The Recovery of Democracy in the Shaping of Technology

Jesse S. Tatum

This book flows from a struggle to hear the muted voices of those who would be participants in the shaping of their own lives as this occurs through technology, but who have been silenced either actively or by their own reticence in the face of the eagerness of others to speak. Two ethnographic studies are presented, one of a loosely termed anti-nuclear group, the second of the "home power" movement, with its embrace of photovoltaic (solar cell), small wind, and micro-hydroelectric power systems in individual homes. Listening differently, these studies offer both insight into other ways of being in the world, and new guidance toward a recovery of democracy in the shaping of technology for the future.


Both of the studies presented involve choices among energy technologies. Choices in this area profoundly affect our relationships both with the natural environment and with each other, shaping them both directly and insofar as energy systems animate or undergird the full ensemble of modern technology. Perhaps partly for this reason, energy system choices appear to have elicited an uncommon activism with respect to the shaping of technology, offering us a unique opportunity to learn from uncommon experience. In the first study, this activism reveals deep commitments directly focused on a reformulation of community and human/nature relationships, as well as a longstanding frustration with the inflexibility of past commitments as they have been built into modern technology. Members of "the Alliance" show us a smoothly functioning consensus process, a commitment to action at a local level, and substantive efforts in areas from nuclear power and disarmament to environmentalism, that together provide a remarkably complete and intelligible picture of an alternative way of being in the world, in spite of the lack of support its expression has had to date. The "home power" efforts of the second study, though still largely unrecognized and unsupported themselves, can in many respects be seen as a direct continuation of the work of members of the Alliance. Commitments similar to those of the anti-nuclear movement are in evidence, but also the surprising fruits of an elaborate and extended participatory research effort that is beginning to achieve the expression of new community and human/nature relationships through a fundamental redesign and reconfiguration of the technologies of daily life.


Detailed presentations of both studies lead to contrasts with more familiar patterns of life, offering newly invigorated insights into the ways in which technology forms our lives. The studies also provide vivid indications of the need to listen more deeply for the muted voices whose sometimes inchoate message remains essential to a democratic shaping of technology. As a society, we too often dismiss the almost limitless range of technological possibility without genuine reflection, failing to achieve an active general participation in the process of social and political construction of technology that play a role in shaping our lives. Whether or not it is recognized, there is inevitably an element of choice involved in arriving at any particular set of technological arrangements. Drawing theory to bear on practice, the book ends with the outlines of a promising new model for the recovery of democracy in the shaping of technology, and with some discussion of its possible implications.

0934223580 (AUP)
Lehigh University Press - Muted Voices