Presentation April 11, 2002
University of Maryland Conference on Globalizations: Cultural, Economic, Democratic.
For conference information, see http://www.bsos.umd.edu/socy/conference/index.html

Global Technoscience
The Dark Matter of Social Theory

Wolf Schäfer

Current social theory reminds me of the pub-crawler who lost his keys somewhere on his way home and tries to find them under the lamp in front of his house “because that’s where the light is”. I shall argue in five short points that the student of contemporary history will find an important key to our time by enlightening the dark matter of technoscience. My five points concern:

·    the plurality of globalizations,

·    the multiparadigmatic character of the social sciences,

·    the dark matter of technoscience,

·    the distinction between civilization and culture,

·    the linking of culture to heterogeneity and civilization to homogeneity.

the plurality of globalizations

The word globalization can be used in the singular and in the plural. The title of this session, Globalization and Sociological Theorizing, refers to globalization in the singular. However, I am not convinced that globalization is a single process in search of one explanation. I am more at ease with Göran Therborn’s line that globalizations are plural.[1]

My first point is, therefore, that we are dealing with a plexus of globalizations – different social processes and dynamics of change that are colliding with local histories worldwide. Globalization in the singular could put history on autopilot by hypostatizing the working of a planetary system. I am not ruling that out, but I do not want to assume it either. From Talcott Parsons to Niklas Luhmann and Karl Marx to Immanuel Wallerstein, the modern world has been analyzed as an overarching social system that makes history. Yet, focusing on the plurality of globalizations allows us to analyze and compare ongoing historical processes before we jump to a grand conclusion. I believe that multiple globalizations buys time for research, makes room for historical complexity, and keeps the analytical options open—and whatever keeps our analytical options open at this moment of paradigm-uncertainty is a theoretical advantage in my eyes.

Paying theoretical and empirical attention to the plexus of globalizations could also be politically empowering. Let us not forget that Theodor Adorno cried in desperation, Where is the proletariat? It had become painfully clear to him in the 1930s that an all-embracing systemic process has no executive historical actor. Such process is by default a single vector, the resultant of numerous processes and actions. However, zooming in from the whole enlarges the actor-part of social reality. The focus on globalizations brings historical processes and actions to the fore in and by which concrete social actors operate. These actors change the course of history all the time ever so slightly and it would be a mistake to consider them as mere pebbles in the stream of history. Highlighting the ability of social actors to swim in the rivers of change is therefore theoretically enlightening and politically empowering. This brings me to the second point—

the multiparadigmatic character of the social sciences

We are “in search of paradigms” according to the title of our panel. Why are we not looking for a single paradigm to solve all our globalization needs? If Ino Rossi had asked natural scientists to look for paradigms in the plural, they would have told him to go to the social scientists and humanists. Natural scientists consider themselves ten inches taller than social scientists and humanists. For them, more than one Kuhnian paradigm at a time heralds a severe intellectual crisis. We, however, do not seem to mind the multiparadigmatic nature of our pursuits. Why? Why are we not looking at our friends in the natural sciences with paradigm-in-the-singular-envy? (Actually, I sometimes do, but only when I contemplate in desperation how much more one could achieve with ample funding and thousands of workers methodically grinding small problems smaller.)

Social scientists and humanists do not rally around a single paradigm because their work implies different and conflicting anticipations of the future. Interactions between men and women, nature and humans, technoscience and culture, states and companies, cars and cities, roads and landscapes, are not regulated in the book of nature. Scientists can safely assume that nature works wonders without looking ahead. If Catholic molecules could abhor a vacuum in order to resist the air pump′s assault on Aristotelianism, Robert Boyle would not have gotten very far. And if, on the other hand, social actors were mindless pebbles, historians of science and society would not have any reason to consider the conflicting historical intentions of Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle.

More and more human actors—not only professional reflectors like us—understand that different futures are harbored in the actions, interactions, and conceptions of the present, and that we are battling over these futures now. Social actors take sides constantly and change the course of history all the time. Our work, therefore, cannot escape the unpredictability and openness of the historical future. Even if we try to smartly gauge the unintended consequences of some course of action, we are regularly outsmarted by unexpected futures. The study of unintended consequences clearly works better for the reflecting historian than the predicting economist, sociologist, or political scientist. This simply confirms that the social future is not like the future of classical mechanics and that the paradigmatic richness of the social sciences springs from the fact that the book of human history contains the past and the present but not the future. Third point—

the dark matter of technoscience

The plurality of globalizations and paradigms can give us some basic anthropological optimism. This plurality makes our sciences comparatively imprecise, messy, and fuzzy, yet not at all irrelevant; it can give even academic discussions a noble urgency. But that does not mean that we are doing so much better than the pub-crawler who is looking for his keys in the wrong place. For at least a generation now, large parts of the social sciences and humanities have been drawn to the bright lights of postmodernism, social constructivism, and cultural studies. Much has been achieved: repressed social actors have found their voices, dominant social actors have been humbled, and new fields of study have opened up. But where there is light, there is shadow, and what lurks in the shadows is the dark matter of social theory, namely global technoscience.

I define global as pertaining to the whole planet and technoscience as a hybrid of scientized technology and technologized science. The mundane telephone or genetically modified foods are technoscientific things; their masculine birth required the sophisticated blending of particular human interests with an advanced understanding of electricity on the one hand and genetics on the other. It is to be expected, I would argue, that technoscientific things are striving for globality—the telephone is already there, genetically modified food not yet. No doubt, the nature of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is technoscientific, but since so many people question the global desirability of GM products, I would not hesitate to interpret the fights over genetically modified food as a good example for the characteristic openness of the human future.

My humble point is that the social sciences are not paying enough attention to the revolutionary dynamics of technoscience and global importance of pending technoscientific projects. Sure, there is history and sociology of science and technology, but is it central to our departments? The colleagues who work in these fields are relatively few in numbers, valued specialists at the professional fringes. Look at the main concerns of this conference—where are, for instance, the papers about the biotechnological modification of plants, animals, and humans? Globalizations 2002 highlights cultural, economic, and democratic issues. Out of some 85 papers, five or so, a scanty 6 percent, deal with things like global information technologies and global media. I would submit that the cultural, economic, and democratic relevance of ongoing and upcoming global technoscientific change deserves a higher percentage. Also, I should think that it would be prudent to consider the possibility that the technoscientific revolution has only started—give technoscience five hundred more years and this globe will be a starkly different place. On to the fourth point—

the distinction between civilization and culture

I know that my assumption about the future is bold, cannot be proven, and can be wrong, but that is not the point. My bet that technoscience has a tremendously important global future is actually a heuristic assumption about the present with practical consequences. It tells me to take nanorobots and other small laboratory-things as seriously as human rights, race, gender, and sexual identity. I believe that humans will soon come to the point where they will find that a category is needed for all things technoscientific because these things will be in us, around us, under us, above us, everywhere, all the time, before birth and after death.

Civilization is the category I have proposed to use for the pervasive technoscientific environment that I envision for all peoples and cultures on this planet.[2] Humankind has already moved quite far in that direction. A viable alternative to modern technoscience is not available. Smart missiles, unmanned bombers, nuclear power plants, distributed computer networks, communication satellites, genetically engineered chimeras, clones, and other “others” are all the rage in the world outside the departments of Western social science. Exceptions are few and far between. Donna Haraway′s socialist-feminist work on cyborgs could be mentioned although her approach is too ironic for my perception of the present situation.

I am using the term civilization to describe the technoscientific handling of first and second nature. First nature is what makes the Earth go round, splits continents apart, and ejects carbon dioxide from volcanoes. Second nature comes into play when CO2 blasts from combustion engines, laser surgery is performed, and global e-mail received. The nature-related understanding of civilization can be obtained from Alfred Weber and Robert Merton. Anticipating the triumph of a global technoscientific civilization, I want to shed light on the link between the globalization of technoscience and the domestication of the Earth. The use of civilization fosters an analysis that goes beyond the fashionable passe-partout of culture. Let me add that my understanding of culture as social construction of meaning is completely traditional under the present circumstances. I find it heartening that a good number of different cultures and languages is still going strong, sustained and spoken by billions, and I do not see why that should change dramatically any time soon, even under the threat of global Americanization. Thus, a truly global civilization is more likely than a truly global culture. Finally, a last word about the explanatory potential of a renewed distinction between civilization and culture—

culture and heterogeneity, civilization and homogeneity

Increasingly identical ways of handling first and second nature show a strong trend toward civilizational homogeneity across diverse cultures. That trend exhibits the global appreciation of technology and can be explained by viewing civilization as the universal hyperculture of technoscience. The understanding of culture as a social construction of local meanings can be mobilized to make sense of complementary and/or opposing tendencies that affirm local identities, multicultural heterogeneities, and otherness in general. The new-global-history-approach that some of my colleagues and I try to develop[3] allows a binocular view of globalizations along the lines of one civilization and many cultures. We want to study how the emerging global technoscientific civilization spreads through the pluriverse of local cultures and how local cultures become embedded in the networked universe of a global civilization.

 


[1] Göran Therborn, guest editor, International Sociology, vol. 15, number 2, June 2000, page 158: “…globalization should be taken in plural, as globalizations, involving a number of substantive social processes and more than one procedural dynamic. Globalizations are multiform processes.”

[2] See “Global Civilization and Local Cultures: A Crude Look at the Whole”, in International Sociology, vol. 16, September 2001, 301-319.

[3] See the home page of the New Global History Initiative, http://www.newglobalhistory.org.