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Doug Carmichael and Jan Wyllie on Democracy and Technology


Do we have the capacity to democratically address potential crises caused by technology -- to learn from human-created collective disasters, potential and actual?

In his newsletter, Doug Carmichael raised this issue with the following quote:

"As soon as the event is over, forgetting and return to the prior situation
are on order, whereas crises demand significant and considerate healing
work, powerful initiatives to answer the fundamental questions. Furthermore,
the lacking analysis of the collective handling of the episode does not help
to handle following episodes better; worse so: wrong lessons will be
retained, forming as many traps for the future. In this world, the very
idea of learning will be completely out of phase with the wish to
forget a.s.a.p., and will therefore have greatest difficulty to succeed."

-- Patrick Lagadec, Ecole Polytechnique, Paris.

About which Doug comments:

"There is a prime opportunity for us to lead the way in critiquing and
creating the conditions for a way to think about technology in the context
of society, a way that means that neither markets nor government decide
which way technology leads us, but that we have a deeper process, a process
that needs to be invented and goes to the core of what we will mean by
'democracy' in the future."

Further comment on this subject is provided by Jan Wyllie's Trendmonitor, quoted by Doug Carmichael:

"Many 'ordinary' people demonstrate a thorough grasp of issues such as
uncertainty: if anything, the public are ahead of many scientists and policy
advisors in their instinctive feeling for a need to act in a precautionary
way.  What is more, our research calls into question the validity of the
notion of 'sound science', on which politicians are inclined to rely."

"Both the GM food debate and the preceding BSE crisis demonstrate the
politicians' desire for certainty and their consequent impulse to clothe the
most flimsy scientific finding or hypothesis with the mantle of Absolute
Truth.  As BSE demonstrated, science has a nasty habit of changing its views
as new data is collected to challenge the accepted position. Tragically the
scientists themselves, doubtless overawed by this unaccustomed attention to
their arcane endeavours, frequently collude in the process, exchanging the
white coat of caution and provisional knowledge for the sacerdotal stole of
the priest; guardians of truth.

"This confusion is tragically compounded by the confessed, nay vaunted,
ignorance of science and technology among the ruling elite.  We can expect
to pay an increasingly higher price for the dubious privilege of living in a
technologically dependent society, governed by the technologically

[The fact is that many "ordinary people" demonstrate a very radical, common-sense approach to science and technology, especially when given the whole picture.  I would suggest that some outlines for the kind of democracy that could deal with technological development will be found among the articles on .  I am particularly attracted to the idea of weaving together many forms of citizen consensus council.  For example, national Wisdom Councils (which express the general will of the people) could call for citizen technology panels (who learn about technical issues to recommend policy) to investigate particular technical issues and have their findings promoted broadly in the population.  This may be a Wright Brothers version of the kind of democracy Doug is calling for, but it is a gigantic leap ahead of what we have now, and a leap in the right direction.  I call on such critics of our democracy's weakness to attend to the many initiatives and proposals for dealing with the problems they so articulately alert us to.  -- Tom]