“Failed” Movements, Lasting Legacies: Technology Assessment and Appropriate Technology in the 70s and 80s

Activity: Talk or presentation / Performance / SpeechesTalk or presentation - at conferenceAcademic


‘Responsible Innovation’ is a dominant approach across the European research landscape encapsulating the increasing desire to democratize decision making, reflecting on alternative pathways for how research and innovation is funded and organized. RI is considered a new discursive space for thinking about how to make research and innovation more inclusive, participatory and reflexive. As RI is largely thought to build upon the tradition of Technology Assessment (TA), its first emergence in the early 1970s provides an important window into how issues surrounding the societal impact and consequences of new technologies were brought to the table the first time around.
Prior to the emergence of TA, society was largely dependent upon the market, the legal system and a few regulatory agencies to help mitigate against the negative consequences of new technologies (Pursell, 1974). TA would enable politicians, and the public, to make informed choices, based upon analyses of the costs and benefits of new technologies. The institutionalisation of TA marked a shift towards a greater social and communal responsibility for technology (Kranzberg, 1975), which was also reflected in the rise of the Appropriate Technology (AT) movement. It is therefore surprising that while TA commonly features as a part of the intellectual history of RI, any debts to AT have yet to be paid. AT sought to explore alternative models for technological development, emphasizing the importance of social context in terms of considering the needs and values of different communities (Willoughby, 1990). Despite them being entirely different approaches, both TA and AT shared concerns with regards to promoting ‘technology choice’, as well as often being caricatured as reflecting the ‘pro-’ or ‘anti-‘technology debate. Throughout the 70s and 80s, both TA and AT received financial backing from congress as well as considerable interest and support from international agencies like the OECD, both also provided rich pickings for scholars in both the history of technology and science and technology studies (e.g. Pursell, 1979, White Jr., 1974, Pacey, 1974, Collingridge, 1980, Winner, 1986 etc.). While TA and AT efforts in the 70s and 80s are often thought to have failed (Bimber, 1996, Eckaus, 1980), they did play a crucial role in introducing ideas like that of ‘technology choice’, which paved the way for later developments, like RI, suggesting perhaps they weren’t such a failure after all.
Bringing TA and AT together, I try to tease out what RI looked like the first time around. I look at how particular individuals, groups and organizations mobilized ideas around societal impact, participation and inclusion during the 1970s (which all fall under the rubric of RI today). Through document analysis and interviews I investigate how these ideas travelled transnationally through different networks, often through the use of boundary objects like conferences, workshops, handbooks and newsletters, enabling the spread of these ideas as well as enrolling further support for the respective causes. For this presentation, I draw upon (what turned out to be) a number of ‘key moments’ in putting TA and AT on the map, on both sides of the Atlantic, showing the sorts of issues and barriers that were also encountered along the way. In so doing I add to previous work on TA and AT by looking at them through the lens of their progeny, drawing out relevant lessons which have relevance for actors working on issues surrounding ‘technology choice’ today.
Period26 Oct 2019
Event titleAnnual Meeting Society for the History of Technology (SHOT)
Event typeConference
LocationMilan, ItalyShow on map