ETH, STP

Cornerstone Course – Day 1: Prologue

The cornerstone course should give a basic introduction into the topics of policy and the contents of the Master’s study.

Disciplines in university are very specialized and focused which offers a great advantage. Over the last two centuries that has created a line along department. 200 years ago you were in “science” and you would do biology, chemistry and physics. While the compartmentalizations allows for neat clear-cut teaching, today’s reality never poses problems in society, that are neatly placed within the department lines.

A forum of exchange is missing. Mindset, language, outlook, all is different in each department and has been and is diverging more. Technological advances drive society in the coming years as much as in the last years. 200 years ago a technological cycle would be 50 years, now it is 10 years and soon it could be 5 years. Finding a common language and a common mindset is an important task.

Policies how to deal with this change needs to be devised now and that is the reason for the course. The learning experience in the program is mutual – professors and students alike learn how to deal with interdisciplinary issues.

What is science? What is technology?

Technology is a means to fulfil a human purpose (W.B.Arthur, 2009).  Altering the physical world around you counts as technology (from fire-making, over wheels to the modern tablet). Consequently, engineering focuses on finding a technical solution is found to meet human demand. Engineering always involves a time scale and its goal must be met timely. The longest technological development can be found in air planes with 30 year cycles.

Science on the other hand focus on understanding phenomena that exist independently of humans and technology. Science does not require time scales and its concepts are more universal. The simple phenomena were understood quite early, but complex phenomena need more research and sometimes technology to be understood.

An illustrating example is the physics (i.e. science) behind light enables the engineering (i.e. technology) of lasers.

Social sciences focus on understanding social, economic and political phenomena – especially human behaviour and societal institutions and norms.

Research is done locally, but its rewards are reaped globally which points at a first policy issue. Where are the incentives to drive science/technology?

Widening Arthur’s narrow definition even money and parliaments can be considered technologies. The concept is loose and commonly differently defined depending on the source.

According to Arthur technology creates our wealth, economy and way of being. On the other hand it also brings unease as technologies seems to cause n new problems for every problem they solve. In general, humans hope that technology resolves issues, but they would rather trust nature. It boils down to a clash between what technology has to offer and what humans are comfortable with. Technology can cause fear because it is unclear how independent of technology humans can function and whether technology is really beneficial.

Society and technology

Is technological innovation like Darwinian evolution? Technology is rather “combinatorial evolution” which can be considered heredity: The more there is to invent with, the greater will be the number of inventions. Also social changes were necessary: Newton’s laws define most of modern technology, but for nearly 200 years there was little development. This can be linked to the little number of people who were able to dedicate time to research (and studying at all). New technology is created out of old technologies. The process is long-term and often iterative.

Creativity is a main driver of new technologies, but what is it? On one hand creativity is the solution strategy to needs based on sensory stimulus. But this doesn’t quite cover inventions and arts. A source of creativity seems to be making mistakes and discovering surprising things in the process.

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