What do we really mean by emerging technology?
“Emerging technology” is a usefully ambiguous term. I’ve used it in various ways in the last decade, from philosophy undergrad exams to hi tech industry politicking. But I don’t think we really know what the term means.
This is not just problematic at a theoretical or philosophical level. Vagueness in the meaning of“emergence” lets activities with different motivations seem unhelpfully similar. Regulators want to understand the nitty-gritty detail of emerging technology in order to prepare legislation that will protect us all in the future as well as today. Strategy consultancies want to weave grand narratives about emerging technologies that attract potential clients. In these cases, describing emergence is not an objective activity. It is more often asked with a particular outcome in mind.
But I still think there are general characteristics of the community that forms around a new technology. Nesta has funded three research projects that use online data to understand specific emerging technologies. Together, they start to codify the characteristics of emerging technology communities – or at least codify the online signals that a community is developing.
Tamar Loach and Jonathan Adams from Digital Science are using altmetrics to understand the impact of scientific output in the professional medical community. The Altmetrics team at Digital Science noticed a spike in tweets linking to academic articles in medical journals compared to journal papers on physics, chemistry, biology etc. This project investigates the human dynamics behind that spike. Perhaps additional social media activity maps directly onto a promising technology. But from their early results, it’s more likely that this is activity at one remove – a community of doctors chatting about new developments or patient groups interested in potential treatments. The project is using interviews with experts in health innovation and is experimenting with the Altmetrics engine to find out more.
Emmanuel-Pierre Guittet and James Alexander from the University of Manchester are examining the emergence of security technologies through European conferences. James’s PhD analysed the effects of human dynamics at large conferences on the subsequent development of security technology. The team are now exploring how quantitative methods can complement this qualitative research, helping them predict how the security business sector is likely to be in the near‐term future. They are using and developing data-mining and visualisation tools created by Medialab at Science Po Paris, looking at the websites, including images, of European security conferences. They are testing the hypothesis that specific small conferences influence technology trajectories and large, all-encompassing conferences are less important. Behind this is the idea that emergence relies on the dynamics of subsets of communities brought together only for a short time, and in a specific kind of setting. There is some evidence of the importance of temporary gatherings in emergence: whether this is called a field-configuring event* or described as buzz created at a trade fair**. This dependence on a temporary physical event is something I’d like to look at in more detail (and is something that others at Nesta have already explored in another context).
Abdullah Gӧk and Philip Shapira also from the University of Manchester are piloting advanced text-mining techniques to explore the way that applications of synthetic biology are discussed online. This project investigates whether the media headlines about synthetic biology accurately describes activity in the scientific community. Abdullah is monitoring conversations on the applications, expectations and concerns about synthetic biology on social media, hoping to capture more of the debate than that found in mainstream media. He uses this data to find links to relevant websites and documents, and mines the text on these to better understand the breadth of conversations about synthetic biology online. This potentially raises questions about the difference between buzz and underlying technology developments. Will social media help discover anything new, or people repeating the same ideas back at each other?
* Lampel, J., Meyer, A.D., (2008) Field-configuring events as structuring mechanisms: how conferences, ceremonies, and trade shows constitute new technologies, industries and markets. Journal of Management Studies 45(6) 1025–1035.
** Bathelt, H., Schuldt, N., (2008) Between luminaires and meat grinders: International trade fairs as temporary clusters. Regional Studies 42(6) 853–865.