The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011 marks a significant socio-political change in our recent times. Although the details of what exactly happened during the process of renegotiating power in the Mediterranean countries remains largely unknown, the sequence of events has triggered happy reactions in Europe. It seems that what took place in the Arab world reminds the West of their own baby-steps towards democracy. Such events are easily labelled as ‘democratisation’ or ‘liberation’, followed by a content, Universalist sigh.
In the meantime, commenting on the recent London riots in his essay, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek asks the relevant question: “What is the point of our celebrated freedom of choice when the only choice is between playing by the rules and (self-)destructive violence?” By referring to Hegelian ‘abstract negativity’, he points to the destructive force at the outskirts of society, people deprived of the fruits of development.
Despite the glimmers of hope, a dash of scepticism should be taken onboard: that there is the risk of embracing a dangerous romance; of assuming that as long as things go further in a ‘democratic’ way, everything will be ‘ok’. Effectively, this romance functions like a fog – a screen preventing us from seeing and understanding what is actually taking place either in countries undergoing radical reform or in the democratically-established West.
In fact, a parallel similar to the political ‘free/unfree’ dialectic can be detected in the field of technology and innovation. It is that of ‘progress/no-progress’. Technology and scientific advancement are often viewed as the motors of development, virtually independent of context: “Progress equals happiness and the economy needs to grow.” Right. In this kind of talk there is an inherent risk of taking happiness for granted; human experience of meaningful life is projected through the satisfaction of formerly non-existent material needs.
In our time, the rise of the BRIC countries provides us with a prime example of how the adoption of technology can boost economies and bring welfare to populations. Without the burden of obsolete industrial infrastructure, the BRICs even have the potential to leapfrog traditional industrialised countries; they are in fact doing so. At the same time, one should be aware of the risk of becoming overly confident in the good intentions of either emerging economies or companies involved in the process. In the worst case, we may become witnesses to unforeseen environmental and socio-economic devastation during coming decades.
No form of technology or science is detached from the context of its application. Falling in love with technology without understanding its many potential uses is risky. In this respect, innovation systems which embrace the space of new possibilities should be geared to a holistic understanding of things. Corporations, having earlier articulated their sole interest as lying in maximising profits for their shareholders, have nowadays refined their statements by using a more holistic, socially-agreeable tone. Similarly, political rhetoric has crept towards pleasing ‘mindful’ voters.
If it’s about incentives, who has the power to craft them? The modernist dream of endless development cannot be the only answer.
To write the next blog, I challenge Senior Researcher, Mikko Jääskeläinen, Institute of Strategy, Aalto University School of Science.