5.11: Technology Assessment Studies

What distinguishes one era from another is not so much the nature of the person but the nature of the environment and, within the environment, not so much the natural environment or the social environment as the technological environment. People have changed little in historical times and will change little in essence in the future. During that time, the sun has continued to rise in the East and sink in the West and will continue to do so in the future (unless we blow ourselves out of orbit with technology). People will continue to live in families, however defined; attend schools, however improved, and do work, under whatever conditions.

The significant difference from era to era is the result of the introduction of technological innovations. The dramatic difference between your world and that of your grandparents is the technology available to you (my grandfather was a boy when the automobile was invented) and the dramatic difference between your world and that of your grandchildren will be the technology available to them. To understand the future, then, we must understand the technology which will define it.

In the 1960 census, there were about 180 million people in the United States of America and almost one billion machines.1 The fact that machines outnumbered people 5 to 1 (and have increased this ratio considerably in the three decades since) suggests how pervasive and powerful is the influence of machines on persons. Yet this important area is strangely neglected.

Whereas many university courses focus on the influence of literature, whose effect is minor at present and decreasing, few courses focus on the influence of technology, whose effect is major and increasing. Indeed, the only internationally-known organization for the study of the impact of technology in Canada - Marshall McLuhan's Centre for Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto - is constantly threatened with being phased out.

One possible reason for the neglect of this important area is the very pervasiveness of the influence of technology. The ubiquitous is paradoxically elusive. A close look is not necessarily a clear look. The fish will be last to discover water. However, since technology is the "water" in which we are bathing and since it is seeping into our every pore, it is imperative that we understand its influence on us. Such an understanding may enable us to develop healthy attitudes to machines and synergetic relationships with them.

A second reason is suggested by a look at public opinion polling. This literature is generally frowned upon by researchers as a mere nose-counting exercise (or is it nos-counting?), as a periodic pragmatic taking of the public pulse. However, some percentage figures would be interesting as a rough indication of the vicissitudes of the public perception of technology over the years. The literature turns out to be more interesting however, in what it does not contain. Five years of the Gallup Opinion Index, surveyed by the author, contain very little on public attitudes to technology or to science.2 There are some polls on energy (but mainly in a political-economic rather than a scientific-technological context), two polls on nuclear power, and one each on test-tube babies, astrology, and unidentified flying objects, the last two hardly the most important aspects of science and technology respectively.3

By contrast, opinions about political and economic issues are being compulsively measured day by day, since it has been traditionally assumed that political and economic factors are most important in the world of today and will determine the world of tomorrow. However, many thoughtful people have argued that it is science and technology rather than economics and politics which determine the shape of today and the emerging shape of tomorrow.

Buckminster Fuller has argued that science and technology have enabled so many of us to live this century as only kings lived last century.4 Nigel Calder has argued that the politics of tomorrow will be the battle for the control of science and technology.5 Most of us would agree that the world of our children will be dramatically affected by the form of the informatics system which emerges after the current transition period triggered by developments in the twin industries of computers and telecommunications just as our lives were dramatically affected by the penetration of the television and the telephone. On the other hand, whether the current occupant of 24 Sussex Drive is Pierre Trudeau or Brian Mulroney or even whether the current occupant of the White House is Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan will have little effect on their lives beyond providing different names in their history books.6

Paralleling this shift in emphasis from political and economic factors to scientific and technological factors as the determining forces in society, is a shift in the power base from those who have economic power to those who have knowledge power. The dichotomy between the haves and the have-nots in the industrial society will be replaced by that between the knows and the know-nots in the information society. Christopher Evans predicts a polarization of attitudes about the new information-processing machines.7 If those with negative attitudes avoid the machines and thus do not learn to use them, then the knowledge they make available will go by default to those with positive attitudes who approach the machines and thus learn to use them. The polarization of attitudes could translate into a polarization of abilities. Such a polarization is a prerequisite to the scenario presented by George Orwell in 1984 in which the world is controlled by a technological elite.

Increased public awareness of those issues is therefore, important even if only to prevent misuse by others. One device for increasing awareness is the public poll. Pollsters could perhaps be encouraged to bring the balance between polling of scientific-technological and political-economic issues more in line with their importance in determining our future. The current inbalance contributes to an agenda-setting by the media which places politics and economics way above science and technology on our social agenda.8

Tom Smith made a trend analysis of the public response to variants of the question "What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?" in Gallup polls from 1946 through 1976.9 The responses fluctuated widely (and wildly), reflecting the history of the United States during that period, but the problems were invariably seen as political and economic. The closest the responses veered toward technology was during the Arab oil embargo in January of 1974 when energy became a concern for a brief period. Though technology is both the cause and one possible solution to this problem, it was viewed within the context of economics. The discrepancy between lay and expert opinion on the importance of technology may be worth exploring.

During this period, however, happiness scales remained almost constant despite the dramatic ups and downs of economic and political concerns.10 Andrew Greeley argues that this is because happiness scales measure what is private and personal which is unaffected by what is public and impersonal. When asked what is the important problem, people will dutifully dash off the things the media is currently telling them are problems but will continue blissfully with their personal lives. Technology however threatens to affect happiness scales in the future because it is this very intimacy which could be destroyed.

Public opinion polling literature could be summed up perhaps as "street-lamp" research, after the Sufi story of the drunk who dropped his key while fumbling at the door and went to look for it under the street-lamp because the light was better there. The light is better because the public attitude to economic and political issues is more explicit than the public attitude to science and technology and the results of the polls can be clearly verified in the case of elections. However, it is not where the key is. The key to our future lies in the way in which we deal with science and technology.

This chapter will focus on technology assessment studies, which could be considered, as argued above, as the overlap of the ecosphere and the technosphere in the model presented in Figure 3-2. It will focus, more precisely, on the impact of electronic technology on our natural environment.

There is a general consensus, with some dissensions, that electronic technology is relatively ecologically benign. Electronic technology promises to replace print technology and, thereby, save trees. This is, as yet, just a long-term promise In the short-term, before the "paperless office" becomes a reality, it seems to generate more paper, since it raises standards and thus requires more revisions. Electronic devices in cars and planes save energy by monitoring fuel consumption and optimizing its use.

Let us look, in turn, at two arguments which suggest that this technology may help relieve the pressure on our planet - the transportation-telecommunications trade-off argument that substituting telecommunications for transportation will reduce the demand for energy and the leap-frog strategy argument that developing countries can by-pass the noxious environmental side-effects and by-products of industrial society by "leap-frogging" to a post-industrial society.

1   O.Brien, R. & Editors of Life, Machines, Life Science Library. New York: Time Incorporated, 1964.

2   Though the emphasis here is on attitudes to technology, it is important to consider also attitudes to science, since it is becoming increasingly difficult to disentangle them. The public is becoming increasingly aware that science and technology are intimately intertwined. Since public support for Research and Development (R & D) is a function of public attitudes to science and technology, R & D should be R & D & D (and Dissemination) [Fred Knelman, Information and Energy, Information Society Program, Montreal, GAMMA, 1980.]

3   Gallup Opinion Index.
Astrology/energy July 76, 132 25-27

March 77, 140, 1-2

May 77, 142, 7-12

June 77, 143, 12-21

December 77, 149, 15-25

August 78, 157, 26-30

March 79, 164, 12-20

June 79, 167, 23-30

September 79, 170, 15-26
Nuclear power September 76, 134, 12-16

April 79, 165, 1-14
Test tube babies December 78, 161, 1-5

4   R. Buckminster Fuller, An Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.

5   Nigel Calder quoted in J. G. Burke (Editor), The New Technology and Human Values. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1967.

6   Nevertheless, the ups and downs of Canadian Prime Minsters and United States Presidents are compulsively polled. The style of a Kennedy makes better theater than that of a Ford but the events continue relatively independent of their interventions. Now that the U.S. public has cancelled the Carter Show because of poor ratings and cast the Reagans to play First Family to liven up their televiewing, we finally have a professional actor playing President of the United States. This may help increase our awareness of the extent to which it is a role and that it does not really matter all that much who plays the part (which offers some consolation to those apprehensive about the present incumbent in the White House).

7   Christopher Evans, The Mighty Micro: The Impact of the Computer Revolution. London: Victor Gollancz, 1979.

8   M. E. McCombs & D. L. Shaw, The agenda-setting function of mass media. Public Opinion Quarterly, 1972-1973, 36, Pages 176-187.

9   T. W. Smith, America's most important problem - a trend analysis, 1946-1976. Public Opinion Quarterly, Summer 1980, Pages 165-180.

10   Greeley, A. M., The state of the nation's happiness. Psychology Today, January 1981, Pages 14-18.