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Far too rarely do most people reflect critically on the relationship between advancing technoscience and progress. The connection seems obvious, if not “natural.” How else would progress occur except by “moving forward” with continuous innovation? Many, if not most, members of contemporary technological civilization seem to possess an almost unshakable faith in the power of innovation to produce an unequivocally better world. Part of the purpose of Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholarship is to precisely examine if, when, how and for whom improved science and technology means progress. Failing to ask these questions, one risks thinking about technoscience like how underpants gnomes think about underwear.

Wait. Underpants gnomes? Let me back up for second. The underpants gnomes are characters from the second season of the television show South Park. They sneak into people’s bedrooms at night to steal underpants, even the ones that their unsuspecting victims are wearing. When asked why they collect underwear, the gnomes explain their “business plan” as follows: Step 1) Collect underpants, Step 2) “?”, Step 3) Profit! The joke hinges on the sheer absurdity of the gnomes’ single-minded pursuit of underpants in the face of their apparent lack of a clear idea of what profit means and how underpants will help them achieve it.

UnderpantsGnomesAlthough this reference is by now a bit dated, these little hoarders of other people’s undergarments are actually one of the best pop-culture illustrations of the technocratic theory of progress that often undergirds people’s thinking about innovation. The historian of technology Leo Marx described the technocratic idea of progress as:

A belief in the sufficiency of scientific and technological innovation as the basis for general progress. It says that if we can ensure the advance of science-based technologies, the rest will take care of itself. (The “rest” refers to nothing less than a corresponding degree of improvement in the social, political, and cultural conditions of life.)

The technocratic understanding of progress amounts to the application of underpants gnome logic to technoscience: Step 1) Produce innovations, Step 2) “?”, Step 3) Progress! This conception of progress is characterized by a lack of a clear idea of not only what progress means but also how amassing new innovations will bring it about.

The point of undermining this notion of progress is not to say that improved technoscience does not or could not play an important role in bringing about progress but to recognize that there is generally no logical reason for believing it will automatically and autonomously do so. That is, “Step 2” matters a great deal. For instance, consider the 19th century belief that electrification would bring about a radical democratization of America through the emancipation of craftsmen, a claim that most people today will recognize as patently absurd. Given the growing evidence that American politics functions more like an oligarchy than a democracy, it would seem that wave after wave of supposedly “democratizing” technologies – from television to the Internet – have not been all that effective in fomenting that kind of progress. Moreover, while it is of course true that innovations like the polio vaccine, for example, certainly have meant social progress in the form of fewer people suffering from debilitating illnesses, one should not forget that such progress has been achievable only with the right political structures and decisions. The inventor of the vaccine, Jonas Salk, notably did not attempt to patent it, and the ongoing effort to eradicate polio has entailed dedicated global-level organization, collaboration and financial support.

Hence, a non-technocratic civilization would not simply strive to multiply innovations under the belief that some vague good may eventually come out of it. Rather, its members would be concerned with whether or not specific forms of social, cultural or political progress will in fact result from any particular innovation. Ensuring that innovations lead to progress requires participants to think politically and social scientifically, not just technically. More importantly, it would demand that citizens consider placing limits on the production of technoscience that amounts to what Thoreau derided as “improved means to unimproved ends.”

Proceeding more critically and less like the underpants gnomes means asking difficult and disquieting questions of technoscience. For example, pursuing driverless cars may lead to incremental gains in safety and potentially free people from the drudgery of driving, but what about the people automated out of a job? Does a driverless car mean progress to them? Furthermore, how sure should one be of the presumption that driverless cars (as opposed to less automobility in general) will bring about a more desirable world? Similarly, how should one balance the purported gains in yield promised by advocates of contemporary GMO crops against the prospects for a greater centralization of power within agriculture? How much does corn production need to increase to be worth the greater inequalities, much less the environmental risks? Moreover, does a new version of the iPhone every six months mean progress to anyone other than Apple’s shareholders and elite consumers?

It is fine, of course, to be excited about new discoveries and inventions that overcome previously tenacious technical problems. However, it is necessary to take stock of where such innovations seem to lead. Do they really mean progress? More importantly, whose interests do they progress and how? Given the collective failure to demand answers to these sorts of questions, one has good reason to wonder whether technological civilization really is making progress. Contrary to the vision of humanity being carried up to the heavens of progress upon the growing peaks of Mt. Innovation, it might be that many of us are more like underpants gnomes dreaming of untold and enigmatic profits amongst piles of what are little better than used undergarments. One never knows unless one stops collecting long enough to ask, “What was step two again?”