How Nye's argument develops:
"How should a society select technologies?"
- the role of technology in history: do we have choices
or is technological development deterministic
- what issues might we consider in choosing which
technology is best
- how do we make choices--not just the basis for how we
make choices but the mechanism for making choices
Should we build
new nuclear power plants?
- he has argued we have choices, a particular path for
technological progress is not inevitable
- some technologies make for a better society than
- how are the choices made?
- individuals and the free market--as consumers we
- corporations making decisions in a free market
- government regulation, incentives, funding (eg.
taking the lead out of gasoline)--shaped by the
- leave it to the experts to make the decisions (but
who would carry out the decisions of the
experts?--usually either corporations or government)
- one problem with this is that it is undemocratic
(technocracy is not democracy)
- the other problem is that experts are biased
- consumers/public opinion
safety standards make nuclear power more expensive
- nuclear power could be much safer if companies
invested in new
safer reactor designs
- government subsidies--these
have played a critical role in making the industry
- who are the experts? mostly nuclear engineers
- are they unbiased?
Do we trust the voters to make decisions:
- how much do we value democracy?--it may not give good
answers but it is better than the alternatives
- how do we educate voters to have more thoughtful
- experts explain, citizens make choices based on our
Nye argues that we need to be careful what we leave to
corporations and the free market (and he also mistrusts
cold war: capitalism and democracy vs. communism: centrally
controlled economy and dictatorship
- central characteristic of capitalism
- anyone can sell anything they want and people can
choose what they want to buy
- consumers get to decide what they want--democratic
- free market matches supply and demand more
accurately than central planning
- what are the problems that might arise if you allowed
completely free markets
- environmental issues (the problem of the
common)--in our overall interest but not in one
- monopolies and price gouging
- companies sell things that are harmful, consumers
can decide whether to buy them
- are there technologies it would be desirable to
have that will not be profitable?
- companies might stop producing something people
want so they will buy a more expensive product
- does a free market lead to large corporations
having so much power they can distort democracy?
- technology leads to economies of scale leads to big
corporations having an advantage over the little guy
- so our system puts limitations on the free market for
the public good
democracy in the sense of an equal voice for all may be
diminished by big business capitalism
but he isn't convinced the government does a good job
what is the role of government?
are there other possible ways of making decisions?
Role of public opinion:
- if there is an easy right answer--if the experts all
agree and the public accept that--then an issue doesn't
- government is a mechanism for making decisions when
we don't agree
- do you simply decide by popular vote?
- we elect people with the idea that they have values
similar to ours but study the issue and come to a decision
based on more knowledge
- decisions made by elected officials who have staffs
to do research but who are very sensitive to public
should we just do things based on public opinion?
- most people are leery of direct democracy--public
votes directly on issues
- but public opinion makes a big difference
What should be left to private industry and where should
the government intervene?
- public opinion has a big effect on what the
- voters choose leaders who they think will carry the
country in the direction voters think it should go in
- government roughly reflects the will of the people
- corporations will do a lot of things to make money
that some people might think were immoral
- if you want to stop that you need to pass laws--have
the government regulate those technologies
Economists ask this as a question about the market
Assume that to reduce global warming we want to reduce
production of carbon dioxide
- Capitalism says in most cases a free market should
make the best decisions (the invisible hand of the market)
- in what situations does the market fail to make good
- when there are factors that are not priced, where the
people involved in the market don't have to pay the cost
(such as pollution that affects others)
- the market doesn't account for those costs, and
therefore companies have no incentive to make the right
- government regulation is then the best answer, even
in the view of companies that want to do the moral thing
Should the government regulate technological
- will the market by itself do that? maybe
a little if consumers care
- government can require all companies to cut carbon
production by some percent
- government can put a tax on carbon release
- cap and trade--permits to release carbon are bought
and sold. Government regulation creates a cost for
doing something that has negative effects and so creates a
Can we rely on the market to give us all the technology we
want and don't want?
consider what new medications are developed:
Or should the government step in to make adjustments where
we don't think the market is working well?
- government research money
- where corporations think they will make the highest
- corporations are investing in treatments for high
blood pressure, diabetes
- they are investing less in developing new
antibiotics because they are less profitable
- where they fear they will be sued
Nye gives three examples:
Can we find other ways to make decisions:
- new drugs are heavily regulated by the federal
- homeowners need to get permission and pass inspection
to make major renovations on their homes (building
codes)--advantages and disadvantages of those decisions
being made locally
- a company called Genetic Savings & Clone
offered cat cloning starting
in 2004--there is no regulation of that
- the company closed--only 2 people paid the full
what their web site looked like when they were open and
their specifics on cat
- now a company called My Friend Again
is offering dog cloning for $100,000
California voted on whether genetically engineered foods
should be labeled
Does this make sense? In the case of pet cloning,
where this technology goes is being left up to private
industry, so consider two questions:
- was voting a good way to make the decision?--industry
paid for a lot of advertising that probably determined the
- or should legislatures make the decision
- how about a science court--experts testify, jury of
ordinary people make the decision
- why/when should the government be involved in
deciding the direction of technology?
- how does private industry decide what technologies to
develop and how effective is this system?
regulation of technology:
what has shaped the history of regulation?
What is the impact of regulation?
- The traditional belief was that ordinary
people could and should watch out for themselves (buyer
beware), but as consumer goods came to be made far away
instead of locally and technology became more complex that
didn't work so well any more.
- employees had no right to compensation
for accidents from their employers because of a legal
principle called "fellow servant"
- The progressive movement around 1900 led
to the first regulations. Anti-trust regulations
around 1900 and the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906).
Workers compensation started in the 1910s.
- Concern about the environment in the
1960s and 1970s led to a new set of regulations, primarily
to control pollution
- Businesses are also regulated, in
effect, by what the courts hold them responsible
for. Product liability has grown to be more of an
issue because of changing social values (the decisions of
juries). But don't jump to use the lawsuit about hot
coffee at McDonalds as an example.
An engineer named Samuel Florman says regulation
is a good thing
- red tape makes it harder to do things,
but automotive engineers say how much fun they had when
the government mandated increased fuel efficiency and so
the manufacturers were willing to invest in more
- how do you draw the line of how safe is
Role of Private Industry
- as technology becomes more complex we
can't protect ourselves
- some areas of harm (eg. pollution) cause
costs that the businesses that do harm wouldn't have to
- regulation prevents the situation where
the businesses that try to act more responsibility go
bankrupt because they can't compete with the ones willing
to cut corners.
- liability, not regulation, is the
problem area. Tort law has a life of its
own--negligence no longer has to be proved
Industrial research laboratories--example of General
- Edison claimed he didn't need science, but
he did have almost an industrial research lab where he
hired inventors and mathematicians to work out the details
of his ideas.
Electric started to look towards more systematic
research as Edison's patents expired--the basic one in
1894. GE's carbon filament faced competition from
Nernst's ceramic filament, which Westinghouse had the
American patent on. The company was following a
strategy of buying patents from inventors, but that was
costing a lot.
- In 1900 General Electric's chief
consulting engineer, Charles Steinmetz, proposed the
establishment of a laboratory for original research
entirely separate from the factory and immediate
production problems. "We all agreed it was to be a
real scientific laboratory." Modeled on experiments
already underway in Germany to bring scientists into
- Headed by Willis
R. Whitney, a professor of physical chemistry at MIT
with a Ph.D. from Leipzig (under Wilhelm
Ostwald). Whitney was tired of low salaries,
slow promotions, and lack of facilities, and interested in
industrial problems. GE was a disappointment at
first--he found himself temporarily housed in a barn at GE
because of space problems. He solved that problem by
burning down the barn.
- Lab went from 8 people in 1901 to 102 in
1906--30 to 40% of the staff had scientific
training. Whitney believed that the way to develop
new products was to do exploratory scientific research--GE
was willing to buy that idea because Whitney kept clear
that the goal was new products. University gave
social prestige, research freedom, and
professionalism. Lab offered money and time to work
on research without demands for teaching and theory.
- Whitney's staff got to work on light bulbs
and found a way to improve the carbon bulb 25% by baking
- But all that was rendered obsolete by the
invention in Germany of more efficient lamps with
filaments made of rare metals such as tungsten and
tantalum (by Carl Auer von Welsbach, Walther
Nernst and Werner von Bolton). In 1906 GE had
to buy patents at a cost of $300,000--a great defeat for
the lab. William Coolidge said: "These were the
expenses that the Laboratory had been founded with the
purpose of preventing." Even then there were
tremendous problems with putting the new technology into
use, and the laboratory worked on those without much
success (see T. P. Hughes American Genesis
p. 167). Whitney suffered a breakdown,
partly mental and partly untreated appendicitis. He
eventually returned to the lab as a manager, not as a
- His replacement as leader of research was
D. Coolidge, a Ph.D. from Leipzig, also a physical
chemist. He was hired in 1905 at a salary of
$2400--50% more than he was making at MIT. His 1913
patent on a process for making an improved
filament saved the lab. But this was still an
improvement of an existing product, not something
Langmuir was the first to break that barrier.
Had a Ph.D. from Gottingen where he had studied under
Walther Nernst (discoverer of the 3rd law of
thermodynamics) and a commitment to pure science, but he
had little time for research at his job at Stevens
Tech. Attracted to GE by the idea of spending full
time on research and by better equipment. What were
the limits? Company owned patents, required reports
of research and daily notebook. Langmuir studied
chemical reactions a low pressures (inside a light bulb)
and published a stream of papers in physics and chemistry
(averaged 5 papers a year from 1912 on) and also a steady
stream of patents.
- In 1916 Langmuir invented the gas-filled
bulb--gave GE market domination (96% of American
incandescent-lamp sales in 1928). He won the Nobel
prize for his work in surface chemical reactions
(the work that had led to the lamp) in 1932.
- The lab had proved itself at GE, but the
secret was that to get radically new products or new
approaches you had to let scientists do fairly open-ended
scientific research, rather than telling them what to work
on. Scientists had to prove themselves first, but
then the top scientists were allowed to pick their own
allows corporations to control innovation
- Key features of industrial research lab:
- freedom from operational
responsibility--if lab employees have to solve factory
problems they won't get to researching new products
- hiring Ph.D. scientists--because a
Ph.D. teaches you original research
- allowing scientific
publication--because that is a reward system
scientists care about
- defensive and offensive
patenting--patent things your competitors need, not
just things you need
- Attracted scientists who were inventive
and practical-minded but had no taste for the
entrepreneurial activity and the financial risk taking in
which the independent inventors had had to involve
Nye's basic question
in this chapter is whether it is ok to let corporations
control technological innovation, or whether there should be
regulation of new technologies--both prohibiting the
development of some technologies and encouraging the
development of others
If you think the government should be intervening in what
technologies get developed, how do you do that? Can we
invent a better way? What mechanism will lead to the
best possible decisions.
The Technological Fix=the idea
that all problems (even social problems) have technological
- should the government simply go by public opinion?
- the Office of Technology Assessment provided some
evaluation of technologies, but only when the federal
government was involved in paying for the research and
- some people oppose new technologies such as
genetically engineered foods or methods of research such
as animal experimentation
- the government can lead us in the wrong technological
direction either by regulating technologies (is regulation
of stem cell research political posturing slowing down
valuable science?) or by subsidizing and giving tax breaks
to the wrong technology (in Nye's opinion nuclear power
and funding highways but not public transportation)
- technology can be seen as the easy solution to
problems that come from deeper sources:
- technology isn't going to solve all our problems for
- for example, if automobiles cause
unacceptable pollution, add more technology to the
automobile to reduce the pollution (instead of
substitution public transportation).
- can technology solve the problems of the
ghettos? Solve the problems of war?
- Do we solve a problem like water shortages
by persuading people not to water their lawns or not have
lawns or by increasingly expensive technological systems
to bring water from someplace else?
- Henry Ford: "We shall solve the city
problems by leaving the city."
- "Americans in particular have often seen
technological progress as the surest basis for progress in
general, and have tended to believe that technological
solutions to problems are less painful than solutions that
require political or social changes." (Rudi Volti,
Society and Technological Change, 3rd edition, p. 16)
The difficulty of social problems:
- Social problems are much more complex and
harder to solve than technological ones. Yet
technological fixes sometimes work, at least partially.
- The traditional solution to social
problems is to try to get people to behave more rationally
(or to act for the good of society rather than in their
- Goals are less clear for social problems,
eg. stop crime. Human behavior is hard to change
- technological solutions to social problems
tend to be incomplete and to replace one social problem
- how do engineers deal with the social
aspects of a problem when they are trained to solve
technological problems, not social ones?
- is this also an issue for other professions?
What do we miss when we are focused on
Does technological change always hurts
If you think
government should have a role then the next question is:
How could the public participate more effectively in
decision-making for science and technology? Nye believes
that many decisions about what direction we want to go in in
the future are too important to be left to corporations
thinking only about profit
How to increase public engagement?
- how might we decide what medical research the
government should fund?
- what diseases affect the most people
- that isn't the only role for government because
corporations tend to focus on those
- where do you get the most benefit for your money?
- lobbying by organizations like the American Heart
Association, but also for less common diseases
- is there a better way to decide?
- is it appropriate to develop artificial
red blood cells that can carry more oxygen (think what
athletes could do then)?
- should drugs that allow us to get by with less sleep
be developed and marketed? You know that would be
profitable, and the military has developed some good
- should parents be able to change the genetic features
of their children?
- should we develop robots to care for old
people? Japan is quite far along with this
- is it desirable to have people live for 1,000
years--some scientists think this is possible
- we are much more aware of the world as a
result of technology
- News coverage--the "global village"
- people see TV as their prime source of
national and international news, but they also read
newspapers (much influenced by satellites and
computers) and news magazines.
- Seeing makes it seem realer--television
coverage of the war in Vietnam was a major factor in the
development of public feelings against the war
- Newspaper reporting is impersonal (and
usually includes background information), while TV
reporting is more like storytelling, often presented as
much as entertainment as as information. Volti
quotes a study that says 20% of people who watched a
newscast remembered nothing an hour later and the average
viewer retained 20% of the information presented.
The potential of news via internet is not very clear yet.
- who controls the news? Is it
politically biassed? does that actually change
- The real answer isn't liberals, but
the urban educated establishment, which happens to be
somewhat liberal (
an argument that TV tends to favor conservative ideas
- has cable tv (public access and
Christian channels) reduced this effect by reducing
the cost of access?
- does the technology have anything to do
with why the press gives people less and less privacy?
- candidates spend millions (in the case of
presidential candidates tens of millions) of dollars on
television advertising--something like 1/3 of the campaign
- candidates need to raise more money
because TV advertising is expensive, so they end up more
beholden to special interests.
- television advertising is based on impact,
and doesn't give you much sense of the candidate's policy
views ( ad
- You add this to a system where voters have
less loyalty than they used to to political parties and
you get people voting on the basis of sound bites.
- on the other hand, more is decided by the
people and less by party bosses in smoke-filled rooms.
- Volti, a sociologist, says the greatest
threat to our political process may come from the
trivialization of the political process by television
- would you want to have a system where
people made more decisions directly--the electronic town
meeting form of government still works pretty
well in New England towns.
- we have the technology now to go back to a
purer form of democracy
- tendency already visible towards putting
more decisions directly in the hands of the public through
- can the public be educated?
- public opinion makes a big difference--eg.
- can you educate public opinion on complex
technology (Florman ch. 11)? Lewis Thomas's view as
a patient: "Don't explain it to me. Go ahead and fix
it." In the end we mostly decide which experts to
- There are so many complex technological
issues that our society much face that it seems hopeless
to educate the public on each one, plus you have the
problem that the ones that come to the public are the
controversial ones, and people just end up confused by the
conflicting opinions of different experts.
- Florman: "I do not fear the coming of a
sinister technocratic cabal, mainly because on
consequential issues the technicians invariably give
conflicting advice, and the politicians end up making the
decisions whether they want to or not."
- other models of public participation, eg.
- rebellion against regulation, such as pirate
Making good choices
of technology is something we need to work at--just leaving it
to market or government isn't enough
how can we we set up a system where the values of the public
and the knowledge of experts are put together