The politics of technology -- and vice versa

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.

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.

The National Science and Technology Policy Organization and Priority Act of 1976 provided that a policy planning capability should be established in the Executive Office of the President, to examine current and projected trends in science and technology and their effects on social, economic, and other national requirements.

President Carter dealt with that opportunity by truncating the Executive Office to accord with his concerns over burgeoning staff. The Office of Science and Technology Policy created by that act was cut in size, weakened by the transfer or cancellation of functions, and rendered much like the outmoded Office of Science and Technology, a precursor that was equipped primarily to defend the eroding US base of science for research and development.

However, it is the public that can be singled out as a critical element in failing to look ahead. It can be argued that people, pre-occupied as they are with immediate concerns, have little spontaneous interest in balancing long-run with short-run effects of alternative public policies. Immediate consequences can seem all-important. And, given the pluralism of the United States, the only individual in the nation who is expected to represent all interests equitably, and balance short-run with long-run considerations, is the president. In emphasizing the future, the burden thus falls on him (and those who are applicants for the job), not just to lead but to teach.

A president is in a position to share with citizens some perspective as to the consequences of each of the options he consideres, so as to gain, not just better public understanding of the problem, but of the problem's setting. He could help explain why one solution with greater prospects for avoiding nasty surprises and for longer-run achievement of our dreams and aspirations is to be preferred over another policy that glitters with short-run benefits.

All of these notions can be readily applied to the current energy dilemma and the fact that, even today, the great majority of Americans do not fully appreciate the ominous legacy of the massive importation of oil.

People are indeed part of the decision apparatus. The candidates should respect that role and not play upon a natural concern with immediate problems to obscure long-term issues with meaningless rhetoric. For unless the citizens can clearly see why they should trade off instant gratification for some vision of future benefits for humankind generally, and for their own progeny specifically, we will be in continued difficulty.

Unless the public, and those who seek to lead the nation, embed the concept of self-restraint in their decision calculus, the political process will remain in the vise of the short-run considerations. The margin for error shrinks and correctives become intractable. The hazard then exists of action or inaction that could debase individual integrity or extinguish humanity altogether. Even before that may happen, the benign neglect of the future may undermine even the capacity to decide.

If there be truth in this proposition, there is urgent need for the electorate to ask that presidential candidates examine the health of the decision process -- especially as it relates to complex technological issues -- and to level with us on where we are and where we are headed. Then we should ask for their answers (not simplistic, but unworkable, formulas) on "what we should do." If we are to travel a dangerous road at high speed, we have to look more deliberately through the windshield. Survival and our collective security may depend on it.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.