Review of “Making Technology Democratic” by Richard E. Scolve

One of the central issues facing democratic societies is that technology is outpacing the regulatory powers of politics and ethics. Ethicists are involved towards the end of product design – they are used to evaluate how to ‘spin’ ethical implications rather than developing normative frameworks that ensure that only ethical technologies are developed. Ethics, in this situation, identify something that is good, rather than something that is right. Politics act as a terminal regulatory point – while they legislate laws that are intended to guide the kinds of technological research, as politics are subjugated to money their ability to legitimately influence research diminishes

Scolve, writing in the mid-90s, recognized that a series of challenges stood before technologically inclined societies. In particular, he was concerned that if new technologies’ social effectswere not taken accounted for productivity would likely increase and be supplemented with corresponding declines in “political engagement, attenuation of community bonds, experiential divorce from nature, individuals purposelessness, and expanding disparities of wealth” (87). In the face of these damaging political effects we must broaden technological agendas to account for technologies’ possible effects on social and political fields – we must ultimately situate long-term democratic publicity ahead of fulfilling short-term economic objectives.

While technologies have historically been one of the major influences on political life, they are not alone in influencing politics. That said, they are important enough that we should subject them to critique and evaluation because they are inextricably entwined with political legitimization, wealth distribution, gender relationships, and international affairs. Technologies constitute a core element of society’s infrastructure by establishing the communicative, distribution, and evaluative networks that are needed to facilitate the nation-state’s daily actions. Democratizing technology, that is, giving critical democratic processes a prominent role in evaluating whether to pursue or implement technologies, are important for several reasons.

  1. It is crucial but almost entirely neglected requirement for advancing societal democratization generally.
  2. It directly addresses a number of commonly perceived social problems, such as the decline of face-to-face community and the degraded nature of work.
  3. By contributing to overall societal democratization, technological democratization would contribute to the broad-based fairness and empowerment needed to begin effectively addressing technologies’ and other social consequences (i.e., those not specifically political> as well as chronic societal problems otherwise not attributable to technology. (89)

Technology as social structure

Technologies represent a kind of social structure, that is, they help to define social and political life. While they are often developed to address a particular issue (i.e. the microwave to reduce the amount of time women had to spend cooking), technologists often overlook the indirect consequences of implementing new technologies. While microwaves allowed for the rapid production of food, they simultaneously decreased the likelihood of families passing down recipes, and decreased the working knowledge of cooking using traditional equipment. By introducing microwaves, new kinds of dishes were needed, freezer space was more valued, and time that had been spent creating meals was now spent reheating food. In light of this, Scolve notes that:

. . . it’s not enough to consider just one technology at a time . . . we must analyze all the different artifacts, practices, and systems that jointly comprise a society’s entire technological order . . . (90)

While ‘cutting edge’ technologies tend to attract some public attention, technologies that are more familiar or innocuous, such as pipes, washing machines, air conditioners, and electricity distribution, tend to have a combined significance that is at least as important as ‘sexy’ technologies. Public attention must be focused on these ‘simpler’ technologies as well as the more complex if the public is to moderate how their society transforms.

Technology and democracy

Democracies have a procedural standard that is used to evaluate actions’ legitimacy and to make decisions. In addition to procedural standards, substantive standards are also critical – citizens “ought to grant precedence to perpetuating their society’s basic character as a strong democracy. Apart from this substantive obligation, we should be free to attend as we wish to our other personal and shared concerns” (91). Under this model, where citizens work to assert the core characteristics of their democracy, they should be interested in democratizing technology to ensure that technologies: (1) are or become compatible with the interest of strong democracy; (2) sustain or expand the opportunities for all people to involve themselves in the political process. Any technologies that are incompatible with either (1) or (2) should be dismissed as damaging for pluralistic democratic nations.

While Scolve outlines a series of characteristics for democratically responsible technologies, I want to draw attention to his demand that they help secure democratic self-governance. Specifically, he states that they should:

D. Restrict the distribution of potentially adverse consequences (e.g., environmental or social harms) to within the boundaries of local political jurisdictions.
E. Seek relative local economic self-reliance. Avoid technologies that promote dependency and loss of autonomy.
F. Seek technologies (including an architecture of public space) compatible with globally aware, egalitarian political decentralization and federalization. (92-3)

D. would require communities to reject distributed power generation techniques that could not be contained within the boundaries of the local political jurisdiction. Consequently, large hydro-electric dams, the excavation and use of fossil fuels, and nuclear power would be disqualified technologies because they and/or their effects could exceed the boundaries of local political jurisdictions.

E. Would demand that communities develop and be able to sustain their own info-tech. This reminds me of trying to put a genie back in the bottle – it can’t be done. What we need now is to learn how to tame the genie, rather than rehashing what we should have done.

F. I’m not entirely sure how this point intermixes with the previous two. If Scolve is suggesting that we expand the definition of ‘local’ or ‘domestic’ to include what is commonly thought of as ‘foreign’ then D. and E. are both strange requirements that seem to presuppose a movement towards cosmopolitanism or supranational political structures.

Democratic design criteria vs progressive proposals

Democracy requires citizens to be able to see themselves as the authors and addressees of law to establish the solidarity needed to create a common post-metaphysical communities. In light of this Scolve believes that if localities cannot take control of their own sustaining infrastructures there will be less incentive for developing or belonging to grass-roots political movements that are critical for strong democracy. This diminishing incentive occurs because as decisions about the locality will be made in distant places, the members of the locality receive less utility for belonging to grass-roots groups. I don’t think that Scolve realizes that, in asserting this kind of position, its logical consequence would leave minorities in localities disenfranchised, whereas at in a larger political environment they may be able to receive the protection and concern for their dignity that they deserve. The other (central) problem that arises when facing de-democratizing technologies is the their aftereffects are only realized in hindsight. The Sony Walkman, for example, arguably eroded social interaction and solidarity, but its effects were only known after the fact. It is incredibly challenging to evaluate a technologies focal and non-obvious non-focal effects.

While Scolve’s point that we need to be wary of implementing new technologies like the Internet on a mass-scale before evaluating whether they threaten traditional sources of solidarity is good, I think that the ethical normative hermeneutic that is needed to evaluate technology must be simultaneously flexible and (relatively) value free or, at least, value flexible. Only after developing a national stance towards technology that is enshrined in something resembling constitutional norms will society be able to effectively proscribe what kinds of research should be fostered, and which should be left still-born. Technologies should be inclusive and open, and avoid weakening democratic bonds. If we are to rigorously evaluate technology we should create a governmental branch similar to Health Canada that is directly concerned with technology – in this political environment, with a ‘technological constitution’ and regulatory body it might be possible to ‘protect’ the public from technologies that will weaken the bonds of political solidarity and subsequently risk fragmenting the nation-state. While this sounds positive, I don’t know how effective it would be, but this would be my ‘launch point’ informed by Scolve’s insights.

3 thoughts on “Review of “Making Technology Democratic” by Richard E. Scolve

  1. Sweet blog. I never know what I am going to come across next. I think you should do more posting as you have some pretty intelligent stuff to say.

    I’ll be watching you 🙂


Comments are closed.