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Socio-Cultural Impacts of the Fourth Wave of Scientific and Technological Development

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Ali Paya, Reza Kalantari Nezhad
Number of Pages: 
93000 Rials

Although tool-making, and therefore technology, is as old as the humankind himself, to the extent that some writers have defined man as a tool-maker animal,1 nevertheless the emergence of technologies which would allow human beings to intervene in nature beyond the usual limits had to wait until the introduction of modern sciences. But even here, and after the publication of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus few more centuries needed to laps before modern science could truly and comprehensively assist the development of technologies. It should
be noted that even the Industrial Revolution was not indebted to modern science. It was mostly the fruit of the works of a number of innovative artisans who knew nothing of modern scientific theories.The development of empirical sciences increases our understanding of the propensities and causal powers of natural entities and thus enables us to invent machines and devices which could manipulate these propensities and powers in response to our needs.
In the past few decades, namely, since mid-twentieth century, the development of sciences whether with regard to sub-atomic physical systems or in biology has made the invention of technologies whose aim is to manipulate matter at very small scales possible. Nano-technology and bio-technology aim at making use of characteristics of matter at molecular level and of bio-microstructures. But nano and bio technologies are not the only emerging technological fields which have benefitted from scientific developments. In the same way that James Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA in 19531 and Richard Feynman’s lectures in 1970s concerning the possibility of getting access to matter at the nano scale paved the way for the two above technologies, Alan Turing’s trailblazing paper in 1950 prepared the ground for the development of Artificial Intelligence and Information Revolution. Information technology has not only directly impacted modern life; it has also greatly facilitated the advancements of other sciences and technologies.
Alongside the above three major emergent technologies, research on man’s cognitive apparatus and abilities which combines the efforts of many diverse fields, has given rise to a new branch of technology, cognitive science & technology. While all the above emergent technologies, perhaps with the exception of information technology, are still in their infancy,
nevertheless, their huge potentials for bringing about far-reaching changes, has grabbed the attention of many researchers, policymakers, and pundits. These unrivalled potentials and capacities have prompted some observers to predict the emergence of a new and totally unprecedented period in mankind’s life. They have dubbed this emerging period the Fourth Wave of scientific and technological development.

The idea and the term of the ‘Fourth Wave’ were perhaps first introduced by two American writers, Herman Bryant Maynard and Suasn E Mehrtens in 1993. Although the focus of these authors was mostly the economic changes in the twenty first century, nevertheless they discussed this issue in the light of developments in modern technologies. In developing the analogy of the fourth wave, the authors had imitated Alvin Toffler’s Third Wave which had been published in 1980. Other writers who have written about technological and scientific changes have used other titles such as ‘converging technologies’, or ‘NBIC technologies’ for identifying the new technologies and terms such as ‘post-capitalist society’ or ‘postmarket era’ for specifying the socio-economic conditions which would emerge as a result of widespread use of modern technologies. Still other writers have termed new technological development as ‘the fifth
Whether the changes related to the emergence and development of new technologies should be called the fourth wave or the fifth wave, it is clear that what is meant by ‘new technologies’ by all the writers who have written about this topic, is the set amongst whose members Nano, Bio, Info, and Cogno technologies are of particular importance.
Although each of these four technologies on its own and in comparison with previous technologies in their respective fields have a much greater set of causal powers or range of propensities, and this alone would turn each of these technologies into a much more powerful ‘enabler’ for responding to human needs, but what makes the role of these technologies in bringing about radical changes in human life even more significant is their combined power. The combination of these four technologies can furnish mankind with a power for mastery over nature which is unparalleled in the whole history of mankind.
All technologies could produce undesired and unintended consequences. The greater the power of each technology, the more destructive its undesired consequences. It is for this reason that the issue of controlling the converging technologies and managing their awesome power in sensible and wise ways is something which concerns all citizens of the world.
The present book is the outcome of a research which was carried out over a period of one year in 2008. The aim of the project, as the title of the book implies, was a critical appraisal of the impact of the converging technologies on Iranian culture and society. The project received a modest fund from the National research Institute for Science Policy (NRISP).
The book is divided into three parts. In the first part, which consists of six chapters, following detailed explanations of the main characteristics and capacities of each of the four converging technologies and of their combined potentials, an extended discussion of the social and cultural impacts of the converging technologies is presented. In the second part, ten in-depth interviews with ten Iranian researchers who are at the frontier of research in the field of NBICtechnologies are carries out. Each of the interviewees is an expert in one of the four technologies under discussion. In the last part of the book, various strands from different parts of the book are brought together in order to produce a number of policy recommendations concerning the socio-cultural impacts of modern technologies.
The authors would like to thank all those individuals and institutions who provided intellectual as well as material assistance and support for the project. If the book helps Iranian decision makers in their practical concerns over the new technologies and furnishes the general public (including experts in fields other than NBIC) with a better understanding of the socio-cultural issues related to converging technologies, it has fulfilled its objective.


National Research Institute for Science Policy (NRISP) affiliated to the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology, I.R. Iran is a think tank in the fields of science and technology policy-making and research in the country.

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