Sunday, November 25, 2007

Fashionable Engineering Agendas

Sometimes I wonder if we all are stuck within our own jargon. "Nanotechnology and Nanolabeling - Essays on the Emergence of new Technological Fields" is the title of a dissertation that Nina Granqvist defended at the Helsinki School of Economics. It is a courageous attempt to distill what happens when some novel ideas turn into full-blown, and publicly funded, technology fields. I must admit that I haven't read the full thesis yet, on a whim I went to the actual defense and read parts of it up front and bits during the event. I don't know any socio-economics and in fact never had been to HSE before, but I like to believe that I grasped the essence of the thesis and the discussion.
One of the central thesises that was defended is that in the initial stages a field emerges through the action of a very small number of empowered visionary individuals. In other words through active agents, and not just solely because the time and circumstances are "right". But it seemed that it remained a bit unclear what exactly happens at that early stage and why some ideas stick and others don't. Here I humbly suggest a few words that may shed some more light on this.
The first word is engineering. First of all many novel ideas are ideas to solve a particular problem. And if somebody just has an idea for some technology the first thing to do is to figure out what problems can be solved with it. As only then can the idea be "sold". Of course if the technology promises to solve issues of great public interest it is easier to organize (public) funding for developing the underlying ideas. On the other hand one rarely see the emergence, with large governmental funding programmes, of a new area of science. The great efforts in nuclear physics with those huge accelerators etc. are perhaps a counter example, but I wouldn't be surprised if these efforts are to quite some extent are justified by promises of problem solving. And besides most of the actual work in that area, and practically all the spending is, on engineering. Relatively new areas of science that come to my mind are evolution, ecology and genetics, all subjects in biology. (Molecular) Genetics is an interesting example as it certainly grew quite quickly, and there have been largish publicly funded research programmes around it. But most, if not all, of these programmes were again about, or at least justified by, solving problems. Problems such as finding genes related to diseases which might help in finding cures. So my guess is that the visionaries very early on propose an engineering agenda, a set of problems that might be solved by developing new technology. And the sales process is easier when the agenda is simple yet ambitious.
The second word that kept popping up in my mind was fashion. Fashions "emerge", and also are initiated by a small group of active individuals. I strongly suspect that the work on the socio-psychology of fashion can shed some light on the emergence of technology fields, especially the early stages. If you're a person with some novel ideas it certainly helps if others regard you as a "trendsetter". And when a fashion is about to become fashionable, many people tend to join in. I think the thesis mentions both these phenomena, but not within the context of fashion. What I'd find personally very interesting is to see what exactly happens when something gets out of fashion. Does a technology field looses its glamor before it makes good on those promises ? I.e. is unmasked as a hype? The fashion point of view may be even more helpful when analyzing the emergence of technologies, that are much less government programme fueled. Such as Linux or Java.
A second very interesting observation in the dissertation is about framing and labeling. The analysis of the emergence of nanotechnology very nicely showed how the "nanotechnology" label was quickly used to denote something quite different from the early vision. This because the label was fashionable, but the associated engineering agenda did not appeal to established entities. During the defense event opponent Prof. Michael Lounsbury wondered if such established entities sometimes would want, and even could, impose their own labels. I think that's called branding.
All in all not a bad way to spend a rainy November afternoon in Helsinki!

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