Why do we need Technology Assessment?

  • Do you remember being told at the turn of the Millennium that a new technology called “genetic engineering” would feed the world and reduce the use of toxic chemicals? Twenty years later, there are more hungry people than ever and chemicals, including those associated with genetically engineered crops, have made many more of us sick. What we should have had back then was technology assessment.
  • Today, Bill Gates, who co-founded Microsoft, says the world should follow his company’s example of becoming carbon neutral by 2030. To do it he’s gambling on geoengineering techniques such as making clouds reflective or growing genetically engineered crops, burning them for energy and then burying the carbon. It sounds far-fetched and the stakes are high, but the world’s politicians are already banking on the idea that geoengineering will be a success in slowing climate change when there is currently no evidence that it will. What we urgently need now is technology assessment.
  • Looking to the future, John Deere, Bayer-Monsanto and other agricultural mega-corporations seem to have a vision to digitise every element of every ecosystem on Earth, replacing farmers and fisherfolk with precision robots and new chemicals to further industrialize our land and seas. They claim this will address climate change, hunger, pandemics and biodiversity loss. To test those claims we need technology assessment.

We are living in a time where new technologies are often presented as near magical solutions to all sorts of challenges. From the hyped-up promises circulated you’d think that technologies like drones, so-called artificial intelligence (AI), gene drive organisms and geoengineering were part of an inevitable future for all of us. In reality they are the product of scientism – the over estimation of the importance of physical science, and the belief that it offers the answers to all our worst difficulties.

Science, scientism and humility 

To assess a technology effectively, the knowledge on which the evaluation is based must be reliable and understood by those undertaking the assessment. Such knowledge, including scientific knowledge, can only come from human beings, who can be limited in the perspectives they include and may lack the humility to acknowledge their own ignorance or uncertainty. Often, expertise in the natural sciences (physics, chemistry and biology) are given undue precedence in assessing new technologies, leading them to dominate other forms of knowledge and judgement that may be just as relevant, such as ecology and ethics.

Scientism is a belief system that puts too high a value on the natural sciences (particularly physical science) in comparison with other branches of learning or culture, including other knowledge systems from outside Western science. Its three main principles are that:

1) all questions raised in a process involving non-scientists are either meaningless or can be answered by science;

2) science has authority because it is based on empirical evidence – scientific claims will therefore always overrule claims made from outside science; and

3) science provides the ultimate account of the basis of reality – the ultimate metaphysics – but it substantively changes the questions, getting to the correct ones, rather than the meaningless ones that come from outside science.

Yet, by denying the value of other ways of looking at the world, believers in scientism are setting up an alternative philosophical system – one that its adherents believe only scientists should be permitted to explore. The danger of scientism is that discussions of issues fundamental to our futures, such as human rights or control of technology for the common good, become issues solely for natural scientists, who usually lack any background in thinking outside their own narrow disciplines.

The tendency among many scientists and technologists towards a belief in scientism needs to be kept in check. If not, scientism can lead to scientific programmes that breach common-sense ethical standards. Perhaps the best known example is eugenics – an idea popularised by mainstream British scientists in the early twentieth century, along with prominent public figures such as George Bernard Shaw, Marie Stopes and John Harvey Kellogg. Eugenic ideas underpinned both the Nazi Holocaust and the US Tuskegee Syphilis Study (1932-1972) in which African-American people were told they were receiving free treatment from the federal government of the United States, when in fact they were part of an experiment to see what would happen if syphilis was left un-treated.

More recently scientism has been the belief system adopted by many of the evangelists of ‘artificial intelligence’ (AI) and other transhumanists, many of them based in Silicon Valley. A famous follower of scientism was billionaire philanthropist Jeffrey Epstein, who believed that advances in AI and genetic engineering would create a super-race of humans. He donated millions of US dollars to research projects at the Programme for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard University and the Media Lab at MIT until his arrest for sex offences and death in 2019.

While embracing science as a rational process of making sense of the world, technology assessment rejects the beliefs that underpin scientism. Instead it embraces an approach based on precaution, humility among all scientists and engineers , and their acknowledgement of areas of ignorance. It acknowledges the need for ethics, openness about uncertainties and the embracing of multiple perspectives. Indian scholar Shiv Visvanathan calls the moral imperative to recognise the plurality of knowledge cognitive justice. There are several organisations that apply this broader approach to the sciences and engineering.

Taking their lead from corporations in the Global North, such as agri-chemical industries, Silicon Valley and robot manufacturers, today’s technology decision-makers are promoting a transformation that, if successful, could complete the process in which every realm of life becomes controlled by armies, algorithms and corporately-controlled machines. However, this is not inevitable, people have a right to collectively determine their futures through technology assessment.

The Collingridge Dilemma

A key purpose of most technology assessment (TA) processes is to address what has become known as the Collingridge dilemma which is based on two facts:

1. influencing or controlling technological developments is easier at an early stage when their implications are not yet manifest.

2. by the time we know these implications, they are difficult to change.

The dilemma we face is a double-bind about information and power:

  • An information problem because impacts of a new technology cannot be easily predicted until it is extensively developed and widely used by which time it may be too late.
  • A power problem because controlling or changing the trajectory of a technology is difficult when it has become entrenched and ‘locked in’.

Technology assessment addresses the information problem by subjecting the claims of a new technology to critical scrutiny, usually involving some kind of public forum.

Many approaches to technology assessment address the power problem by bringing different kinds of knowledge into the innovation process and into political decision-making at an early stage. This means that policies can then be formed to ensure that the technology can be developed and governed, if it is developed at all, in the interests of all our futures.

If undertaken competently, a process of technology assessment can help raise the profile of knowledge based on the lived experiences of people in all their diversities. Greater inclusion of this knowledge, which often has the advantage of having been developed and used over many generations, could be a preferable alternative to blindly trusting the next hyped new technology.

The evaluation of technologies by society is more urgent than ever right now because:

  • The speed at which the products of industrial scientific and technological are being applied is accelerating, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and with the threat of global climate change.
  • A small number of transnational corporations are controlling key technologies and resources on a global scale, beyond the sovereignty of states and decision-making in the public interest.
  • More and more areas of nature and culture are being commodified through new technologies, while new speculative financial instruments are promoting their privatisation and the hoarding of resources by private actors.
  •  The impact that corporate-controlled science and associated technological developments are having on already threatened livelihoods, women’s rights, fragile environments and global crises are increasingly evident.
  •  Governments’ and societies’ capacity to monitor and regulate emerging technologies is currently insufficient.

For the sake of all humanity, we need technology assessment so that we can make informed decisions to protect rights and livelihoods and enhance the well-being of people and our planet.

Many groups around the world are already collaborating in Technology Assessment Platforms

What do we mean by technology?

How are technologies assessed?

Find regional Technology Assessment Platforms