The Politics of Technical Complexity

by |February 5, 2018

I’ve recently been reading about the development of the atomic bomb and was struck by the perceptions of the bomb by scientists, soldiers, military leaders, political leaders and the still-novice president, Harry Truman. The technology of the bomb altered the way people thought about the world itself and had a profound impact on everyone who thought about it and participated in its development. In the seven-plus decades since that world-altering event, we have become less conscious of the technology that surrounds us and less self-conscious about its impact on how we live.

In the aftermath of the shock of Hiroshima and Nagasaki we struggled to assert control of the nuclear beast we had unleashed and spoke of “harnessing the atom for peaceful uses.” In part, the development of nuclear power grew out of a U.N. speech by President Dwight Eisenhower entitled “Atoms for Peace,” which led to promises that we could develop a form of energy that would be “too cheap to meter.” If we could control the horrific power of a nuclear explosion, we could somehow master technology and avoid becoming its slave. While we almost lost control and became victims of a nuclear exchange during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, we have managed to assert what I hope remains a deeply rooted taboo banning the use of these weapons. The threat of terror, North Korea and Trump’s “big nuclear button” may well compromise that taboo, but hopefully it will hold. Our existence depends on it.

The fact that the use of such a weapon is somehow creeping back on the agenda is part of a larger trend to avoid understanding technological complexity. Leaders like Donald Trump are ignorant of the science that creates the technology they use, ignorant of the impact of that technology on natural systems (including our own biology), and completely unmindful of the risks posed by the use of technology. To Trump and his minions, humans control the planet, are the only causal agents that matter, and as long as you are unafraid to deploy power and win, you can remain in control.

Science is not simply denied when it results in “inconvenient truths,” these folks consider it less important than image, political spin and the ability to dominate and beat one’s enemies. It doesn’t matter if cigarettes, fossil fuels, toxic waste and addictive drugs harm people and the planet as long as there is money to be made. Being noticed and appearing to be in charge enables you to somehow “control” reality. This willful ignorance and retreat to propaganda is a deep threat to our long-term well-being. It is also the wrong strategy. We can make some money by ignoring the costs of technology as long as there are benefits. But we can make more money and produce more long-term well-being by ensuring that the new technologies we develop and use have the least possible impact while producing the most possible benefit. I am arguing for a strategy of being smart instead of stupid.

I am also arguing for thoughtfulness. The scientists who developed the atomic bomb and nearly all of the people who decided to use it thought long and hard about the technology they had built and used. Some were shocked by the bomb’s destructive power, and at the time, few understood the long-term impact of a radioactive explosion. They thought deeply about what was lost and gained. Today we see the impact that texting and driving has and we move to regulate it, but are only slowly starting to think about the impact of endless information, images and communication on our minds, cultures, families and relationships. Our casual, blasé ignorance about technology is only matched by its massive impact on our daily existence.

I have long been concerned about the impact of technological complexity on our lives and on our representative democracy. The growth of unelected experts in governmental decision-making makes it difficult for elected representatives to influence complex decisions. Linkage from the public to their representatives and then to technical experts rarely takes place and only happens when issues are urgent. The process of communicating the impact of new technologies or newly understood problems is far from perfect. Additionally, technological complexity is matched by economic complexity and the sheer number of decisions that must be made each day to keep our society and economy functioning. In the current political atmosphere many trivial symbolic issues reach the policy agenda, leaving little room for more important, often complex issues. Climate change, water supply and disease are ignored while we focus on the proper posture for football players during the national anthem.

My doctoral dissertation focused on the issue of public influence on environmental decision making. Back in the 1970s I wondered: How could people participate in decision making when they did not understand the science and technology they were being asked to manage? At toxic waste sites, I saw environmental engineers and medical experts trying to explain toxicology, remediation strategies, and health risks to people who were in no position to understand or question the information they were given. In response to this dilemma, several of us working in EPA’s toxic waste Superfund program worked to develop a new type of staff person: a “community relations coordinator,” whose job was to translate the science to non-scientists and communicate community concerns to technical experts. In order to help the public participate in EPA’s decision making, we tried to simplify technical complexity, and hired new staff to facilitate communication.

In the past forty years the technical complexity of our world has increased exponentially. Low-cost computing, mobile and inexpensive communication, GPS, the web, streaming music and video, countless drugs and advances in medical technology, improved energy storage and renewable energy technology, drones and driverless vehicles–the list of new technologies is virtually endless. What has remained the same is human biology and brainpower. Our ability to absorb information does not grow very much and so the nature of information itself must constantly evolve. Everything is summarized and we have less and less understanding of the details of actions and technology that effect our lives. We need to hire a consultant or call a help desk to turn on our television. Yes, we have unlimited entertainment whenever we want it, but how many of us have the slightest idea of how it works?

There is no way for any one person to understand all of the science that we come into contact with, and we need to have an informed discussion of the definition of scientific literacy in our increasingly technological world. How much must we know in order to be informed citizens? My view on this is that there is a baseline of understanding of physics, chemistry, ecology and biology that everyone needs, but then the specifics will depend on the profession the individual is being prepared for. For an operational example of this point, please see the text below that summarizes the science requirements of three of the Earth Institute’s master’s programs designed to teach sustainability science to different types of professionals. In these programs we are attempting to develop tailored levels of scientific education. I believe this is something that needs to be done at every level of education. One size does not fit all, but more science education needs to be directed at non-scientists.

In addition to understanding the basic science, we also need to think about the use of the technologies that we develop. Many can benefit humankind, but some, such as nuclear weapons, cannot be used. Some science does not lead to new technology but to a better understanding of the impact of technology on earth systems. Climate science is an example of that type of science. The world is a more complicated place than it has ever been. We can navigate the politics of that complexity by dumbing down the public dialogue and focus attention on meaningless symbols, or we can attempt to elevate the discussion by asking people to learn more and be better able to engage in the reality we have created. I think our species is capable of learning. At one time most people could not read. Today, literacy is the norm. In the 21st century we need to make scientific literacy the norm as well. Without it our democratic institutions will not be able to govern the real world and instead our politics will descend to the level of a reality TV show. Can you imagine such a thing?



Science Requirements of Three Earth Institute Master’s Program Partnerships

  • The Master of Public Administration Program in Environmental Science and Policy, a partnership with Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, is an all-sustainability public policy and management program. In order to prepare future policy makers we require all of its students to take seven week courses in environmental chemistry, hydrology, climate science, toxic risk assessment, general ecology and urban ecology. These courses are designed for non-scientists and they explain the science at a fairly general level, but with enough detail to engage with and manage scientific experts.
  • The Master of Science in Sustainability Management, a partnership with Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, is a management program to educate sustainability managers largely in the private sector. It requires students to enroll in three courses in the “physical dimensions of sustainability”. This ranges from courses in environmental science to courses in green building and energy efficiency. Again, there is science required in most of these courses, but it is not designed for professional research scientists.
  • The new Master of Science in Sustainability Science, a partnership with Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, is designed for professionals with scientific backgrounds working in technical positions needed to either clean up or prevent environmental damage. This program is designing a set of courses that are not intended for non-scientific managers but for scientists who need applied, but sophisticated environmental observation, analytic and modelling tools. The technical complexity of these courses will be greater than in the other programs. But the science is not the same we teach aspiring PhDs, but more practical and applied and less theoretical.

One thought on “The Politics of Technical Complexity

  1. Lloyd Kass says:

    Great piece, Steve. Your unique insight here is striking

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