"...before technology runs riot" – lay opinions of risk
A discourse analysis of 15 concluding documents from the consensus conferences 1988 to 1997 at The Danish Board of Technology.
Translated from Danish by Mikkel Brus Flyverbom
The Danish Board of Technology 1999
This report has been worked out for the Danish Board of Technology. It was conceived in continuation of the project on risk communication at the Board concerning ways to improve the basis of decisions related to risk. It is a fundamental assumption that improved communication is an important part of the solution.
The question that arose was: How does one of the parties in risk communication – common people – in fact understand and talk about risk?
The main working question behind this report was therefore: How do lay people understand risk? In relation to this issue we also wanted to investigate the social relations reflected in the lay panel’s concluding documents. How are lay people’s identities constructed? And what about the experts’?
When is there a consensus in the discussion on risk? And when is there conflict? What does this tell us about lay opinions of knowledge and values? Is knowledge constructed as belonging to the experts and values as belonging to lay people? During the period of analysis, interesting answers to questions that had not even been posed showed up.
The Danish Council of Technology possesses material that forms an evident basis for the investigation of these questions – namely 15 so-called concluding documents from the consensus conferences that the Council has held during the last 11 years. The concluding documents contain the accounts, assessments and recommendations of the different lay panels – in relation to topics that in one way or another have to do with risk. I chose to carry out a discourse analysis of all the documents. The decision to use this method of analysis was taken because discourse analysis – in relation to opinions on risk – is a suitable tool to the mapping out of the field of language that surrounds the term 'risk’. And in relation to this, the social relations, ideologies and interests at work in the field.
Ida Elisabeth Andersen at the Danish Board of Technology conceived this project. With her commitment, openness and repeated readings of the analyses she has been the source of great support and inspiration.
Arne Thing Mortensen from Roskilde University, Denmark has also made a valuable contribution to the report – by quietly pointing out neglected angles and unfortunate absences.
Finally, Louise Phillips from Roskilde University, Denmark has looked at the report in its different stages with her keen eye for discourse analysis. As usual, she has provided the most professional inspiration imaginable.
I am grateful to all three and grateful to everyone at the Danish Board of Technology for letting me use their office and for being good colleagues while the project was worked out.
Abstract - lay opinions of risk
For a number of years, lay people have been involved in describing, assessing and giving their recommendations in relation to possibilities and risks connected to technological developments. The result is a number of documents. It is important to understand the linguistic patterns in the lay documents – both because they say something about the values and power relations involved in the debate on risk, and because an understanding of the linguistic structures can form the basis for improving risk communication.
The lay panels become exponents of the difficult situation that people in highly modernized societies experience. A lot of responsibility is placed on their shoulders – the responsibility connected to knowing and making decisions that 'common people’ were not involved in making previously. The authors of the concluding documents handle this by continually balancing pros and cons and by accepting and integrating paradoxes in the debate.
In all the lay documents there is a small number of concepts used repeatedly, as universal solutions or explanations to problems. The analyses show that the use of these concepts often are connected to a feeling of being powerless in relation to risk.
'Technology’, 'development’ and 'economy’ are seen as strong, autonomous phenomena that the individual has no influence upon. The continually resigned descriptions of these elements as 'out of hand’, point to a feeling of powerlessness in the documents. The personification makes it unclear who is responsible for the development and who stands behind the different technologies. Similarly, it becomes hard to figure out how it is possible to influence these impalpable processes. The moment they are seen as natural entities or governing mechanisms with their own will, the individual is deprived of both responsibility and scope for action. It becomes much harder to relate to them because it is not pinned down what specific processes, technologies or people are discussed. It also blurs the lay critique, if any, that it is directed at a diffuse entity. In risk communication, a sharper definition of these concepts could probably help lay people relate to them. In this manner, lay people would have a better of idea of what they could do about these processes.
Among other things, the lay panels construct values by referring to the risk that technology may break down values. In this manner, the idea of public information and the idea of the importance of the individual become prominent issues in the documents. It is very likely that lay people will centre the individual when discussing technology. But it is not just that they appeal to politicians and experts to pay regard to the needs and wishes of the individual in relation to risk. The individual also has the possibility of taking responsibility and influencing the development (also in a negative direction).
If you survey the material, 'powerlessness’ has a more prominent position among lay people than does 'action’. The fact that expressions of powerlessness have predominance, is what you would expect when lay people venture into a professional domain, where discussions take place at a high level, with a lot of technical references. It is therefore very noteworthy that the lay panels force the paradoxes into the debate – 'it may be impossible, but we must do it anyway’. And that they act through their language use – by talking about the impossible as a possibility.
In the material, knowledge and risk are connected in the way that knowledge is constructed as a prerequisite for controlling the risks of technology. Those who possess the necessary knowledge are able to direct the technological developments. In the concluding documents, knowledge is generally presented as property of the experts. For instance, the lay panels point out that they speak according to expert opinion, and sometimes they present knowledge as unattainable for most people. Although knowledge often is constructed as a property of the experts, there is scope for lay action through the acquisition of knowledge and through its construction as a common resource.
In relation to the wish to reach equality in risk communication, it is important to increase the awareness that knowledge is an important factor in power relations – among all parties involved in the interaction. An important point in the preparation of participants could be that there is no such thing as objective facts, but that these are inextricably bound up with the person that states them, and with the moment and the context in which they are stated.
To a high degree, 'experts’ are categorised as people who think differently, and have different values than 'us, the citizens’. According to lay opinion, experts possess more (and better) knowledge, but at the same time they are portrayed as controlled by financial interests and the wish for esteem. The laymen alternate between describing themselves as idealists and realists. Idealism belongs to their understanding of themselves as citizens or consumers, while realism is brought in when they talk about solutions to actual problems and consider whether it is worth running a given risk in order to be able to use new technology.
The linguistic construction of authority produced by the lay panels can be seen as an expression of a need on their behalf to establish a kind of authority before they feel in a position to have an opinion on risk. Even if their contributions to the consensus conferences are perceived as important and equal to expert contributions, they are from the outset the agents with the lowest level of authority – they do not have the status of experts, and they have not defined the frames of communication.
When lay people are to give their opinion on risk, it implies that they need to consider their attitude towards the use of a given technology or whether they think it should be refused as too risky. The existence of a discourse on alternatives shows that among lay people there is a basis for a redefinition of large parts of the debate on risk. It should not only deal with how we understand or relate to risk, but also with the question whether risk is at all relevant. Although the direct dismissal of technology is present in the documents, it is rare. Similarly, there are expressions of distrust towards companies, authorities and experts, but also this is rare. It is more common that the lay panels perceive technology in a pragmatical manner – as in 'now it’s there, let’s make the best of it’. Concurrently with this, they try to point out different scopes for action in relation to risk and technology. In regards to action, communication plays an important role.
'Public information’ and 'communication’ are given high value by the lay panels. They use these two concepts as possible solutions both to problems with technology and with democracy. Sometimes, it replaces concrete solutions to problems. One question that should be kept in mind in risk communication is the lay use of 'communication’. Is it a sign of powerlessness or is it a visionary proposal, designed to solve problems?
'Control’ is another important word in the documents. Although the lay panels see control as negative in relation to the individual, they describe public control as the best way of minimizing risk and creating security. Control becomes the solution to processes such as technology running riot, the economy dominating the development and the fact that human ethics are flawed. A word like 'control’ could be used much more specifically in the debate on risk. Similarly, a definition of how to calculate with other abstract concepts such as 'the human factor’, could be useful. If such concepts were not allowed to float in the air, but given more substance, it would be possible to relate to them in a constructive manner and thereby connect them to concrete action. To differentiate the concepts is not just a matter of changing language use, but also of being open towards a change in values, in the social practice and in the emotional experience of risk.
To create language awareness is seen as a way of making it possible to reduce the feeling of powerlessness that is present in the language use of lay people. Language awareness is seen as a prerequisite for a more equal participation for all parties involved in the debate, and it is seen as a tool that can heighten the democratic qualities of the consensus conferences.
Discourse analysis and risk communication
An awareness of the linguistic patterns related to risk is important for all parties involved in risk communication. Good risk communication requires a use of language that shows consideration for that of the receiving part. And it requires an awareness of one's own involvement in the production of power through the production of texts. The perspective of discourse analysis gives an opportunity to 'step back’ and examine the field that one is a part of. This is important if we presume that the initiators of risk communication often have a more powerful position than the remaining participants in the communication. The conditions for a more equal dialogue can be optimized through shedding light on the social relations that exist between the different participants.
Discourse analysis differs from most traditional textual analysis by not concerning itself with what is behind language use, or what is actually meant by a certain utterance. From the perspective of discourse analysis, one rather examines what language users do with language, because it is assumed that saying something in a specific manner has ideological implications. And that social relations are created through language use – for instance through categorizations.
Let us illustrate this with an example from the material. Here 'the consumers’ appears as a category. They are generally described as opposed to both politicians and experts. On the other hand, they sometimes overlap the category 'citizens’, and sometimes they are synonymous with the lay panel behind the report. Then, what does it mean? It could be argued that we are all consumers. The politician goes supermarket shopping and the expert may go to the vegetable market. Therefore it must be a kind of fictitious category that is put into use in this context (in the concluding document), and for specific reasons. If you turn your eyes to the social level, the use of the category can be seen as a consequence of the massive media coverage of exactly consumer interests and consumer boycotts – and also as part of the individualization that we have experienced in Denmark during the last decades. For instance, a lot of people now find that it makes more sense to consume in a 'politically correct’ way than to join a political party or go to a demonstration. In this manner, 'the consumer’ has become an important rival of 'the citizen’. And when the consumer appears in public debates, his or her opinion has weight like never before.
It could be argued that the lay panels probably had been asked to speak from the point of view of the consumer during the conference, and that their use of the category 'consumer’ does not tell a lot about their ACTUAL understanding of themselves. However, as mentioned earlier, by using discourse analysis, one does not aim at examining whether or not the language use corresponds to a REAL phenomenon. Rather, one tries to demonstrate that in one way or another the category has been established and subsequently examine how people define themselves or others in relation to this category and thereby use it ideologically.
A main assumption behind this report is therefore that textual analysis can say something relevant about human relations and about the social domain in general. Again, this builds on the view that language does not just reflect the world around us, but rather plays in important role in constructing and changing the world. It is through language that we construct the world in meaning. We construct the world through our way of talking about it. It is therefore extremely important how we speak about it – and in continuation of this, which interests, or which ideologies are implied when we speak in this manner. Accordingly, discourse analysis focuses on language constructions.
The concept of discourse has been in fashion in academia for a couple of decades, and has now also found its way into the media and everyday language. Therefore it is appropriate with a clarification of its use in this analysis. The definition is inspired by the critical discourse analysis developed by the British linguist Norman Fairclough.
In short, a discourse can be defined as something that contains a number of key words, concepts and phrases that contribute to the construction of a certain universe of meaning. An example from the analysis could be the discourse of 'the individual at the center’. Surrounding the key words 'individual’ and 'human being’, we find concepts such as 'the human factor’ and phrases such as 'to show consideration for human needs. The 'universe of meaning’ or outlook promoted by this discourse is fundamentally humanistic.
The meaning of a discourse also depends on the context in which it is used. If 'the individual at the center’ was used in connection with a course on 'improved self-knowledge through massage and conversation therapy’, it would interact with discourses from alternative medicine. When it is used in connection with technical or financial discourses – as in this material – it represents a defence, a challenge, a signal of change. In the universe of critical discourse analysis, contradictory discourses or discursive conflicts are seen as signs of social change. Accordingly, a lot of this analysis focuses on what could be termed paradoxes, ambivalence or conflict – on the level of language.
A political method of analysis
The understanding of language outlined above has consequences for the reading of the following many pages of analysis. They are not an objective description of actual lay opinions of risk, but a subjective attempt at reading the texts. And what makes that useful? Ideally, a discourse analysis should make the reader reflect. 'Open’ the text and form the basis for a new awareness. The many quotes from the material are included in order to make it possible for the reader to join in the analysis, to disagree with the conclusions or to become inspired and think more about the topic. This transparency is an important property of a text, which necessarily –because of its subjectivity – must get a political angle. In this context, political does not mean an assessment of the experts in the material as good or bad, or of technological developments as good or bad. Instead, political refers to the perspective of the analysis – some things are seen as more relevant than others, one phenomenon comes into existence through its use as headline... The political aspect is that the material is organised in a certain manner.
Even though the analyst’s role is mainly one of interpretation, the choice and presentation of texts is also an important process. Collectively, these three elements create the analyst’s view of a small part of reality. It is worth noting that certain constructions come out of the editing of a text that has to function on a communicative level. Reservations cannot be made in each sentence, and therefore some things appear more categorical than they ought to.
Introduction to the analysis
In the attempt to answer the question how do lay people understand and talk about risk, it has been relevant to look for common dimensions – or common discourses – in the series of concluding documents. I have focused on the areas where discourses clash in the attempt to create a consensus. Accordingly, the following analysis summarises some of the themes that seem to be most significant in the understanding of risk. Their significance is seen partly in lay people’s way of relating to risk, partly in their construction of knowledge, values and social relations in the debate on risk. 'Significant’ refers both to the fact that the themes take up a lot of space in the documents, and that they contain paradoxes and questions that are worth taking into consideration when planning risk communication.
Opinions of risk and technology
One key to the understanding of opinions on risk are the many different constructions of 'technology’. In the following I will examine technology as a delimited entity – and examine how it is talked about as both an enemy and a friend, how it is portrayed as inextricably bound up with 'development’, and how it is an important element when people talk about risk and uncertainty. The sections of this chapter deal mostly with reservations and scepticism, but also with the demonstrations of cooperativeness and differentiation.
Two faces of technology
The weighing out of pros and cons – an important part of the process of creating consensus – takes up quite a bit of space in the consensus documents. In this connection, technology is presented as having two faces. The lay panel tries to show consideration for both of them when assessing whether it is worth running a given risk. The discourse on the two faces of technology is built around contrasting conceptual pairs such as prospects/barriers, good/bad, etc. They express that for lay people, technology appears both a threat and a potential. Whether technology shows one face or the other is sometimes presented as inherent in the new technology and sometimes as the result of the lack of human ability to cooperate with technology.
One lay panel leads off their concluding document with the utterance: "Traffic informatics is a complex topic with a lot of good and bad aspects" (1995/1:11). Later on, they write that technology "can solve some problems, but can also become the source of new ones" (1995/1:16) and that "there are inherent discrepancies in the fact that technology on the one hand is capable of so much that we welcome and on the other hand has a number of unintended side effects" (1995/1:23). These general reflections on threats and prospects are analogous to concrete examples of the inherent doubleness of technology. For instance, some write that the use of 'technological animals’ can "reduce the collective pool of genes" and lead to inbreeding. On the other hand, technology can be used to preserve bio-diversity, through the freezing of eggs (1993/1:20).
A built-in threat
One of the pictures of technology that appears in the concluding documents is that it may have a built-in bombshell. On the one hand, some lay people acknowledge that irradiation of foodstuffs can solve some health problems. On the other hand, they declare that "We are of the opinion, and have been confirmed by the experts that there is no documentation that the irradiation of foodstuffs increases health, maybe it rather creates new health problems" (1989/5:18, my italics). Regarding teleworking, the lay panel says that it has the potential of bringing down personal traffic, but at the same time it may lead to an increased demand for international personal traffic, simply because with telework, communication possibilities are improved (1997/3:34).
Human beings as risk factors
Descriptions of human interaction with technology also contain a doubleness. It is described as a problem that "new technology that should create peace of mind, rather creates anxiety" (1989/6:21). Regarding the screening of genes, the lay panel is "very positive towards the screening and advising of families affected by illness. But some of us demur widespread screening of pregnant women because it can make pregnancy seem like a disease" (1989/6:15). This is about 'resisting the temptation’ of abusing technology. Generally, the lay panels believe that neither normal people nor the experts can resist this temptation. Similarly, in Childlessness, the panel says that "the continually increasing amount of treatment possibilities puts more pressure on the involuntarily childless" (1993/4:18), which they link up with reduced quality of life. In themselves, the prospects of technology contain threats – simply because they force the individual to take a stand. Quality of life is also central in the discussion of whether telework will lead to a fusion of work and leisure time: "It was seen as both positive and negative. A loss of fixed points and traditional working hours can cause confusion and unrest if we neglect family life because of the demands of working life. On the other hand, if telework is seen as flexible and independent, it can give more time to spend with the family" (1997/3:36).
Technology is rarely referred to as positive in connection with the word 'risk’, but it does occur in a discussion of gene technology, which according to the lay panel can anticipate the risk of developing illnesses. Though, this credit is partly withdrawn with the remark that it will "influence the definition of what is seen as healthy and normal and of what is seen as unhealthy and abnormal" (1989/6:20). Again the doubleness is obvious – technology is portrayed as helpful, but at the same time, the danger of forgetting norms and ethics is emphasised.
Possibilities and barriers
Finally, the lay panel lists how technology can further sustainable development. They talk about a "technological revolution" and say that technological possibilities are created concurrently with the demand. Similarly, they describe how technology "creates possibilities" and so on (1996/7:25,26). On the other hand, they maintain that "There are significant barriers connected to the use, development and application of new technology" and they write "As regards the prospects of technology we are optimistic – like the experts – but not to the same extent. The consumer panel warns against the use of technology optimism as an argument for increased consumption" (1996/7:26).
However, the ambiguity of technology is not compatible with ideals. The lay panel believes that limit values should be fixed so that "we can make use the advantages of chemical substances without running serious risks" (1995/3:15).
The discourse of the two faces of technology serves two purposes. In part the radical weighing out of pros and cons creates a sense of a differentiated debate, in part it introduces the individual in the debate on technology. An individual in a paradoxical situation – in between the need for and scepticism towards technology – striving to find balance by continually returning to the paradox.
When technology outstrips itself
When technology and speed are linked together, it is often associated with risk. The development of technology is not necessarily frightening in itself, but it has to occur in a pace which makes it possible to assess the consequences. The discourse 'when technology outstrips itself’ has three different dimensions. All three contain a kind of criticism of technological developments – either as vague statements like 'it is moving too fast’ or that it does not take into account possible risks, or in expressions that a given technology seems meaningless.
As mentioned earlier, lay people have a positive attitude towards technology as long as it can be kept under control. But "the hesitation emerges when screening possibilities are developed faster than treatment possibilities (1989/6:15). Technology is only desirable as long as it brings forward an actual reduction of risks. When it tells us truths that we are powerless against, it merely creates anxiety.
The autonomy and precedence of technology
'Technology’ and 'development’ have in common a way of being described that makes them appear as autonomous, self-willed entities. In the statement "technology and scientific research have to go together" (1988:7) it is implicit that technology may run ahead, independent of science – and thereby out of control. Elsewhere it says that "when the development moves fast, there is not much time, not even to examine the consequences of gene technology" (1989/6:24).
In very few places, this discourse 'it is moving too fast’ makes lay people propose that 'we turn back time’: "The panel finds that developments in the use of chemical substances move too fast" (1995/3:15). "It is important that we stop and revise the use of them" (1995/3:19). This is contradicted by the requests of other lay people to 'keep up with technology’: "Information and knowledge become out-of-date faster and faster. An education that does not take this problem into account is out-of-date itself" (1997/3:30). Consequently, the question of the pace of development is marked by discrepancy. This rests on the different opinions of values that I will return to in the last chapter.
The role of the human being is central to expressions of possible risks related to the fast development. In the concluding document How are we going to use the increased knowledge of human genes? (1989/6) That the increased knowledge of human genes will give us problems, is presented as an absolute truth. The authors are "scared that there will be a turn of the tide" (1989/6:6) because they equal the existence of technology with the uncritical excessive use of technology. The panel writes that the possibility of using this technology "entails the risk of leading to an unacceptable view of man" (1989/6:7) – which can be interpreted as an expression of the priority or dominance of technology. It is not the view of man that controls technology, but the other way around. The same problem is described in Childlessness, where the panel writes that technological developments have made it possible for us to manipulate nature and that "We can get the feeling that our values for quality of life rest on the premisses of technology – it would be preferable that our norms and values put a limit to technology" (1993/4:20). The hesitant 'can get the feeling that’ and the hypothetical 'would be preferable’ signals that the statement regarding the priority of technology is seen as controversial – maybe it is difficult for lay people to express an opinion that is so 'lay’ in character.
One of the lay panels states that irradiation of foodstuffs will result in "Producers and preparatory companies being tempted to slacken hygiene", because irradiation conceals whether a foodstuff is old or bad (1989/5:9). This exemplifies that technology is ascribed bizarre side effects – techniques designed to improve the keeping qualities of goods also give us lousier food.
The lay panel also draws the attention to the paradox that excellent technology – such as traffic informatics – does exist, but has no real use. They write that it "seems to be suitable to solve capacity problems – which are not really present in Denmark" and maybe later to solve security problems, that the lay panel, believes, should be solved in a different way.
Words like 'development’ and 'technology’ are obviously given different meanings. That they are in dispute gives reason to be on guard in relation to how they are given meaning and which meanings they are given. For instance, a personification of the concepts makes it unclear who is responsible for the development and who stands behind the different technologies. Similarly, it appears impossible to figure out how it is possible to influence these abstract processes. In risk communication, a sharper definition of these concepts would probably be a good idea, because then they could be given meaning in a way that would make it possible for people to relate to them. In this manner, the possible scope for (lay) action could become more visible.
Economy as an autonomous development
Economy is also one of the factors often linked up with technological developments, and just like the fast pace, described in the previous section, this is seen as a risky combination. It is a predominant feature in the discourses related to economy that economy is portrayed as a dominant factor both with regards to ethics and scientific research. In the following we will see that the understanding of economy as decisive is expressed as self-evident. From the perspective of discourse analysis, the things that we take for granted control us the most – in an ideological manner. Therefore, I will dwell on the many instances where the autonomy of economy is taken for granted.
An evident fact
The widespread fear that financial interests will set the agenda when it comes to risky technology implies that ethics play no important role in relation to the technological developments. For instance, it appears from one of the lay statements that companies do not hesitate to break laws and safety regulations if it pays. "Sanction possibilities must have such a character that abuse cannot be calculated upon as an acceptable risk factor in the production" (1989/5:16). In statements like "By introducing the principle that 'the polluter pays’, we will be able to guard against short-term, financial dispositions" (1993/1:15) it is also implied that there exists a risk that economy will be permitted to control ethics. The panel has already mentioned that probably, economy has been the driving force behind the research on trans-genetic animals.
Also in Towards intelligent traffic it is presented as a fact that financial interests control scientific research: "Since product development related to traffic informatics is controlled by expected marketing possibilities..."" (1995/1:22, my italics). The strengthening of research in unprofitable areas is presented as a public matter. Public authorities should act as a counterpart to 'the free research mechanism’, so "advantages for strong road-users do not become disadvantages for the rest" (ibid). Another panel describes how the development of scientific research not just depends on the "creativity and cooperation of the scientists", but also on grants and commercial interests (1989/6:14). Seemingly, the belief that research is controlled by economy is so established that it is possible – in a side remark – to say that "Moreover, scientists are to a high degree pressurized by financial interests" (1993/1:26). This is how facts are constructed and reproduced, and thereby norms. Norms are embedded in what we see as self-evident and objectively true.
Also the panel in Consumption and environment of the future are concerned with economy as a factor of control. They see the level of prices as determining for environmentally desirable consumption choices and find that "Economic gains are decisive for environmental developments" (1996/7:19). Here economy is portrayed as more decisive than both ethics and scientific research.
The same can be said about the meaning of the word 'economy’ as have been said about 'technology’ and 'development’ in the last chapter. The moment they are seen as natural entities or controlling mechanisms with their own will, the individual is deprived of both responsibility and scope for action. Therefore, when discourses related to economy suddenly contain ideas for action, the appeal is made to politicians. One put ones trust in them being able to control the uncontrollable, abstract processes.
Out of control
All the signals sent by lay people to politicians concerning 'control’ of the technological developments can be seen as an expression that there is not enough control – and that this is a risk factor. This risk comes about because of everything from human weakness to international dominance. The discourse 'out of control’ has words like 'control’, 'legislation’ and 'limits’ as the most important key words. They are often connected to negative words like 'inconvenient’, 'threat’ and 'irreversible’ and act together in a way where the latter justify the former and make them sound positive. In the following, I show how the words function in the search for public control and in the statements that technology avoids control.
When a lay panel utters that "Legislation is a possible way of controlling scientific research", it may be part of a rationale saying that scientists and technological developments will run riot collectively, if they are not controlled by some external factor (1989/6:26). Similarly, another panel says directly that the public should have "control possibilities", for instance to avoid that "methods still on the level of research are used as actual treatments" (1993/4:21). Implicitly, they say that the ethics of scientists are controlled by their 'technological curiosity’. Another lay panel finds that legislation and defined"mechanisms of control" should be ahead of the problems presented by new technology. In the debate on genetic screening it is "highly important that there through legislation is put limits to the deviations acceptable as serious" (1989/6:6). In the next document on gene technology, the panel writes: "We think that it has to be possible to put limits to gene therapy treatments when it has begun. Though, this is inconvenient and may involve large costs. Therefore we request that strict rules are made now, and that they contain prohibitions of gene therapy on gametes, because otherwise we may experience a slide" (1995/6:28).
There are also portrayals of how technological possibilities and human weakness collectively create a untenable situation that can only be solved through control: "The civic panel is under the impression that teleworking via the Internet and as a method of work that crosses borders, can be or become a threat and a practice that distorts competition for ordinary, legal and registered working conditions" (1997/3:42). Technology makes it possible to evade laws and norms, and the panel "thinks that many people will be tempted to moonlight in this area" (ibid).
There is not only concern that experts or companies control technological developments – outside the authority of politicians – but also an anxiety that technology itself runs riot – for instance in relation to the gene manipulation of gametes. Here the lay panel fears that possible damage in the DNA of gametes will "be inherited and thereby become irreparable" (1989/6:16). On this point, the lay panel has "registered a consensus among the experts" and concurs in this consensus "fully and completely" (ibid). When experts acknowledge the dangers or limits of technology we find a consensus between lay people and experts. The same concern that technology will become ungovernable can be found in the fear that the technological animals outdo natural species and thereby lead to changes in the eco-systems (1993/1:19). To put out small (trans-genetic) animals or fish is described as unpredictable, hard to control and unwarrantable. This is the problem with technology that destroys 'the original’ and no longer can be kept under control. This is also reproduced in "Maritime breeding and sea farms can lead to changes in the eco-system", which later can become "a threat to the wild population" (1996/8:18). The panel finds the problem "so important that a full stop for the building of more sea farms is suggested, until their consequences have been examined fully" (1996/8:19). The use of a passive ('is suggested’) could be a sign that the panel knows it will be an unpopular proposal – the fact that they put it forward anyway shows a serious concern.
Development itself can be impossible to control: "We expect that an extensive and largely unpredictable development will occur in years to come" (1995/1:26). A concern with the unpredictable can also be found in Where is the limit: "Degraded products are sometimes more dangerous than the mother products, and this increases the amount of potentially dangerous substances considerably" (1995/3:18). Statements like these show a certain powerlessness. Here no one speaks of control, because how is control possible? In the concluding document on irradiation of foodstuffs, the lay panel states that it is more or less impossible to control this technology. "Today [possibilities] are very limited", "can only be secured to some extent", etc. (1989/5:14). Nevertheless the panel maintains that "there has to be ways of controlling" the quality of products, and that the product has to be marked. In the end, it is pointed out that it is "necessary that control, for safety reasons, is carried out by state or local authorities" (ibid).
As we have seen 'out of control’ is expressed in many ways and in least as many different contexts. Technological developments are incalculable, unpredictable and impossible to control, and still the code word is 'control’. Maybe an increased focus on concrete methods of keeping control (as a substitute for the vague 'state control’ or simply 'control’) could influence this discourse in a way making it able to contain also words like 'easy to grasp’, 'predictable’, etc. This would also be the beginning of a change in the descriptions of uncertainty that I in the following section will examine more closely.
One way of identifying the areas where lay people find that risks exist, is to look at their descriptions of uncertainty. Without venturing further into whether and to which degree lay people feel uncertain, I will now look at different linguistic markers of uncertainty. Among these are a constant discussion of 'safety’ and 'protection’, as well as different risk scenarios. We will also look at some deviations from this pattern, namely the belief in absolute knowledge.
Uncertainty appears most directly in passages such as "Moreover, we feel a great uncertainty towards the possibility of securing that an irradiated product does not receive a new irradiation dosage to increase its keeping qualities even further" (1989/5:15). But also a cautious utterance such as 'could become’ signals a general uncertainty towards the topic. One panel writes that "There are many other areas where DNA investigations could create problems" (1989/6:28). Categorical verbs like 'can’ or 'will’ are not used – this would demand, and show, that the authors were more confident with their knowledge. This could be a reproduction of the experts’ way of talking, and that is why such wordings do not necessarily imply that the uncertainty only belongs to lay people. Then in the following, the authors appear confident in their knowledge, and they use this knowledge to give an account of, and justify, uncertainty: "Limit values used as a protective measure has a number of weaknesses: The part related to handling risk...is opaque and unstructured, and only in exceptional cases do limit values take into account combined effects and the effect of breakdown products, etc" (1995/3:23).
Abuse of the new technology
With a large number of statements regarding the enforcement of safety measures in connection with electronic identification cards, the lay panel expresses a feeling of uncertainty towards the introduction of the card (1994/2:14). And what does this uncertainty revolve around? "Citizens who choose not to obtain a card, must not be discriminated" (1994/2:146) and "the authorities must not force citizens to send and sign documents electronically" (1994/2:147). The card must have different safety measures, for instance it has to be able to identify the user "with certainty" (ibid). Apparently there is both a potential democratic problem and a potential practical problem with the card.
The uncertainty in relation to the possible abuse of citizens can also be found in Gene therapy. "Every citizen must be protected from discrimination" and similar utterances show an uncertainty towards the use of new technologies (1995/6:27).
The lay panel also fears that a concept like 'the ecological liberty of action’ "can be used as an unfortunate control of the individual consumer" (1996/7:15). These statements have a ring of potential surveillance and control, and a reluctance towards both. When control is used in relation to the individual, it has unpleasant associations, as opposed to its associations in the discourse 'out of control’. From this we can see that also this concept changes in relation to context, which indicates that it is a controversial term in the debate on risk.
Uncertainty created by humans
Though, here we find the same uncertainty towards the meeting between technology and the individual, as we see in the discourse 'out of control’. "There must be created such a high level of integration between man and machine that inappropriate reactions are eliminated – otherwise the consequences will be a catastrophe" (1995/1:11). Among other things, the lay panel fears "techno-stress" in the traffic (1995/1:16). A problem that has to be solved either through the panacea "extensive information and further education", that I will examine more closely in the section 'The ideal of public information’ or through alternatives to technology – "traditional, low-technological safety measures" (ibid).
The human – late modern – mentality is portrayed as a risk factor in itself that has to be calculated upon, but cannot be controlled: "The need for increased consumption can be seen as a result of the possibilities in modern society" (1996/7:21). Human limitations partly cause the uncertainties that come about because "investigations are based on present knowledge" and because "You only get answers to the questions you pose, and you never know whether you pose the right questions" (1995/3:16). And finally, human ethics are described as a dangerous partner in relation to technological uncertainties.
A statement like "although there is yet no absolute scientific basis for it" (1989/6:16) indicates a belief that at some stage this absolute basis for judgement will come about. Maybe a belief that truth is an absolute entity, independent of interests, which can be found if you are an honest, hard working scientist. Accordingly, uncertainty is not a state of affairs that you have to accept, but rather a passing phenomenon.
The lay panel also demonstrates 'a certain feeling of uncertainty’ when they write that traffic has to be possible to control in conventional ways "when the traffic informatics systems break down" (1995/1:18, my italics). There is nothing hypothetical in this statement, rather it is presented as an unavoidable fact that the new technology will fail. Certainty has to be found in the well-known, but a kind of certainty can also be seen in the categorical belief that absolute knowledge can be possessed. Even though it is a dominant feature in the material that technology creates uncertainty, the opposing statements are also present. For instance, gene technology has contributed to making prenatal diagnostics that previously gave uncertain risk estimates, into something that gives answers that are almost a 100% correct (1989/6:14).
The markers of uncertainty and certainty signal an preoccupation with substituting one with the other. It looks like a search for the elimination of risk. If reservations and anxieties have been predominant in this chapter, the following will show a high degree of cooperativeness when lay people relate actively to 'risk’.
Relating to risk
When lay people relate to risk, it implies that they have to examine whether they think that new technology should be put into use, or should be refused as too risky. The direct refusal of technology can be found in the documents, but it is rare. Similarly there are expressions of mistrust towards companies, authorities and experts, but happens quite rarely. It is more common that lay people look at technological developments in a pragmatical manner, as in 'now it is there, let us make the most of it’. Concurrently with this, they try to point at different scopes for action in relation to risk and technology. Among these, communication is seen as an important scope for action.
The necessary anxiety
This section summarizes the areas where lay discussions of pros and cons redound to the advantage of technological developments. I will examine closely the weighing out, because it says something about the ways in which lay people understand risk and relate to risk. The fear of technology and the refusal of technology are not the same thing. The discourse of the necessary anxiety is put into use when lay people examine the risks they possibly could be exposed to. The discourse is an expression of an active involvement – lay people weigh out the areas where they see uncertainty as a life condition.
Just like technology has two faces, there are two sides to people’s way of relating to risk. The lay panel in Citizens and dangerous production "believes that people are ready to run the necessary risks" (1988/8). This is one side of the matter. On the other hand they demand that the production has the character of necessity, that risks are minimal, that authorities and industries are open, honest and communicate clearly. It is often a matter of a balancing between a pragmatical attitude and a refusal of technology. "Of course things like chemical production should be allowed, but authorities should not go to a point, where people lose faith in them" (1988/10). The lay panel exemplifies what they mean by going too far, such as granting "exemption upon exemption in relation to sewage discharge, very small fines for breaking environmental laws, etc." but do not put up general criteria for the meaning of 'going too far’. What happens here is a weighing out, and this continues all the way through the material. As counterpart to the reservations that lay people have regarding the introduction of teleworking, they state that it "positively" will "lead to the loss of Danish jobs as a result of a general lack of competitiveness if Denmark does not follow the development in information technology" (1997/3:24). The magic phrases 'loss of jobs’, 'competitiveness’ and 'follow the developments’ are used as arguments that we have to learn to survive with – or relate to – the uncertainty surrounding the introduction of technology.
Confrontation with conservatism
Even the places where lay people accept the premisses of technological developments, they show a consciousness that it is necessary to weigh out the pros and cons continually. One of the lay panels writes that they are not advocates of the "stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off’ attitude" (1989/6:23). By treating the fear of technology and development in this manner, they distance themselves from it. The lay panel looks back at history – at the stubborn opposition of the Catholic Church to the world picture presented by Galilei – and in this way they make it clear that their possible opposition to new technology has nothing to do with superstitious conservatism. In contrast, the lay panel looks forward to "inventions that mark a new era...and which may enable steps into a higher level of understanding" (ibid), and concur in the idea of the 'necessary anxiety’ – when you look at the text as a whole.
The same goes for the inquriy panel in Gene Therapy. They speak of the 'inconvenience’ that gene therapy may provoke the development of cancer cells and the 'theoretical risk’ that the treatment of body cells may affect gametes. The panel concludes that "The above mentioned inconveniences are relatively small compared to the inconveniences of traditional kinds of treatment", but also that it is difficult to compare gene therapy to traditional treatments" (1995/6:16). This way of arguing appears throughout the document – as opposed to many of the other documents where the lay panels express that technological developments are moving too fast and rather should be substituted by improved, traditional methods. If we look at the language constructions in Gene therapy in general, it seems that expert statements are largely reproduced in this document – as in "There may be side effects connected to gene therapy, but these have not yet been observed in tests on humans" or "In the case of hereditary diseases, where the disease breaks out after the person has had children, gene therapy will not lead to an increase in these hereditary diseases" (1995/6:16). The lay panel uses categorical, objective modality in these expressions, and thereby make the statements appear as facts beyond dispute. They make use of the same reference to history as the authors of the first report on genetic research: "Throughout the history of medicine, it has been necessary to carry out treatments on an uncertain basis" (1995/6:19). They acknowledge that "In the end, the possibility that there may be risks related to the use of gene therapy in the long run, cannot be precluded" (1995/6:20) – but at the same time, they mention good reasons why the technology should be used; gene therapy may become a cheap miraculous cure that can release large resources in the health service system, and "when the method exists, it is our duty to use it. Danish society builds on solidarity with the weak" (1995/6:23). In this way, they put forward strong arguments for the new technology – and when counter-arguments are presented, they are in the passive: It has been stated" and "In this way, it has been argued" (ibid), which signals some kind of disassociation.
When you talk about risky productions, it is necessary to take into consideration the "worst catastrophe possible" in the calculation of consequences (1988:7). The authors do not venture into what help the calculations of consequences would be if the catastrophe occurred. The unsaid may be a sign that calculations necessarily have limitations, but that they relieve most of the anxiety if they give the feeling that you are prepared for the catastrophe! That the lay panel in this context puts the anxiety aside, does not necessarily mean that it is irrelevant, but maybe rather that it is so fundamental and necessary that it needs no comment.
This way of relating to risk signals that lay people are committed – even if the constant discussion of whether it is worth running the risk or not should lead to a refusal of the technology, or to lay people putting up limits. By renouncing absolute safety, they parry off criticism from those experts and politicians that are generally positioned as more positive towards development in the debate on technology. The discourse of the necessary anxiety is closely related to the media and political discourses that speak of more jobs, faster development, more efficiency, etc. On a general level, you could say that lay people find a kind of support in appropriating a traditional and popular ideal of growth and progress – which they seem to do here.
Between powerlessness and action
The view that some kind of risk is acceptable may partly – as we have seen in the section above – have to do with the fact that lay people have a hard time seeing other ways of acting than those presented by the experts. If you survey the material, lay people’s feeling of 'powerlessness’ takes up more space than 'action’. This does not imply that they refrain from giving suggestions that they otherwise describe as more or less impossible. The following section contains lay expressions of powerlessness, paradoxical utterances as well as the descriptions of scopes for action that also appear in the material.
A large number of pragmatical utterances in the documents bear witness to a widespread feeling of powerlessness among lay people. You could also call it realism – but anyway, most of the utterances roughly sound like this: "In principle we believe that this way of using gene tests should be banned. But we are aware that this ban can be hard to maintain" (1989/6:22, my italics). Other examples of pragmatical utterances are: "Acknowledging that in the area of the environment, funds are not unlimited, and therefore cleaning operations should be carried out first where resources are used the best" (1995/3:19) and "Using all available experts and resources, it will not be possible to examine the effects of all these substances" (1995/3:19). Facing the threat of dangerous, chemical substances, both science and economy has to give in.
In the abstract on genetic screening, the lay panel underpins that the use has both positive and negative effects. The negative creates a feeling of powerlessness. "To screen for defects and dispositions that cannot be treated or advised upon, creates only fear without scope for action" (1989/6:6). The categorical sentence "It is irrelevant to discuss a full stop for the gene mapping project, because it is already happening" is another sign of powerlessness. When there is nothing to discuss, there is nothing to do either. The lay panel therefore hesitantly proposes ("Some would therefore hope that") non-action as a kind of reaction to the fast development of technology: "A break during which especially cultural and social developments in society could be brought to the point of keeping up with developments in natural science. And we could get the possibility of moving ahead of technology" (1989/6:25).
When 'human character’ becomes an explanatory frame, it reflects a certain level of fatalism. "Therefore people can feel a need to make use of these consumption options" (1996/7:22) is a typical example of how references to something common to all people excuse the actions that cannot be adhered to. Here it does not only excuse a high level of consumption, it also explains why changes are unlikely. In the following section the authors write "You should not be forced into specific patterns of consumption or lifestyle" (ibid). The panel in Consumption and environment of the future writes a great deal about the political consumer’s ability to promote sustainable development, and in the end concludes that the Danish consumer has "no real influence" and that "We therefore have to realize that the move towards sustainable development and production primarily depends on initiatives and willingness from producers, retail distribution chains and politicians" (1996/7:30). With the enumeration of all these, the lay panel removes its own scope for action.
What is otherwise characterized as officialese or academic language, namely the use of passive and verbal nouns (nouns made out of verbs), looks more like markers of powerlessness, when they appear repeatedly in the concluding documents. In Cleaner air, the authors speak of how an effort in an air pollution situation "has high stakes". Moreover, "there should be staked on", and "there has to be staked on" (1992/2:14). With these expressions, the panel excuses itself from taking up an attitude towards the question who should put in the stake or prioritize, and how it should be done. Questions that may be too complicated to answer. However, it is important to keep an alternative reading in mind: the portentous and intricate language may increase the authority of lay people.
Powerlessness and action at the same time
We see the paradox 'between powerlessness and action’ in the sentence: "We should strive to reach a situation, where natural capital is restored" (1996/7:13). It contains both a strategy, which can be seen as vigorous, and signs of powerlessness – in the wording 'should strive’ and in the choice of the word 'reach’. 'Should strive’ is a vague construction, and could be replaced by 'have to’, and 'reach’ sounds like 'wishful thinking’.
It is even more clear in Cleaner air: Even if we do something now, we will still have to live with the sins of the past. If therefore we do not act now, the problem will become very expensive and maybe impossible to solve later on" (1992/2:13). These two sentences do not connect logically – 'therefore’ marks a causal relation that is not present. This can be seen as an expression of the paradox contained in the sentence on a semantic level. The first sentence is dominated by powerlessness: It is not within our reach to change the state of affairs. The other says: We have to act.
The feeling of powerlessness and action in relation to technology also appear side by side when the lay panel writes: "We believe that the influence of the systems on human mentality and behavior necessitate that we make up our minds regarding..." (1995/1:23). It is portrayed as absolute that 'human mentality’ is subjugated 'the systems’ – nothing can be done about that. Conversely, people still control the development, because they can have an attitude towards it.
Even if the lay panel in Citizens and dangerous production see scope for action in the establishment of a court sitting with a jury, there are certain reservations ("a kind of court sitting with a jury") and the lay panel expects no right of veto (1988:12). The same problem can be found in the statement that the citizens would like to "decide which risks we want to be exposed to – because we are not shy of risks" (1988:12). On the one hand, we see the powerlessness, because people have to accept risks, and on the other, we see action, in the attempt to gain some sort of control over life conditions.
Another panel maintains that it is not possible to stop the technological development. However, they question it, and finally conclude that "We do not wish to stop the development of technology, but to regulate and control it" (1994/2:150). Here we have the paradox in its purest form – technology cannot be stopped, but it can be kept under control...
And the same thing takes place in the debate on gene technology: "We neither can nor wish to hinder research in the area of human genetics, but we want to influence the ways in which the increased knowledge is used" (1989/6:26). The panel in Technological animals has outlined how Denmark is entangled in the international system to a degree where the nation no longer can decide anything, but still they write that "We think that it is important that the people of Denmark try to affect also international research communities with their points of view, as the Danish Parliament e.g. has decided..." (1993/1:25). A similar structure of reasoning is used by the lay panel in Far and near: "We have limited chances of preventing the development from outside, but to a very high degree, we can help... (1997/3:25).
Scopes for action
The feeling that action is possible is reflected in statements like "We ask for documentation for the amounts spent on respectively production plants and safety measures" (1988:3). To "ask for", to "demand" (1988:4), etc. is a kind of action that replaces political or physical action. An even clearer marker of scope for action can be seen in constructions like: "we have to think ahead, and offensively, if we want to introduce cleaner technology at the right pace" (1995/3:24), even if this case, the action is abstract.
Where things are a bit more concrete, the code word for action is 'investigations’. In fact, you can go as far as saying that 'investigations’ and 'research’ are overriding key words in all the concluding documents. On half a page, for example, you can find statements like "there is a need for research", "More research needs to be carried out in...as well as in", "Research is highly needed in", "There is a lack of new investigations", "We want more investigations" and "it should investigated" (1989/5:20). Similarly in another document: "Research should be carried out", "At the same time, programs should be established" and "Therefore resources for research must be mobilized" (1997/3:25).
In general the many passages of text bear witness to powerlessness being defied discursively by the few utterances that contain scope for action. The predominance of 'utterances of powerlessness’ is what you would expect when lay people move into a professional domain, where discussions take place on a high level, involving a lot of technical references. Therefore the most noteworthy thing is the way lay people force paradoxes into the debate – 'it may be impossible, but we will do it anyway’. And the way they act through language, by talking about the impossible as a possibility.
Communication as code word
As mentioned previously, communication is used repeatedly as a possible scope for action in relation to risk. To some extent, it probably reflects the ideal of communication that forms the basis of the conferences that the lay panels participate in. We will now examine how 'communication’ in some places substitutes physical solutions to problems, and how different ideals of communication are reproduced. Among these are the ideal of dialogical communication.
One may ask oneself if it is not a fairly direct accept of risky productions when the lay panel says that "in case the production carries a risk...the residents in the area have to be informed about it" (1988:9). The panel underpins the importance of two-way communication, and use some space on explaining why this communication is not working. Thereby, the d
Last update: 15-08-2001