Helping democracy keep its balance in age of high technology

Tradeoffs: Imperatives of Choice in a High-Tech World, by Edward Wenk Jr. Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press. 238 pp. $19.95. Edward Wenk Jr. still takes George Orwell seriously. Why? Because two conditions for the Big Brother scenario Orwell envisioned in ``1984'' exist in the United States today: sophisticated mass media technologies and the corporate state.

Big Brother is the fictional government that forwards its own twisted brand of programmed intelligence by turning humans into robots.

Its method, brainwash by doublespeak, is perfected through the use of two-way surveillance media and succeeds in snuffing out democracy.

Wenk doesn't resurrect ``1984'' simply to provide drama; his broader aim is to impress upon contemporary societies the distinction between technological progress and civilization's enrichment. The distance between the two depends upon how and who technology advances.

Science and technology policy needs a good dose of democracy, Wenk argues. But citizens can take part wisely without knowing all the ins and outs of quantum physics or computer electronics.

Citizens do need to understand the machinery that drives technology and the social implications involved, for instance, when the laces between government and industry research are tightened, or when programs to develop renewable energy resources are abandoned.

Wenk has plenty of formal credentials. He was the first science and technology adviser to Congress and at present is an emeritus professor of engineering, public affairs, and social management of technology at the University of Washington. But in this book he is ambassador to the public. He talks with readers about the demise of the American railroads, technology as a social amplifier, and the promises and disappointments of high-tech - subjects less foreboding than Orwellian futures, but with their own urgency.

Wenk moves easily, and sometimes too quickly, from the philosophical to the nitty-gritty and back again. He begins with the tensions and symbioses between culture and technique. Then he explains his model of the ``technology delivery system,'' fueled by an expanding knowledge base and market demand.

After a chapter on risk, he pays a visit to each of technology's benefactors: politics, industry, and science. Wenk concludes with the most tenuous relationship - that between policymakers and the future public.

Little that Wenk says is new. He echoes John Kenneth Galbraith's ``The New Industrial State'' when he illustrates the overlap between government and industry in managing for stability and risk avoidance.

He echoes Dennis Gabor's ``Inventing the Future'' when he calls for choosing between possible futures by imagining undesirable, as well as desirable, ones. And he echoes Jacques Ellul's ``The Technological Order'' when he writes, ``Every technology plays Jekyll and Hyde.''

In Ellul's critique, however, cultural enrichment will ultimately depend upon self and social criticism, while, in the end, Wenk makes concrete recommendations that employ public information networks to resolve the tensions between democracy and technology.

The stakes are high. As Wenk writes, ``those who control technology control the future. That reality stings.''

Robin Johnston is on the Monitor's staff.

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