- Richard Scloveauthor of Democracy and Technology, founder of FASTnet (the Federation of Activists on Science and Technology Network) and executive director of the Loka Institute in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Thursdays on Democracy Now!, we try to bring you stories of grassroots activists who are making a difference in their communities, people who are introducing new ideas or new strategies for social change. Today, we look at the issue of technology and what the implications of rapid technological growth are for our democratic institutions.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thursdays on Democracy Now!, we try to bring you stories of grassroots activists who are making a difference in their communities, people who are introducing new ideas or new strategies for social change. Today we look at the issue of technology and what the implications of rapid technological growth are for our democratic institutions. Our guest is a leading thinker and activist on this issue. Richard Sclove is author of Democracy and Technology and founder of FASTnet, the Federation of Activists on Science and Technology Network. He’s also executive director of the Loka Institute in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Richard Sclove, why don’t we start by you telling us what the Loka Institute is?
RICHARD SCLOVE: We’re a small organization, nonprofit, that work on calling attention to how technologies actually affect people in their daily lives. And we do advocacy work on democratizing decisions about technology. Middle, conventional folks throughout the society are feeling a lot of anxieties about how technologies are affecting their lives. You see it in — I mean, many communities are dealing with toxic waste dumps. Many people feel exposed to hazardous chemicals at work. They feel speed-up at work. They feel speed-up outside of work. They’re concerned about losing their jobs, having them exported overseas, or about being closely monitored and paced at how they’re working. And technologies are creating a legitimate range of concerns that many people feel.
AMY GOODMAN: How are you taking on the issue of technology? I mean, so often science has been seen as the domain of the scientists. They come up with something, and we decide whether we want to use it. Or sometimes it’s imposed on us, like in the workplace. Sometimes it forces people out of work. How do you take on the issue of technology?
RICHARD SCLOVE: Well, I think the important thing to realize is, unlike other areas of policy that affect us, policies governing science and technology, there is no democracy in that domain. The policies are determined pretty much by business, the military and elite academic scientists. There’s no public interest representative, no worker perspective, no — the concerns of people in everyday communities are not reflected in the policies that govern the development of technologies in both the government and in private corporations. For that reason, what we do is — at the Loka Institute, is do a lot of work on trying to propose alternative institutions through which the people who are paying for this stuff, which is everybody with their taxes and their purchases, and the people who are experiencing the consequences, which is everybody, would start to get a real voice and influence over decisions about the kind of technologies that are being introduced in our lives.
AMY GOODMAN: How can our voices be incorporated into what is out there?
RICHARD SCLOVE: I’ll give you a couple of examples. One of my favorites I’m stealing from Europe, where a number of nations have developed something that’s roughly a citizen jury on technology policy. If a parliament is going to be debating, say, biotechnology policy or telecommunications, they assemble a group of 15 ordinary folks who have no financial stake in the issue, are not at all expert on the issue, just are demographically representative of the national population; spend a couple of weekends bringing them up to speed, and then hold a public forum where experts and stakeholders, like industry and public interest groups, workers, who all disagree with each other, testify in front of the lay group; lay group cross-examines them; then the experts are politely dismissed; and the lay group reach their own conclusions and, the next day, announce them at a national press conference. And in Denmark, where this has been pioneered and been done 12 times, this has really stimulated broad popular debate throughout the society and influenced parliamentary legislation.
AMY GOODMAN: But can you give an example of what particular issue was —
RICHARD SCLOVE: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: — deliberated by this citizen body?
RICHARD SCLOVE: I’ll give you a few examples. They’ve dealt some on biotechnology, and one of the — as a result, the Parliament made a decision to go slow on animal biotechnology, because there were popular concerns about the ethics of inventing new animals. The result of one of these citizen juries led to strict legal limitations on using genetic screening in hiring and insurance decisions. And another one led the Parliament to prohibit food irradiation except for dry spices.
AMY GOODMAN: Certainly democracy at work in an area that, as you point out, has very little. What’s another example?
RICHARD SCLOVE: Another one I like, that we are doing a little bit here, but it’s more developed in the Netherlands, is a way to have the national research capabilities working for communities and local governments and workers. What’s happened in the Netherlands is every university has a community research center. In fact, some of them have several. There are 13 universities in the Netherlands. They have 50 community research centers that do about 2,500 studies a year in response to questions that come to them from environmental groups, other public interest organizations, unions and local governments. And it’s quite a lovely system. If we were doing it at their density in the U.S. with our population, we’d have to be doing 42,000 community-based research projects a year.
And this is the kind of stuff that helps people who think that there’s too much leukemia in their city find out if the chemical company down the street might be responsible for it, helps — they’ve done studies over there helping women’s groups figure out if there was a market for an independent women’s radio station. Some of it’s working with nonprofit organizations that work in the developing world. We actually do some of that in this country, but we — at our institute, we’re aware of several dozen programs a little bit like that throughout the U.S., and we’ve got a project going to try to broaden this into a kind of what we’re calling a national Community Research Network, where you’d have nonprofits and communities working with grassroots organizations on projects that the grassroots organizations identify.
And our vision of it is actually, right now in this country we have a national network of national laboratories that cost us about $25 billion a year, and in many cases it’s irrelevant to people’s concerns. Sometimes it’s even a source of our problems. These are the folks who are responsible for a lot of the toxic military waste that we’re going to be spending hundreds of billions of dollars to clean up. My view is that creating a national Community Research Network, that’s what our national laboratory system should really be. That should be seen as incubating an alternative research system that would really be working for people.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you get involved with the issue of technology yourself?
RICHARD SCLOVE: That goes back a long way. I was a techno nerd in high school. And in a way, things like the environmental movement and nuclear power intruded on me. It was partly an accident of fate. Everywhere I tried to go to college, someone tried to build a nuclear plant next door to me. This was 15 or 20 years ago. And the concern about — you know, in every case, the communities weren’t very excited about this idea. And the question naturally arose in my brain: like, why is this being imposed on people who don’t have any say in it? So, that was really sort of what got me going.
AMY GOODMAN: And then, how did you take this on professionally? How did you end up doing that?
RICHARD SCLOVE: Well, I got a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies out of those concerns and then talked my way into the nuclear engineering department at MIT to get, in effect, a master’s degree in anti-nuclear engineering, then worked in energy policy for a while in Washington, and eventually worked out a doctorate in political science to work on this question of how to democratize decisions about science and technology.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about democracy versus economics as usual. Explain.
RICHARD SCLOVE: Well, most decisions about technology are dominated by economic considerations, things like narrowly conceived costs and benefits. And the problem for me with that is that there’s no attention to the spillover effects, the way that, for instance, a technology that’s very economic or convenient can at the same time be subverting democracy. And I think democracy should really be a first-order consideration, because it’s really the background condition we need for being able to decide what else matters to us. I’ll give a little simple example, very mundane. Things like our automobiles move us around, our air conditioners work and keep us cool, television entertains people. You put them all together, and they’re responsible for dismantling a lot of community life. I mean, the automobiles are what have made streets dangerous and noisy to hang out on. And air conditioning and television lure people inside. So, if you talk to a lot of Americans, they’re concerned about the decline in face-to-face social life. Technology has kind of insinuated itself into our lives, dismantled that face-to-face life. And that face-to-face life isn’t just something we yearn for, it’s also essential to the ability to know our neighbors and govern our communities. So it’s really eating away at the foundation of democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: How do personal computers and VCRs fit into that?
RICHARD SCLOVE: It’s a complicated story. There are so many different effects of technologies. But I’d say that I —
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, certainly, VCRs cut down on people going to the movies, which is a real space for people to enjoy, you know, entertainment together. Now people are doing it privately in their own homes.
RICHARD SCLOVE: Absolutely. I mean, people — and some people are excited about — who have access to the internet, about connecting in a new way with people. But my own feeling, I use — I do a lot of internet work. I use it for political organizing. My feeling is that if it’s a complement to a strong face-to-face social life, it can be a nice thing, a constructive thing. But increasingly, we’re implementing it in ways that people are — it’s eroding away time people would spend knowing their neighbors, knowing their family and friends. And it’s kind of leading to a lot of people being connected in some abstract way with other people, but actually spending your life alone in a room in front of a screen. And I don’t think it’s very fully satisfactory.
The other thing is that there are more subtle effects people aren’t paying attention to. One is, I see a cybernetic Walmart effect going. The same way that Walmarts have located outside of towns and pretty soon the downtown and neighborhoods shops shut down, the commercialization of the internet and cyberspace is going to similarly extract a lot of revenue from local economies, and that means, along with it, the civic vibrancy that comes along with having a good business community that’s at the local level and that can be governed and controlled through local democratic institutions.
We have environmental impact statements in this country. I think that’s a good thing. But it’s a little odd we don’t have social impact statements to complement them. And in cases where it’s difficult to anticipate what the social effects of technologies are, we could be looking into voluntary social trials to really find out in a kind of a strictly empirical way. And that wouldn’t, in many cases, be hard to do right now. A lot like with big telecommunications systems, corporations do do market trials before they invest tens of billions of dollars in a new system. Well, if they’re doing the market trial anyway to see is it going to be profitable, it would be a very small add-on social cost to have an independent evaluation of the social consequences to go along with the corporate evaluation of the profitability.
AMY GOODMAN: How likely do you think something like this is?
RICHARD SCLOVE: Politically, not probable. Technically and economically, perfectly probable. Politically, it will happen when people like me and other activists or organizations concerned with this are able to mobilize a popular movement or outcry to insist on this type of thing.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the way universities have been affected by technology and corporate research? I mean, in the past, it’s been the Pentagon and the CIA that have caused controversy on campuses, when they require top-secret research and then professors start getting employed by them, as well as the university. Now the real threat is corporations and doing private work for these corporations on campus. How has that affected academia?
RICHARD SCLOVE: Well, I think, actually, it’s not — let’s first say it’s not just the corporations. We spend about $72 billion a year of federal money on research and development. And thanks to the current Congress, about 60% of that is still military, and a decent amount of that is still done on campuses. So the military issue, you’d think it had gone away with the end of the Cold War, but it hasn’t.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I guess I include the military in that corporate research —
RICHARD SCLOVE: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: — since so often it’s corporations that benefit, profit from the research that’s done at the university.
RICHARD SCLOVE: I think that, I mean, in my own lifetime — I’m not that old — the ethos of research at universities has changed dramatically just in the last 15 or 20 years. I mean, when I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s, still the idea in the sciences was that somehow you thought you were pursuing truth. That’s really kind of a quaint naiveté in the contemporary context, where students understand that they’re pursuing megaprofits, and they see their professors starting spinoff companies left and right. That’s not entirely a bad thing, except that it means a total divorce of the university as kind of an independent actor for evaluating social concerns on behalf of society, and it means students are being introduced to a business perspective with no complementary kind of social or civic perspective. And so I think that it means an implicit huge erosion of a sense of civic responsibility in our young people. It’s one of the reasons I think it’s so important to challenge universities to establish community research centers that would have governing boards that include community and grassroots representatives as a vehicle for introducing students also into socially engaged work.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re having this conversation in an election year. Do you see presidential politics, what’s going on in Congress now, having any impact on the direction of technology and how it fits into a democracy?
RICHARD SCLOVE: Well, neither party is saying anything about broadening the range of people who get to make decisions about science and technology. So, on procedurally, I give them both Fs. Substantively, I have to say that the Republicans are looking worse in certain respects. The president has been a defender of some environmental programs. And the recent budget agreement for the — completing the fiscal '96 federal budget, the president was able to succeed on protecting some of the environmental protection he wanted to do. On the other hand, Congress did succeed in insisting on reducing money for energy efficiency improvements, reducing money for working on slowing down global warming, and they cut back severely on environmental technology research and development, so — and they boosted the Pentagon's budget again. I mean, they gave the Pentagon $7 billion more then the president had asked for. So, in a post-Cold War context, looking at what our real social needs are and what people care about, this is going, in many ways, in the wrong direction.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of Newt Gingrich’s futurist approach? He calls himself a futurist, is a devotee of the Tofflers and their work.
RICHARD SCLOVE: Actually, Newt and other, what I would call, technophiles share something in common conceptually with the Unabomber and extreme Luddites, which is both the strongest anti-technology people and the strongest pro-technology people, like Newt Gingrich, treat technology as a seamless juggernaut. You have to either love the whole thing and adapt to it — that’s Newt’s view — or hate the whole thing and blow it apart — that’s an extreme Luddite view. And I think both of those are very disempowering perspectives. They deny the fact that there are human institutions making decisions and that there could be specific interventions to develop alternative technologies that would serve the society better.
AMY GOODMAN: How can people get in touch with you at the Loka Institute?
RICHARD SCLOVE: They can write to us or call us or email us. The address is the Loka Institute — that’s L-O-K-A — P.O. Box 355, Amherst, Massachusetts, 01004. The phone number is 413-253-2828. Or those other email junkies like me can email us at email@example.com. And we have a number of internet discussion groups that people can participate in that are very action-oriented.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you see on your homepage when a person goes there on the internet?
RICHARD SCLOVE: Oh, you find out about the action projects we’re working on, such as trying to promote this national Community Research Network, and a lot of our op-eds and publications, and how to connect with many other activist organizations working on related issues.
AMY GOODMAN: And again, your email address?
RICHARD SCLOVE: Loka@amherst — that’s A-M-H-E-R-S-T — firstname.lastname@example.org.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you see, by the way, as we wrap up this discussion, any integration of the internet? I mean, all the studies show that it’s mainly men who are using the internet, mainly white people who are using the internet. Is there any efforts to change that?
RICHARD SCLOVE: There are some public interest groups who are very concerned about the issue and have been trying to develop some system of subsidy to get other groups online. And the new Telecommunications Reform Act includes some kind of weak and ambiguous provisions. It depends on what the Federal Communications Commission does to see whether there will be sort of a mandatory corporate subsidy for schools and libraries to hook up. But, to me, that’s, in a way — the more important issue is that these telecommunications systems — we see every day in the newspapers giant and humongous megamergers of new corporations with new telecommunications ventures. There is no public voice, no popular voice, in determining those systems. So, in a way, what individuals get access is, to me, a longer-run issue. In the short run, we should be concerned about what is it we’re getting access to. We’re getting access to a system we are not inventing, that’s being invented for us, and it’s being driven by profit.
AMY GOODMAN: Richard Sclove, author of Democracy and Technology and founder of FASTnet, the Federation of Activists on Science and Technology Network. He’s also executive director of the Loka Institute in Amherst, Massachusetts. And if you’re interested, by the way, folks, in finding out information in this election year on the elections, there is a website where you can go. It’s from Project Vote Smart. They both have a website and also an election-year guide to the web. It’s called Vote Smart Web. You can call 1-800-622-SMART. That’s 1-800-622-SMART. Or you can actually go to the website. Its address is http://www.vote-smart.org. That’s http://www.vote-smart.org. That’s Vote Smart Web, and find out about information on the web in this election year. You’re listening to Democracy Now! Up next, a look at the politics of the anti-gay-marriage movement in this country.