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Science, Maths & Technology

Technology needs to respond to people

Updated Tuesday 5th April 2005

Technology that doesn't find popular support will struggle. Joyce Fortune responds to Lord Broers' first Reith Lecture.

It is wholly clear that technology has had, and will continue to have, massive effects on the way we lead our lives. Whether one regards those effects as ‘hugely beneficial’ depends on one’s values and beliefs.

Speaking personally, I accept that some technologies and the products they deliver have drawbacks but I enjoy many of the benefits they bring and believe these outweigh the disadvantages.

I also have faith that technological solutions exist to many of the problems the world faces.

Where I depart from Lord Broers is in my conception of technology. Lord Broers speaks of technology as though it is autonomous and self-determining, following its own course rather than being directed by human action.

Protests against GM food in Spain [Image:ImgDos under CC-BY-NC-SA] Creative commons image Icon ImgDos via Flickr under Creative-Commons license
Protests against GM food in Spain [Image: ImgDos under CC-BY-NC-SA]

I, on the other hand, do not regard technology as something that is, of itself, capable of determining the future.

Speaking of technology in the way Lord Broers does implies technological determinism. It depicts technology as forever moving forwards and expanding outwards, driven by its own internal rules.

One of the drawbacks of this view of technology is that it can encourage fear of technology and a perception that it is ‘out of control’.

With such fear comes the inability to make balanced judgements about costs and benefits and failure to engage openly in debates about which technologies should be supported, which can be left to the whim of the market, and which need to be strictly controlled.

To my mind a more helpful approach is to emphasise the inter-relationships between technology and the people who develop, finance, disseminate and use it and those who consume its outputs.

A good example of the influence of some of these groups on the rate of take up of a technology is reaction to genetically-modified foods.

Consumers with an instinctive distrust of the new technology have impeded its progress. Technology has not determined the future; ‘people power’ in the form of customer demand, or rather lack of demand, has.

Further reading

Does Technology Drive History?
Edited by Merriott Roe Smith and Leo Marx, MIT Press.

The Social Shaping of Technolog
Edited by Donald MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman, Open University Press.

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