Technology Assessment (TA) has taken on two meanings. One centers on evaluation of the properties of existing technology options – e.g., as you might choose between two printers. The other, and the one of interest here, has been classically defined by Joe Coates (1976) as: A class of policy studies which systematically examine the effects on society that may occur when a technology is introduced, extended, or modified. It emphasizes those consequences that are unintended, indirect, or delayed. [italics added] This is a form of impact assessment, along with Environmental Impact Assessment, Social Impact Assessment etc.
What TA is all about
Determining the “unintended, indirect, or delayed” societal impacts of a future technological innovation poses severe challenges. Determining cause and effect relationships in complex, interactive socio-technical systems is exceedingly difficult – even historically (i.e., looking back, no less looking forward) (Tarr, 1977). There is no hope of predicting the full and exact effects of changing technology; even less the manner in which those effects will interact among themselves and with other socio-economic forces.
Joe Coates (1971) offered an insightful illustration of the problematic nature of pinning down indirect effects. He nominally tracks the 1st through 6th order effects of introducing television on communities. The 1st order force of a riveting source of entertainment in the home leads to less mingling in local clubs; that leads to less neighborly interaction; isolation follows; then overdependence on spouses to meet one’s psychological needs; and finally, divorce rates escalate.
The aim in undertaking TA ought not to be prediction of exact effects and their timing, but rather identification of potentially important vectors of change. Identifying possible concerns (and benefits) can alert technology developers and overseers to potential issues – i.e., an early warning system. Going a step...