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Technology and Public Participation

Editor: Brian Martin
Publisher: Wollongong, Australia: University of Wollongong, 1999
Review Published: April 2000

 REVIEW 1: Karin Geiselhart

A few key assumptions unite Technology and Public Participation: that social and technical issues cannot be neatly boxed and dealt with separately; that those affected by a technology should be able to influence it; and that issues of technology and participation should be continuously aired as part of wider democratic process. While this book has little on information technology, it address many relevant issues which underpin all technologies. Without offering a cut and dry opinion about technology in general, this book provides some sensible discussions about public participation in a range of technological settings. Along the way, the combined impact of the contributions is to enlarge the readers' perspective on the role of the public in technological decision making. Often through personal accounts, the articles relate theoretical approaches to the complex issues of participation in relation to particular technologies.

The fundamental area of food technology highlights the difficulty of meaningful participation in this area, since the general trend is for the consumer to be steadily removed from the source of production. Andy Monk shows that this abstraction of food and the processes that produce it make it increasingly difficult to understand or assess the pros and cons of food technology. Even at a local level, commercial interests can cloud producers' judgments about environmental concerns and other issues. Monk outlines effective forms of resistance, which require the development of a cultural ethic that values sustainability.

Any parent will be aware of the power of toys as potential traineeships in consumerism. Wendy Varney's article argues that overly structured toys might also decrease a child's ability to play creatively and to participate effectively in shaping their surroundings. She explains that toys are part of a wider set of technological activities that reinforce passive consumption and acceptance of the commercial culture and its accompanying assumptions. Thus, each technology also socializes.

The very ordinariness of the telephone leads us to overlook it as a participatory mechanism, but Lyn Carson describes its importance in conveying personal and emotional information, as well as arranging factual affairs. She found that change of opinion is dependent on the existence of a relationship -- that is, the development of trust. Her experience on a government council led her to understand how voice to voice communications can offer equal time and input at a local level.

Janis Birkeland's article on community participation in urban planning is perhaps more theoretical than some of the others, and yet offers commonsense propositions. For example: mainstream planning disregards the need for a sense of well-being gained from community, contact with nature, and a healthy, safe environment. Full and meaningful participation is not easy to attain. Her description of a feminist/biocentric approach would also fit comfortably in a deliberative or non-linear model. These models also offer a more discursive, open-ended approach to decision making, and an alternative to hierarchy. Whatever the label, this chapter shows how urban planning is influenced by pictures in our heads of internalized power structures, values, and ideologies.

Some of the concepts which underpin the authors' contributions are the idea of a risk society, the expert-lay divide, the tragedy of the commons, and the idea of social, as well as environmental, sustainability. These notions, and the debates that form around them, are embedded in many technological decisions. These ideas bubble through the chapters of the book, encouraging readers to examine their own views and values. For example, the risk society is related to the idea that we can not fully know the consequences of many decisions. In today's world, where actions and results often have a complex relationship, it is difficult to predict the possible outcomes of a decision. The risk of getting it wrong, such as through genetically modified food, reverberates throughout society. As with a hazardous waste incinerator, the example Sharon Beder elaborates on, the risks can not be limited to a particular group. When public relations firms become key sources of information, the public is placed in double jeopardy.

This is where the expert-lay divide comes in. The dominant rhetoric is that we can trust the experts to protect us from undue risk. Several of the writers reveal the non-neutral position of experts, including psychiatric experts and possibly even family members, in the case of compulsory psychiatric treatment. As Brian Martin points out in the introduction, jet pilots may not be the best people to discuss alternative forms of travel. In extreme form, over-reliance on experts can lead to a tragedy of the commons situation, where a common resource is degraded until it is not available to anyone, including the experts. This may be the case with global climate change, which is surely a rich area for a similar exploration of public decision making on a complex issue that involves all the technologies of energy.

One of the consistent features of books Brian Martin is associated with is their accessibility at several levels. This book fits comfortably in many hands. To varying degrees, the articles have a non-academic writing style, suitable for the average citizen without a scientific or academic background. It could be used as a textbook to encourage interdisciplinary thinking in a range of fields, while the inclusion of footnotes extends its usefulness for those who study such issues professionally.

For activists involved with technology and social change, Technology and Public Participation can provide additional perspectives on the wider political and economic context in which such matters are decided. And those who design or implement technology, or interact with its legal or administrative ramifications (a large target audience indeed!), would find value in the underlying arguments and concepts which thread through the articles. Martin notes that of the huge literature on democracy and participation, only a small amount has been written about participation in technological decisions. The wide range of topics covered amply illustrate just how wide a net technology casts over our lives, yet most of us feel unable to understand much less contribute to its design, implementation or evaluation.

Several other aspects are noteworthy. The text is available for free on the Internet, although the reviewer confesses to reading it in book form. If it is possible to encourage participation in a text, this one shows the way. Each chapter was offered to colleagues for comment before publication, and outside readers with an interest in the area were alsoinvited to provide written comments. The authors then had the opportunity to reply to these. This creates a coda of dialogue for each chapter, which gently leads the reader to continue musing about the views presented. Thus, without much ado, the book is an example of a technology intentionally fostering participation. The compact set of articles is framed by the editor's clear introduction and conclusion.

The book's dual media platform aside, it was surprising that information technology, as an overarching 'metatechnology,' was only included in two articles: as a brief mention of teledemocracy versus deliberative democracy, and in Miriam Soloman's discussion of the way lap top computers shape the communications of non-government organizations. With the immediacy of first hand experience, she describes how the north south divide is repeated in international meetings. Rather than using the opportunity to build relationships, computer owners often communicate with an unseen 'other,' leaving those without such accoutrements to talk among themselves. Undoubtedly, participation in the wider design of information technology warrants further consideration, as this infrastructure increasingly underpins all other technologies. Decisions are being made now on behalf of those who do not know they will become dependent on it.

Technology and Public Participation is a salient reminder of the necessary nexus between theory and practice from authors committed to social change. Increasingly, local issues are entwined in systemic processes, and these articles show that technology and participation are always part of wider structures. The choices presented to the public, if presented at all, often reflect underlying conflicts between sets of values and unacknowledged interests. The editor and authors argue cogently that this pervasiveness and complexity makes public participation in all aspects of technology more important than ever.

Karin Geiselhart:
Karin Geiselhart is a Visiting Research Associate in Communications at the University of Canberra. Her interests are in electronic democracy, including the use of new technologies to repluralize policy, and the application of complexity theory to emerging transnational forms of governance. She was a journalist in the Australian Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet before leaving to do a PhD. 

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