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Why NGOs label technology as nasty or nice

August 19, 2013
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This post appeared last week on the Science and Development website SciDev

There’s real substance behind activists’ polarised views of new technology, says Oxfam adviser Duncan Green.mick-stevens-national-luddites-association-how-may-i-help-you-cartoon

NGOs and activists often seem to hold contradictory views about science and technology, dividing the world up into ‘nice’ and ‘nasty’ technologies. Anything to do with mobile phones, crowdsourcing, ‘small is beautiful’ technology, renewables or labour-saving wonders such as washing machines is typically met with approval. Not so with nuclear power, big dams, nanotechnology, geoengineering and, of course, genetic modification (GM).

As a long-obsolete science graduate (physics), I used to be rather scornful of this inconsistent approach to such a crucial issue in development. Can anyone seriously argue that science and technology are irrelevant to the massive gains in healtheducation and life expectancy over the last 60 years?

But on closer inspection, this polarised simplification may not be so foolish after all.

Real substance

New technologies may be exciting, but they are often also disruptive. Some can have disastrous consequences (think biological weapons), while others are forces for good — sooner or later.

New technologies may be only temporarily nasty — engines of what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called the ‘creative destruction’ that drives economic progress. Take the synthetic fertilisers that made ghost towns of Chile’s thriving nitrate mines in the early twentieth century; they also triggered a productivity boom in European agriculture that fed millions.

But the nice-nasty division has real substance, especially when seen through the prism of power, control and whether adopting the technology in question exacerbates or reduces inequality. Do newagricultural technologies, including GM, favour small farmers or large agribusiness? If the latter, expect rising inequality and a new wave of smallholders driven off their land.

Governance and money shape the impact of new technologies. In an age when so much research & development has moved out of the public sector, private companies are most likely to follow the money — which means producing technologies for the rich and powerful, even if they come at the expense of the rest.

This is also the case with debates over intellectual property rights for new medicines, which are driven by large industry lobby groups.

Nice versus nasty

Nice technologies seem to have certain characteristics in common: they tend to be dispersed, both in terms of production (small-scale renewables) and use (mobile phones); people can decide whether or not to use them; and if something goes wrong, their adoption can be reversed.

Nasty technologies, on the other hand, tend to be controlled by a small number of large companies (GM) and are sometimes irreversible in their consequences (Fukushima, Chernobyl).

earthwrenchSuch subtleties are lost on politicians, who gather round new technology like moths to a flame. They want to look modern, but they also love technology because it seems to offer an apolitical get-out-of-jail-free card to otherwise intractable problems.

Currently the greatest of these is climate change. Carbon emissions are rising and most political leaders trumpet ‘green growth’ as the solution. There’s nothing wrong with that, except there is little prospect of the kind of full decoupling of future growth from increasing total carbon emissions that is required to curb climate change. [1]

Of the two other options, one (accepting limits to growth) is generally seen, not without reason, as political suicide. The other is a different kind of tech fix: geo-engineering.

Geoengineering the climate

Geoengineering schemes to pump water into the sky or surround the earth with tin foil, convey a Dr. Strangelove image. But the technology is surely going to become both more serious and more salient as both the green growth and emissions reductions routes to climate mitigation fail.

What worries me is that geoengineering has all the characteristics of a nasty technology: it would involve planetary scale experiments by a small group of players with potentially irreversible consequences.

Its promotion also suits those who are simply playing for time by creating a false sense of certainty (a bit like carbon capture and storage) that weakens the sense of urgency around cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

And geoengineering is likely to affect poor people. If it is decided to dump millions of tonnes of iron filings into the ocean to generate carbon dioxide-absorbing algal blooms, it is much more likely to happen off the coast of Africa than next to a UK holiday spot such as Brighton (think of the insurance bill, if nothing else). [2]

Keeping up with science

All this means that activist NGOs need to think more about the social impact of new technologies — but also to pick our battles. Mobile phones and washing machines seem to have managed perfectly well without watchdogs.

Activist NGOs should focus where issues of ethics and injustice are starkest — for example on intellectual property and access to medicines. To make those judgement calls, we need at least some capacity to stay abreast of scientific developments and their social consequences.

That’s easier said than done as highlighted only recently by the NGO Practical Action’s struggle to appoint someone to work on technology policy. The counterargument is that, if we engage with debates on a new technology — whether that’s GM, geo-engineering or nanotech — we risk legitimising the nasty stuff.

This is true to some extent. But if they are in the pipeline anyway, we need at least to understand them better.


  1. Have a look at the Think Global wall planner on food and farming:
    The only item of technology featured is an overloaded old bike. Why have they chosen to airbrush technology out? Because it serves the interests of Oxfam, Action Aid etc to instil in UK children’s minds that the South is a backward, pristine paradise that must be protected by us from the evils of the modern world. It’s not education!

  2. Have a look at the Think Global wall planner on food and farming:

    The only item of technology featured is an overloaded old bike. Why have they chosen to airbrush technology out? Because it serves the interests of Oxfam, Action Aid etc to instil in UK children’s minds that the South is a backward, pristine paradise that must be protected by us from the evils of the modern world. It’s not education!

    If you don’t believe me, have a look at their previous planner on MDGs. Neither has a photo from an urban environment.

  3. A good choice of topic.

    Technology itself is, by and large, neither inherently just nor unjust, but the way we develop, disseminate and use technologies can support just outcomes or create injustices. And history is littered with examples of technology injustices:

    There are injustices in the way technology is disseminated. Today large parts of the world’s population are excluded from access to technologies that are essential to ensuring a basic minimum standard of material wellbeing, in some cases despite those technologies having been available for decades or even centuries. Edison patented the first commercial light bulb in 1889, but still 1.3 billion people on the world lack access to any form of electric power, for example.

    There are also injustices in the process of technology innovation. Our collective efforts to research and develop new technologies are focused more on middle class consumer wants than the needs of the poor. As Bill Gates has noted, 10 times more money is spent each year on developing a cure for male baldness than on a vaccine for malaria.

    And there are injustices in our use of technology, as one person’s choice of technology can impact negatively on the options another person has to live the life they choose. The likely consequences of this generation’s addiction to fossil fuelled technology (climate change) will, for instance, put a severe strain on the quality of life of future generations.

    Technology injustices are a function of the way we govern the dissemination, innovation and use of technology. If we want to avoid these injustices we need to find a new principle to guide decision-making, regulation, and investment choice in the field of technology. A principle of technology justice would assert that: Everyone should have the right to access the technologies they need to live the lives they value, provided this does not prevent others from doing the same now, or in the future.
    Only when we learn to apply this principle will the current mismatch between the potential for technology to help meet people’s basic material needs, and reality that for maybe two billion people today it doesn’t, be resolved. Only then are we likely to see a product put into commercial production 131 years ago, the light bulb, universally available and the possibility of something like a third industrial revolution happening.

    We (Practical Action) did manage to appoint a great candidate to the technology policy post in the end, by the way(to work on technology justice).

    Simon Trace
    CEO Practical Action

  4. Partly its laziness. Peasant romantic ideas, or linked to NGOs as homes for tree-hugging hippies, and needs challenging by more genuinely leapfrog technologies (name one beyond mobile phones…)

    3d printing has some fun potential here and fits nicely into the ‘good’ category – dispersed, empowering, accessible (particularly when the raw material is waste plastic). I imagine all those little copy shops across the global south printing out the widget to fix the well for tuppence.

    As a potential fan of GM crops (on environmental and productivity grounds) for me the issue is governance rather than the technology itself. If there is a competitive market with a range of affordable options, no lock-ins, quality control, regulation and the access to information that gives farmers power, then (once you get over the knee-jerk Frankenfoods problem) you’ve got potential for it to be a real option for small farmers, not just massive agribusinesses.

    Of course – this: [] is the real problem…

  5. Just a quick note to point out that GM does not have to be controlled fully by agribusiness; if there were more buy-in and investment, the public sector could do more in GM, and could focus on technologies and crops that are of little interest to big agribusiness but of big value to smallholders. If we stop thinking about GM as a monolithic technology, we would see that there are both “nice” and “nasty” technologies that we could pursue, and we could encourage the public sector to pursue the “nice” ones. (Problem is, of course, with the power dynamic. Who’s got the money and the voice to advocate for this? Not the public sector, that’s for sure.)

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