4 The functions of evaluation
4.1 Technology assessment
The distinction between technology evaluation and technology assessment was outlined in the introduction to this block, where I also highlighted that a common practice is to treat one as synonymous with the other. In his work on technology assessment, Braun (1998) states that when we use the term technology assessment in an everyday sense we are talking about technology evaluation. He then defines technology assessment as:
a systematic attempt to foresee the consequences of introducing
a particular technology in all spheres it is likely to interact with.
This is not the same as technology evaluation, where the primary purpose is assessing the operation or performance, and/or performance outcomes or impact(s), of a technology or system, project or programme, in a particular context, at a particular point in time. Evaluation is not concerned with making judgements (however informed) about what may or may not happen in the future. Consequently, there is clearly a distinction between technology assessment and technology evaluation.
From a practitioner point of view this distinction is important because it helps to avoid confusion and unrealistic assumptions in discussions with potential sponsors, commissioners, customers or stakeholders about whether they actually want assessment or evaluation. In other words, is the purpose of the work:
- a ‘real’ analysis of how an investment in technology is performing, and/or what the outcome/impact of its implementation has been?
- a ‘predictive’ analysis of how an investment in technology might perform and what the impact or outcome might be?
- a combination of these two alternatives?
As you work your way through the rest of this sub-section you should get a clear idea of how technology assessment has developed, and some of the challenges that may well arise when undertaking such work. For the purpose of description and analysis I have categorised technology assessment into three spheres of activity, depending on the level or strata of society and social systems at which the assessment takes place (see Box 4). As Figure 1 illustrates, all are interrelated to a greater or lesser degree. However, as the scale and scope of the activity at the macro and meso levels often share common ground, I have dealt with these together. Organisational level technology assessment, which, depending on the size of an organisation or enterprise, may usually be concerned with the micro level, is dealt with later.
Box 4 Macro, meso and micro
These terms are simply used as shorthand, as is the convention in academic disciplines such as economics.
Macro means technology assessment that takes place at the global, international and pan-national level by governmental, commercial and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with international operations. Examples of governmental organisations are the European Union (EU), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Meso refers to technology assessment that takes place at a national level between governmental and commercial organisations and NGOs.
Micro is technology assessment that takes place at the intra governmental or organisational level.
One of the key aims of the analysis and discussion that follows is to demonstrate how important ideological, theoretical and value-based beliefs about technology and society are to technology assessment, together with the interaction of, and relationship between, technology and social systems in general. Hence at the international and national levels (macro and meso) technology assessment is characterised by social debate and political conflict (Jamison and Baark, 1990). For example, a host of environmental, social and economic issues currently face humankind (e.g. global warming, poverty, and national and regional tensions and conflicts). Responses to these issues can, broadly speaking, be aligned with two opposing positions or perspectives – the techno-optimist and techno-sceptic. The text in the box below outlines both positions according to the campaign group Corporate Watch. The group argues that techno-optimism is the dominant position across the world. As such, techno-sceptics would argue that techno-optimism benefits from, and is reinforced in its dominant position by, the support of the majority of the media, by mainstream politics and by the backing of organisations and agencies that stand to benefit commercially from large-scale technological solutions to the issues and problems faced by humankind and our planet in general in the twenty-first century.
Box 5 Technological optimists and sceptics
The issue of technology is, in part, a question of values ... The ‘optimist’ position is that:
- The general direction of technological development is right and positive.
- The drawbacks and risks of technology are outweighed by the benefits.
- Further technological progress will compensate those who have lost out in earlier stages of the process.
- Progress will rectify the problems caused by existing technologies.
- Optimists basically see technology as politically neutral and, more often than not, historically inevitable.
We present an alternative to the optimist position by assuming that technology is political.
This ‘technological sceptic’ approach argues that:
- Technological progress is a flawed concept.
- The current direction of technological development, dictated by the existing structures of corporations and states, is wrong.
- The balance between costs and benefits to society from a given technology is often neutral or negative.
- The vision that there will always be technological solutions to social problems – themselves often caused by earlier technological developments – is a dangerous illusion: it is more important to address the political and social causes of those problems.
Activity 8 The extent of techno-optimism and techno-scepticism
On the basis of the information and discussion of these two positions identify your own position/viewpoint (techno optimist, sceptic or something in between) and outline why you take this view. You may wish to add your comments to the Comments section below.