Appeasing the Luddites

Resistance to New Technology
August 16, 1996

This edited collection, from a 1983 conference held at the Science Museum, seeks to reassure scientists that resistance to technology should be embraced as part of product refinement. However, its organising theme, which draws an analogy between pain in an organism and resistance to technology as distress signals that require remedial action, lacks elasticity.

The book focuses firmly upon the effects of resistance to technology rather than why such resistance occurs. Unfortunately the "why" issue is one which many of the contributors raise and, with varying degrees of conviction, attempt to answer. Here, emphasis on behaviours derives from the view that resistance is a cognate process driven by "clear motive and conscious purpose". This neglects the possibility that a wide range of socially negotiated factors, such as trust and confidence, represent legitimate axes of opposition not necessarily based upon such reasoning.

The book is organised in four parts. The first considers a range of conceptual issues, one of which, "The crisis of 'progress'", raises issues of the social and technical order of modernity. It portrays science as both transforming human identity and subject to independent moral principles.

The second part comprises case studies covering the import of technologies into Scandinavia, Henry Ford's ambiguous relation to Fordism, the attempt to stop the introduction of new technology in Fleet Street, the response to nuclear energy in Austria and biotechnology in Switzerland. With the exception of the chapter on the Swiss referendum the material covered here has received extensive treatment elsewhere and there is little that adds anything of significance.

The book is at its best in the third and fourth parts, which provide comparative international treatments and comparisons between technologies. The strongest and most important thesis here is that, despite apparent differences between "big" science products like nuclear power and the more market-driven biotechnology, there are significant similarities in resistance from scientists and the wider public.

One argument here is that both biotechnology and nuclear power have to be seen as the product of state regulatory bodies identifying technologically strategic priorities. One consequence of this is that resistance is then shaped by political secrecy and the exclusion of the public during the development phase. Sheila Jasanoff notes that biotechnology regulators will eventually have to "place believable outer limits on the technology's potentially harmful impacts." This is an important point. When this was done for nuclear power in the United States it marked the beginning of an intense period of resistance. The potential for a similar response in the case of biotechnology is not explored, however.

Information technology stands out as a different case where resistance remains confined to those directly affected, like the typesetters in the Fleet Street example. It is perhaps the diffusion of information technology throughout the rest of the technical order that accounts for this. I make this point in two senses. First, information technology may be the primary cause of certain kinds of nuclear accidents that are nonetheless responded to as nuclear accidents. Second, and more importantly, collective risks arising from information technology occur in heavily mediated ways, the unanticipated stock market crash of 1987 is one example of the way information technology orchestrates collective risks.

In short this is a rather uneven collection of essays that does not quite cohere. It does, however, mark a welcome consideration of the similarities between nuclear power and biotechnology in both of which public acceptability will play an increasingly important role. And many of the empirical studies will be of value to those teaching in the broad area of science and society.

Ian Welsh is lecturer in sociology, University of Wales College of Cardiff.

Resistance to New Technology: Nuclear Power, Information Technology and Biotechnology

Editor - Martin Bauer
ISBN - 0 521 45518 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £50.00
Pages - 422

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