The Economist suggests that:
[…] critics have a bigger worry. Europe, they fear, is clinging desperately to old certainties as technological change sweeps past. Some detect signs of this attitude in the tensions between the EU and big tech firms. […] This, hints an American official, may have more to do with protecting European incumbents than with competition law.
I’d suggest something rather different. Europe – in its fudging, almost-not-getting-there but just-about-succeeding, sort of way (that is to say, anything but the gung-ho North American approach) – is expressing a collective dissatisfaction not with science and fundamental research itself (as the Economist article would suggest) but, instead, with how we’re going about implementing a wider progress; perhaps more importantly, implementing what we often unconsciously term change.
The big three questions are:
- Do we assume all change is inevitable?
- Do we assume all change is progress?
- What are we defining as progress?
I’d take point 1 and argue that very few people who make and shake care ever to believe that change isn’t a given. What’s more, in relation to point 2, I’m pretty sure the same folk believe all change, by its nature, inevitably leads to progress for someone or something – generally, I’d assume, being as they’re so eager to pursue it, in benefit of their blessed sources of wealth and beloved standards of living. Meanwhile, as far as point 3 is concerned, progress seems to be defined mostly as those processes which reduce wages, cheapen the costs of production, increase shareholder value and allow the eighty-five wealthiest people in the world to continue to own what the other fifty percent of the global population scrabble to maintain.
I wrote these lines a few weeks ago, where I suggested how we might think intelligently about wealth:
There are I suppose two alternatives:
- Aim to spread wealth equally so we are similarly poor or similarly well-off (always depending, I suppose, on where you’ve started out and where you’ve found yourself ending up) – I can imagine that here a) taxation systems would play a big part in attempting to achieve this goal; and b) universal basic incomes could also contribute constructively to its implementation.
- Aim to allow concentrations of wealth only where and when value is demonstrably added over time. We would not stop being punitive about the kind of concentrations which just have rich people sitting on their wealth; we would however reward any and all concentrations which allowed us to achieve wider societal goals that Parliament, a bespoke tribunal of the people or any other democratic process could design.
What kind of societal goals could those be? In no order of importance, then – just as they trip out of the ideas-generator:
- Dignified, humanly fulfilling and educationally expanding work.
- Inclusive organisational patterns of relationships, at all community, corporate and political levels.
- A re-establishment of that liberal bond between responsibilities and rights.
- An intuitive openness in governance in all kinds of institutions, so that honesty, sincerity and informed debate are to be prized and held dear above all.
- Profit to be understood primarily as that which benefits the whole of society, and only secondarily the interests of more traditional investors.
- A careful appreciation, development and implementation of technology, with the aim of putting it at the service of people and not the other way round.
- A sustainable approach to all our environments – whether natural or human-made.
- Ultimately, an evidence-based approach to all kinds of decision-making processes – even as the plethora of information available these days should not freeze our collective ability to take such decisions in a timely manner.
In the light of the above – and the “what is to be done” questions which in a minute I’ll pose below – I’d resist most forcefully the attempt to describe Europe, in its already mentioned collectivity, as an entity in the process of rejecting science and technology.
What it is more than probably finding unlikeable about a very US-capitalist implementation (and I’m not trying to be anti-American here; I just think it not only manifestly the case but also something US capitalists would find it easy to be proud of) is the matter of that obvious disconnect between a need for an economy to sustainably serve the people and a fairly tragic reality where people serve economies in situations of working poverty.
It’s plainly not functioning – and the experiment has had decades to show it might.
It’s time to stop claiming that change is inevitable, and must be accepted without configuration or question.
We need more questions, in order to move forwards.
The “what is to be done” questions I mentioned before will help. Questions I’d pose in the following sequence:
- Who is to benefit from this progress?
- Who is to suffer from this progress?
- How can we increase those who benefit?
- How can we reduce those who suffer?
Once it became possible to think around these areas and start to address the implications, maybe Europe’s hostility to what is essentially an American mindset on progress would begin to subside and recede; would become, instead, far more engaged and collaborative in its attitudes.
But whilst US capitalism continues to see science and technology as a means to disrupt ordinary livelihoods to the advantage of established concentrations of wealth and power, rather than empower the lives of perishable human beings who do, essentially, now live under the yoke of capitalism, the suspicion we’re all demonstrating in relation to such notable exponents of change will continue to heighten and become more exaggerated.