3.4 Societal politics
If your experience of technology and/or technology evaluation is limited to the micro or very local level you may be relatively unaware of the role of societal politics in, and impact on, technology assessment and evaluation.
One of the central claims of this course is that it emphasises why an understanding of the relations between societal politics – or politics with a big P – and technology assessment and evaluation is so important: the scale and scope of technological development is now so vast, and the human condition now so bound up with it that to ignore politics is simply to ignore reality. Indeed technology is so important in and to society that Feenberg’s conclusion is that:
The masters of technical systems, corporate and military leaders, physicians and engineers, have far more control over patterns of urban growth, the design of dwellings and transportation systems, the selections of innovations, our experience as employees, patients, and consumers, than all the electoral institutions of society.
The relationship between power and technology leads supporters of a techno-sceptical disposition to argue that:
It is a mistake to presume that technology is in itself neutral and becomes political only as a result of how it is used and implemented. The current state of technology is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, but an effect and reinforcement of existing power structures, meaning that changing power structures and changes to technologies go hand in hand. For one thing, there is no such thing as an abstract, neutral ‘technology’, only existing, actual ‘technologies’. These always interact with power and social structures, and usually act to support the status quo – corporate power.
You may not be comfortable with the claims and sentiments expressed in these quotations, and you may never have considered the politics of technology, and of the role of technology in politics, political structures and power relations. They are significant features of technology evaluation and assessment, nevertheless, particularly where the evaluation is concerned with larger-scale technology-based projects or programmes.
If you researched deeply enough into the UK ID card, or indeed several of the other examples and cases used in this unit, will have discovered examples of organisations using their power to lobby in favour of the development of certain technologies or projects and programmes. This is often achieved by influencing assessments and evaluations, a particularly significant activity because of ‘the role of evaluation as a means of political legitimisation’ (Taylor and Balloch, 2005, p. 2). In short, if the findings of an evaluation support one course of action over another – such as the use of CCTV to combat crime rather than using the media to raise public awareness – this increases the legitimacy of decisions/policy that favour that particular development. Furthermore, because technology evaluation and assessment can also play a significant role in the early stages of technological research and development, ‘the powerful’ can also influence which technologies are developed and which ‘succeed’ in the marketplace. However, as I noted earlier with regard to the automation and subsequent computerisation of many industries:
A side-effect of this tendency is that technology comes to be identified in the popular imagination with machines or goods which do work previously done by humans. Innovations which work in the opposite direction – such as those elements of organic agriculture which replace chemicals with labour – fail to be identified as technologies at all and are seen as regressive.