4.1.2 A brief history of macro and meso technology assessment
Technology assessment became a growing concern of many governments through the 1950s and 1960s. The pressure for this came from two main sources: the growth in demand for government support for technological innovation and technological enterprises, and, simultaneously, increased demands from other sections of society for the control of technology. Faced with these often competing pressures for support and control, governments became increasingly interested in formalising and developing the capacity to ‘measure’ the effectiveness or impact of technology.
The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), established by the United States Congress in the early 1970s, was the first body to emerge as a result of the growing concern to assess technology. Braun (1998) cites the development of a civilian supersonic airliner as particularly significant to the birth of the OTA. As Britain and France pressed ahead with the development of Concorde the US federal government came under concerted pressure to support the development of a US alternative, primarily because, as in France and Britain, no commercial company would take on the costs and risks of such an enterprise.
Running alongside the ‘development’ agenda was one that centred on control. By the 1960s there was increasing evidence that a range of technological advances, particularly in pesticides, fertilisers and industrial chemicals, were having significant and harmful effects on the environment (Braun, 1998). This coincided with, and almost certainly amplified, a shift in public perception away from the largely unquestioned belief that technology was ‘good’, which had dominated the developed world pre-war, to one of growing mistrust in science and technology. In an effort to escape the counter demands of supporters of the two conflicting agendas the US Congress set up the OTA in 1972 as the means ‘... for securing competent unbiased information concerning the effects, physical, economic, social and political, of the applications of technology ...’ (US Congress 1971, cited in Braun, 1998, p. 30).
As Braun goes on to note:
The early definitions of technology assessment should be viewed as statements of an ideal. It is obviously beyond human capabilities to achieve objective, all-embracing descriptions of the future impacts of technology, let alone the effects of a miscellany of possible combinations of technological and socio-economic developments.
Whether idealistic or not, it was not long before other governments followed the example of the US and set up organisations similar to the OTA. Alternatively, or in addition to this, governments also sponsored forecasting research, with one of the most famous examples being Simon Nora and Alain Minc’s report to the President of France in 1978, The Informatization of Society. Another example, but this time by a ‘futurologist, is Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1970). If you have a particular interest in technology forecasting and assessment you may wish to read these books.