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Posted: January 7, 2008
Democratizing technology: Be careful what you wish for
(Nanowerk News) In periods of rapid social, economic, and technological evolution, one often sees growing gaps between different social groups. The early Industrial Revolution in England saw a growing economic gap between factory owners and their backers (aristocrats and landowners with money), and the displaced agricultural workers who became the first industrial proletariat. Responses included Luddite riots, Marxism, and eventually unions and government economic regulation, leading to modern capitalism.
More recently, rapidly evolving information and communication technology (ICT), which enables participation in modern economic systems, has generated concern about an expanding "digital divide" between those who can access and use ICT resources, and those who can't. Responses have included programs to produce inexpensive computers for developing countries, and to place computers and Internet capability in underserved communities in developed countries.
We are in a period of unprecedented and accelerating change. Previous technology waves have generally been characterized by advances within a particular sector or constellation of technologies, such as railroads or mass produced automobiles. Today, however, five major enabling technologies -- nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics, ICT and applied cognitive science -- are not only accelerating within their particular domains, but increasingly integrating in unpredictable ways, creating a turbocharged technological frontier. Not surprisingly, social, institutional and even individual capabilities to perceive, understand, and respond to these developments lag ever further behind: Technological evolution has outrun social and institutional capacity.
One currently popular response is to call for "the democratization of technology." Among other things, this approach calls for increased awareness and sensitivity of technologists to the social implications of their work, and greater efforts to include society in decisions regarding the particular structure and deployment of various technologies.
The cognoscenti call for "real time technology assessment" -- dialoging with technologies as they are planned and developed, rather than trying to respond to unanticipated consequences when technologies are already locked in -- as an enabler of greater transparency and dialog. There is much to be desired in such practices. But this popular prescription should give pause to many environmental and sustainability activists.
First, there is little guarantee that the public at large values non-local environmental issues such as climate change, and sustainability, as much as activists do. Democratizing technology, therefore, may be a lot more SUV and less hybrid than advocates might wish. In fact, from an activist perspective, democratization may be far less effective in directing technological evolution in desirable directions than reliance on existing mechanisms, which generally enable elites to better manage the dialog. Democracy, after all, does not just disempower technocratic elites, but environmental elites as well -- and, as the Middle East illustrates in many ways, vox populi is frequently either messily unpredictable or a sham.
There is, however, a much more dangerous reality. Many technologies are already becoming democratized, in the sense of becoming widely available to groups of all kinds, a trend the Internet and other ICT systems are accelerating. Among these "democratizing technologies" are those that can increasingly readily be weaponized. This includes not just "traditional" weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear weapons (including "dirty bombs") and biological agents (including designer viruses and, soon, bacteria).
It also includes more unconventional "asymmetric warfare" weapons -- terrorists attacking commercial and institutional Internet systems on a rolling basis, for example, or hacking into control networks of critical infrastructure. Experts are even more concerned about what happens after an attack: Fred Ikle, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy during the Reagan administration, warns that the aftermath of a successful nuclear terrorist attack against the United States could well be a demagogic and populist regime, and a high probability of a very destructive, emotional and uncontrolled response against the outside world in general. Those who doubt this scenario would do well to consider the Iraq adventure, which grew out of a far smaller incident.
In short, questions of technological evolution and management are not just the province of policy wonks and technocrats. Rather, they are key to any serious consideration of sustainability, especially as technological power devolves from the nation-state and multinational to individuals, be they upstanding citizens or terrorists intent on destroying modernity.
This increasing democratization of technology will no doubt bring benefits, but it also poses substantial challenges to environmentalists and sustainability activists, particularly in areas, such as security, that they have not focused on in the past. Being able to understand, and participate in, such broadened discourses will mark an important step towards maturity for both the environmental and sustainability movements.