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Good technology and bad

In an era where institutions round the world are undergoing major changes, and the accountability of privately controlled organizations to t...

Written by R K Pachauri |
November 30, 1998

In an era where institutions round the world are undergoing major changes, and the accountability of privately controlled organizations to the public is increasing. There are subtle but rapid changes taking place in the relationship between the corporate sector and the public at large.

In the area of science and technology, for instance, merely six or seven decades ago innovation and scientific discoveries were unquestioningly hailed as symbols of progress of human civilization, and the public rarely questioned the implications of what was seen as the triumph of technological progress.

This no longer is the case with scientific activity today. Perhaps, current changes in the perception also arise out of the revolutionary nature of technological change that has much deeper and wider implications today than in the past.

Today, modern biotechnology, for instance, holds at the same time the bright promise of increases in yields and the possible threat of untold damage. It is for this reason that the ethicsof genetically transforming plants and animals are being questioned extensively and subjected to widespread scrutiny.

In the case of modern information technology the potential for altering human activities appears perhaps even more mind boggling. There was a news report last week of an adventurous sailor having developed a serious infection participating in a competition in a sailing boat bound for Cape Town. Using a solar powered computer he got in touch with his doctor in the US by e-mail and followed precise instructions to operate on himself. However, he developed heavy bleeding which may have cost him his life. Once again by e-mail he corresponded with his doctor and used precise medical advice to stop the bleeding. This little incident illustrates the power of decentralized energy production as well as the potential of technology.

Corporate organizations working in frontier areas need, therefore, to look beyond the mere boosting of profits in the next quarter, but at the overall impact oftechnological innovations against a much broader canvas. This, of course, increases accountability to the public and, therefore, requires greater participation by the public in setting the technological policy of corporate organizations.

Quite apart from the somewhat hidden impacts of new technology on human society, there are direct environmental effects which industrial activity needs to come to grips with, where the effect on human beings can be profound.

The changing nature of relationships between corporate organizations and the public and the revelation of impacts on human society arising out of a range of economic activities requires the dissemination of information by corporate bodies that was earlier ignored and sometimes deliberately concealed.

However, in period of increasing public awareness and a rapidly expanding information revolution, corporate organizations need to take the initiative in informing the public of the likely effects of new process, manufacturing activities andtechnological innovation. But, in order that such information be identified and provided, internal capabilities would need to be established for assessing what information is relevant and how it needs to be provided in a programme of dissemination.

Enlightened organizations are already paying attention to this question and building this subject into their public relations and public information programmes. Those who do not are likely to pay much higher costs in the future resulting from public resistance to changes that are to be brought in without adequate attention at the very start.

The author is the Director of Tata Energy Research Institute and Vice Chairman of the InterGovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

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