Friday, February 15, 2008

Technology: best to take a broad view and account for interactions

For many Greens applying knowledge to useful ends is a pretty good definition of technology. Contrary to what some would have you believe, most greens are not generally anti-technology (think of modern wind turbines, photovoltaic panels, effiency and pollution control systems, electric trams...). Take this report ‘Robots could reduce animal tests’ on a technology whose ‘ultimate goal is to develop non-animal based testing methods that are rigorous enough to be submitted for regulatory approval’ in the news today for example – Greens are likely to welcome such a development, subject to applying a process of technological assessment to it (see later description).

I hold to a particular view of technology though – and it does not accord with the widely-held view, expressed in any dictionary, that technology is the application of science, in particular to industry or commerce (a view which became firmly established during nineteenth century industrialisation and the development of capitalism and consumer societies). The dictionary definition only tells part of the story, for there is a lot more to technology than applied science or technical considerations – in addition to the hardware (scientific, technical, machines, tools) there is also software (people - and some other animals, organisation, social processes)! In any case technology (eg as ‘tool use’ or all practical knowledge) clearly predates science by a very, very long way (think of a chimp catching termites with a stick!).

My view is broader and focussed on interactions, a key consideration for Greens. It is not centred on any one type of knowledge, even though scientific knowledge is of course of great value. The broad approach to technology is much more likely to achieve lasting and appropriate solutions to problems because it tries to account for responses to technical change - it does not just argue for a technofix but considers the network of linkages between all the relevant factors: technical; economic; social; psychological; environmental… The scale and social context of technical change are very important. My definition of technology acknowledges the role of science but also acknowledges that key technological processes and concepts such as design, systems, modelling and management, involve craft and people skills. To apply knowledge practically requires people to be organised as well as machines to be used.

This broad approach does mean always trying to take account of subjective human beings and their values! This means a thorough, comprehensive approach to assessing technology: its technical capabilities and limitations; its current and future cost-effectiveness; its impact on the quantity and quality of work; its impact on the natural environment and various systems environments, and other relevant dimensions, as well as the interactions between these factors. We should not simply ‘surrender’ unconditionally to inventions and ‘novelties’ just because they are offered but should instead direct and control technological change towards justly and rationally determined social goals. We have to do this if we are to achieve a sustainable society in any case.

A purely technical ‘solution’ may often result in changes in other key factors which reduce, undermine or reverse any progress made. Examples: increasing fuel efficiency of vehicles means less fuel used, saving people money, which they may then spend on travelling further, consuming more fuel.; installing low energy lighting may mean people are happy to leave them on for longer; cars with many safety features may be driven faster…it’s a kind of rebound effect. Taking a broad view of technology and assessing it in the round, may predict potential behavioural (and indeed ecological) changes and allow a better solution to be designed. Any solution is highly likely to have both advantages and disadvantages in varying proportions, what some call the dual nature of technology. Fitting catalytic converters to cars cuts emissions of toxic gases like nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide, but all else being equal results in higher fuel consumption due to lower efficiency, and along with it higher emissions of carbon dioxide – massive growth in car use (perhaps encouraged a bit by making cars less toxic) has in any case severely cut the benefits of the catalytic converter!

Some technologies may have inherent qualities which make them inconsistent with building a sustainable society. Nuclear technologies would be put in this category by many Greens, due to fact that future generations continue to have to keep watch over its wastes. Even then one could argue (though I would not) for short term use of it as a minority in the green movement have.


  1. Hi Glenn, I like your blog so added you to my blogroll.

    You put forward a much more sophisticated - and more useful view of technology than usually found.

    Totally agree with you that technofixes can be (highly) counterproductive, especially if they don't take human nature into account. Even something as apparently “good” as energy efficiency can have unfortunate outcomes, as you say;

    “In the transportation sector, greater fuel efficiency has prompted people to drive more and bigger vehicles greater distances. In the housing sector, the energy efficiency gains are more than offset by larger houses filled with more gadgets powered by electricity.”

    "The [efficiency] paradox is true for every developed country," said Benjamin Tal, senior economist at CIBC World Markets, which conducted the study …Tal believes one solution is to attach a price to emissions through a carbon-trading system.”

    Personal carbon allowances - now that IS a good idea.

  2. Thanks Dorothea! Very interesting links. And you are spot on about personal carbon allowances - they are a great idea.


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