Technology matters. It affects every aspect of our lives, sometimes becoming pervasive before we are even aware of it and have a chance to consent – or not. Those in charge of governing technology must adapt when innovation evolves faster than lawmaking and ensure that the public has a role.
Two seemingly unrelated headlines illustrate how new technology – widely and stealthily – has permeated our society: Edward Snowden’s revelations of massive electronic surveillance and Washington state’s failed ballot initiative to mandate labeling of genetically modified foods.
The NSA surveillance activities revealed by Snowden shocked the American public and the world. We live in a world of drones and hackers, a world where extensive surveillance is widely acknowledged as possible. But the reach of NSA surveillance, the agency’s lack of restraint and the collusion of industry in furthering its activities still have stunned many Americans.
Voters in Washington state in November rejected an initiative that would have mandated labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms or GMOs, just as California voters did a year earlier. These measures failed despite consistent survey results reporting that Americans overwhelmingly favor such labeling.
Some worry that these foods may not be safe; others find the idea of consuming such foods downright frightening. If labeling were required, shoppers would learn that most processed foods contain GMOs. They might be shocked to discover that 90 percent of the corn, soybeans and canola planted in this country is genetically modified.
The public might then ask, “Why didn’t we know about this?” It’s a question that can apply to many of the emerging technologies that are transforming our lives and the world around us.
Nanotechnology is generating new materials, new medicines and consumer products with new functionalities. Artificial intelligence is yielding an array of advances ranging from driverless cars to robotic surgeons. Synthetic biology is promising to enable the design of new species or the resurrection of extinct ones. And geoengineering, a set of technologically driven and unconventional proposals for countering the effects of climate change, is receiving growing attention in the wake of our collective failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Researchers have good reasons for pursuing such scientific knowledge. But societies often promote the widespread adoption of a promising new technology without seriously considering its broader consequences for society, individuals or the environment.
The uncertainty regarding the course of technological development and the consequences of technology adoption creates a “dilemma of technology control”: When a technology is in its earliest phases, there is scant information about its consequences; however, once such information does become available, the technology has become too well-established to be adequately controlled.
Often, law struggles to keep pace with emerging technologies – a troubling reality when the harms that may result from using a technology are serious and irreversible.
Is the dilemma unresolvable? Not if society and governance institutions devote attention and resources to the problem.
In the case of GMOs, for example, carrying out studies of long-term health effects from GMO consumption would reduce public unease. Transparency in using the technology and genuine consideration of public concerns would also help.
Ultimately, laws must treat technology, health and the environment as fundamentally related. We must reorient lawmaking in a way that acknowledges the transformative power of technology, recognizes the consequences of its use, and incorporates public input and awareness throughout the technology development process. While we may not be able to quantify the risks or identify all the consequences, we often have a sense of the potential hazards and can try to learn whether those hazards are real.
Emerging technologies pose questions regarding what kind of world we want to live in and what kind of people we want to be. A great democracy wrestles with such issues openly and continuously.