Doctor of Philosophy
Couchman, Paul K., Technology and the Australian state: the changing political discourse on technology in Australia 1975-1985, Doctor of Philosophy thesis, , University of Wollongong, 1989. http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/2112
The thesis brings contemporary social theory into the analysis of science and technology policy. In doing so it draws on two broad areas of theory, on the social nature of technology and on the state as an institution of political domination. Technology is important to the state for it provides new means for state actors to achieve desired ends (state actors thus have an instrumental interest in technology), and it sets an agenda of policy problems for the state to deal with. Conversely, the state is important to technology for it is a major orienting agent and an organisational locus for much technological development.
The thesis advances a number of central theoretical themes on technology and the state. While technology is a social construction, the product of deliberate choices and actions by particular social actors, it is also socially structuring in that technologies are ways of building order in the world and can therefore have political properties. Technologies embody the values and interests of those groups informing their development, so inherent in any new technology there is a potential for conflict between those responsible for it and those affected by its social implementation. The state is an independent political actor which has its own power base and which can mobilise its own administrative, coercive and ideological resources. However, the state in capitalist society has to act within a national and international context which both constrains and influences its capacity to exercise its power. The societal context enmeshes the state in contradictions, and in seeking to resolve these, foster consensus and mobilise acceptance of their policies, state actors deploy ideology, political language and symbolic action as political resources.
Drawing on this theoretical framework, the thesis analyses the changing political discourse on technology in Australia from the mid-1970's to the mid-1980's. During this period, against a background context of growing economic crisis, there arose a technological change debate in which a "technology as threat" perspective prevailed. The central themes in this were that the rate of technological change was increasing and was moving beyond human control, and consequently the associated social dislocations (particularly the prospect of widespread "technological unemployment") were becoming a major problem. What was sought by many groups was some form of centralised control over technological change to ensure that the costs and benefits were equitably distributed. This perspective, and the demands arising from it, presented a challenge to the economic order, its decision-making structures and the ideologies that legitimated them.
Governments within the Australian state responded to these challenges, and two such responses are analyzed in the thesis: the Fraser Government's Myers Inquiry into Technological Change in Australia and the New South Wales Technology Research Unit. Both embodied the concept of technology assessment, but in different forms. These responses were important symbolic actions, for they not only provided symbolic reassurance through the propagation of a rhetoric of control (technology can be managed to the benefit of all) and a legitimation of the order by reasserting the ideology of technological progress, they also were attempts to contain subordinate group pressures. Such actions went some way to rehabilitating technology in the political discourse, and they marked the beginning of the end of the technology as threat perspective therein.
Another aspect of the political rehabilitation of technological change was the promotion of the strategic economic importance of technology through the rhetoric of "technology as opportunity". Through this state actors have sought to gain the positive acceptance of the technological order and a consensus on the desirability of new technology. In order to mobilise consent, the rhetoric of technology as opportunity has been embedded in a language of crisis ("there is no alternative"), strategies to improve the public image of science and technology have been deployed, and the concerns about the social implications of technological change have been displaced from the policy arena. These activities have been most successful under the auspices of the Hawke Labor Government's "Accord". In a context of "cooperation among social partners", a policy of public support for private technology has been implemented, consensus maintained and dissent contained. If in the technological change debate, technology had been politicised, in a political climate where technology as opportunity dominated, technology had become depoliticised.
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