Risk and Technological Culture: Towards a Sociology of Virulence. By Joost Van Loon. London, New York: Routledge, 2002. Pp ix + 234, introduction, notes, bibliography, index.
The Classical Italians warned that knowledge too hastily acquired is not on guard. This sage monition applies as much today as ever and finds within the field of technoscience a particularly snug and foreboding fit. A growing body of literature is investigating just how our mode of technoscientific "progress," rather than embodying control, is instead ushering in an ever-expanding domain of uncertainty and instability. We are coming to discover that each attempt to avert or contain risks through technoscience is responsible for producing further, and even less containable, contingencies. Today, the elephant in the room is at once the bull in the china shop. As nuclear material, non-renewable resources, and virulent pathogens now line the shelves of this proverbial shop, it is becoming apparent just how little difference it makes if the bullwhip is cracked by ill- or well-meaning state agents, non-state agents, or nature herself.
In Risk and Technological Culture, Joost Van Loon performs a meticulous anatomy of both deep-rooted and emerging processes by which "risk," "threat," "disaster," and "danger" (all technical terms carrying meanings quite different from their everyday uses) come heavily to bear upon us. For Van Loon, an analysis of risk must focus on perceptions of risk rather than any actual risk, as such. "Risks are always threatening to take place, they never take place (as disasters do)" (29). In spite of this ontological "absence" of risk, Van Loon's analysis must navigate the complexities and paradoxes involved in treating risk as a special kind of "presence" (insofar as risks do in fact produce actual consequences). In approaching the paradoxical materiality/ non-materiality of "risk," Van Loon engages Actor Network Theory (a la Bruno Latour) and the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann, to develop a particular understanding of risk as "virtual" object. In Part II, Van Loon applies his theoretical insights to four case studies of "risk" discourses. Discussing waste management, emergent pathogen virulence, cyberthreats, and riots in their specific historical contexts, Van Loon treats each sub-section as explication of "risk" qua "virtual object" as well as application of theory qua expansion on the conceptual apparatus used to engage "risk."
Ulrich Beck's notion of "risk society," (a very influential idea in Europe that is sadly given rather short shrift in American social sciences) serves as Van Loon's analytic anchor. Risk society, in Beck's formulation, is a concept of the social that recognizes an increasing relevance of "risk" that has slowly replaced traditional concerns with material "scarcity." Our technologies, if they had ever been unproblematic, argues Beck, are finally out of our hands. Beck's risk society notes that...