From chapter 2, Films from the Future: The technology and Morality of Science Fiction Movies
Most of my professional life has been involved with risk in one way or another. Much of my early published scientific research was aimed at reducing the health risks from inhaling airborne particles. I’ve worked extensively on understanding and reducing the health and environmental risks of nanotechnology and other emerging technologies. I’ve taught risk assessment, I’ve written about risk, and I’ve run academic centers that are all about risk. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that I have less and less patience for how many people tend to think about risk.
The problem is that, while established approaches to risk work reasonably well when it comes to protecting people and the
environment from conventional technologies, they run out of steam rather fast when we’re facing technologies that can achieve things we never imagined. To co-opt a Biblical metaphor, we’re in danger of desperately trying to squeeze the new wine of technological innovation into the old wineskins of conventional risk thinking, and at some point, something’s going to give. If we’re to develop new technologies in socially responsible ways, we need to realign how we think about risk with the capabilities of the innovations we’re creating.
This is the idea behind the concept of Risk Innovation, which is where much of my current work lies. Over the past couple of hundred years—pretty much since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution—we’ve become quite adept at developing new ways of causing harm. And over time we’ve become equally adept at developing ways of assessing and managing the risks associated with innovation, whether they arise from mining and manufacturing, exposure to new chemicals and materials, or pollution. But these approaches to risk belong to a different world than the one we’re now creating. With emerging and converging technologies, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that, in order to navigate a radically shifting risk landscape, we need equally radical innovation in how to think about and act on risk.
Perhaps not surprisingly, risk is at the core of all the movies here. Each of these films has a risk-based narrative tension that keeps its audience hooked. Yet it’s not always apparent that it’s risk that keeps you glued to the screen, or holding your breath, or even reaching for the tissues in places. Most of us are used to thinking about risk in terms of someone’s life being put in danger, or perhaps the environment and ecosystems being threatened, and there’s plenty of this in the book. But these movies also explore other, subtler risks, including threats to dignity, belonging, identity, belief, even what it means to be human.
These are rather unconventional ways of thinking about risk, and they get at what is so important to us that our lives are diminished if it’s denied us, or taken from us. Because of this, they make considerable sense as we begin to think about how new technologies will potentially affect our lives and how to develop and use them responsibly. This is a way of thinking about risk that revolves around threats to what is important to us, whether it’s something we have and can’t face losing, or something we aspire to and cannot bear to lose sight of. This includes our health, our well- being, and the environment we live in, but it also extends to less tangible but equally important things that we deeply value.
In each of the movies here, the characters we follow risk either losing something of great importance to them, or being unable to gain something that they aspire to. In many of the movies, the types of risks these characters face aren’t always immediately obvious, but they profoundly impact the consequences of the technologies being developed and used, and it’s this insight that opens up interesting and new ways of thinking about the social consequences of technological innovation. And so we discover that, in Jurassic Park (chapter two), John Hammond’s dream of creating the world’s most amazing theme park is at risk. In the movie Never Let Me Go (chapter three), it’s the threat to Tommy’s hope for the future that brings us to tears. And in Ghost in the Shell (chapter seven), it’s Major Kusanagi’s sense of who and what she is. There are also more conventional risks in each of these movies. Yet, by revealing these less obvious risks, these movies reveal new and often powerful ways to think about developing new technologies without causing unnecessary and unexpected harm.
In this way, the movies here provide what are often quite startling insights into the social challenges and opportunities surrounding emerging technologies. Watching them with an open mind and a critical eye can reveal subtle connections between irresponsible innovation and threats to what people value or aspire to, which in turn have profound implications for society more broadly. And this is where their creativity and imagination have the power to lift us out of the rut of conventional thinking, and allow us to see opportunities and dangers that extend beyond the world of make- believe and into the technological future we are striving to create.