Technology is ugly

Technology and Consequences

Experienced technology impact assessors, who have collected, organized and evaluated information about current developments throughout their lives in order to develop assessments, recommendations and visions from them, come to the sober realization: You can only get yours when you put your hand on the new technology assess social implications. The computers in the offices are not loved, they are accepted. Cell phones are obviously more than accepted - despite years of discussion about electrosmog. But mobile phone users take the risk themselves and voluntarily. Experience has shown that acceptance is higher than with a large-scale technology such as nuclear power, which was decided in a higher place. No wonder that the emotional debates have rocked up here and the chains of argument have shrunk to two words: no, thank you! Or: yes, please! Technology assessment - that sounds ugly and is misleading: A few clever guys are looking for weaknesses. Technology assessment has meanwhile developed a whole range of methods and instruments. At the international concert, the German discussion is quite good. Even if it does not have answers to all questions, because no one can know what the future will bring, it is the basis of all sensible technology discussions, such as those of social actors - politics, business, the media and, last but not least, the Citizens - is stirred. Technology assessment - the German word not only sounds ugly, it also falls short of the mark. It suggests: Here are a few engineers, screened off in their laboratories, developing new machines, in a vacuum, as it were; and then there are a few clever guys who are looking for the fly in the ointment. In English, technology assessment is called "Technology Assessment". That goes much deeper. First: early technology detection. The search for opportunities and possibilities. She constantly scans the technologically promising fields, identifies fruitful approaches and tries to promote the further innovation process, be it through targeted research or market launch programs. Second: technology impact assessment in the narrower sense. Not everything that is technically feasible also makes sense. In the 1970s, the American Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), the cradle of the whole guild, recommended that the US government not invest any money in the development of supersonic passenger aircraft. The arguments: too loud, too expensive, ecologically wrong. So it came about that only the French and the British developed the prestigious Concorde. From today's perspective, the OTA recommendation was wise. Finally, the third pillar is foresight. It is less aimed at decision-makers in business and politics. Foresight confronts the citizens themselves in a kind of future workshop with technically mature visions, for example of a future energy or waste policy, seeks dialogue and sees its task in identifying design options at an early stage. The office for technology assessment at the German Bundestag (TAB) is located quite acceptable. In the middle of Berlin, very close to the Hackesche Höfe. Here, in the backyard, sit seven scientists and two secretaries writing reports, plus a few outside experts. Annual budget: just under four million marks. The life of a technology assessor doesn't seem so bad. You travel a lot, visit congresses, look at the latest developments, research, read, write - if only you got a little more feedback on your results ... The company's latest work deals with the fuel cell, a technology which is certainly not that new. When the British physicist Sir William Robert Grove invented his "galvanic gas battery" in 1839, he had no idea that it would one day be considered one of the key technologies of the 21st century. It was not until 100 years after its invention that the fuel cell had its first spectacular uses: in submarines and in space travel. In the meantime, the leading vehicle manufacturers have agreed: If one technology can ever replace the heart of the automobile, the internal combustion engine, it is the fuel cell. Companies such as DaimlerChrysler, Ford and Honda want to be on the market with the new drive by 2004. The fuel cell should reduce guilty conscience and pollutants to zero. The fuel cell works silently and odorless, and its efficiency is significantly higher than that of the Otto engine. Hydrogen and (air) oxygen react in the unit to form water - a reverse electrolysis. Viewed from the outside, the fuel cell looks pretty unspectacular: a couple of metal plates screwed on top of each other with a membrane in between. The electricity generated in the so-called stack (an aggregate consisting of several individual cells) feeds electric motors in the car of the future. "It doesn't look too bad for the fuel cell," says Dagmar Oertel from TAB. Your aim: to draw a realistic, comprehensive and differentiated picture of the state of development. In all fields of application, not only with regard to the vehicle, but also to the stationary energy supply, the own power plant in the basement and the small appliances. In the future, the fuel cell will upgrade notebooks for plug-free continuous operation. The technology is still too expensive; The automobile industry is aiming for an additional price for the fuel cell vehicle compared to the gasoline engine of around 5,000 marks. There is still a lot to be done in terms of technical development. The service life of stationary fuel cells, regardless of whether they are used in small or large power plants, is still too short - compared to conventional technology. Then there is still the big question: What should the fuel cell be fired with? Answer: usually with hydrogen. Scientists tend to be naive - they understand what holds the world together. But also what is the world doing? DaimlerChrysIer wants to generate its hydrogen from methanol, that is, from alcohol, on board the vehicle. Shell relies on gasoline. Fossil fuels are the basis. According to the TAB study, this dependency will persist for the next 20 to 30 years. On the other hand - and this is where the TAB sees the central point: Precisely because the fuel cell can be fed from fossil fuels as well as from renewable sources, it opens a technological window and could build a bridge over to the solar hydrogen economy, which must eventually come. The TAB study does not really bring anything new, but it does provide a clear perspective. That's exactly the job. Politicians can now consider whether they will strengthen fuel cell technology in competition or whether they are of the opinion that the market will fix it. Incidentally, this also applies to genetic engineering. The complete sequencing of the human genome is almost complete, the data are available, albeit in a disordered manner, as a huge heap of rubble. Now it is important to read and understand the signs so that in the foreseeable future they will help us to understand the causes of diseases and to take timely action. A few letters have already been deciphered. In the near future, occupational medicine will have genetic diagnostic tests that provide information on whether someone is allergic to certain substances. This realization makes perfect sense. It could lead to the advice: "You with your disposition, you better not go into chemical production." The scientific pipeline also includes tests for so-called common diseases: cancer, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases such as diabetes. However, things are more complicated here because there is no such thing as a single triggering gene. In addition, environmental influences are of decisive importance. So the result of a genetic test will not be: "You will get lung cancer between 40 and 50". Instead: "Your risk of developing lung cancer is ten percent higher than that of comparable people." How should one react to that? Probably the way a sane person would do today: quit smoking. It is not yet common in Germany for employers or insurers to access such information. Not yet. However, the prenatal diagnosis of genetic diseases is already state of the art. Pregnant women over 35 are advised to undergo the so-called triple test to rule out a chromosomal abnormality in the fetus. In practice, the age limit has already fallen. The TAB comes to the conclusion that the quality and scope of counseling for pregnant women today are "in many cases inadequate". But assuming the counseling were appropriate, women might be faced with a decision they are not up to. The challenges of genetic diagnostics lie not in the theoretical question (what can I know?), But in the practical (what should I do?). We're not talking about future genetic engineering when it comes to creating designer babies. So far, this discussion has mainly been limited to the medical professional organizations; if the media does not take up the topic. Leonhard Hennen from the TAB demands: "We need a genetic diagnosis law!" Scientifically educated people sometimes tend to be naive. For years one has struggled to understand what holds the world together. You want to grasp the thorough discussion, the deep currents, and like to think things through to the end. But the situation is not like that. The decisive factor is the current, hectic discourse dictated by the headlines, which demands quick results and options for action. The technology impact assessors from TAB are under no illusion. "Oh, have you ever done something fundamental about genetic diagnostics?" It says on the other end of the line. "What, in the early nineties? Interesting! You should definitely read it." "Everything that happens here," says Thomas Petermann from TAB, "is assessed through the glasses of the political groups." No, "triumphant effects" are seldom granted to technology assessors when they leave their reports to the German Bundestag. But now and then one would experience "subdued joys". You know very well about your own impact. If the "balanced murmur" of the TAB stands against a letter from the Federal Association of Industry, then it is clear which voice in the Berlin choir makes itself heard by the parties. "We didn't manage that back then," admits TAB man Thomas Petermann. Not that long ago, in the mid-1990s, the scientists presented a study on multimedia and the Internet - and vastly underestimated its importance. They weren't the only ones. Only the freaks had an inkling back then that the technology would be so quickly and deeply inscribed in the life processes of society. A lesson in speed. At the moment, people are brooding over the economic prospects of electronic commerce. The problem is pretty similar. Nobody knows whether the Internet will still be called the Internet in five years' time. Let alone what it looks like. However, the signs in the public perception are now reversed: Nowadays everyone is talking about eCommerce and its brilliant prospects. According to a study by Forrester Research, Germany could become the front runner among European countries with sales of over 400 billion euros in 2004. Will eCommerce be the next gold rush? "The pace of development will be relatively comfortable," is Petermann's thesis. So far, around one percent of mostly conventional products and services such as books, CDs, plane tickets, clothing or cars have been ordered by mouse click - until the next five percent hurdle has been cleared, and that takes time. The fastest development is in trade between companies, known as B2B, business-to-business. More and more companies recognize the productivity gain when employees, from bosses to interns, order their office supplies themselves over the Internet. But is that already eCommerce? Internal electronic communication has been around for decades. Be that as it may, even small and medium-sized companies are forced by the big ones to form networks and coordinate their logistics with one another via this development path. eCommerce has opportunities, yes, but it could also destroy logistics processes, bring about total traffic collapse. What is actually the kick about eCommerce? It's the new customer orientation, the next turn of the customization screw, higher speeds, transparency and openness, also more competition - that's the idea behind it. Isn't that vague? No one currently has an idea of ​​the future of eCommerce that would be more than a marketing fairy tale. That is exactly what makes the story so exciting. One thing is certain: the big guys all want to be there. Whether Bertelsmann or Otto Versand. They already have functioning logistics chains, they can afford to fail a few attempts because they have the larger war chest. And still the little ones have a chance. Of course, Amazon and BOL are a challenge for the book trade. It is also quite conceivable that the digital flea market will expand. Even if the websites for used books lack the musty second-hand book smell - so many current offers don't fit on any shelf. Once the critical mass has been reached here in the C2C (consumer-to-consumer) area, that could be something. The transport and logistics side is still largely unresolved. In conventional bookshops, goods are transported in pallets or packages from the publisher to the wholesaler, and finally to the retailer. In eCommerce, on the other hand, the smallest unit is always the book. Insiders speak of a derationalization of logistics processes. Initial studies predict the ultimate traffic collapse due to eCommerce. One solution would be mailboxes in busy places, such as gas stations. The electronic bookseller, beverage shop and flower shop could team up, set up a joint distribution center in front of the city and then deliver together - similar to what the post office has been doing for a long time. Part two will appear in the next issue. (Info) Contact Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (ITAS) at the Research Center Karlsruhe Technology and Environment (FZK): www.itas.fzk.de; Technology Assessment Office (TAB): www.tab.fzk.de; Academy for Technology Assessment: www.ta-akademie.de