By Ralph Nader
June 9, 2023
The pace of for-profit technological innovations is accelerating, but to what end beyond corporate sales? The gap between marketing new high-tech products and assessing their intended and unintended consequences has never been greater.
Let’s start with the ballooning of augmented reality inside virtual reality. Facebook’s Oculus Rift escapism has flopped. Trying to improve on this bizarre quest to envelop its customers, Apple plans to release the “Vision Pro”, a “mixed-reality” headset so large that Washington Post columnist Molly Roberts described it as “clunky and creepy” and predicted failure for this $3,499 rip-off.
Do mega-corporation CEOs – who spend company profits on massive stock buybacks for no productive use (Apple plans to spend $90 billion on buybacks this year) – spend any money on the lost practice of technology assessment? Do Facebook and Apple have studies on what fantasy goggles are doing to youngsters’ minds? Are these devices producing anxieties, fears or addictions? Do these corporations have more victims than customers? Do the high-tech CEOs care? If they do, they’re not saying.
Let’s move on to the big stuff! Congress has been spending trillions of your taxpayer dollars on technologies of modern weaponry, chemicals, drugs, medical devices, transportation, the Internet, biotechnology, nanotechnology and fusion energy. Yet the general public remains clueless about the adverse impact of these expenditures. Congress doesn’t even know if many technologies or products work as advertised.
You can thank the bombastic, ignorant Newt Gingrich for hurling our 535 members of Congress into this black void. In 1994 Gingrich orchestrated the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives. And, in 1995, after becoming Speaker of the House, Gingrich and the Republican-controlled Congress eliminated the funding of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). With a small $20 million annual budget, OTA produced scores of assessment reports needed by Congress. (See: https://ota.fas.org/otareports/). Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) was one of OTA’s strongest supporters, who with other members of Congress served on its bipartisan board. When Congress was debating the creation of OTA, Kennedy said “without an OTA the role of Congress in national science policy would become more and more perfunctory and more and more dependent on administration facts and figures, with little opportunity for independent Congressional evaluation.” Kennedy was furious about the Republican defunding of OTA, but could not marshal enough of his dejected fellow Democrats to fight to restore funding even after Gingrich resigned in disgrace five years later.
The failure of Democrats to fund OTA when they controlled Congress allowed Gingrich’s demolition to continue the wreckage he launched. Technically unadvised members looked foolish for years in their questioning of Silicon Valley executives at public hearings.
Right after Obama’s victory in 2008, carrying large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, I organized an effort to refund OTA with Nobel laureates and other scientists on board. For many years, Cong. Rush Holt Jr. (D-NJ) led the effort in the House, only to be undermined by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said she didn’t want to give the Republicans an opportunity to accuse her of starting another bureaucracy on Capitol Hill. Truly shocking!
Now it is 2023 and the studied ignorance of Congress fuels the strategically useless F-35 Fighter planes at a $1.5 trillion projected cost. Well over a trillion dollars will be spent upgrading the nuclear bomb arsenal – currently able to blow up the world many times over. The unavoidable ballistic missile so-called defense program soaks up billions of dollars yearly (See: “Why Missile Defense Won’t Work” by MIT Professor Ted Postol: https://www.technologyreview.com/2002/04/01/235142/why-missile-defense-wont-work/). The rave for electric vehicles badly needs a thorough technology assessment for its lifecycle costs and benefits.
An adequately funded OTA would have alerted Congress early about the looming opioid crisis and crimes that have taken a million or more American lives. A similar alert from an OTA report, before Covid-19 struck, could have alerted Congress on the lack of preparedness for coming pandemics. Being part of Congress, OTA can command the attention and credibility from members far more easily than any studies or alarms from citizen groups or civically-minded Think Tanks.
Pressing the issue of funding OTA in the 21st century’s second decade brought the Democratic Party’s excuse that either one chamber of Congress or the other half was Republican-controlled. I, with Bruce Fein, Joan Claybrook and Claire Nader, explained to Speaker Pelosi in 2020 that the House or Senate can fund OTA without the concurrence of the other simply on the grounds of its prerogative to more fully fund its own institution. No reply. (See letter: https://nader.org/2020/08/03/ralph-nader-and-colleagues-call-on-speaker-pelosi-to-revive-the-office-of-technology-assessment/ ).
It took 86-year-old Congressman Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-NJ) to publicly chastise his colleagues with articles titled: Why is Congress so dumb? (January 11, 2019, Washington Post) and Congress Is Sabotaging Your Post Office (April 7, 2019, Washington Monthly). Still no visible reaction from the tone-deaf congressional solons busily reducing their own significance under the Constitution and spending money unwisely.
The ongoing lack of local technology assessment capabilities leaves Congress without a grassroots infrastructure of fact-based, nonpartisan analysis.
Municipalities do not have formal little OTAs for their infrastructure projects, so the grasping, politically connected vendors take advantage of such ignorance to increase prices and delay projects and continue shoddiness. Think bridges, highways, schools and public buildings projects.
The science and engineering departments of universities are rarely interested in supplying such knowledge or even teaching the ethics of engineering to their students. In 2018 we sponsored a book titled Ethics, Politics, and Whistleblowing in Engineering by Rania Milleron and Nicholas Sakellariou (CRC Press) that delved into how disasters can occur when engineering professionals don’t take their consciences that reflect their expected responsibilities to work. (See Nicholas Ashford’s review: https://issues.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Ashford-Review-of-22Ethics-Politics-and-Whistleblowing-in-Engineering22-Winter-2020.pdf). Three times we sent letters to about two dozen Deans and professors of Engineering around the country encouraging them to develop classes on ethics for their students. Not a single reply. (See, January 2, 2019, Letter to Engineering Professors or Department Heads).
In 1998, our community project in Winsted, Connecticut retained an engineer, Susan M. McGoey, as a “community technologist.” She proved her worth manyfold, catching over-reaches by the engineering firm hired to upgrade the town’s drinking water purification plant. She also advised the town on its municipal watershed stewardship, began a natural resources inventory and organized a successful river clean-up along with many other money-saving projects from redesigning traffic lights to improving downtown renovations. (See: https://www.courant.com/1994/03/29/nader-trust-adds-technologist-to-help-citizens-decisions/).
Readers interested in collaborating with the renewed effort to fund the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in Congress can contact their members of Congress, and also connect with us at [email protected]. It is high time to aggregate dedicated public opinion and advocacy on this inexpensive but very important restoration.