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.

Bigger schools? Isn't a more human scale better both for children, the community and the environment?

Greens have long fought for 'human-scale' approaches to life, not least in education and thus my concern when I read the details of the so-called 'shake-up' of Bristol's primary schools ('Primary schools closure plan', Bristol Evening Post, 15 Feb 2008). Closures, mergers and cuts are likely to be proposed, especially since Councillor Derek Pickup, cabinet councillor for children has said,

"There is a case for a smaller number of schools, each serving larger numbers of children...'

This is a very worrying statement. There is a danger of pupil-adult relationships, vital to learning, suffering in a more impersonal environment. And what about the role played by schools in local community life? And what of the environmental impacts and the road safety aspects of having to travel further to more remote schools, if they are set up? I suspect there are very dubious motives behind wanting to build fewer, bigger schools. Credit to Bristol's first Green Councillor, Southville's Charlie Bolton for questioning the need for and value of bigger schools.

The former head teacher of two large secondary schools, including Cotham, James Wetz, now a researcher and visiting fellow at the University of Bristol's Graduate School of Education, is carrying out a feasibility study on the concept of 'Urban Village Schools'. He was recently quoted in the Evening Post ('School system is failing our children', Feb 11 2008) as saying this of secondary schools,

"If big schools are such a good idea, why are private schools comparatively small in size and why don't they expand - it's because they realise that smaller schools are better."

The same argument certainly applies to primary schools, possibly more so. I dont agree that often with Tory pronouncements on education but on this occasion I think the Conservative Parliamentry Candidate for Bristol North West, Charlotte Leslie, is spot on in her letter 'Super-sized schools are failing our children..' (Bristol Evening Post, Feedback, 15 Feb 2008). Its worth quoting some of it. She says,

'The Government talks a lot about personalised learning. But at the same time, its intent on building supr-size schools which dwarf the individual. And worryingly Bristol City Council wants to make primary schools larger. If we really are to personalise learning we must make schools small enough to be manageable.'

Could not have put it better myself!