By Jim Thomas, ETC Group

A guest blog in the Alternative Perspectives on Technology Innovation series

For a fresh perspective on how to do technology governance consider starting somewhere else. I suggest York Castle in Northern England – a stark stone tower from the thirteenth century.

It was here in 1812 that the English state first executed fifteen men for the newly established crime of machine-breaking. They were Luddites – the original kind: artisan weavers who saw the factory system as an assault on their livelihoods and communities. At the time England was convulsed by the ‘machine question’ – with fiery debates in parliament and hundreds of fiery attacks on cloth mills by followers of the mythical Ned Ludd. As the first industrial revolution gathered steam, literally, the political class made a deliberate decision to side with the new industrialists. 12,000 Soldiers were deployed to quell the Luddite uprising – more than were abroad fighting Napoleon. The Frame Breaking Act made Luddism punishable by death and in time the word Luddite itself was transformed into a term of contempt and abuse that lasted all the way to 21st century science debates. Its fair to say the Luddites lost – big time.

I should admit right now that I’m a big fan of the Luddites – Not that its much fun supporting an extinct political movement. Unlike sports teams there’s neither merchandise to buy nor Facebook groups to join (not unless you count this: ). But I like Ned Ludd and his gang for two reasons.

Firstly I think they were right in ways they didn’t even know at the time. Our contemporary crises of climate change, overproduction and industrial pollution trace back in obvious ways to the industrial revolution as do the emergence of  urban and labour problems that flowed from the factory system and the urbanization that it gave rise to. The new cloth factories made possible a level of demand that justified establishing cotton plantations and a vicious slave trade setting in motion cycles of violence and racism that still persist today. Did the industrial revolution also bring benefits to society – of course it did although those benefits remain very unevenly distributed. Did the Luddites know they were fighting the roots of future racism. No – but their instincts were good.

Secondly I admire the Luddites for their success (albeit brief) in creating  a large-scale truly popular debate about emerging technologies. The widespread uprising of 1811-16 was more than just a wave of hysterics. Popular geek culture casts a ‘Luddite’ as a technologically inept dunce, fearful of change. Historical accounts reveal nothing of the sort. Real Luddites were adept users of complex hand weaving looms. They often espoused nuanced views on the technological revolution happening around them. They were not uniformly anti-technology: Their grievances, as recorded in song and declarations , were specifically with technologies that were “harmful to the common good” – as good a standard as any against which to asses technological appropriateness.  In their night time raids they would break some mechanical frames that they considered unjust while leaving others untouched that they considered benign. They recognised technological power as political, entwined with monopoly power and responsible for a lowering of standards and production of shoddy goods. They even practiced a radical form of democratic  technology assessment that we haven’t seen the like of since: dragging bulky mechanical looms to the market place to hold public trials in which all the community could pass judgement on the new machines – a public consultation process of the most inclusive kind.

I was once involved in organizing such a Luddite-style technology trial – at York Castle no less. A group of fellow activists dragged a motor car to the old stone tower and we set up public court, inviting bystanders to testify for or against the impact of the internal combustion engine on all our lives. Road kill, asthma, community destruction and climate change were weighed against the increased mobility and economic opportunities provided by four fast wheels. Everyone who happened to pass by became the jury.  On balance the car was found guilty of being ‘harmful to the common good’ but received a lighter sentence than the Luddites had on the same spot. This symbolic exercise in popular assessment of technology was exactly 100 years too late to influence the relevant innovation policy. Nonetheless it set me thinking: What if we weren’t too late? What if we could drag emerging technologies into a modern court of public deliberation and democratic oversight. What might that look like?

I’ve been turning over that question for about 15 years now while active in global debates on emerging technologies –  particularly GM Crops, Nanotechnology, Synthetic Biology and  Geo-engineering – Debates in which I’ve encountered the term Luddite, meant as a slur, more times than I care to count. Language like this tumbles carelessly out of history .. but I find the parallels striking. Once again we are in the early phases of a new industrial revolution. Once again powerful technologies (Converging Technologies ) are physically remaking and sometimes disintegrating our societies. Those  of us in civil society carrying out bit-part campaigns, issuing press releases and launching legal challenges are in a sense attempting to drag technology governance away from the darkness of narrow expert committees and into the sunny court of public deliberation for a broader hearing.. It seems a perfectly reasonable and democratic urge. But there’s got to be a better and more systematic way to do that?

So far I’ve found three sets of proposals that might begin to put technology oversight into the open and back in the hands of a wider public:

  • Public Engagement: Citizens Juries, Knowledge exchanges, People’s Commissions.

No don’t yawn. I grant you that science policy types (and the rest of us) have every reason to groan when they hear the term “Public engagement in Science”. Like other  empty buzz phrases (“sustainable development” and “corporate social responsibility” come to mind) its too easily appropriated – but there is still (just about) some value in imagining and practicing what actual involvement mechanisms we could craft to enable a more democratic form of innovation governance.  Citizen’s Juries in places as diverse as Andra Pradesh, Mali and Brazil have enabled marginalized groups such as farmers to at least take a place alongside seed companies and biotech giants in policy processes. While People’s Commissions (investigation processes run by citizens groups) may get short shrift from a condescending political establishment yet can often exhibit excellent foresight, drawing on sources of grassroots knowledge  that closetted self-referential science committees might never open up to. These days my faith in public engagement  is waning having watched several governments employ such processes as a thinly disguised public relations ploy or to tie up the energies of civil society. Unless a public engagement process has a clear promise by those in power that they will listen, respond and demonstrably act on reccomendations its likely to lose the interest of the participants too.

  • Global Oversight: ICENT.

ICENT stands for the International Convention for the Evaluation of New Technologies – a UN level body for foresighting emerging technology trends and then applying a wide-ranging assessment process that will consider the social, environmental and justice implications of the innovation being scrutinised. It doesn’t exist yet and maybe it never will but at ETC Group we have dedicated a lot of time to imagining what such a body could look like (we even have some nifty organagrams – see pg 36-40 of this) For example there would be bodies scanning the technological horizon and others making a rough reckoning of whether a new technology needed a strong oversight framework or not. Others tasked with bringing in a broad range of knowledge (what do the indigenous folks say?) or identifying exactly the right place in the system of global governance to begin regulatory moves. At a time when tech governance is several decades late each time we find a new platform emerging (Nanotech? Synthetic Biology? Geoengineering?) An ICENT–like body could maybe get international machinery in gear a bit quicker – ideally before industrial interests have already written those technologies into next quarter’s earning sheets and are shipping them to market.

  • Popular assessment : Technopedia?

The only governance and regulations that work are those where somebody is paying attention – so  rather than hide technology assessment in rarefied committees why not hand it to the wisdom of the crowds. Wikipedia may not be the most perfectly accurate source of all knowledge but it is comprehensive, up to date and flexible and provides an interesting model. Actually Wikipedia entries are often not a bad place to start if you want to suss out the societal and environmental issues raised by the zeitgeist regarding new technologies. How about a dedicated wiki site for collaborative monitoring and judging of emerging technologies? Such a site could be structured so that, unlike the halls of power, marginal voices have a space and are welcome. A grassroots army of  volunteer technology assessors could help fill out the questions that Brussels or Washington never asks: What is the feminist take on this technology? How does it impact indigenous or disabled groups? What livelihood issues does this raise for the poor? Will the global commodities trade be affected? Perhaps an extended social media approach to technology assessment could convene online juries, host global conference calls and draft peoples reports for input into policy deliberations.

Don’t get me wrong.. approaches like these are not panaceas .. Adopt them all and some of us in civil society  might still feel there are a few metaphorical mechanical frames that would still need breaking. For example I’m not sure a modern day Ned Ludd would be content to spend his whole time writing wiki entries.

Then again, at least he might participate in his own facebook group


Jim Thomas is a Research Programme Manager and Writer with the ETC Group based in Montreal, Canada. His background is in communications, writing on emerging technologies and international campaigning.

Formerly an organiser with grassroots direct action movements in Europe and North America, Jim spent seven years with  Greenpeace International as a campaigner on food and genetic  engineering issues before joining ETC Group in 2002. Jim organised the  first international meeting on the societal impacts of Nanotechnology (held in the European Parliament), speaks around the world on  emerging technology issues and has authored several reports, chapters and press  articles on Biotechnology, Nanotechnology, Synthetic Biology and  GeoEngineering.  He writes a regular ‘Tech Reckoning’ column for The Ecologist Magazine exploring the  politics of next generation technologies.

Trained as a historian to look back at the history of technology, Jim is now proccupied with the future of technology. Once upon a time he was an award winning slam poet but then he had children…

ETC Group have a blog too…