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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Reviving the Office of Technology Assessment

man looking through VR headset

man looking through VR headset

We need it more than we ever did before.

Irina Raicu

Encryption, drones, driverless cars, genetic engineering, and the whole “Internet of Things”: legislators have already had to contend with competing bills and proposals regarding some of those issues, and are likely to deal with much more of the same. Last Friday, however, lawmakers rejected a renewed effort to revive the Office of Technology Assessment.  

As Wired reports, the OTA is “a tech advisory body created by an Act of Congress in 1972 that provided lawmakers with detailed and unbiased research on science and tech issues to help inform their decisions until it was [defunded] in 1995...” An amendment introduced by Mark Takano, a Democratic congressman from California, which would have provided funding for the OTA for the first time since ’95, failed last week by a vote of 223-179.

An earlier Wired article, titled “Of Course Congress is Clueless about Tech: It Killed Its Tutor,” noted that a similar effort failed in 2014, by a vote of 248-164. So the outlook for the OTA seems to have gotten worse in the intervening years, even as scientists continue to call for its return, and the need for it has become even more glaring.

“At its peak,” writes Kim Zetter in Wired, “the OTA had an annual budget of about $20 million and around 140 permanent staffers who were supplemented when needed by subject-matter experts from outside. All of them together provided detailed research on everything from acid rain and sustainable agriculture to electronic surveillance and anti-ballistic missile programs.”

In a recent blog post, Hazel Henderson, who had been a member of OTA’s Technology Assessment Advisory Council, adds that the OTA also issued reports on the

social costs and the environmental impacts of new products, technologies, and industrial development. OTA looked at which were ‘producer push’ or ‘consumer pull,’ and who would be the winners and losers. As a member of OTA’s Technology Assessment Advisory Council, I insisted that for every technology we researched, … the report would include representatives from segments of society most likely to be impacted: consumers, low-income and minority groups, workers and watchdog environmentalists. OTA’s approach fundamentally challenged the laissez-faire economics’ Panglossian assumption: if new products and technologies appeared, consumers must have demanded them.”

Considering, ahead of time, the implications of technological advancement, and its impact on all the stakeholders involved, seems wise. The world we live in now, in which lawmakers, like the rest of us, appear to be going repeatedly through what the technology research company Gartner calls the hype cycle (“technology trigger, peak of inflated expectations, trough of disillusionment, slope of enlightenment…”), is neither optimal nor an immutable given. Dealing with the harmful consequences and unequal impact of technological developments only after they have happened is not the only way.

Beyond consumer protection issues, moreover, the lack of understanding of certain key technologies has grave implications for national security and the rule of law. As Kim Zetter points out,

The lack of tech expertise on Capitol Hill has never been more glaring than in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks. Revelations about the NSA’s extensive spying programs made it obvious that lawmakers who conducted oversight of these programs lacked the ability to comprehend the level of surveillance modern intelligence agencies can do with the sophisticated technologies available to them today. As a result, many politicians briefed on the surveillance programs were unable to pose the right questions about the NSA’s controversial bulk collection of phone records and email metadata.

Uninformed oversight is no oversight at all. In the face of ever-faster development and implementation of technology, the OTA should not merely be revived, but expanded to match the scope of the current—and growing—need.


Photo by Maurizio Pesce, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

Jun 16, 2016

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