Technology doesn't just happen; we need to shape it

Professor Zweck is diving into the essentials of trend research

The biochemist and sociologist Axel Zweck is a futurologist. We met him in his office at Düsseldorf Airport to find out what socio-technological trends actually are, and suddenly found ourselves in the middle of the fight for democracy. 

- Author: Lennart Laberenz

This article appeared in the trendradar_2030 magazine (PDF download)

Professor Zweck, if more and more people are only eating their eggs hard-boiled, is that a
trend? What parameters do you use to define this term?

There are many ways to break down the term trend. A roughly defined category is ‘mega-trends’. They are usually already well-known and being publicly discussed, along with their effects; but that doesn’t mean that they have already been sufficiently examined. I’m thinking here about demographic changes, globalisation, or the dissolution of national structures in the field of knowledge. Trends should have a potential for significant impact by 2030, and will influence our society with a certain intensity. 

Three classes of trends

You also speak about three classes of trends: open, covert, and normative ones. How do they differ?

I speak less about classes than about lines of inquiry. Open social trends are changes in science, business and the media which have already been formulated in some way. They have already been noticed more broadly and have not only been discussed in specialised papers, though perhaps only in certain circles, by scientists, experts, in political circles...

Before we get to the other classes, what would be an example of a current open social trend?

For instance, the trend towards gamification and virtual reality, the tendency to test yourself in simulations. This leads us to follow the guiding principle of immersion, developing technology that enables us to enter into worlds that seem increasingly authentic. This makes strong use of gaming elements. I think we’ll see the day when all of our senses, including our vestibular system, will be able to be controlled by external stimulation. We will then be completely immersed in these spaces, and will have the ability to interact with them. As these virtual worlds become more and more realistic, the real world becomes increasingly virtual. If we meet in the real world of the future and have the right glasses on, I’ll get a notification with your data: this is Mr So-and-so, with the date and place of our last meeting. Virtual and augmented reality are intertwined tendencies, their developments flow into each other. The only problem is that there hasn’t been sufficient public reflection about the effects of these trends. So we have to develop an awareness of these trends. Technology doesn’t just happen; we have to shape it.

What is a covert trend?

It is a trend that may not yet have its own set concepts. It may come up in some specialised discussion somewhere in the world, but the public is not yet aware of it. By searching for hidden trends, we want to overcome perceptual filters.

We’re still missing the normative trend ...

That brings us to the guiding principles. A normative trend is a desired position. Since we need to know where we want to go, it is crucial to design scenarios that determine a particular attitude towards technological developments, and how to deal with them. So normative trends are all about our desires. Every assessment of the future depends on the spectrum that lies between expectations and desires, on the contrast between technological normative trends and social developments. We are asking what the technology could and should be used for. These are often practical moments in an otherwise political discussion. How much autonomy should we give to autonomous vehicles? What is legitimate, what is acceptable? What are the technical limitations, how do we deal with them? With certain technical constraints, we may, for instance, allow autonomous vehicles on the highway at a certain speed and certain sections. But what are our values and how can we ensure that they are taken into account? Those are the questions and discussions which determine normative trends. 

Do you see a higher representation of commercial interests in open and covert trends, whereas public institutions and interests are more likely to play a role in normative trends?

The three categories are a set of instruments for approaching trends. They cannot be easily separated. You could say, for instance, if we are looking at virtual reality, that the driving force is technological development. But that's not correct. People’s motivation to interact with certain things in a playful way is the real driving force. Relaxation, learning and curiosity play a role: the will to interact with worlds where different physical laws apply. Technological developments are not determined here either.

When does a trend become relevant?

You coordinated the Foresight Project by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. What criteria do you use to distinguish a socially relevant trend from a fad or a fleeting phenomenon?

I have already spoken about the degree of novelty. This is just as important as the relevance and the time frame of a trend. In our analysis, we focused on the topics of technology and science, because we assume that in modern societies, there are no purely social or purely societal trends anymore. There are only sociotechnological trends, and that’s crucial. Innovation processes are not linear, they occur iteratively in the interaction between the users (who bring the sociocultural components into the process) and those who create the technology. If today’s mobile phones had been launched 20 years ago, users would probably have been unable to deal with them. It’s that old idea: innovations have to come at the right moment to build upon each other. But in this step-by-step process, they can have almost revolutionary effects. Other criteria would be a certain degree of solidity and validity in our statements. We didn’t want to describe just any trends that would be obvious to anybody. Fashions are fleeting things. That is why we’ve examined the extent to which the things we observe have widespread and prolonged effects.

And how exactly do you investigate this? What tools do you use?

Futurology has essentially three toolboxes with which it can work very well: the technological impact assessment for risk and opportunity analysis; or early technology detection, for identifying new technologies, like for instance Foresight, which considers the links between social and technological developments over longer periods of time. The goal of futurology is to collect information that is going to be important in the future.

That makes sense ...

When we address the future, we do it for a specific purpose. For example, for a manager who is facing the difficulty of making a decision that will have future impacts under uncertain conditions. He will start by looking at the status quo, to form an initial decision-making basis. But there are also uncertainties in terms of the consequences which can’t be erased. This is where futurologists can help: first by gathering knowledge, looking for opinions that others have already had about the future of the the issue in their papers and analyses. Then I can contribute to the current state of affairs and better prepare the decision-maker for the future. We’re not prophets; we only identify possible development paths. As a result, the degree of uncertainty for the manager is reduced. But this doesn’t mean that there is no more uncertainty. 

Trend research as science

Nevertheless, futurology and its methods are met with some reserve, right?

It is obvious why futurology has not yet developed into an established science. It lacks the criterion of the verifiability of its theses, which is the basis for science. You can publish the results of a laboratory experiment, other scientists can then replicate the experiment and contradict you, they can criticise your methods. This direct verifiability of results just doesn’t exist in futurology. We only draft sketches of possible futures. For example, we could criticise the fact that the scenarios Dennis Meadows presented for the Club of Rome in Limits to Growth have not occurred. But at least it sparked a discussion about the limits of global resources, and expanded our view of the impacts of human activity on the climate, projecting the possibility of a global collapse. So the study had an impact.

Is it primarily commercial enterprises which are driving the effort to organise trends, to influence them and to appropriate them, and which look to futurology for these reasons? 

I wouldn’t make that generalisation. There are many groups in our society who are interested in a robust futurology. Think of NGOs. They would like to know whether the theses with which they justify their actions are correct in any way. NGOs are a major counterweight to commercial interests. There is also the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, which is interested in the trends studied by futurology, as well as the OECD and many think tanks that deal with questions about the future.  

Technical developments and social utopia

Frank Schirrmacher once claimed in an essay that with the first moon landing, in 1969, we reached the zenith at which technological development and social utopias coincided. Since our return from the moon, technical developments have become increasingly insular, while the social promises of innovation that were linked to them have stagnated. How do you see this?

I see it differently. I am not surprised that the moon landing did not have a significant influence on social innovations. At that time, space travel was a research enterprise and not a socio-technological trend. I contend that those who wanted to get to the moon made no socio-technological promises. The moon landing was the end of a political race which was about showing what you could do technologically. Such events were, of course, charged with symbolism. But to return to incremental progress: nowadays, your watch can connect to the internet, and the next one will automatically call the doctor if you have an accident, and so on. We are carrying out an enormous process of change as the result of many small steps – at least, that's how I understand socio-technological development.

And where does that leave the utopian social aspect of these trends? Is it replaced through an iterative process, or has it been lost in the manufacturing of products?

No. In terms of social development, the visit to the moon was just one of these incremental steps. Through its symbolic quality, it sent a signal, but was followed mostly by disillusionment, because the small advances did not match the large symbolic promises. But the small advances add up. Our consumer society is also characterised by how technological innovations quickly become more broadly available. The first large flatscreens were so expensive that you stood in front of them and said: my wealth seems to have hit a ceiling, I can't afford these at all. If you waited a few years, though, you might be able to get a slightly smaller one for almost nothing. In 10 years, you will have a foldable screen in your hand. So we have to decide what we push forward, in a macro-social sense, and which things are individual, symbolic actions.

If we look at innovations, we get the impression that we are being overrun, without making much progress. Is that misleading?

Now, your impression comes from a trend that we have described as the 'erosion of the feeling of progress'. In the past, it was thought that the process of innovation was linear. Someone invented something, put it on the market, and then it worked. Nowadays we know that innovation processes are much more complex, and that they are influenced by many different actors. The way in which innovation processes move forward has changed. Today we observe cycles of several simultaneous developments, whether that be in pharmaceuticals, medicine, or in electronics. Rapid developments such as the invention of the steam engine are a phenomenon of the past. More and more researchers are making discoveries in more and more fields and are driving progress. Altogether, that leads to extremely high processes of change. But due to the way that innovation occurs in small steps, these are mostly not apparent. 

The debate on governance

Have technological developments reached a level where the conventional debates about their management have reached their limits?

There are circumstances in which we need to rethink the question of management. That was evident in the discussion around geneticallymodified organisms. Releasing such organisms creates the potential for them to develop a certain kind of independence that we eventually would no longer have influence over. And we need to take this autonomy of our technological creations into consideration. We will have to do the same thing in relation to artificial intelligence. When we hand over certain processes and mechanisms to machines, we have to think very seriously about what this means. In time, automatisms could emerge that develop a certain amount of independence. They would possibly not be subject to any kind of democratic control. It could be that this is an entirely rational decision, but it may then no longer be legitimate. That would also mean that we would have to bid farewell to the blithe acceptance of non-determinacy. Handing over decisions to artificial intelligence – that is, autonomous systems, such as a car, that should determine in a situation whether or not it should drive around this thing or that person – these are enormous ethical challenges. Technically, this could be solved by making the system so careful and slow that it basically never finds itself in such a situation. But when we cede such decisions to machines – and that will soon be the case – we have to have a very in-depth discussion. Because then we might be relinquishing control of things and we won’t be able to get it back, as could also be the case with genetically-modified organisms. It’s not just a matter of thinking about pessimistic scenarios, however, but about grappling with these issues confidently and finding suitable and universally acceptable rules for them. 

Do you think, then, that society is adequately discussing these control mechanisms?

Democracy is never complete, and that is very clear in this case. We have become too accustomed to the quality of our democracy and our ability to participate in decision-making. This is something we have to continuously fight for. Democracy also means – especially in the context of engagement with new technological trends – that it needs to be re-invented and developed further. Not only with a view to technological developments, but also in the financial sector. Of course, there always has to be space for creative methods, but when these become a danger to society, we need to be able to control them. That means first of all not hindering innovation potential, but then saying: this is where it ends, because we do not want the consequences, because we do not have adequate safety precautions and fall-back options. Another danger is that people are so used to a free society and democratic structures, that a majority of the population at some point no longer has any desire to vote. Therefore I consider it crucial, particularly with respect to technological progress, that we manage to instil in everyone the cultural conviction that democracy is a permanent revolutionary process that we have to drive forward.   

Democracy and technology

We find ourselves in a strange situation: according to studies, fewer and fewer among the younger generations in Western democracies identify themselves with democracy and its values. At the same time, these people are increasingly participating in decision-making via technology. Is there currently not enough consideration of our participation in societal processes via technology?

I also see the reluctance to engage in democratic participation among the younger generation. That shows that we have not succeeded in promoting the permanent need for the renewal of democracy, which is ultimately just a process of renewing and adapting to socio-technological developments. We have to act on this. I do not believe that there is no longer an appreciation for democracy, but I think it gets taken for granted. And it is often difficult for some people to find connections between their everyday actions at school or university and federal politics, for example, or European politics. Not even to local politics, which actually has a much more noticeable impact on people's lives. That's what we first have to convey to people. I believe that new media and digitisation provide us with instruments which we can use to educate ourselves. But we have to learn to deal with these media, and there must also be opportunities for everyone to acquire these skills. We know today that, due to the entanglement of different sectors, technology is not predetermined, and is neither good nor evil. For this reason, we need futurology and technological impact assessments in order to avoid making basic mistakes. More than ever, we need to make fundamental choices and also stop when the consequences are untenable. These are only some of the areas in which we have to fight for democracy, however.

Why is the state often perceived as a restriction when it assesses economic innovations in terms of opportunities and risks?

The fact is that many innovations do not come from the private sector. In Europe education and research policies are enacted that set priorities. If, for example, the topic of the environment plays a particular role in the public sphere, then innovation processes will be initiated that head in this direction. It is increasingly difficult to separate what came from businesses and what came from the state.

Conclusion

The global community would like to reach the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. This
will require a large-scale global approach by public institutions. Is that a normative trend? How would you assess something like that?

The Sustainable Development Goals encourage innovation mechanisms that ensure that out of the range of possible technical and social innovations, we work out which ones are particularly important for us. That's how I understand the SDGs; as global ethical fundamental values that we have to implement. The goals of the SDGs draw attention to these values and provoke developments which respond to them from people, companies, governments and NGOs. For our technological progress and our public discourse, this kind of orientation is important, particularly in a globalised world.