Friday, 8 March 2013

Pluralising technical de-cisions; Calculating internalities and externalities

Jeremy on his Struggle Forever blog writes:
Monday I participated in a workshop on the use of multiple water quality models in the Chesapeake Bay Program – the benefits and drawbacks.  Throughout the day, much of the discussion centered around the ways that multiple models could improve the science of water quality management ... The other major issue was the social and political challenges that would arise from a multiple modeling approach. ... I went in expecting the modelers to be receptive to increased participation in modeling, at least in the ideal if not in practice.  I expected them to have practical concerns such as how to incorporate participatory methods into the existing modeling project, or how to solicit participation, etc. ... What I didn’t expect was the intensely political opposition to participatory modeling that came out. ...
This kind of dispute does pose very interesting problems for all kinds of political theory.  To what extent – or in what way – can lay people (the techno-scientific laity, if you will) participate in technical decision making; or, in other words, can technical decision making be democratic and if so how?

Walter Lippmann's view was that, for the most part, the public can participate in the selection of experts – i.e. the people get to choose their technocrats – but not much beyond that.  Speaking primarily of international relations, he argued that the world was simply too complex and fast-moving to involve the general public in anything but the most general kinds of decision making.  The ‘phantom public,’ in his words, was only meant to step in where the experts failed to agree; it could only intervene when issues were so tangled and complex that even ‘the powers that be’ could not reach a decision on them.

It's been a while since I read his 'The Public and Its Problems' but, as I recall, John Dewey’s view differed because he reasoned from a different starting point.  Rather than beginning with the frantic speed and complexity of life in the 1920s (!), as Lippmann does, Dewey began by arguing that politics itself resulted from the confluence of publics around their 'problems' – that politics itself is made possible by the formation of publics around issues and that political institutions should, therefore, derive their form and remit from this reality, rather than riding roughshod over it.  For Dewey, regardless of how difficult it is, publics are always already involved in politics.  Consequently, publics must bear far greater a burden than simply selecting the technocrats or intervening when said technocrats can’t make up their minds.  Dewey was vague on what this meant, specifically, but he was clear on the necessity of publics.

Both perspectives, from a contemporary viewpoint, seem somewhat naive – our Lippmannian elites routinely disagree on everything important but no phantom public has emerged to do the job for them, while Dewey’s image of politics seems to derive more from the experience of early 20th century U.S. participatory liberal democracy than any general political reality (he even argued that state borders were nothing more than an expression of publics; that states were bounded since not all issues affected everyone globally and, consequently, the institutions meant to deal with them were instituted only regionally – plainly this has been disconfirmed by history).  Yet both have some valid points.  Lippmann is correct that representative democracy in some form or other (not necessarily any form we see today) is the only way day-to-day technical decision making can occur in any complex society.  Dewey is correct that issues do not become political in a vacuum; they do so because of the involvement of publics, however inchoate.

If we want to go beyond the agreements and disagreements Dewey and Lippmann we need to ask: How can technical processes that are of general political and social importance be pluralised, which is to say democratised, without slowing these processes down, or making them grind to a halt entirely?  How can decision making be pluralised without making de-cision – a cutting, a delimitation, an end – impossible?  And how can non-technical participants claim the authority they need to demand their place in the process (since scientists and technicians are generally reluctant to grant outsiders any say)?

The technicians’ belief that the laity have nothing to add is surely an incorrect prejudice, as STS has indeed shown.  However, they will also object -- and this objection is less easily brushed aside -- that technical decision making processes are torturous enough, without having a bunch of jabbering, inarticulate, non-technically educated laypersons sticking their oar in -- sideways.  This is the mysterious contradiction implied by Lippmann’s ‘phantom public’: when an issue is too complex to be resolved by the experts how can adding even more voices resolve it?

I think what is really at issue is the very notion of political decision and who gets to make it.  So, it’s a question of power and authority – something that Dewey and Lippmann (and Latour, who is the most notable contemporary cheerleader for these two) largely ignore.

And that’s the problem with Dewey, Lippmann and Latour alike – they’re only really comfortable talking in the most abstract terms.  I think I can be more specific on one matter, however.  The main thing that must remain open to public participation in any significant technical project is the calculation of externalities.

Any project that has environmental or social consequences – so, any significant technical project, then – depends upon the economic calculation of internalities and externalities; those consequences and risks that are the responsibility of the project and those that are not.  No technical project can proceed without this calculation being made, formally or informally.  Absent the legal requirement for such a calculation, organisations will make their own judgements as to what they are responsible for (and will most likely conclude that their responsibilities are few and far between).

As well as attributing responsibilities, such a calculation also has the function of demarcating the commons or ‘nature’ as it functions as the constitutive outside of the internal artifices of the project.  A factory that can consider the river pollution that it causes as an externality for which it is not responsible takes the river to be ‘nature’ in the sense that it is part of the commons that it can use and abuse with impunity.  As Latour has argued, this outside, this nature qua commons, has largely ceased to exist since little if any of the planet can innocently be regarded as an outside to which we owe no care.

The demarcation of internality and externality is precisely the area where technical expertise is not enough and never can be.  Such decisions are often arbitrary and are based just as much, if not more, on politics and ethics than technical know-how.  Is the river an internality or an externality?  Is the factory responsible for its pollution?  There is no technical answer to this question.  Technicality may help us understand the scale, form and effects of the pollution but not its consequence in the sense of risk or sociality.

Indeed, here we see that the word ‘consequence’ has two meanings.   Firstly, and quite prosaically, when B is caused by A, B is A’s consequence.  However, secondly, there is the sense of being ‘consequential’ – if A causes B, C and D, is B consequential or inconsequential?  Is it significant?  Does it matter?  Technicality informs us of the first kind of consequence but cannot unilaterally decide on the second sort since that necessitates an attribution of value to things, a decision on what matters.  (Of course the question then arises as to whether we can keep these two kinds of ‘consequence’ separate.  If not then public participation is germane to the whole process.  That’s a tricky question.)

Anyway, that’s where public participation is most clearly appropriate.  That isn’t to say that the internality/externality demarcation is the only area where public participation is appropriate but it is perhaps the area where it is most necessary.

Jeremy’s discussion is an interesting example since it shows that technicians are more than a little reluctant to collaborate, pluralise or publicise their decision making processes.  Again, this brings us back to the question of power – the ability of the laity to demand their seat at the table.  However, being fair to the technicians, it also raises practical questions of how technical decision-making processes, as I wrote above, can be pluralised without making de-cision impossible.

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