Archive for December, 2008

Converging technologies by divine providence

Also in Switzerland, experts have begun discussing ethical aspects of converging technologies. Even in a country with an ultra federalist tradition, nobody seems to escape the lure of convergence and to make a case for divergence.

One among other funny things about converging technologies is a modal-logic ambivalence, if not a dilemma: On the one hand, the convergence of technologies is drawn as a matter of fact, as if convergence already is or has been at work. The anxiously ‘prudent’ European answer to the ‘transhumanist’ US initiative draws such a picture, too: “Info-, bio-, and nanotechnologies complement each other and have begun to join forces with cognitive science, social psychology and other social sciences” ( p. 6). On the other hand, convergence is obviously a goal or a state of affairs that should be realized in the future – an end, its attainment hinges upon massive support from science policy, hence the existence of the relevant science policy initiatives.

At this point we might look at convergence in another way. Instead of discussing ethical aspects of converging technologies, it might be more interesting to question the conditions of existence of such initiatives, which base their legitimacy on various forms of technological determinism or what amounts to the same: on divine providence.

  • Firstly, there is hardly any evidence supporting the diagnosis of an already present convergence. The nano-initiatives already campaigned for it, yet even with the support of billions, ‘real interdisciplinarity’ largely remained wishful thinking. Thus, convergence as a matter of fact is likely to be a construction and little more than a mere construction of the initiatives supporting it.
  • Secondly, convergence appears to be a teleological concept, as Joachim Schummer claims in an article to be published soon. That is, the description of the presence or the future as giving rise to convergence either ascribes ‘harmonizing’ ends to the system of differentiated (!) scientific disciplines or it just expresses the political goals of science policy.
  • With respect to the latter, one might thirdly investigate current conditions of science policy, which operates on the basis of such empty signifiers like ‘converging technologies’. Accordingly, we might speculate about a loss of the grand old narratives and therefore about a loss of orientation that guided science policy until the late eighties. Since then, generic concepts like nano or convergence have emerged to symbolically fill the empty place. Maybe.

more on converging technologies soon…


30/12/2008 at 23:39 Leave a comment

The Everetts

How fantastic is this: Mark Everett, the driving force behind the brilliant band Eels, is the son of Hugh Everett III, famous physicist and author of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, and made a documentary about his father. A perfect mix of pop music and science.

Mark never really got to know his excentric father because of what seems to have been a depression-burdened family life. So, he tries to track down the physicists who worked with him to better understand both his father and his theory.

This documentary is full of science, famous physicists, drama, music, and pop culture. Best documentary I have seen in a long time.

Part2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6


30/12/2008 at 13:25 Leave a comment

Commercialization of biomedical science

For anyone interested in the effects of commercialization to biomedical science, Shamus Kahn has a very nice introductory post on scatterplot. He mentions some of the surface effects like Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa, Serzone, and Effexor not being significantly more effective than a placebo. He also points to places where one finds more literature on the subject. (and includes a Simpsons episode! But only for those in the US as videos on Hulu are subject to regional restrictions.)

In addition, I can recommend a review article by Philip Mirowski titled “Johnny’s in the Basement, Mixin’ Up the Medicine”. He discusses the commercialization of biomedical science with a background from economic sociology and from science studies.

Mirowski, P. (2007). Johnny’s in the Basement, Mixin’Up the Medicine: Review of Angell, Avorn, and Daemmrich on the Modern Pharmaceutical Predicament. Social Studies of Science, 37(2), 311. 

29/12/2008 at 13:35 Leave a comment

Our education system is not from this century

That our education system is not from this century is a somewhat trivial statement. It is trivial in the sense that education has not changed fundamentally in the last ten years. It is not trivial in the sense that the present generation comes ready with a set of skills and expectations developed in a technical world that has little resemblance with the past. This is one of the themes Grant McCracken and Kerry Howley discuss over at

From experiences with the current generation of students, I can largely agree with this statement. One often gets the feeling that young people seem to have trouble adjusting to this antiquated surrounding called university. For this reason I am currently trying to get an introductory course going that tries to familiarize students with science and the university while at the same time exploring the possibilities of a wide range of new technological means in this educational context. Michael Wesch is definitely one of the inspirations for such a project.

23/12/2008 at 17:36 Leave a comment

Public understanding of science

Here is one reason why scientists should not be in charge of explaining what science is good for: because Tim Minchin does it so much better. “If you open your mind too much, your brain will fall out.”

22/12/2008 at 16:00 Leave a comment

Non-intended consequences of dissertation writing

Writing a dissertation can drive you to do many things not dissertation-related. Jeremy from scatterplot focussed this urge to digress by writing a text-based computer game. This may not be dissertation writing but at least the game is about dissertation writing.

19/12/2008 at 11:42 Leave a comment

Living forever is inevitable – get over it!

This seems to be part of the message John Harris presented together with John Sulston and Richard Dawkins here. I sympathize with one of the commenters on Dawkins’ site: “I can’t decide if Harris is stunningly and brilliantly prescient or simply completely off his rocker!”

Not only is Harris blessed with inhuman amounts of optimism about technological development, he also seems to be contradicting himself. In a talk last year here in Basel he agreed that it is not old age that is killing us but the diseases of old age. (Might be only semantics.) Curing these diseases will probably become more and more costly as we will not run out of these kind of diseases even if we cure the ones that are bothering us now. Even if the wealthy can afford the new treatments as early adopters, I don’t see how we can collectively afford to invest larger and larger proportions of our gdps into this kind of research. Even more so in light of the business models and “innovation” track-record of the pharma companies.

The bloggingheads devoted their last science saturday to the same topic and interviewed Aubrey de Grey who might be even more “completely off his rocker”. The video is also worth watching because the nerd-factor is through the roof. (Watch as de Grey’s face changes color because his computer monitor is his main light-source and suddenly goes into stand-by! (17:20) At the end of the interview he seems to be so bored that he starts to answer emails simultaneously.)

17/12/2008 at 14:44 Leave a comment

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