Innogen  ·  Publications  ·  Working papers
Compressed Foresight and Narrative Bias: Pitfalls in Assessing High Technology Futures

Williams, R

January 2005

Innogen working paper no. 39

Open / download (PDF, 284KB)

Current discussions of emerging technologies such as nanotechnology and biotechnology have sought to map out their ultimate technical and social consequences in a particularly detailed way. Both proponents and opponents have sought to project very specific visions (utopian and dystopian) of these high-technology futures as largely determiante and imminent:

...the gap between imagined and actual futures is this rhetorically foreshortened; foresight is compacted and compressed. Science and Technology Studies (STS) citicises such 'linear' conceptions of innovation pathways and 'impacts', pointing to the unpredictability of technical and social outcomes of earlier innocations. However society's concern to assess emerging technologies, and perhaps intervene in their pathways of development, which motivated attempts to anticipate outcomes, brings attendant risks of misleading, compressed foresight. With current requirements for the advance assessment of the Ethical, Legal and Social impacts (ELSI) of (certain) developments in Science and Technology (S&T), this paper identifies potential pitfalls of ELSI-fication - for example where a narrowed scope of enquiry encourages a simplfied model of the innovation process. The presumption, for example, that ethically conducted research will have ethically desirable outcomes (and visa versa) bring us back to essentialist analyses of the relationship between social values and innovation outcomes that have long been rejected by STS.

One of the precepts of STS is the need to interrogate critically its objects of study. As STS scholars engage with this new set of S&T developments (and often find themselves engaging in more direct ways than hitherto), they may need to reconsider their commitments and also their tacit presumptions - including narrative biases: the way in which analytical frameworks, study methods, tools for intervention and dominant narratived of particular schools may import conceptions about the character of S&T developments, their likely trajectories and their implications.

Download .pdf (284 kb) - Compressed Foresight and Narrative Bias (wp39)