Go back to article: Problem/science/society

Science in the ‘network society’

The transition in science communication from deficit to dialogue (and from knowledge to policy) was rapid because the rest of industrialised society had already entered a new phase that privileged dialogic interaction among individuals, and the form of the interaction was more important than its content. Computer-based, networked communication had a great deal to do with that. Statistics for the uptake of PCs in westernised societies usually start around 1985 or 1986. But this is no ordinary ‘new media’ story about a new site for new kinds of messages. When Manuel Castells proposed his ‘network society’ thesis in 2000 (Castells, 2000), he was not just talking about communication: he was arguing that networked computers have produced a profound change in the fundamental modes of structuring, organising and transacting social life. Networks flatten hierarchies, which promotes equality, and makes it difficult to know who is in charge. Hierarchies give way to horizontal networks that are adaptable, and to units of action which can be small. Individual people gain autonomy, and are free, for better or worse, to connect with whomsoever they choose. In the network society instability is a way of life, as links break and reform, and individuals make new connections and discard the old. This instability makes the network resistant to external governance: responsibility lies with the individual user. People at their computer screen feel free to speak as well as listen, as equals, and to enter and walk away from conversations that are momentous and trivial. Their communication is, very often, phatic: it carries no information other than what it expresses about the relationship among the communicators. The network society, with its flattened hierarchies and unstable bonds among equals, is essentially dialogic, and never mind what about.

Theorists of the network society are quite clear that the reason why a computer appeared in every home and individuals became networked is the deregulation of national economies during the 1980s. In these latter days of capitalism, the deregulated economies can no longer thrive on turning raw materials into useful objects; as well, they deal in knowledge-products and services. The shoe business once consisted of a shoe-maker making shoes and selling them to someone who needed to protect their feet; shoes then became an industrialised mass-product made in factories and bought in shops; and now the making and selling of shoes are only small parts of a shoe industry that markets not only shoes but also ideas about shoes and their wearers, images of shoes, discussions about trends in shoes, celebrations of shoe designers and exhibitions of their work, films and TV shows in which shoes play significant roles, and shoes that reduce obesity and combat climate change. Much of this ‘about-shoes’ industry is transacted via networked home computers, alongside advertisements for actual shoes, which still sometimes serve to protect our feet. In the early twenty-first century, the average woman in the West owns thirty pairs of shoes, though she wears only four pairs of them.

This knowledge-and-service orientation, in our ‘post-industrial’ society, arose from the economic and social crises of the 1970s and 1980s. Now, economies aim for national competitiveness in the global market by promoting innovation, and by providing the social and economic conditions for innovation. ‘Innovation’ in the twenty-first century tends to mean new technology. Technologies are often material artefacts, like shoes, but, like the shoes of the twenty-first century, they have attached to them less tangible social meanings (such as hope for a better future), which are an important aspect of their value (Thorpe and Gregory, 2010). These meanings are constructed and shared through communicative action which is therefore a form of work, adding value to goods beyond that of their material being and ostensible purpose (which accounts for the 26 pairs of shoes under my bed that I never wear, and so have no value as shoes). This work to construct and share the meaning of new or prospective technologies is an important form of production, because innovations will thrive only if society accepts them. In the past, individual scientists have talked about how science – usually their own research – will contribute to national prosperity, and politicians have made similar arguments about science, talking about new products for us to buy and sell, and new ways of making them; but now the public communication of science – in and of itself – contributes to national prosperity. What will make us – the nation, but also individual entrepreneurs – rich is not just ‘science’ itself, nor even just ‘the products of science’, but also ‘talk’ about science and its products, which becomes a good in itself. And, unlike the dwindling resources of the post-industrial age, ‘talk’ is a non-rival good, because you can sell it and still have it, to sell again.

Charles Thorpe and I have explored the implications of the commodification of talk about science elsewhere (Thorpe and Gregory, 2010). But it is important here to understand public engagement about science as economically productive. Firstly, like traditional science communication, it constructs a public that knows how to be knowledge-workers and consumers. Secondly, and unlike traditional science communication, public engagement mobilises this public in the work of creating and shaping the meaning or image of science and its products. Notice that this productivity arises from the dialogical activity itself; it is not about what is done with the outcomes of the dialogue (which may be, as its critics note, nothing at all). It is also a form of productivity that can be set in train far in advance of the technology itself (which may even never happen), creating meaning and value untrammelled by real-world constraints (in which context, the nanoparticles that eventually gave us stain-resistant trousers were a disappointment). That is what science communication does in the late-capitalist economies of the twenty-first century.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160607/005