Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Backward Progress

I'm way too busy to post anything even remotely original today, but I'd like to plug this WorldChanging article on bioprospecting in historical texts. The idea is that there are lots of old books containing ethnomedical information, which haven't yet been analyzed in terms of what we now know about medicine and biochemistry. In addition to being medically useful, such information could produce a more accurate picture of the economic value of, say, rain forests.

I suspect that this sort of "prospecting" in old texts could be productive in many fields. There's a widespread assumption that progress happens when technology becomes more complex, or more efficient. But I'd argue that progress, properly so called, refers to an increase in a society's ability to survive. Technological advances may, or may not, increase a society's viability; in some cases, true progress may involve going backwards. In fact, some technological abilities can actually thwart progress, either by offering a false solution to a real problem, or by solving an illusory problem invented specially for the occasion. (The disturbing ways in which these technologies then become normative and self-justifying is a topic for another day.)

Anyway, as I discussed here, many old technologies were "superseded" without being perfected. It's time to revisit these technologies, and see whether we can improve on them. I'm not generally given to quoting Winston Churchill, but I do agree with his observation that "the farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see."

7 comments:

Cervantes said...

Yes, technology is developed in order to meet some immediate perceived need, but the ultimate impact on society and way of life is largely unforseeable, and seldom even considered. Of course, war has always been a major impetus to technological innovation -- it's hard to say how the gatling gun, atom bomb, cluster bomb, etc. have benefited humanity. And of course here and elsewhere there is plenty of discussion of the negative externalities of technologies such as the automobile.

When it comes to bio-prospecting, wherever done, there is a further set of issues, however. The companies that do this are expecting to profit, and they can only do that by getting a patent - an exclusive license - on a living organism or its products. Consider statins -- a perfectly effective statin is secreted by a fungus, and for a while, it was sold over the counter as a supplement. The drug companies sued to put a stop to it. Pfizer is now engaged in a carefully planned strategy to get a patent, and an exclusive license, on the active ingredient of marijuana. Because of controversies over the alienation of the biological heritage of indigenous people, all bioprospecting has been suspended in Mexico. That's good -- they need to take time to sort these issues out.

Phila said...

Excellent point, Cervantes! The situation with the Neem plant is a good example of the trend towards biopiracy. And the IPR issues are only going to get worse in coming years. The big question will be whether that trend has any sort of a silver lining, in terms of actual medical advances, or a better valuation of ecosystem services, or what have you.

From what I know of big pharma - which I'm certain is way less than you - it doesn't seem all that likely. I think that actual progress is more likely to come from technological redesign. At least, I hope it will!

Speechless said...

Nothing too useful to contribute, but I must say that our man Cervantes has made yet another argument for why capitalism should be outlawed as an economic system.

Perhaps I'm overstating the case slightly, nevertheless,verily I believe that someday this era of runaway capitalism will be recognized and termed the Neo-Barbaric Age. What will our progeny's progeny mine from our era I wonder?

Cervantes said...

Well, I read a sci-fi story -- I wish I could remember the author -- about a future in which people mined the rubble of our cities for metal.

monkeygrinder said...

In light of the fact that kudzu, an ancient chinese cure for excessive drinking has been "green lighted" by science with a western society stamp o' approval, I say we sneakily band together and patent the active ingredient in kudzu...

Anonymous said...

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roger said...

individuals can also check out older technologies and strategies for less petroleum or electrical energy dependent ways of living. and there is increasing profit in the application of modern technology to augment passive solar energy collection and rainwater utilization. i'm hoping that the principle of the thermosiphon isn't patentable. it would be good if inventors come up with unique, patentable, economically viable devices to utilize a thermosiphon.

bio-prospecting, claiming rights to plants, patenting my/our genes-----decidedly not progress for us all.