The silent rave might seem a rather bizarre social phenomenon; a group of strangers converging in a public place and dancing to their own individual iPod soundtracks. But I have a sneaking suspicion that the emerging technology community has been indulging in the new tech-equivalent of silent raves for some time now.
These suspicions are probably the delusional by-product of jetlag. But travelling back from the latest in a long line of multi-stakeholder nanotechnology meetings last week, the analogy hit a chord…
Imagine a meeting room where people are plugged into their own personal mental iPods: The scientists immersed in Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” (apart from the toxicologists, who are playing “Another One Bites the Dust”); the industry folk tuned in to “I Did It My Way”; with the NGO’s rocking along to “Holding Out for a Hero” (with either Bonnie Tyler or Jennifer Saunders taking the lead, depending on how “hip” the group is). And all the while the policy makers in the room listening to Bob Geldof and “I Don’t Like Mondays”—over and over again…
This is a recipe for a great time (for some), little progress, and a lot of noise. And it seems to be one that is followed at many meetings designed to address the broader social, health and environmental issues of emerging technologies.
The problem is twofold I suspect: People in different discipline and with different agendas find it hard to listen to and understand other perspectives. And in the absence of a clear focus for dialogue, it is near-impossible to find a common language to facilitate communication. In the silent rave analogy: People find it really hard to unplug their mental iPods and listen to other tunes; especially if there isn’t a strong communal tune to replace their personal soundtracks.
This is hardly a blinding revelation. But the point is nevertheless an important one if real progress is to be made in developing sustainable emerging technologies. The question is: how can people be encouraged to unplug and join the conversation?
I’m not sure what the answer is, but I’m pretty sure one of the first steps will be to find that clear focus for dialogue—not just a woolly desire to talk about ill-defined implications of emerging technologies, but a clear statement of what the challenges are to making progress. And that might mean dropping pre-conceived ideas of what defines any particular emerging technology (like nanotechnology), and focusing instead on what the science is revealing—and how this challenges conventional approaches to ensuring safe, environmentally sound and socially acceptable use. Perhaps if this focus is found, it will lead to a communal tune so irresistible that people will start turning off their mental iPods, and tuning in to the group conversation.
In fairness, the meeting that sparked off these thoughts was more productive than many I have participated in. But more is needed if we (as stakeholders in getting emerging technologies right) are to stop going round in circles and start making some serious headway into a technologically secure future.
And as for what is playing on my mental iPod: Fortunately, I unplugged myself a long time back. Funny thing though, no matter which meeting I’m at, I keep hearing strains of Pink Floyd’s “Is There Anyone Out There?” Strange that!