Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy (Inside Technology)

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The Era of Suspicion Opacity dissolves gradually, and situations of uncertainty in which the hypothesis of a danger emerges are distinguished from each other by the precision of observations and explanations.

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We will talk of plausible potential danger when persons or life environments suffer damage that is perfectly describable but whose causes and precise nature remain unknown. Such situations often lead to the drawing up of inventories. Some actors embark, individually or collectively, on the collection of cases that may confirm the existence of a new threat. The uncertainties surrounding them encourage the informal and sometimes wild development of hypotheses that are not yet verified and are often not immediately verifiable. Controversy focuses on plausible but fictional scenarios that provide acceptable interpretations of the observed facts.

Those who sound the alarm, whether laypersons or experts, are at the center of the debates. Viel on cases of leukemia in young children living near the French nuclear reprocessing plant at La Hague sparked a controversy that illustrates perfectly this entry into the era of suspicion.

According to Viel, there are convincing arguments that allow the supposition that the observed connection between certain customs of the inhabitants swimming, eating shellfish and an atypical level of cases of leukemia four observed cases rather than the expected 1. It will take two successive expert commissions to pacify the public controversy and provide data acceptable to all the parties involved.

Suspicions do not ineluctably lead to studies concluding that there is no danger. In the case of the possible carcinogenic effects of mobile telephones, we see an impressive spread of works based on very different methodologies. In May , one of the most respected scientific journals, Nature, published an article by De Pomerai et al. Biological changes the appearance of specific proteins are observed that are analogous to those usually triggered by thermal stress. In view of the constant character of this type of response to heat, the authors consider that comparable phenomena are conceivable in the human being.

These results conflict with others, which are more reassuring, but based on studies financed, at least partly, by the manufacturers. As a precaution, the British government recommends a maximum restriction of the use of mobile phones by children, in view of the consideration that their developing nervous system is likely to make them highly vulnerable. These preliminary works led to the launch in the summer of of a major epidemiological campaign by the International Agency for Research on Cancer IARC.

Its aim is to identify several thousands of cancer cases brain tumors, cancers of the acoustic nerve and of the parotid gland and to retrospectively evaluate the possible risks to users of mobile phones.

Acting in an Uncertain World

Suspicions feed the debates that focus on the materiality of the observed effects, their description, and the causal chains responsible for them. Only through systematic investigations can these suspicions be invalidated or confirmed. As the exploration of possible states of the world progresses, the controversy may evolve; suspicions may gradually give way to presumptions. From Suspicion to Presumption Suspicion leads to the contemplation of states of the world which are considered to be plausible in the light of bizarre, fragile phenomena that are.

With presumption we move on to a new stage. In law, the term presumption designates induction from a known to a disputed fact.

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The corpse exists, and conjectures lead us to think that we have found the murderer, but we do not have the proof that assures us that he or she is the real culprit. In the controversies corresponding to this case, the phenomena are firmly established and no one challenges their existence. Sound observations enable one to back up the facts and qualify them by showing, for example, that thresholds have been crossed and developments confirm the observations: the number of deaths cannot be explained by random phenomena, and their number exceeds levels beyond which the tendency is irreversible.

The uncertainties focus essentially on the causal chain, although we have the beginnings of an explanation. The threat was certain. We knew that cows were affected by it; we knew what the agent was, but its existence raised some doubts; we did not know exactly how it spread, but some hypotheses seemed likely; we did not know if the disease could affect humans, but nothing could be ruled out.

In such situations, controversy essentially focuses on two points. First, as in cases of suspicion, the reliability of the information and the data collected may be disputed. Do they merely reflect the anxieties of those involved in publicizing the problem, or are they the firm basis of a scientific evaluation of the dangers incurred?

The confrontation may also, and especially, focus on the action to be taken. Do we know enough to make decisions? Should we undertake further investigation in order to stick with indisputable proofs?

How technology moves society - not politics: Lasse Birk Olesen at TEDxCopenhagen 2012

If so, what tracks should be followed? Should we wait before taking measures, or should we take them right away?

If we opt for the latter, what measures is it appropriate to adopt? The issue of nuclear waste corresponds quite closely to this scenario. No one denies the dangers of storage; the debate concerns how to deal with them. Should we put up with irreversible storage that some specialists say presents only a low risk? Or should we pursue new lines of research in the hope that they will result in methods that will enable us to eliminate the danger associated with nuclear waste? In the meanwhile, what measures should we take?

Social and Technical Uncertainties At first sight, the uncertainties we have so far considered could be described as scientific or technical. The strategy that is essential for lessening them could come from laboratories or research departments. However, the controversies engendered by these uncertainties go far beyond solely technical questions. One of the central things at issue in these. The line describing this border constantly fluctuates throughout the controversy.

To declare that an issue is technical is effectively to remove it from the influence of public debate; on the other hand, to recognize its social dimension restores its chance of being discussed in political arenas.

by Callon, Michel; Lascoumes, Pierre; Barthe, Yannick

Because the origin of this type of contamination could not be explained via the two known routes, complex hypotheses were put forward. In the absence of such observations, the probabilities assigned depend on the points of view, feelings, or convictions of the actors; these are called subjective probabilities. The cost of accepting their use is acceptance of the challenge to the two great divisions. In the two cases, the controversies bear at the same time on the ies characterization of the dangers and on the procedure to be established so as to arrive at what may be considered a credible and legitimate character- in public ization. The local astronomy society had organized a meeting between amateur and professional astronomers.

Nuclear energy provides, at least in France, good examples of these fluctuations. In the s the issue of nuclear energy was seen as being essentially a technical matter and therefore as having to be dealt with by the relevant specialists; the social was defined in a residual way as rallying a public that was more or less favorable, more or less prey to irrational fears and anxieties.


Twenty years later the division had undergone profound change. The anonymous public constituted by the individuals of crude psychology gave way to differentiated groups capable of speaking outside of opinion polls and of developing constructed arguments.


Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy (Inside Technology) [Michel Callon, Pierre Lascoumes, Yannick Barthe, Graham Burchell] on. The authors of Acting in an Uncertain World argue that political institutions must be expanded From Inside Technology An Essay on Technical Democracy.

It was enriched by genuine political movements that challenged the democratic character of certain decisions. After another ten years, the stage was crowded with unexpected actors: residents associations, local groups, chicken farmers, viticulturists, professional associations.

What the anthropologist Marilyn Strathern calls the proliferation of the social5 was accompanied by a continual enrichment of the technical issue itself. In truth, the two histories are closely interwoven.

That is why the initial distinction becomes blurred. To the question Is deep burial a technical solution? To the question What is the social component of the nuclear issue? Thirty years later, this response seems out of date. This society without consistency has vanished before the disenchanted eyes of nostalgic technocrats. Multiple groups have appeared whose existence no one suspected, defending their interests and projects, and adding their two cents to the so-called technical discussions. There are, of course, many people who contest the solutions envisaged or who demand their modification.

But life is not that simple.

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Security and surveillance services are also summoned and questioned as to their long-term ability to fulfill their mission; there are even the future generations about whom everyone is suddenly concerned, in whose name all believe they are authorized to speak, and who are thus invited to all the meetings at which storage, fast breeder reactors, and transmutation are discussed.

As a result, the solution of deep burial is only secondarily seen as technical problem. To the great displeasure of the specialists, it becomes an eminently social and political problem.

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The border between the. As the foregoing example shows, the controversies that unfold in hybrid forums are fostered not only by scientific and technical uncertainties but also by social uncertainties. In discussing the border between what is technical and what is social, the protagonists, whose identities vary over time, introduce an indeterminacy that will not be settled until the end of the controversy.

Moreover, it is the entry of new actors on the scene that causes the border to be called into question. Society may indeed be as uncertain and unpredictable as the nonhuman entities with which it has chosen to share its destiny. Dynamic Socio-technical controversies unfold in time and space.

Their trajectory is largely unpredictable because it depends on the nature and degree of the uncertainties and also on the way in which some of them end up being lessened or disappearing. What social groups will arrive on the scene? What alliances will they forge? What technological options will be revealed, or ruled out, by the research undertaken?

What new lines of research will be explored?