Chapter 3: THE NATURE OF TECHNOLOGY[3-36][3-37]

Science For All Americans翻訳プロジェクト: Chapter 3: THE NATURE OF TECHNOLOGY

Decisions About the Use of Technology Are Complex

Most technological innovations spread or disappear on the basis of free-market forces--that is, on the basis of how people and companies respond to such innovations. Occasionally, however, the use of some technology becomes an issue subject to public debate and possibly formal regulation. One way in which technology becomes such an issue is when a person, group, or business proposes to test or introduce a new technology--as has been the case with contour plowing, vaccination, genetic engineering, and nuclear power plants. Another way is when a technology already in widespread use is called into question--as, for example, when people are told (by individuals, organizations, or agencies) that it is essential to stop or reduce the use of a particular technology or technological product that has been discovered to have, or that may possibly have, adverse effects. In such instances, the proposed solution may be to ban the burial of toxic wastes in community dumps, or to prohibit the use of leaded gasoline and asbestos insulation.

Rarely are technology-related issues simple and one-sided. Relevant technical facts alone, even when known and available (which often they are not), usually do not settle matters entirely in favor of one side or the other. The chances of reaching good personal or collective decisions about technology depend on having information that neither enthusiasts nor skeptics are always ready to volunteer. The long-term interests of society are best served, therefore, by having processes for ensuring that key questions concerning proposals to curtail or introduce technology are raised and that as much relevant knowledge as possible is brought to bear on them. Considering these questions does not ensure that the best decision will always be made, but the failure to raise key questions will almost certainly result in poor decisions. The key questions concerning any proposed new technology should include the following:


What are alternative ways to accomplish the same ends? What advantages and disadvantages are there to the alternatives? What trade-offs would be necessary between positive and negative side effects of each?
Who are the main beneficiaries? Who will receive few or no benefits? Who will suffer as a result of the proposed new technology? How long will the benefits last? Will the technology have other applications? Whom will they benefit?
What will the proposed new technology cost to build and operate? How does that compare to the cost of alternatives? Will people other than the beneficiaries have to bear the costs? Who should underwrite the development costs of a proposed new technology? How will the costs change over time? What will the social costs be?
What risks are associated with the proposed new technology? What risks are associated with not using it? Who will be in greatest danger? What risk will the technology present to other species of life and to the environment? In the worst possible case, what trouble could it cause? Who would be held responsible? How could the trouble be undone or limited?
What people, materials, tools, knowledge, and know-how will be needed to build, install, and operate the proposed new technology? Are they available? If not, how will they be obtained, and from where? What energy sources will be needed for construction or manufacture, and also for operation? What resources will be needed to maintain, update, and repair the new technology?
What will be done to dispose safely of the new technology's waste materials? As it becomes obsolete or worn out, how will it be replaced? And finally, what will become of the material of which it was made and the people whose jobs depended on it?
Individual citizens may seldom be in a position to ask or demand answers for these questions on a public level, but their knowledge of the relevance and importance of answers increases the attention given to the questions by private enterprise, interest groups, and public officials. Furthermore, individuals may ask the same questions with regard to their own use of technology—for instance, their own use of efficient household appliances, of substances that contribute to pollution, of foods and fabrics. The cumulative effect of individual decisions can have as great an impact on the large-scale use of technology as pressure on public decisions can.

Not all such questions can be answered readily. Most technological decisions have to be made on the basis of incomplete information, and political factors are likely to have as much influence as technical ones, and sometimes more. But scientists, mathematicians, and engineers have a special role in looking as far ahead and as far afield as is practical to estimate benefits, side effects, and risks. They can also assist by designing adequate detection devices and monitoring techniques, and by setting up procedures for the collection and statistical analysis of relevant data.

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