Richard E. Sclove, Democracy and Technology. Guilford Press, New York, 1995.

selected ideas (and many reactions) -- not a proper review!

People can and should evaluate how technology affects their society, and should do so before technologies are permitted in their society. Technolgies are social structures, not merely artifacts, and as an aggregate, they have become transformative. "[T]echnologies contribute to defining who people are, what they can and cannot do, and how they understand themselves and their world…" (17)

Chapter 3 argues for strong democracy, based on a town meeting system, where the smallest possible unit decides on what will happen for their group. That group works with larger representational groups. (And after that…?) If citizens should have a say in their society, and technology structures society, then it follows that technology should be democratized. His examples come from the Old Amish, a village in Spain, a French company, a Swedish company, a Brazilian tribe…

Here is his key idea: democracy has to be the primary value in society - all other values come second.  Freedom is the moral basis of strong democracy. Freedom is the highest order human value. (36)  Freedom can only be had when all members of society live by the "golden rule." Sclove's reference point for moral authority is Kant. He argues that granting priority for what is best for the group is, on best, also best for the individual -- but if and only if we posit that freedom and democracy (not, for instance, comfort or accumulation of goods) are our best goods. If the best good is democracy, then always having a democratic procedure is the best instrument to reach the best good. (As an aside, it's pretty clear that groups which are not political groups - churches, labor unions, etc. etc. -- are unimportant to Sclove and so he misses out on their value or effectiveness for providing meaning to life.)

His book outlines his design criteria for democratic technologies. Chapter 4 argues that because technologies are contingent, it is necessary that they nurture equal respect, political equality and sources of social commonality. Sclove groups technologies in the following manner: authoritarian, individualized, communitarian, mass and trans-community technologies. (cites examples) There are many alternatives to the current systems in America -- alternatives that don't reproduce hierarchical relationships. He is not very keen on virtual communities and thinks that they cannot really be democratic. He proposes dismantling all multinational corporations into small semi-autonomous business units. (I didn't think the first was true, and I didn't think the second was feasible. But here he is considering issues that deal with the very heart of the democracy-technology junction in globalism.)

Good work allows people to develop interesting jobs, not boring or repetitive jobs. Workers should all be appreciated for who they are, and not only what skills they have. Work rotation would assist this frame of mind. Creativity and self governance are helpful, but probably not sufficient for moral autonomy. (yes!) Cognitive development is good, but emotional development includes meaningful work. People working with wood, rock, and fiber are better balanced than those people who work with nylon and rayon. (no!)

Among his criteria: avoid technologies that establish authoritarian social relations. Avoid meaningless, debilitating or autonomy-impairing technological practices. Seek technologies that enable the disadvantaged to have full participation in society. Avoid technologies that support illegitimately hierarchical power relations.

(Page 98 has the overview)

Continuing with his design criteria: Chapter 6 proposes that citizen learn to debate and challenge democractically "incurable" technologies. Unlike other theorists of technology, Sclove is interested in designs that specifically enforce or support a socially diverse ideological view. Technologies can be monolithic sources of ideology - e.g. patents, multinationals, etc. Borgmann separation between music and the things that produce music - alienation ensues. Be aware of direct mediation technologies - phones, hearing aids, architecture, windows, eyeglasses. (Stay away from the TV, kids!)

Can citizens design technology? Maybe not at first. Describing an auto plant in which the workers were asked to redesign the plant - and didn't do that good a job - he says:

"Given also that the time was short, and that the participants were not a large or experientially diverse group, it is perhaps not surprising that the alternatives they invented were bounded conceptually by chaos, the familiar and the one known alternative."

But in a second try, they got better. ("Chaos, the familiar, and the one known alternative."  What a great description!)

How do technologies affect the disadvantaged and hyperadvantaged? The hyperadvantaged typically argue that the system is good and cannot and should not be changed. These, he says, are self-serving and specious arguments. But you cannot challenge them all at once, so pick the weak and vulnerable.

Another criteria suggests that communities should restrict the distribution of adverse environmental harms to themselves. (in short -- "clean-up your own cup!") If communities fail to clean up after themselves, the government may step in and do it for them. They lose their autonomy. Socially appropriate technologies are small, or intermediate, but generally not large. They are easily adaptable, easily dismantled, easily understood. Futhermore, seek to have local self-reliance through technologies. In other words, don't admit cheap goods from foreign countries -- instead, be like the Swiss. (Would that strategy be feasible in the US? Persuading Americans would be a hard uphill battle) Instead, invest local capital in local projects, and reduce reliance on outside energy and food. (Again, this may be a good policy, but it has worrisome overtones -- for instance, complete local autonomy opens the door to 'death by stupidity' -- cf Jarod Diamond)

Seek technologies that are compatible with globally aware egalitarian political decentralization and federation. Share or borrow technologies through the web, but preserve your local physical spaces while you are at it - those squares, promenades, cafes, and piazzas - civic nuclei.

Avoid technologies that kill people and the environment. Each area should be able to determine its own trade-offs in these areas. Seek ecological sustainability and, of course, don't wear out your own resources. (As an aside, you don't have to be democratic to believe in ecological sustainability.) He mentions that pyramids, cathedrals, and so on, could be built democratically. (In fact, though, they're just not. Big and memorable things tend to be created by those who run roughshod over others. If you want something big and memorable, you've got to make room for a big memorable ego. Only if coersive behavior could be replaced by communal vision and labor could there be a democratic pyramid.)

Then, we should "Foster local technological flexibility within a global pattern of democratic technological pluralism." He suggests citizen's sabbaticals, trans-community technologies, democratic federations, at several points. Sclove says that the criteria for technology must be balanced and viewed in context.

The supreme goods are freedom and democracy because they are a shared experience. This is a Neo-Kantian approach. All other religious beliefs are personal. (To my thinking, this particular understanding is why Sclove doesn't estimate the strength of religion accurately.) Furthermore, we have to respect people so that they feel they had a part in the process.

Society can be rebuilt now, not just during war or some other time and place. We presently suffer from "cascades of adverse externalities" (another very useful phrase!) that create unintended effects. Because of these unintended superfluous effects, self-regulating markets don't always reveal people's preferences or give them what they truly wanted. (Humm. He's arguing against capitalism and capitalist economics here). He already said that technology as presently practiced supports monolithic and unfair results, and here he implicates economic practice as well. People should know how their world is structured and not accept the idea that all will be well if we leave it alone. Instead, we should interfere with individual freedoms where the expression of them will constitute a "bad" choice that infringes on others' freedom. In other words, "having stuff" shouldn't be put ahead of freedom. In the current American version of capitalism and politics, egoism is rewarded, and dependent atomized consumers are created. Competitive markets do "clear" and coordinate social action, and so should be allowed to function with oversight.

Involving the public avoids adversarial relationships and NIMBYism. In later chapters he mostly gives examples of citizen involvement which was halted or stopped because the funding constituents weren't all on board (university housing, a playground). He mentions a self-cleaning house and a Guatemalan cook-stove as examples of citizen involvement. When the big government-university-military complex is aligned, there's no room at the table or funding for citizen ideas. Nevertheless, citizens should have access to university labs for ideas….? The disabled have done the most recently to change the social landscape. (very true!)

Currently, technology frustrates our deictic goals. If we adhere to the design criteria, we will have a society in which technology is supportive of our goals.

Note: Sclove has been Executive Director of the Loka Institute and is a founding member of the Federation of Activists on Science and Technology Network.