Tag Archives: Professor Jameson Wetmore

Weigh the value of new ‘tools’; apply the precautionary principle

3 Jun

There is mounting evidence of unintended harmful consequences in many sectors – including medicine, pharmacology, agriculture, energy generation, finance, engineering and transport. The most widely read post on this site in May reported the Lancet’s publication of the World Health Organisation’s finding that glyphosate, a widely used ingredient in weedkiller, is probably carcinogenic.

Michael J. Coren‘s article in Quartz magazine summarised the findings of Jameson Wetmore, an engineer turned social researcher at the Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society. Wetmore opened:

“The motto of the 1933 World Fair in Chicago was “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms. Governments and companies were saying that technology can lead us out of this. It may not always be comfortable, but we have to ride it out. Household technologies were all the rage. When you hit the 1960s and 1970s, there is this shift.

“I think the hallmarks of that shift are the dropping of the atomic bomb, and then of course you have Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, and you also have Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring”.

“Whereas much of the contemporary world sees technological progress as inevitable, even a moral imperative, Wetmore finds that the Amish watch their neighbours and carefully consider how each one will change their culture before embracing it: They . . . watch what happens when we adopt new technology, and then they decide whether that’s something they want to adopt themselves.”

We don’t think about the impact technology might have on our lives beyond the initial big idea.

“The automobile was sold to us with this idea of a freedom we never had before. With that freedom came a heavy toll of injury and death. So can we anticipate unintended consequences way the Amish do, or are these systems just too complex to go much beyond first-order effects?

A more rigorous application of the EU’s Article 191 (left) would help to do this.

“Less than a mile from where I’m standing [in Phoenix, Arizona], Elaine Herzberg was killed by an autonomous Uber vehicle. I fully recognize the only way we’re going to automated vehicles is running in this world is to test them on city streets. Now, if we were to sit back and think about the values of the society here, we might say that testing those vehicles at 10 PM at night outside of a concert hall where a huge amount of alcohol had been served was not the best place to be testing. Perhaps testing in a school zone when children are present is not the best place to test an autonomous vehicle. But those are decisions that local people did not have the chance to make.”

The idea that technology is an unmitigated good is beginning to be questioned

Wetmore thinks that today Americans have a much more nuanced view of things. The number of people who think technology is an unmitigated good is continuing to shrink, but most haven’t abandoned the idea that there are a lot of problems and technology will play a role in solving them.

The precautionary principle detailed in Article 191 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union aims at ensuring a higher level of environmental protection through preventative decision-taking in the case of risk. It also covers consumer policy, European Union (EU) legislation concerning food, human, animal and plant health. It has been recognised by various international agreements, notably in the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement (SPS) concluded in the framework of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).  

Jeremy Corbyn led the proposal (right) to retain Article 191’s environmental principles after exit day, narrowly defeated by 16 votes.

 

Time for change?

 

 

 

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