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ECPR Standing Group on the European Union 10th Biennial Conference LUISS, Rome

Emerging Technologies and the Challenges of the Public Sphere

Lotte Krabbenborg
Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen
Lotte Krabbenborg
Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen

To organize and improve societal deliberation and evaluation around emerging technologies, an important role is assigned to civil society actors, i.e. individual citizens or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). They are positioned as representing ‘voices of civil society’: knowledgeable in giving voice to concerns, values and wishes of society. In general the positioning of civil society actors as ‘voices of civil society’ evokes problems of representation (Hess, 2010; Houtzager & Lavalle 2010). For newly emerging science and technology there is an additional issue: the assumption that societal issues or concerns are out there, given, and that civil society can recognize and articulate them. However, as emerging technologies are indeterminate, societal issues are not out there, but co-evolve with the considerations, decisions and actions made in a particular innovation trajectory (Rip, Misa & Schot 1995). In this paper I argue that a problem shift is necessary. The question is not whether or not civil society actors ought to be involved, but rather how their involvement can improve the discovery and articulation of emerging societal issues occasioned by the development of emerging technologies.

This paper argues that the public sphere, the open space in a democratic society supported through a diffuse media infrastructure, provides opportunities for technology developers and civil society actors to discuss and inquire into indeterminate situations by bringing up ideas and opinions for exchange and articulate problematic issues. However, for emerging technologies, such a discussion in the public sphere is not self-evident. First of all, part of newly and emerging science and technologies (NEST) is developed in the relatively secluded spheres of universities and firms, where decisions and considerations of scientists and industrialist remain outside the scope of public debate. Second, there is also a problem of competencies. For technology developers there is no immediate need to engage in interactions with society at large as this is usually not seen as part of their institutional responsibilities. And as emerging technologies are an esoteric topic, consisting mainly of hopeful promises and expectations, society at large does not yet experience concrete dilemmas and as such might not feel an urgency to voice concerns.

In this paper I will formulate requirements with regard to an extended public sphere that is capable to include NEST. These are principle requirements, building upon the work of amongst others political philosophers Habermas (1989), Taylor (2002), Dewey (1927) and Arendt (1998), but empirical cases from the field of nanotechnology and the bio-economy will be used to show enabling and constraining conditions in this respect.
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