EDGE: What role would the idea of computation play in all this?

GIDDENS: Well, you're talking about a marriage here of communication and computers. For example, you couldn't have 24-hour financial markets without that marriage of global satellite technology and computerization, which is one of the key convergences of the time. But as we know, there are new convergences happening between communication, computation, and biology, and that looks like the next kind of process of technological transformation.

However, although I don't know what the views of your contributors are, one mustn't think of these things as solely driven by technology, and one mustn't ever imagine that technology drives itself, and one mustn't imagine particularly that technology is unilinear — that the future will always be more of the same as the present. History moves dialectically; it takes us by surprise. The future is not linear. You will get many different kinds of reactions to these technologies, some of them hostile, some of them producing new technologies, many of them unpredicted. It's a key feature of our times that the big events like the one I mentioned, the decline of the Soviet Union, went unpredicted. No one predicted, with any accuracy, what actually happened in the Soviet Union — even people who spent their whole lives studying Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. This is a world of these kinds of transformations, and this is very important for technology, because a lot of people who are deeply into technology think in a linear way about it. I feel that's a great mistake.

EDGE: I was just writing something myself: "Today the interesting and important work in science is A. about computation, B. the result of computation, or C. informed through the models of computation. The metaphor of computation has emerged as the key unifying theme of what I call the Third Culture. Software and computation is reshaping civilization; that's the big story in intellectual life today. David Gelernter, a computer scientist, says, 'It's the beginning of everything; everything's up for grabs, everything will change - there is a magnificent sweep of intellectual landscape right in front of us.'" Does that resonate?

GIDDENS: Let me tell you a little parable. There was an older man, who, as older men do, fell in love with a young woman. And even though he's terribly pressed at work, he sends her several messages a day and eagerly awaits each message as it comes through to carry on this romance. And you might think that's an e-technology, an e-mail romance. But actually it's Prime Minister Asquith with a friend of his daughter's, who he fell in love with in 1915. In 1915 there were eight mail deliveries in London. You could interchange eight messages within a short period of time and carry on a dialogue, which is now impossible because you're very lucky if your letter gets there the next day. That's what I mean by the fact that there's no such thing as unilinear technology. You can't say that everything is changing, because this is a world where, although everything changes, in a certain sense everything stays the same, and that's the kind of accommodation we make to technological change.

EDGE: Let's talk about risk.

GIDDENS: Well, I still write about risk because it's deeply, deeply involved with technological transformation, obviously. What's happened in our lifetime is a transformation from one type of risk environment to another. You know, the notion of risk didn't always exist; it was invented essentially in the late Middle Ages. Many traditional cultures, so far as we know, don't have a concept of risk at all, the reason being that things are either a result of the will of God, or the result of hazard, or the result of the kind of influence which through ritual you put on the world. Or they just happen that way.

It's only when you have a future-oriented world that you need the notion of risk, because the notion of risk is a confrontation with the future, essentially. It's about future time and the management of future time. What's happening now is that we live in the most future-oriented society that has ever existed. Therefore, the notion of risk for us infects more or less everything, including personal things, like the decision to get married, say. The decision to get married, where it's an institutional decision, a kind of transition in life, was a pretty straightforward thing in the past because you knew what you were doing. Now there's a certain sense in which you don't know what you're doing because the nature of marriage and relationships is changing. You have an open environment. You are involved in a kind of risk universe there.

In many situations you can't use traditional methods of calculating risk, because you don't know in advance what the risk actually is. Every time you step into a car, insurance companies can calculate your risk in being involved in an accident because of your whole series of past data. But with something like BSE — the beef epidemic in the U.K — you don't know what the risk is, because it's an open environment where it could be that it will take 10, 15, or even longer, years, before we know whether we're safe from the consequences, or whether it's some kind of stored-up epidemic. On the other hand, you might remember that 40 years ago doctors actively prescribed smoking as a calmant, and no one knew what was being stored up in terms of the risk situation there.

What we have to deal with is a very, very interesting thing, which is very crucial to scientific innovation, which is exploring the edge between the positive and negative sides of risk. You obviously need risk; no one lives a life without actively embracing risk. Science is about boldness, is about innovation. And the question for all of us is how you find an appropriate balance between these two, especially when you don't know in advance what the consequences of scientific innovation will be. It's a very, very interesting world in which to live. These two sides of risk, until recently, have never been brought together, because you've got lots of discussions of financial risk, where risk is essentially a positive wealth generating thing. There is also much discussion of ecological and health risk, where risk is essentially a negative thing — things you want to avoid. These things are coming together in the real world, and we have to bring them together in the way in which we think about them. A lot of business, a lot of government, a lot of the management of technology is essentially about the sophistication of risk management.

Previous | Page 1 2 3 4 5 6 Next