Nanotech Database

Article Title:
Midstream Modulation of Technology: Governance From Within

Fisher, Erik

Journal Information:
Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society
Vol. 26, Num. 12


The consensus of policy makers is that converging technologies should be developed with due consideration to social and ethical concerns. This article offers "a brief review of historical attempts to govern science and technology." It also describes "more recent attempts to bridge the gap between the promotion and control of technological innovation." It "discuss[es] conceptual and practical dimensions of the midstream modulation of technological trajectories as informed by an interdisciplinary body of literature and [the author's own]efforts at sociotechnical integration within an engineering research laboratory."

The history of regulation and control includes the labor movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, the establishment of agencies for regulation of public goods, the international agreements made in the wake of World War II, and the responses to authors such as C. P. Snow and Rachel Carson. In the latter twentieth century, the EPA was founded and the concept of "coresponsibility" was coined. Currently, various forms of technology assessment are working towards regulation, including initiatives like the federally funded ELSI Progam attached to the Human Genome Project.

"Upstream engagement" is another concept being used to regulate and control technology development. Fisher et. al. say "[t]hrough dialogue and other engagement practices, upstream approaches seek to augment traditional communication models so that discourse and learning can flow not only from policy makers, scientists, and engineers to the public but also in the reverse direction. Societal influences are thus meant to help shape technological development trajectories before technological paths build up momentum and become relatively locked in. Such efforts aim at more broadly orchestrated and more effective societal inputs than those used by past attempts to assess, regulate, and direct technology." The Danish Board of Technology and the UK Select Committee on Science and Technology have engaged in assessment activities of this sort. In particular, nanotechnology has become a trying and proving ground for such techniques.

Fisher et. al. argue that midstream modulation is an effective method for working with technologists. They describe their concept as follows: "...the midstream corresponds to the implementation stage of a large, distributed, and dynamic decision process. For simplicity, upstream decisions may be characterized as determining what research to authorize, midstream decisions as determining how to implement R&D agendas, and down-stream decisions as determining whether to adopt developed technologies. As such, midstream decisions may not seem to carry the same weight or visibility as those made during the upstream stage. Still, they present a unique and largely overlooked opportunity for governance." Upstream agenda-setting occurs too early, they say, and downstream regulation can be too late.

Modulation is the act of creating spaces for reflection in the process of research and development. They describe its particulars in terms of capacity-building. "Technoscientific capacity for midstream modulation must take root in operative local and distributed conditions, constraints, and capabilities. A key to capacity building is for actors to become attentive to the nested processes, structures, interactions, and interdependencies, both immediate and more removed, within which they operate. Such attentiveness leads to what is termed here 'reflexive awareness.'"

They suggest that other approaches are also effective -- for instance, Real Time Technology Assessment, as practiced by the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State. They conclude "...midstream modulation will work best in tandem with sources of intervention, feedback, and collaboration, such as ELSI research, upstream engagement, CTA, RTTA, and others. Nevertheless, midstream modulation represents a linchpin in the effort to integrate promotion and con-trol and is indispensable if such efforts are to be wide-spread and lasting."