Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Choosing technology

Lyria Bennett Moses

Do we choose the “things” that make up our lives? Sounds like a stupid question – there is so much choice. Subject to cost, we can choose among smartphones, televisions, computers, clothes, tools, furniture and a myriad of other objects.

But there are some choices that we don’t get to make. There is no choice but to live in a world with cars and roads (even if we choose not to drive), a world where almost every job involves interacting with the “things” chosen by an employer (from computers to industrial machinery), a world where CCTV cameras often monitor our movements, a world with social expectations around the use of technologies such as email and cell-phones. We don’t choose these things – they become part of the background against which our choices are made.

That is not to say that the technological context in which we live is inevitable or that it is not the result of choice. Quite the contrary. The things that make up the background of our lives have been conceived, created, designed and produced as a result of conscious choice, occasionally by governments but most often by private actors. Our world of things is shaped by decisions by engineers, managers, designers, marketers and others.

Are there any possibilities for collectively shaping our own world – for using democratic institutions to impose our collective will on our man-made surroundings? The idea is attractive.

In 1972, the Office of Technology Assessment was set up to give the United States Congress information that would enable decision-making about technology that reflected a wide range of concerns, adopted a long-term horizon and had a sound factual basis. Nor was Australia immune from these ideas. In the late 1970s there was a Committee of Inquiry into Technological Change in Australia, known as the Myers Committee. It was tasked with a mission to “examine, report and make recommendations on the process of technological change in Australia”, in particular around issues such the possibility that some technologies might lead to massive unemployment. One result of this committee was the establishment of the Technological Change Committee of the Australian Science and Technology Council, with a mission to “review on a continuing basis the processes and trends in technological change in Australia and elsewhere; and to evaluate and report on the direct and indirect effects of technological change at the national level”. Other projects with similar dreams of shaping the future included the Commission for the Future launched in 1985 (and closed in 1998).
While none of these entities still exist, ideas about involving government and citizens in technological decision-making are not confined to history. Many European parliaments have created or sponsored, in different forms, offices of technology assessment. In Australia, procedures have been developed for engaging with publics in relation to decision-making around new technologies.

To what extent should democracies seek to influence the course of technological development or influence technological design? Sometimes, the choice seems easy, such as where a government bans human reproductive cloning or passes regulations that control developments in a particular field. But most of the time, we simply encourage innovation (for example, through patent law and R&D funding) without thinking too much about its impacts.

Which comes back to the original question – should there be some collective efforts in a democracy to shape or influence technological development? Can we choose the many things that shape our world? Or are our choices limited to those we make, as consumers, among products conceived and developed by others?

1 comment:

  1. I think the answer is surely that we can, do, and should. While ardent technology enthusiasts might like to indulge libertarian fantasies in which everyone can make individual choices that are neither influenced by anyone else, nor have any impact on anyone else, I think most people would agree that technology choices do impact us and that we need not just meekly accept whatever technology happens to bring. And I'm sure that technology enthusiasts themselves would be the first to complain if the government were to make uninformed decisions about technology or its use.

    Talking about government intervention in technology development inevitably brings to mind heavy-handed bans on specific technology, or misguided attempts to "pick winners" by directing investment into particular technologies. Such things may be welcome in some cases -- I don't hear much grumbling about government interference in citizens' ability conduct nuclear weapons testing at home, for example -- but there are frequently much more subtle and flexible options available. Carbon pricing, to take a well-known example, is intended to discourage the development and use of technology that emits carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, while allowing society and the market to choose alternative technologies and/or energy usage patterns as they see fit.

    The trick, I suppose, is to ensure that government action is informed about the technology involved, and is the result of some sort of democratic process rather than pressure from special interest groups. For all their stumbles, I suspect that Western governments, through offices like the OTA, do a better job of this than critics give them credit for -- their critics frequently being special interest groups frustrated that government didn't see their special interest as the public interest.