Technology and public participation Brian Martin, editor

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III. Technology policy
195 Policy formation and public participation in the management of technological change

by Rhonda Roberts
209 Participation in food industry technologies in the age of sustainability

by Andy Monk,

commentaries by Richard Hindmarsh and Gyorgy Scrinis

231 Gaining a share of the final frontier

by Alan Marshall

commentary by Robert Zubrin

response by Alan Marshall
249 Conclusion

by Brian Martin

Technologies shaping participation

Brian Martin*1
A few hundred years ago, to talk of technology and public participation would have been meaningless to most people. Dramatic changes have occurred in both these areas.

The word “technology” today often brings to mind sophisticated things like computers, missiles and genetic engineering. But it also includes everyday items such as chairs, clothes, paper and toothbrushes. For someone who lives in a city in an industri­alised country, one’s entire life seems to take place within a technological framework: driving a car or taking a train to work in an office building, communicating by telephone and electronic mail, purchasing goods manufactured in factories, eating food processed in other factories, using energy produced in distant plants, perhaps consulting a doctor who uses diagnostic equip­ment, going home to a house or apartment built from materials mined and processed, and sleeping on a manufactured bed.

Humans have developed and used technologies for hundreds of thousands of years, to be sure, from simple wooden implements to baskets and wheels. But since the development of agriculture some thousands of years ago and especially since the industrial revolution a few hundred years ago, technologies have become ever more powerful and pervasive, leading some to say that we live in a “technological society.”2

The word “technology” often is interpreted to mean machines or artefacts, those familiar things that we can see and touch. More broadly, though, technology also includes the social processes through which artefacts are created and maintained, such as the division of labour in a factory. Specifically, “technology” can include systems of knowledge that are associated with artefacts, such as scientific knowledge about a manufactured drug like aspirin. In this book we take a broad view of technology, considering it to include what is commonly called science.

Just as technology has become more pervasive in society, so has the importance of public participation, though not in any simple fashion. In many non-industrial societies, including ones that exist today, small groups of people live and work together and nearly everyone is involved in decisions affecting the group, though inequalities in power based on age and gender are common.3 With the rise of larger groups based on agriculture and industry, domination by rulers, such as emperors or landowners, became the usual pattern. The ancient Athenians used a variety of methods for citizen participation in decision making. Even though women and slaves were left out because they were not considered citizens, the ancient Athenians were exceptional in the amount and quality of participation that occurred, especially compared to the autocracy and oppression in much of world in the centuries since.

The push for participation has become ever more important in the past few hundred years. At the formal political level, feudal regimes have been replaced by systems of representative govern­ment, with elected representatives. At first, voting was restricted to a propertied elite, but successive struggles have broadened the franchise to include nearly all the adult population.

Participation in decision making can mean many things. Voting for representatives is indirect participation, since the representa­tives rather than the voters make the substantive decisions. Referendums are a form of direct democracy, since they allow all voters to express a preference. Then there is the market: when consumers purchase an item or a service, they express a prefer­ence from among the available alternatives. One brand of detergent is chosen over another, or a choice is made between solar, gas and electric heaters.

These forms of participation are all very well, but many people want something more. When a freeway is planned that will cut through a neighbourhood, many residents demand a voice. Voting for representatives isn’t enough, since a vote is for a person or a party, not a policy on a specific issue. Nor is being a consumer much help in this situation, since the only consumer choice seems to be to put up with the freeway or move away. Sometimes residents are “consulted” through opinion polls or by tabling of plans for comment. This isn’t enough either, since the agenda doesn’t include basic questions of whether the freeway is needed in the first place or whether other transport modes could be developed.

Most people have relatively little say in decisions about technology. They are not involved in choices about research and development and they are not involved in investment decisions. Then, when they are presented with a new development as a foregone conclusion, they are expected to welcome it as “progress.” It is no wonder that the major form of citizen action is protest against new technologies, such as against nuclear power or logging of rainforests. It is only at the stage of implementation that many people become aware of what is happening and its implications.

Technological developments are not always beneficial—that has been obvious at least since nuclear weapons were developed. Citizen participation is essential to stop harmful technologies. It can be argued, for example, that popular protest has been a crucial factor in preventing nuclear war and in ending the cold war.4 Technologies are not inevitable.5 For example, it was originally envisaged that there would be 500 supersonic transport aircraft, but popular resistance restricted this to a few Concordes.

Protest movements are the most visible force in disputes over technologies, but actually they usually have the least influence. Governments use their enormous resources to research, implement and maintain technological systems, including weapons, transport and communication systems. Corporations routinely develop new products, build factories and sell goods, from perfume to pesticides. Experts, especially scientists and engineers, are also central to technological innovation. Govern­ment and corporate managers, plus a few top-level scientists and engineers, have a great deal of influence over what technologies are investigated and promoted. By contrast, workers and consumers have little say.

Just as important as the practical tasks of research, develop­ment, production and sales are the ideological tasks of convincing the public that new technologies are a good thing. Advertising is important but so is the promotion of a general belief in the wonders of advanced science and technology. When social movements organise against a new chemical or genetically engineered organism, they are painted as opponents of “progress.” Social movements, such as the environmental and peace movements, are usually seen as being against something or other. Actually, some of the most powerful social movements are those pushing for new technologies such as computers.6 These movements are not so visible; by operating behind the scenes they are far more effective.

Although governments, corporations and expert professionals have by far the greatest influence over decisions about technology, there is some potential for changing this. People today are far more educated and aware of technology and its impact than in previous eras. The rise of printing, mass literacy and the mass media has given many more people the capacity to understand and speak out about what is happening in society. It would hardly be possible to bring about a technological society without also creating the capacity of ever more people to comprehend and criticise it.

Furthermore, new technologies have created new opportunities for obtaining information and acting on it. Radio and television allow promotion of products but also report on challenges and catastrophes. The telephone and electronic mail allow people to share information, form networks and build powerful movements.

Technologies such as the mass media can be used both to hoodwink people and to provide insight, but that does not mean they are neutral tools. It is trite but true to note that any specific technology is easier to use for some purposes than others. A tank is easier to use for killing whereas a violin is easier to use for producing music, even though each can in principle be used for either purpose. Careful investigation is needed to determine the purposes for which technologies can and are likely to be used. It is unwise to leave this to groups with vested interests, such as government, corporate or professional sponsors, since they are unlikely to come up with a balanced view. This is why participa­tion from a wide cross section of the public is vital.

Out of the massive amount of writing about democracy and participation, only a small fraction deals with science and technology.7 This writing covers many topics including obstacles to participation and proposals for decision making involving citizens.

There are several obstacles to widespread public participation in decisions about technology. One is that most people lack expertise. The argument is that since they don’t really under­stand the technology or its implications, they are not qualified to judge it. This sounds plausible but, on closer inspection, breaks down. The technical details may be complicated, but they are seldom the crucial issue. There are always social factors involved. Consider transport policy. You don’t need to understand how a jet engine operates, or how to fly a plane, in order to be involved in decisions about flight patterns or siting of an airport. You don’t need to be an expert on brain functioning or x-ray machines in order to be involved in decisions about investment in medical technologies. Experts know a lot about their area of specialisa­tion, but often they are poorly placed to comment on policy issues. Jet pilots are not necessarily the best people to comment on whether transport investment should be directed to plane, train, car or bicycle. Brain surgeons are not necessarily the best people to comment on whether greater priority in health policy should go to brain scanners or prevention of disease through nutrition.

Another obstacle to widespread public participation is lack of time. A person may be able to become informed about transport or health policy, but what about energy, defence and industry? These and many other areas contain a multitude of specific issues, each with its own complexities. It is impossible for everyone to be involved in every issue. That is precisely the argument in favour of representative democracy.

The standard model of decision making is for politicians and government bureaucrats to make decisions on the basis of advice from experts. This seldom involves much public input. Some­times, on contentious issues, there is a public inquiry, in which interested parties are invited to make submissions to a judge or panel. This allows many more people to be involved, but in an unsystematic manner. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that governments will follow the recommendations coming from such inquiries.

There have been proposals to deal with controversial technical issues through a “science court,” in which a panel of experts hears evidence and makes judgements about the facts. One trouble with this idea is that facts cannot be easily separated from values. Another proposal is for a “citizens hearing panel” which, like the science court, hears evidence. The panellists in this case are citizens chosen because they represent interested parties, such as consumer bodies or trade unions. This idea overcomes some of the dependence on experts but is open to manipulation by whoever selects the panellists. Neither idea has been taken up by governments.

Putting an issue to a referendum certainly involves the public, but also has limitations. Usually only a few choices are available—and few people have input into what the choices are. Few voters have the time to investigate deeply. Interest groups can spend large amounts of money in media campaigns to sway the vote. In spite of this, referendums give citizens much more of a say than the usual procedures. When an issue is put to a referendum, it typically generates widespread discussion. The experience of hundreds of referendums over putting fluoride in local public water supplies in the US shows that citizens often do not vote the way experts think they ought to.8

Another proposal is to set up “policy juries.” These are groups of citizens, randomly selected from volunteers, who hear evidence and arguments from experts and advocates and make recommendations. Researchers in Germany and the US have tried out this approach and found that participants take the process quite seriously, become enthusiastic about participation and reach sensible conclusions. Random selection reduces the influence of vested interests while turning each specific issue over to a policy jury overcomes the problem of everyone having to learn about every issue. However, this method undermines the role of politicians and bureaucrats and so has not been taken up.9

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