Brian Martin, "Introduction", in Brian Martin (ed.), Technology and Public Participation (Wollongong, Australia: Science and Technology Studies, University of Wollongong, 1999), pp. 1-12.



Brian Martin[*]



The general topic is introduced and the chapters are put in the context of 
approaches to technology and to participation.

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A few hundred years ago, to talk of technology and public participation would have been meaningless to most people. Dramatic changes have occurred in both these areas.

The word "technology" today often brings to mind sophisticated things like computers, missiles and genetic engineering. But it also includes everyday items such as chairs, clothes, paper and toothbrushes. For someone who lives in a city in an industrialised country, one's entire life seems to take place within a technological framework: driving a car or taking a train to work in an office building, communicating by telephone and electronic mail, purchasing goods manufactured in factories, eating food processed in other factories, using energy produced in distant plants, perhaps consulting a doctor who uses diagnostic equipment, going home to a house or apartment built from materials mined and processed, and sleeping on a manufactured bed.

Humans have developed and used technologies for hundreds of thousands of years, to be sure, from simple wooden implements to baskets and wheels. But since the development of agriculture some thousands of years ago and especially since the industrial revolution a few hundred years ago, technologies have become ever more powerful and pervasive, leading some to say that we live in a "technological society."[1]

The word "technology" often is interpreted to mean machines or artefacts, those familiar things that we can see and touch. More broadly, though, technology also includes the social processes through which artefacts are created and maintained, such as the division of labour in a factory. Specifically, "technology" can include systems of knowledge that are associated with artefacts, such as scientific knowledge about a manufactured drug like aspirin. In this book we take a broad view of technology, considering it to include what is commonly called science.

Just as technology has become more pervasive in society, so has the importance of public participation, though not in any simple fashion. In many non-industrial societies, including ones that exist today, small groups of people live and work together and nearly everyone is involved in decisions affecting the group, though inequalities in power based on age and gender are common.[2] With the rise of larger groups based on agriculture and industry, domination by rulers, such as emperors or landowners, became the usual pattern. The ancient Greeks used a variety of methods for citizen participation in decision making. Even though women and slaves were left out because they were not considered citizens, the ancient Greeks were exceptional in the amount and quality of participation that occurred, especially compared to the autocracy and oppression in much of world in the centuries since.

The push for participation has become ever more important in the past few hundred years. At the formal political level, feudal regimes have been replaced by systems of liberal democracy, in which representatives are elected. At first, voting was restricted to a propertied elite, but successive struggles have broadened the franchise to include nearly all the adult population.

Participation in decision making can mean many things. Voting for representatives is indirect participation, since the representatives rather than the voters make the substantive decisions. Referendums are a form of direct democracy, since they allow all voters to express a preference. Then there is the market: when consumers purchase an item or a service, they express a preference from among the available alternatives. One brand of detergent is chosen over another, or a choice is made between solar, gas and electric heaters.

These forms of participation are all very well, but many people want something more. When a freeway is planned that will cut through a neighbourhood, many residents demand a voice. Voting for representatives isn't enough, since a vote is for a person or a party, not a policy on a specific issue. Nor is being a consumer much help in this situation, since the only consumer choice seems to be to put up with the freeway or move away. Sometimes residents are "consulted" through opinion polls or by tabling of plans for comment. This isn't enough either, since the agenda doesn't include basic questions of whether the freeway is needed in the first place or whether other transport modes could be developed.

Most people have relatively little say in decisions about technology. They are not involved in choices about research and development and they are not involved in investment decisions. Then, when they are presented with a new development as a foregone conclusion, they are expected to welcome it as "progress." It is no wonder that the major form of citizen action is protest against new technologies, such as against nuclear power or logging of rainforests. It is only at the stage of implementation that many people become aware of what is happening and its implications.

Technological developments are not always beneficial--that has been obvious at least since nuclear weapons were developed. Citizen participation is essential to stop harmful technologies. It can be argued, for example, that popular protest has been a crucial factor in preventing nuclear war and in ending the cold war.[3] Technologies are not inevitable.[4] For example, it was originally envisaged that there would be 500 supersonic transport aircraft, but popular resistance restricted this to a few Concordes.

Protest movements are the most visible force in disputes over technologies, but actually they usually have the least influence. Governments use their enormous resources to research, implement and maintain technological systems, including weapons, transport and communication systems. Corporations routinely develop new products, build factories and sell goods, from perfume to pesticides. Experts, especially scientists and engineers, are also central to technological innovation. Government and corporate managers, plus a few top-level scientists and engineers, have a great deal of influence over what technologies are investigated and promoted. By contrast, workers and consumers have little say.

Just as important as the practical tasks of research, development, production and sales are the ideological tasks of convincing the public that new technologies are a good thing. Advertising is important but so is the promotion of a general belief in the wonders of advanced science and technology. When social movements organise against a new chemical or genetically engineered organism, they are painted as opponents of "progress." Social movements, such as the environmental and peace movements, are usually seen as being against something or other. Actually, some of the most powerful social movements are those pushing for new technologies such as computers.[5] These movements are not so visible; by operating behind the scenes they are far more effective.

Although governments, corporations and expert professionals have by far the greatest influence over decisions about technology, there is some potential for changing this. People today are far more educated and aware of technology and its impact than in previous eras. The rise of printing, mass literacy and the mass media has given many more people the capacity to understand and speak out about what is happening in society. It would hardly be possible to bring about a technological society without also creating the capacity of ever more people to comprehend and criticise it.

Furthermore, new technologies have created new opportunities for obtaining information and acting on it. Radio and television allow promotion of products but also report on challenges and catastrophes. The telephone and electronic mail allow people to share information, form networks and build powerful movements.

Technologies such as the mass media can be used both to hoodwink people and to provide insight, but that does not mean they are neutral tools. It is trite but true to note that any specific technology is easier to use for some purposes than others. A tank is easier to use for killing whereas a violin is easier to use for producing music, even though each can in principle be used for either purpose. Careful investigation is needed to determine the purposes for which technologies can and are likely to be used. It is unwise to leave this to groups with vested interests, such as government, corporate or professional sponsors, since they are unlikely to come up with a balanced view. This is why participation from a wide cross section of the public is vital.

Out of the massive amount of writing about democracy and participation, only a small fraction deals with science and technology.[6] This writing covers many topics including obstacles to participation and proposals for decision making involving citizens.

There are several obstacles to widespread public participation in decisions about technology. One is that most people lack expertise. The argument is that since they don't really understand the technology or its implications, they are not qualified to judge it. This sounds plausible but, on closer inspection, breaks down. The technical details may be complicated, but they are seldom the crucial issue. There are always social factors involved. Consider transport policy. You don't need to understand how a jet engine operates, or how to fly a plane, in order to be involved in decisions about flight patterns or siting of an airport. You don't need to be an expert on brain functioning or x-ray machines in order to be involved in decisions about investment in medical technologies. Experts know a lot about their area of specialisation, but often they are poorly placed to comment on policy issues. Jet pilots are not necessarily the best people to comment on whether transport investment should be directed to plane, train, car or bicycle. Brain surgeons are not necessarily the best people to comment on whether greater priority in health policy should go to brain scanners or prevention of disease through nutrition.

Another obstacle to widespread public participation is lack of time. A person may be able to become informed about transport or health policy, but what about energy, defence and industry? These and many other areas contain a multitude of specific issues, each with its own complexities. It is impossible for everyone to be involved in every issue. That is precisely the argument in favour of representative democracy.

The standard model of decision making is for politicians and government bureaucrats to make decisions on the basis of advice from experts. This seldom involves much public input. Sometimes, on contentious issues, there is a public inquiry, in which interested parties are invited to make submissions to a judge or panel. This allows many more people to be involved, but in an unsystematic manner. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that governments will follow the recommendations coming from such inquiries.

There have been proposals to deal with controversial technical issues through a "science court," in which a panel of experts hears evidence and makes judgements about the facts. One trouble with this idea is that facts cannot be easily separated from values. Another proposal is for a "citizens hearing panel" which, like the science court, hears evidence. The panellists in this case are citizens chosen because they represent interested parties, such as consumer bodies or trade unions. This idea overcomes some of the dependence on experts but is open to manipulation by whoever selects the panellists. Neither idea has been taken up by governments.

Putting an issue to a referendum certainly involves the public, but also has limitations. Usually only a few choices are available--and few people have input into what the choices are. Few voters have the time to investigate deeply. More seriously, interest groups can spend large amounts of money in media campaigns to sway the vote. In spite of this, referendums give citizens much more of a say than the usual procedures. When an issue is put to a referendum, it typically generates widespread discussion. The experience of hundreds of referendums over putting fluoride in local public water supplies in the US shows that citizens often do not vote the way experts think they ought to.[7]

Another proposal is to set up "policy juries." These are groups of citizens, randomly selected from volunteers, who hear evidence and arguments from experts and advocates and make recommendations. Researchers in Germany and the US have tried out this approach and found that participants take the process quite seriously, become enthusiastic about participation and reach sensible conclusions. Random selection reduces the influence of vested interests while turning each specific issue over to a policy jury overcomes the problem of everyone having to learn about every issue. However, this method undermines the role of politicians and bureaucrats and so has not been taken up.[8]

Background to this book

In Science and Technology Studies at the University of Wollongong, there has long been an interest in the social impacts of contemporary science and technology.[9] Many staff and research students have investigated controversial scientific and technological projects, such as debates over the greenhouse effect and over vitamin C and cancer.[10] Some staff and students have been participants in social movements or campaigns, such as over nuclear power. At one of our research meetings in the second half of 1996, we realised that public participation was a common issue in many of our studies and experiences. We decided to produce a book covering a range of case studies and perspectives. We invited a few colleagues known to us.

In keeping with the theme of participation, we decided to make the process of producing the book reasonably participatory. Electronic mail was extremely helpful in our communications. We agreed on deadlines, word limits (a painful challenge for some contributors!) and a procedure for ensuring the quality of each chapter. Each contributor was expected to seek comments from at least two readers on a first draft and then give the revised version to me as editor. I offered further comments and each contributor prepared a further revised version. We decided to invite outsiders to comment on each chapter. Each contributor nominated a series of people as possible commentators. They had word limits too. Contributors then had the option of writing brief responses to any commentaries on their chapters.

The commentaries provide alternative perspectives to those of the chapter authors. This helps to avoid the impression that there is a definitive view on any issue. Just as technology is and should be controversial, so the issue of participation deserves dialogue and debate.

We agreed to aim our writing at a general educated audience. This is not so easy, since in academia the usual orientation is to specialise in one's own field. Furthermore, each contributor has carried out in-depth research into the topic covered, often for many years. To step back from specialist language and perspectives and communicate for a wider readership can be challenging. We have gone some way in this direction, though undoubtedly some chapters will challenge some readers.

Each contributor has approached his or her topic in a distinctive fashion. We haven't tried to impose a single perspective or theoretical framework. Everyone, though, subscribes to a few important assumptions. One is that it is not possible to separate technical issues from social issues. Values are always involved in technology, from its conception to its practical uses. Secondly, we all agree that people who are affected by technology should have an opportunity to participate in decisions about it, though we would differ on the extent and form of that participation. Indeed, we do not automatically assume that participation is always a good thing. Finally, we all believe that the issue of technology and participation is a vital one that deserves more attention and discussion. That is the rationale behind the book.

The chapters

The chapters are divided into three sections dealing with, respectively, the influence of technologies on participation, the role of technology in public participation processes, and public decision-making about technology. These categories are arbitrary but capture some key elements in the issues.

That technology can affect participation in decision making is apparent from any number of examples. The mass media provide information about current events, sometimes stimulating citizen action and sometimes inhibiting or undermining it. Pressure groups use word processors, printing, direct mailing, public address systems, mobile phones and other technological aids to organise support and coordinate action. Just about any technology can have an impact on participation, from robots to recording equipment. Three chapters deal with this process. Their topics include a seldom considered dimension for participation--toys--and fresh looks at the familiar telephone and computer.

Toys are an everyday technology with which children play and to which few adults give much attention. Wendy Varney takes a closer look. She argues that play is an important training ground for future citizen participation but that modern toys are constraining and privatising play, reducing its value in education for participation. At first sight toys may seem a trivial sort of technology, but analysis quickly leads to issues of mass marketing and corporate agendas.

The telephone has long been familiar in the industrialised world. Lyn Carson looks at a specific application of the telephone: as a tool for participation in local government. As an elected member of a local council, she tried various techniques for consulting and involving citizens in decision making. The telephone turned out to be one of the most practical tools and one that allowed her to adopt a "heart politics" approach in which human connection takes priority over confrontation.

Non-governmental organisations, such as environmental and human rights groups, have a special interest in public participation since they depend on public support for their campaigns. On the international scene, many groups have challenged the undemocratic practices of the World Bank. Miriam Solomon puts these groups under scrutiny, examining the role of the lap-top computer in their own practices, participatory or otherwise. She proposes a model of communicative democracy and raises some of the dilemmas posed by the concept of a global civil society.

The second group of chapters deals with processes of public participation in four arenas where the uses of science and technology are centrally involved: courts, urban planning, psychiatry and siting of hazardous facilities. In each of these areas the public has been involved in decision making but some groups would like to limit the scope of participation.

In the court room, a place where many crucial decisions are made, the jury remains an important source of citizen participation, both in practice and symbolically. Recently, the jury has come under attack by critics who claim that ordinary citizens are not competent to judge complex technical issues. Gary Edmond and David Mercer delve into the assumptions, about both science and the public, behind these arguments.

Planning a new project--such as a building or transport link--is a classic case where citizen participation can be considered. Traditional models for making decisions have a number of problems, such as treating community and experts as separate and treating participation as a step in a sequential process. Janis Birkeland exposes these problems and presents an alternative model based on feminist principles.

Psychiatry is about the proper operation of the mind. This has always involved theories and talk about the mind and brain, but technologies are increasingly important. Today mind-altering drugs are regularly used as part of psychiatric practice. Richard Gosden tackles the controversial issue of "coercive pychiatry," namely therapy imposed on people without their consent. Questions of human rights and participation are fundamental in this area.

Because participation is generally seen as a good thing, vested interests often attempt to give the illusion of participation without the substance. Sharon Beder examines the role of public relations in a decision about a proposed toxic waste incinerator. She shows that the rhetoric of participation may hide the true agenda, one that is better described as manipulation.

The third and final group of chapters deals with government decision making about technology, commonly called technology policy. In liberal democracies, there is a continual struggle over whether citizen participation begins or ends with voting. Governments use various ways to restrict participation while trying to retain their legitimacy as representatives of the people's will. In a technological society, technology policy is a central arena for power struggles.

Because technological innovation is a key driving force in industrialised economies, governments don't like to leave it to chance. Many attempts have been made to emulate the success of technology parks such as Silicon Valley near San Francisco. Rhonda Roberts analyses the assumptions underlying attempts to foster the innovation process and shows the limited role allotted for citizens.

In recent decades, agriculture has been transformed by technology virtually into an industrial process. Corporations and governments have pushed this change, with little input from citizens. Andy Monk looks at modern agriculture and especially at the role of farmers in the innovation process. The organic agriculture movement provides an example where greater participation is linked to a different style of farming.

Space exploration has seemed to many to be the ultimate technological challenge. Yet, it can be asked, who speaks for the extraterrestrial environment? Alan Marshall argues that space exploration has proceeded similarly to the imperialistic conquests of the past, completely contrary to the humanitarian ideals normally used to justify it.

The concluding chapter picks out themes and theoretical issues introduced in the earlier chapters, attempting to expand on common threads.

* * *


We do not expect that everyone will agree with every author. Certainly, some of the commentators do not! Rather, our aim is to stimulate thinking and discussion and to provoke debate. Apathy and the acceptance of technology as inevitable are the enemies of participation. We hope that others will challenge us and each other with new ideas and with new forms and arenas of participation.


I thank Sharon Beder, Lyn Carson and Wendy Varney for comments on a draft of this chapter and everyone in the project for advice, support and tolerance.

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[*] Dr Brian Martin is an associate professor in Science and Technology Studies, University of Wollongong. He is the author of numerous publications in various fields, including scientific controversies, nonviolent defence, information technology and suppression of dissent. He has long experience in the environmental, peace and radical science movements. His most recent books are Confronting the Experts (editor, 1996), Suppression Stories (1997) and Information Liberation (1998).

[1]. Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (London: Jonathan Cape, 1965).

[2]. Harold Barclay, People Without Government (London: Kahn & Averill with Cienfuegos Press, 1982) describes some of the more egalitarian societies.

[3]. Ralph Summy and Michael E. Salla (eds.), Why the Cold War Ended: A Range of Interpretations (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995).

[4]. Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx (eds.), Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994).

[5]. Rob Kling and Suzanne Iacono, "The mobilization of support for computerization: the role of computerization movements," Social Problems, Vol. 35, No. 3, June 1988, pp. 226-243.

[6]. See, for example, Malcolm L. Goggin (ed.), Governing Science and Technology in a Democracy (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986); Alan Irwin, Citizen Science: A Study of People, Expertise, and Sustainable Development (London: Routledge, 1995); Frank N. Laird, "Participatory analysis, democracy, and technological decision making," Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 18, No. 3, Summer 1993, pp. 341-361; James C. Petersen (ed.), Citizen Participation in Science Policy (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984); Richard E. Sclove, Democracy and Technology (New York: Guilford Press, 1995); Leslie Sklair, Organized Knowledge: A Sociological View of Science and Technology (St. Albans: Paladin, 1973); Langdon Winner (ed.), Democracy in a Technological Society (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1992).

[7]. Robert L. Crain, Elihu Katz and Donald B. Rosenthal, The Politics of Community Conflict: The Fluoridation Decision (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969).

[8]. The main work has been done by Peter Dienel and colleagues at the University of Wuppertal and by Ned Crosby and others at the Jefferson Center in Minneapolis. See Lyn Carson and Brian Martin, Random Selection in Politics (Westport, CT: Praeger, in press); Ortwin Renn, Thomas Webler and Peter Wiedemann (eds.), Fairness and Competence in Citizen Participation: Evaluating Models for Environmental Discourse (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1995).

[9]. Stephen Hill and Ron Johnston (eds.), Future Tense? Technology in Australia (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1983).

[10]. Sharon Beder, Toxic Fish and Sewer Surfing (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1989); Jim Falk and Andrew Brownlow, The Greenhouse Challenge: What's To Be Done? (Melbourne: Penguin, 1989); Brian Martin, Scientific Knowledge in Controversy: The Social Dynamics of the Fluoridation Debate (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991); Evelleen Richards, Vitamin C and Cancer: Medicine or Politics? (London: Macmillan, 1991).

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