The Luddites’ Veto
No sensible person could favor irresponsible research and innovation. So RRI—”responsible research and innovation“—may sound like an innocuous idea. As it takes hold in Europe, though, the term has clearly become a cover for what amounts to a Luddites’ veto. Now the notion is percolating among American academics. If it finds its way to the halls of state, RRI would dramatically slow technological progress and perhaps even bring it to a grinding halt.
That wouldn’t be an unexpected byproduct. Several RRI proponents have explicitly argued for “slow innovation,” even “responsible stagnation.” One of them—Bernd Carsten Stahl, a professor of critical research in technology at De Montfort University in the United Kingdom—has even compared technological breakthroughs to a pandemic. “We should ask whether emerging technologies can and will be perceived as a threat of a similar level as the current threat of the Covid virus,” he wrote in 2020. If so, he added, they would require “radical intervention.”
An Overabundance of Caution
Before we explore RRI, we should take a look at its precursor, a pernicious notion known as the precautionary principle. This concept is often summarized as “better safe than sorry”—but there’s a bit more to it than that.
In 1998, a group of environmentalists meeting at the Wingspread retreat center in Wisconsin hammered out the now more or less canonical version of the precautionary principle: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” The so-called Wingspread Statement explicitly shifts the burden of proof, so that anyone proposing a new activity cannot proceed without showing that it will not—or, at least, is very unlikely to—cause significant harm. This amounts to a demand for trials without error.
Political scientist Aaron Wildavsky anticipated how such an idea would actually end up doing more harm. “An indirect implication of trial without error is that if trying new things is made more costly, there will be fewer departures from past practice; this very lack of change may itself be dangerous in forgoing chances to reduce existing hazards,” he wrote in his 1988 book Searching for Safety. “Existing hazards will continue to cause harm if we fail to reduce them by taking advantage of the opportunity to benefit from repeated trials.”
But as misguided as it is, the precautionary principle is at least focused on preventing harms to health and the environment. In a 2021 article for the Journal of Responsible Innovation, three responsible research and innovation boosters—Richard Owen, René von Schomberg, and Phil Macnaghten—called RRI “a move from risk governance to innovation governance.” Two more proponents, Stevienna de Saille and Fabien Medvecky, put it more plainly in 2016: RRI, they wrote, focuses not just on an innovation’s health and environmental impact but its “impact on values, morals and social relations.”
So innovators won’t just have to prove somehow that their technologies pose no harm to human health or the environment. They’ll also have to show that they will not do too much to disrupt a society’s prevailing morals, culture, and livelihoods.
RRI’s advocates trace their intellectual roots to British chemist David Collingridge’s 1980 book The Social Control of Technology. “The social consequences of a technology cannot be predicted early in the life of the technology,” he wrote. “By the time undesirable consequences are discovered, however, the technology is often so much part of the whole economic and social fabric that its control is extremely difficult.” Collingridge called this process “entrenchment.” His modern acolytes describe it as technological “lock-in.”
Note Collingridge’s focus on social consequences. To weigh those consequences, he did not turn to the decentralized process where producers and consumers evaluate new products for their safety, quality, and efficacy via the marketplace. Collingridge called for political control.
What sort of undesirable consequences did he have in mind? One was that “modern medicine and hygiene has reduced the death rate in developing countries, but doing so has generated an uncontrollable increase in population.” Another was that “food production has increased through the use of chemicals, but at the cost of the future collapse of agriculture due to damage to soil and its supporting ecosystem.”
Collingridge’s forecasts did not come true. World population is expected to peak around the middle of this century, thanks to modern innovations such as effective birth control. Global cereal production has not collapsed and, indeed, has more than doubled since Collingridge’s book appeared. If RRI had been a part of the political system in 1980, we might not have “entrenched” or “locked in” these new technologies, but we would have entrenched and locked in a lot of hunger and substandard health care.
Collingridge also mused darkly about the coming consequences of the then-emerging technology of “microelectronics.” He warned, “This technology is in its infancy, and it is now possible to place all kinds of controls and restrictions on its development, even to the point of deciding to do without it altogether.” And why would we consider doing without it altogether? “Concern has been expressed about the unemployment which may result from the uncontrolled development and diffusion of microelectronics, but our understanding of this effect is extremely limited.”
Microelectronics—in the form of personal computing and the internet—did indeed destroy 3.5 million jobs in the U.S., according to a 2017 McKinsey Global Institute report. But the same report calculated that those technologies have created 19.3 million new jobs since 1980, yielding a net gain of 15.8 million jobs. That’s about 10 percent of the current U.S. civilian work force. It’s a good thing we didn’t have an RRI tribunal with the power to declare this technology so dire that it would be better to “do without it altogether.”
If such a tribunal had existed a century before that, hostlers and buggy whip makers—or as the RRI crowd would call them, transportation industry “stakeholders”—would have been empowered to keep cars off the roads. Collingridge and his acolytes would have nodded their heads approvingly.
The Evils of the Automobile
In her 2016 book The Ethics of Invention, Harvard-based RRI proponent Sheila Jasanoff decries cars. “The life history of the automobile,” she declares, “remains a paradigmatic case study in the limits of human foresight. The car unlocked immense possibilities for individual freedom and productivity, but these went hand in hand with drastic consequences for society that no one had imagined or regulated in timely fashion.” Cars, she continued, had brought “more than a million traffic deaths worldwide each year, the spread of deadening, routinized work practices, the blight of urban air pollution, the fragmentation of communities, the decay of once-great manufacturing centers, and eventually world-threatening climate change.” She then asks, “Could current practices of responsible innovation and anticipatory governance have turned the tide of the automobile’s history before it took a
Article from Reason.com