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Why the Office of Technology Assessment Is Needed Now More Than Ever

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
March 12, 2019

“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which the most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

The Washington Post Editorial Board published an editorial on September 17, 2018, in which they, again, argued for the restoration of the Office of Technology Assessment. After observing how federal legislators struggled with questioning Facebook, Google, Amazon and other large technology companies, the Editorial Board wrote that it is, “Crucial for legislators to grapple with technological issues on a higher level than most have so far proved themselves capable.”

Before its defunding in 1995, the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) provided Congress with nonpartisan science and technology analysis. Created in 1972, the OTA produced over 750 studies on issues about acid rain, climate change, supersonic transports and even health care. The OTA was an early pioneer in electronic publishing, and other governments copied the OTA model. It is an irony that the OTA was defunded the year that the commercial Internet played an increasing role in the American economy and culture.

Social Technologies and Mind Hacking

During a recent flight to an academic conference, I read Roger McNamee’s 2019 publication, Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe. McNamee was a mentor and angel investor in Facebook before he became increasingly concerned about the psychological effects of Facebook on its users. McNamee describes how Facebook’s management used the platform to push users to act impulsively and aided the rise of fake news—“Brain hacking.” As said in George Monbiot’s article from January 6, 2019, entitled, “The Mind Hackers,”:

“The purpose of this brain hacking is to create more effective platforms for advertising. But the effort is wasted if we retain our ability to resist it. This is why Facebook, according to a leaked report it sent to an advertiser, developed tools to determine when teenagers using its network feel insecure, worthless or stressed. These appear to be the optimum moments for hitting them with a micro-targeted promotion. (Facebook denies that it offered ‘tools to target people based on their emotional state.’)”

The Congressional hearings into Facebook’s practices were to expose the widespread use of brain hacking and the problems of fake news. However, as anyone who watched the hearings could observe, then Congressional members could barely ask even basic questions about social networking technologies. I argue that if the OTA was still in existence, Congress could be doing a better job in understanding and mitigating the harmful effects of social technologies on consumers and the American political process.

The Effect of Automation on America’s Labor Market

Another issue that needs a nonpartisan analysis is the effect of automation on the U.S. workforce. One set of studies shows that there will be widespread displacement leading to millions out of work while other studies argue for significant benefits to the United States worker. Again, the OTA would be useful in helping legislators cut through all the noise and determine what the most probable scenarios for the economy are. The OTA studies could help Congress get in front of the automation issue to draft legislation that will increase the benefits of automation while preventing some downsides of a newly-displaced workforce.

OTA’s studies could also guide education policy as universities, colleges and K-12 schools determine how to best prepare children today for the jobs of tomorrow. There are many scattered STEM initiatives across the country that address different aspects of preparing students for STEM careers. What would be helpful is a series of reports from a newly-resurrected OTA that can inform Congress’ education legislation.

Climate Change, Interrupted

Although never proven, but suspected, is the motive behind defunding the OTA. According to some observers, the OTA reports on health care reform, environmental issues and the dangers of technologies such as nuclear power lead to widespread resistance by businesses and interest groups with a stake in preventing further regulation. Probably the most controversial OTA studies were centered on the dangers of climate change.

Given the dangers posed by climate change almost 25 years after defunding the OTA, it is understandable why some legislators have continually introduced legislation to reestablish the OTA. Technology is playing an even more significant role in the American economy and society as well as posing potential threats to our national security. Now, more than ever, Congress needs a non-partisan and informed voice to help legislators confront and manage the dangers of our highly technological world.

Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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