Well, they are certainly no predictions of the future, even though they do describe future events. If there is one lesson to be learned from the past, it is that the future cannot be predicted. Expect the unexpected – that is the slogan nowadays. Why then bother at all with trying to look ahead? The answer is simple: we cannot avoid to anticipate the future. Human beings constantly imagine the future, and then act on it. Indeed, why invest time and money – lots of money – in scientific or technological research, without the hope – or expectation – that this will somehow lead to a better world, one day?
The problem is that in the case of science and technology, we are not very good at anticipating the future. There are two types of claims scientists and engineers tend to make with regard to the future. The first is a very general claim: because science and technology are good things, they will somehow, someday, pay off. Society should therefore give a carte blanche to scientists and engineers and patiently wait for the results. The second type of claim is somewhat more specific: science and technology will provide the tools to solve problems like hunger, disease, climate change, energy scarcity. They help society to realize widely shared values: health, safety, sustainability, prosperity, etc.
The problem with the general claim is that we have learned that science and technology do not always produce good. And even if the promises are more specific, the claims often don’t come true. Technology does less as well as more than its makers had in mind. Cars were supposed to bring us from A to B really fast. But they have done much more: they have influenced how a country like the Netherlands is laid out, when and where people can still enjoy peace and quiet, they caused lung problems in children living near highways, they increased mobility and thus helped to reshape the cultural differences between city and village, and so on. And when everyone has a car, the original promise of getting really fast from A to B will not always be fulfilled, given the regular traffic jams.
As a rule of thumb, we can say that technologies in the future usually work out different from what the developers in the present hope and assume. New technologies are not like clay in our hands, but are really active agents: they help shape what we want, how we relate to each other, and how we relate to the world. If a really fast car is introduced on the market, there is a good chance that I now want to drive really fast, that my employer expects me to drive really fast (to work), and that I want the roads to be designed so that I can drive really fast. The invention of a really fast car may even motivate me to vote for a political party that allows me to drive really fast whenever and wherever I want.
Technology then is much more than a simple tool that helps us to realize what we want today. Therefore, it is our task to think ahead with a bit more creativity about what technology might bring. How will new technologies affect the way we live, the way we love, the way we hope, the way we demand rights? Only by asking questions like these we may seek a better understanding of the ways in which technology may contribute to a better world.
Vignettes are not predictions that close the debate, but invitations to everybody (including politicians and scientists) to come up with their own imagination of how science and technology may improve our lives. Will it help? Difficult to say. We know that technology development is usually a very large-scale and long-term enterprise, with many different parties involved, often in various parts of the world. So, it will not be easy. But ultimately, developments in science, technology, and society depend on choices made by humans, who are guided by better or worse reasons when choosing amongst different alternative ways of doing and making things. And because that is the case, it is always worth the effort to try to improve our reasons and arguments by discussing with one another.
The SynBio Futures vignettes have been developed by a team guided by Tsjalling Swierstra from Maastricht University and Marianne Boenink from the University of Twente. First drafts of vignettes were made in classes of master students at both universities and then further developed and improved by Swierstra and Boenink. During the process the vignettes have been commented on by senior researchers involved in iGEM from VU University Amsterdam and Delft University of Technology, and by staff members from the Rathenau Instituut. The work has been commissioned by the Rathenau Instituut. The final authorship and responsibility for the vignettes rests with Tsjalling Swierstra and Marianne Boenink.
Authors involved from Maastricht University
Tsjalling Swierstra (project leader)
Authors involved from the University of Twente
Tjebbe van Eemeren
Judith Schoot Uiterkamp
Marianne Boenink (project leader)
Douwe Molenaar (VU University Amsterdam)
Domenico Bellomo (VU University Amsterdam)
Aljoscha Wahl (Delft University of Technology)
Virgil Rerimassie (Rathenau Instituut, The Hague)
Dirk Stemerding (Rathenau Instituut, The Hague)