Technology and public participation Brian Martin, editor



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Background to this book

In Science and Technology Studies at the University of Wollongong, there has long been an interest in the social impacts of contemporary science and technology.10 Many staff and research students have investigated controversial scientific and technologi­cal projects, such as debates over the greenhouse effect and over vitamin C and cancer.11 Some staff and students have been participants in social movements or campaigns, such as over nuclear power. At one of our research meetings, we realised that public participation was a common issue in many of our studies and experiences. We decided to produce a book covering a range of case studies and perspectives. We invited a few colleagues known to us.

In keeping with the theme of participation, we decided to make the process of producing the book reasonably participatory. Electronic mail was extremely helpful in our communications. We agreed on deadlines, word limits (a painful challenge for some contributors!) and a procedure for ensuring the quality of each chapter. Each contributor was expected to seek comments from at least two readers on a first draft and then give the revised version to me as editor. I offered further comments and each contributor prepared a further revised version. We decided to invite outsiders to comment on each chapter. Each contributor nominated a series of people as possible commentators. They had word limits too. Contributors then had the option of writing brief responses to any commentaries on their chapters.

The commentaries provide alternative perspectives to those of the chapter authors. This helps to avoid the impression that there is a definitive view on any issue. Just as technology is and should be controversial, so the issue of participation deserves dialogue and debate.

We agreed to aim our writing at a general educated audience. This is not so easy, since in academia the usual orientation is to specialise in one’s own field. Furthermore, each contributor has carried out in-depth research into the topic covered, often for many years. To step back from specialist language and perspec­tives and communicate for a wider readership can be challenging. We have gone some way in this direction, though undoubtedly some chapters will challenge some readers.

Each contributor has approached his or her topic in a distinc­tive fashion. We haven’t tried to impose a single perspective or theoretical framework. Everyone, though, subscribes to a few important assumptions. One is that it is not possible to separate technical issues from social issues. Values are always involved in technology, from its conception to its practical uses. Secondly, we all agree that people who are affected by technology should have an opportunity to participate in decisions about it, though we would differ on the extent and form of that participation. Indeed, we do not automatically assume that participation is always a good thing. Finally, we all believe that the issue of technology and participation is a vital one that deserves more attention and discussion. That is the rationale behind the book.


The chapters

The chapters are divided into three sections dealing with, respectively, the influence of technologies on participation, the role of technology in public participation processes, and public decision-making about technology. These categories are arbitrary but capture some key elements in the issues.

That technology can affect participation in decision making is apparent from any number of examples. The mass media provide information about current events, sometimes stimulating citizen action and sometimes inhibiting or undermining it. Pressure groups use word processors, printing, direct mailing, public address systems, mobile phones and other technological aids to organise support and coordinate action. Just about any technol­ogy can have an impact on participation, from robots to recording equipment. Three chapters deal with this process. Their topics include a seldom considered dimension for participation—toys—and fresh looks at the familiar telephone and computer.

Toys are an everyday technology with which children play and to which few adults give much attention. Wendy Varney takes a closer look. She argues that play is an important training ground for future citizen participation but that modern toys are constraining and privatising play, reducing its value in education for participation. At first sight toys may seem a trivial sort of technology, but analysis quickly leads to issues of mass market­ing and corporate agendas.

The telephone has long been familiar in the industrialised world. Lyn Carson looks at a specific application of the tele­phone: as a tool for participation in local government. As an elected member of a local council, she tried various techniques for consulting and involving citizens in decision making. The telephone turned out to be one of the most practical tools and one that allowed her to adopt a “heart politics” approach in which human connection takes priority over confrontation.

Non-governmental organisations, such as environmental and human rights groups, have a special interest in public participa­tion since they depend on public support for their campaigns. On the international scene, many groups have challenged the undemocratic practices of the World Bank. Miriam Solomon puts these groups under scrutiny, examining the role of the lap-top computer in their own practices, participatory or otherwise. She proposes a model of communicative democracy and raises some of the dilemmas posed by the concept of a global civil society.

The second group of chapters deals with processes of public participation in four arenas where the uses of science and technology are centrally involved: courts, urban planning, psychiatry and siting of hazardous facilities. In each of these areas the public has been involved in decision making but some groups would like to limit the scope of participation.

In the court room, a place where many crucial decisions are made, the jury remains an important source of citizen participa­tion, both in practice and symbolically. Recently, the jury has come under attack by critics who claim that ordinary citizens are not competent to judge complex technical issues. Gary Edmond and David Mercer delve into the assumptions, about both science and the public, behind these arguments.

Planning a new project—such as a building or transport link—is a classic case where citizen participation can be considered. Traditional models for making decisions have a number of problems, such as treating community and experts as separate and treating participation as a step in a sequential process. Janis Birkeland exposes these problems and presents an alternative model based on feminist principles.

Psychiatry is about the proper operation of the mind. This has always involved theories and talk about the mind and brain, but technologies are increasingly important. Today mind-altering drugs are regularly used as part of psychiatric practice. Richard Gosden tackles the controversial issue of “coercive psychiatry,” namely therapy imposed on people without their consent. Questions of human rights and participation are fundamental in this area.

Because participation is generally seen as a good thing, vested interests often attempt to give the illusion of participation without the substance. Sharon Beder examines the role of public relations in a decision about a proposed toxic waste incinerator. She shows that the rhetoric of participation may hide the true agenda, one that is better described as manipulation.

The third and final group of chapters deals with government decision making about technology, commonly called technology policy. In liberal democracies, there is a continual struggle over whether citizen participation begins or ends with voting. Governments use various ways to restrict participation while trying to retain their legitimacy as representatives of the people’s will. In a technological society, technology policy is a central arena for power struggles.

Because technological innovation is a key driving force in industrialised economies, governments don’t like to leave it to chance. Many attempts have been made to emulate the success of technology parks such as Silicon Valley near San Francisco. Rhonda Roberts analyses the assumptions underlying attempts to foster the innovation process and shows the limited role allotted for citizens.

In recent decades, agriculture has been transformed by technology virtually into an industrial process. Corporations and governments have pushed this change, with little input from citizens. Andy Monk looks at modern agriculture and especially at the role of farmers in the innovation process. The organic agriculture movement provides an example where greater participation is linked to a different style of farming.

Space exploration has seemed to many to be the ultimate technological challenge. Yet, it can be asked, who speaks for the extraterrestrial environment? Alan Marshall argues that space exploration has proceeded similarly to the imperialistic conquests of the past, completely contrary to the humanitarian ideals normally used to justify it.

The concluding chapter picks out themes and theoretical issues introduced in the earlier chapters, attempting to expand on common threads.

* * *

We do not expect that everyone will agree with every author. Certainly, some of the commentators do not! Rather, our aim is to stimulate thinking and discussion and to provoke debate. Apathy and the acceptance of technology as inevitable are the enemies of participation. We hope that others will challenge us and each other with new ideas and with new forms and arenas of participation.


Acknowledgments

I thank Sharon Beder, Lyn Carson and Wendy Varney for comments on a draft of this chapter and everyone in the project for advice, support and tolerance.








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