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The politics of technology -- and vice versa

By Edward Wenk Jr.Special to The Christian Science Monitor; Edward Wenk Jr. is professor of engineering and public affairs at teh University of Washington and author of "Margins for Survival -- Overcoming Limits in Steering Technology" (Pergamon Press, 1979). / May 7, 1980

It is spring, 1980. Biological rhythms of the season are revealing thier familiar colorful patterns. So are the quadrennial rhythms of politics. The time has arrived for presidential candidates to reveal their intentions and to position themselves artfully for contests ahead, with either defense of the incumbent administration or with uninhibited carping on what has gone wrong. Notwithstanding a queue of unresolved issues that deeply trouble the electorate and nag at the candidates' heels, the rhetoric is unilluminating.

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Yet despite confusion, cynicism, and feelings of impotence, people are not tempted by promises of a miracle cure. Indeed, they have not despired of earnest attempts by leadership to understand what is going on and then to share honestly with the electorate a pointed diagnosis of the situation and more-agile precrisis solutions.

Those who seek their votes must face up to three realities. First, we are so deeply embedded in a technological culture that we have become completely dependent on science and engineering to meet our needs and our wants. Second, because technology is so powerful, we live in a time of unprecedented risks -- of nuclear war, large-scale environmental poisoning, inadvertent worldwide climate modification, and the like. Third, the key decisions regarding technology are no longer made in ehe decentralized marketplace. Rather, both ends and means are set by public policies of central goverments. As a consequence, governments have become more technological, and technology has become more political.

In this climate, popular decisions are elusive. Put another way, technology generates more options, while the underlying technical facts are more difficult to comprehend. If choice has become this complicated, no wonder that attempts to build consensus are defeated.

We could insist that those who aspire to leadership examine new strategies of collective choice -- a doctrine of anticipation.

First, our decision apparatus should be able to forecast what is foreseeable with sophistication, sensitivity, and elegance. Second, we should have means whereby we can at least try to imagine what might be, especially in terms of the futures we do not want.

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 was a harbinger of this notion of looking ahead. But it was the Technology Assessment Act of 1972 that fully developed the concept of averting collissions. It equipped the congress (through the Office of Technology Assessment) so that, to the fullest extent possible, the effects of applying technology could be anticipated, understood, and considered in planning public policy.

Here was the notion of an early-warning system based on the questions: "What will happen, if?" and "What may happen, unless?" It was to operate as an aid to decisionmaking. With a range of technical and social alternatives, drawing on a blend of technical fact and social values, it was to furnish a basis of choice by laying out consequences. It allowed looking sideways at effects, beyond the usual boundaries of a technological action, and, above all, looking ahead.

The range of uncertainty and the vagueness of risk might then be eased. By timely and open publication of assessments, issues and options could be examined by all those who held a stake in the outcome. At the same time, a deliberate modesty was emphasized, in that the analysis would not tell decisionmakers what to do, only what to explore.

The promise of that legislation has not been fully realized.

Neither has legislation to create a similar capability in the White House worked out, as mandated by Congress.