While of different eras, the United States Constitution parallels with today’s advancements in computers and synthetic biology, according to a Cornell University professor who spoke at University of Wisconsin last week.
In a series of lectures spanning several departments at UW, visiting lecturer and ethicist Stephen Hilgartner discussed these similarities.
Hilgartner, associate professor of science and technology studies from Cornell University, illustrated how political and technological changes are deeply intertwined, occur in similar patterns and are led by imaginaries with strong visions of the future.
“The U.S. Constitution was envisioned as a machine,” Hilgartner said. “The U.S. is a technological powerhouse; the idea that we have to be innovative is deep into the culture.”
In his lecture, Hilgartner said the system of checks and balances was devised to instill order, while freedom of speech would produce further democratic effects. The National Bioeconomy Blueprint, issued by the Obama Administration in 2012, is essentially a mission statement listing research objectives in the life sciences that will further economic growth and address the country’s health needs.
Similar to what the goals drafted by the founding fathers laid out, the blueprint outlines a structure for future research endeavors.
“It’s not an accident that they used the term ‘Constitution,’” Kris Saha, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and member of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, and a colleague of Hilgartner, said. “Science and politics are constitutional in very symmetrical ways.”
According to Saha, the dominating theories in science are heavily influenced by the ideas of experts who determine what becomes powerful knowledge, closely mirroring the ideology of democracy. However, when it comes to introducing new ideas that turn the public eye and spawn revolutions, it may require a smaller group of ‘sociotechnical vanguards’ — entrepreneurs, pioneering scientists and ethicists — to promote their visions of the future.
Saha said ‘sociotechnincal vanguards’ are people who are actively building revolutions and taking things into new directions.
Hilgartner said in the context of technological and scientific innovation, it is oftentimes the case that a vision poses a turn from the public’s comfort zone. To make dramatic visions appealing, sociotechnical vanguards tend to use metaphors.
“Societies will imagine future technologies using past experiences as templates,” Hilgartner said. “[The approach most often taken is to] make them using the vocabulary and institutional furnishings that are currently in use.”
Examples of templates that Hilgartner explored were how synthetic biology draws from the computing revolution that already occurred. Referring to the genetic engineering of microbes and plants, he said synthetic biology contains terminology and concepts that borrow from parts-based approaches in electronics and computing.
For instance, biological circuits are rooted and stem from electronic circuits, the term ‘bioeconomy’ borrows from information economy, and ideas of open-source software have paved the way for ‘open wetware.’
Despite borrowing from the language and concepts of the past and present, the epicenter of a sociotechnical vision is the future, Hilgartner said. Interlinked templates that tap into plausible instances of history repeating itself are most effective on a new terrain, he said.
“It’s an attempt not to think about the past, but how to anticipate the future,” Saha said.