Luhmann’s essay “Describing the Future” which asks, “what form the future is being given today as well as what forms predictions about it take, in a society that understands itself to be ever-accelerating.” Luhmann observes that we are encountering an ever growing number of prognosticators, prophets and futurologists but he has difficulty in taking them seriously because we have little sense of what an invisible future would look like in the present. He uses the well-known cases of the CIA missing the end of the Cold War and Bill Gates’ missing the rise of the internet as a case in point.41nx2d2xall_bo2204203200_pisitb-sticker-arrow-clicktopright35-76_aa240_sh20_ou01_ The dustbin of recent history is rather full of more recent examples from the past year so clearly there is something going on (or wrong) with how we are thinking about the future and the forms that it takes in the present. The social authority of experts rests increasingly on their ability to see the future despite the failures at understanding how it appears now. Therefore what has taken the place of authority is the “politics of understanding” that seeks to create reference points. In this way political actors and coalitions can set them aside to renegotiate–they’re in constant movement and decline over time. This, Rabinow explains, is why we return to the prognosticators even though they’ve been wrong–they help to frame the discussion (this helped me understand the use of maps of the future and organizations such as IFTF (one of my previous employers)–cartography is a technology for creating reference points). So, in the present we tend towards seeing the future in terms of probabilities–a two-sided future that sees something as more or less probable or improbable with a distribution spanning everything that is possible (Rabinow p. 60). Furthermore, this demands a quick prognosis and one that can be quickly adjusted to changing realities or simply forgotten. Rabinow terms this “provisional” foresight which demands experts who cannot really answer questions outside of a mode that always leads back to a question of uncertainty.

Rabinow responds to this situation through Luhmann’s essay “The Ecology of Ignorance”. We live in a situation of systemic ignorance, and some of this ignorance is produced knowingly. In fact we have a word for the production of ignorance, “agnotology” (see the recent book on how expert knowledges willfully produce ignorance). 0804759014. But saying that we have an ecology of ignorance does not mean that we can easily map out the white spaces. The tendency to try to fill these spaces in is mostly about the desire to communicate, to create the reference points, to be forced into taking a position. Increasingly the form of the communication is about ethics requiring ethical experts espousing core values of autonomy or dignity (which are not of great value in answering the questions and providing the level of certainty required).

Rabinow and Luhmann provide an interesting context for thinking about Nowotny’s work on curiosity, innovation and the future. Nowotny begins with an anecdote of how the future is signed in American Sign Language vs. African Sign Language (I’m assuming this is South African Sign Language). In the American SL the sign points forward, in Africa the sign points backwards. The logic of the African sign is that what lies in front of us is the past because only it is already known. The future lies where we cannot see it–behind us or around us (p.1). The future cannot be equated with the new and the new is discovered or recognizable by how it is different from the past. Nowotny argues that our desire to control the future is driven by a desire to protect what we have already achieved but the fascination with the new is driven by curiosity and the desire to explore the unknown. We’re constantly reminded of the utopian futures (typically through the techno-utopian flavor of futurology) and fears of the future (witness the collapsitarian trend at the moment) and it is the tension between the two that makes it difficult to conceive of the future.

Nowotny sees our ability to conceive the future as one that draws upon both knowledge and imagination, seriousness and play, science and irony; and the ability to reflect on power relations and institutions. Here is where innovation enters the picture. Innovation is “the new that promises a future”; it promises new experiences and recognizes that failure is always present. Today we increasingly see the privatization of science on one hand, and the ever growing demand from civil society to have a voice in scientific agendas. In other words, privatization and democratization and the two most important forces driving the scientific discourse that, in turn, drive the rise of scientific citizenship.

Nowotny then discusses the role of symbolic technologies in structuring our experience. These are the mental representations that have unleashed creative potentials in societies throughout history from music to art to philosophy. These are the cultural practices that enable us to think abstractly and produce material tools that change our environments. While much has been written on new communication technologies and their economic effects, far less is written about their effects on the brain and the meaning of innovation. In other words, what do these mean for ‘curiosity’ and how we think about the future. We find that the new is often controversial (ag-biotech, stem cells, etc.) and too frequently we resort to the use of nature and the boundary between nature and culture as a rather conservative way to mediate these conflicts. Science was originally thought of as this apolitical arbiter of conflict but since World War II it has lost ground. And so has the nation-state. Society is becoming more pluralistic. Nowotny argues that a basic consensus around these issues may be found by accepting openness toward the future if we view society as a laboratory seeking the public good (with limitations, of course) and we’ll need to create new public spaces to negotiate the meanings of innovation, futures. She ends with the following, “Nature knows no future tense and yet it constantly provides for the emergence of the new”. The cultural resource of ambivalence that contains both a yes and a no, is what is needed.


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