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Shared Reading, Office of Technology Assessment

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: July 17, 2004
Latest Update: July 17, 2004

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Index of Topics on Site Knowledge Precedes Decision-Making
by Author

  1. Introduction Why I chose to share this reading.
  2. Focus: Main point of this reading.
  3. Reading Full identification of source for reading AND excerpt.
  4. Concepts: Concepts and Key Words.
  5. Discussion Discussion questions.
  6. Conceptual Linking to Substantive Courses What this has to do with our class.

* * *


  • Major technological decisions are currently being made all over the country about voting machines, and about whether or not they can and/or must have a paper record for purposes of validity and reliability checks. Decisions like that should not come before a legislative body that does not have reliably gathered and analyzed data. A personal guess just doesn't cut it.


  • Look at the ideals in leadership and management described by boman and Deal, and then consider the United Press International concern over the lack of funding for an Office of Technology Assessment. I would like you to come away from this reading, realizing that you need to ask about the information on which all decisions are based, and to question that information critically.

Concepts and Key Words:

  • infromation control - control of the most ignominious sort, in which one gains power by making sure another doesn't have the information requisite to getting the job done.
  • validity - assurance that what you think you are measuring is actually what you are measuring. If you measure "degree by which you are liked" by asking people if they like you, you'll have a problem with validity because most people would not consider it socially acceptable to say no.
  • reliability - characteristic of data collection that assures that you will get similar results each time you collect this particular data in this way. For example, a test is reliable if you can show that those who know more about the subject score consistently higher than do those who know less.
  • politicalization - Newt Gingrich claimed that the OTA was biased against the position of conservatives of his group. That means they were politicized, and on the other side from him. Now, I'm not sure his claim is either valid or reliable, but that was his validity claim, and his reason for moving to cut the OTA funds.


Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is personal experience untrustworthy for general decision-making?

    Consider the fact that all personal experience is contextually-based, and that our individual contexts vary so that we would have little reliability in getting the same results again. When you have data from the experiences of many people, you will have had many different contexts from which to draw that data, so that the data will be more reliable. If you have a random, or better still, a random stratified sample, then the contexts from which you draw your data are even more alike and will give you greater faith in the reliability of your data.

  2. You just got a job in a fast-food store after school. The assistant manager rushes over and gets the ice cream for you everytime one your customers order it. You have asked him to show you how to operate the ice cream machine, but he is always too busy to show you. Is that information control?

    You bet it is. The more things he can keep you from knowing the less likely you are to be promoted over him. Now that's a pretty drastic conclusions for your first week, but people who would prefer to slow down the pace and not have to work so hard can do so pretty effectively by using information control.

    "Power flows to those with the information and know-how to solve important proglems. It flows to marketing experts in consumer products industries, to the faculty in elite universities, and to superstar conductors of symphony orchestras." (Bolman, at p. 194.)

  3. What would an effective manager do in the above scenario?

    Answerability. Watch and listen closely to all the employees. When you see information control going on, offer warmlly to teach the new employee what he/she needs to learn. It works, and pretty soon the assistant manager will gain little or nothing by this type of information control, and will hopefully give it up. You might also consider counseling the assistant manager and showing him/her better ways to gain power.

    "Empowerment includes making information available, but it doesn't stop there. It also involves encouraging autonomy and participation, redesiigning work, fostering teams, promoting egalitarianism, and giving work meaning." (Bolman, at p. 143.)

  4. How did the shutting down of the OTA affect Congress' ability to make some fairly sophisticated decisions?

    Consider: "The real-world practicality of having members of Congress figure this out by making phone calls is questionable. Even if everyone could find the time to sit down with experts on spectrum interference -- or virology or computer systems or other complicated topics -- would they realistically be able to sort through all the conflicting information on all the topics Congress covers to find what is needed to make fast decisions? Not likely."

    And consider: "Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists and a former employee at OTA, said he believes there were sufficient safeguards to prevent bias at the organization and that its work was absolutely vital to Congress.

    "Kelly called the closing of OTA by Congress "the equivalent of a self-inflicted lobotomy."

  5. Why is it dangerous not to have the necessary information for good decision-making in technology?

    "The U.S. economy is driven in large measure by technology advances. There are no advances without costs, however, and balancing risk is what Congress is elected to do. Hopefully, the real need for independent information and the economic risk posed by bad decisions will swing members of Congress toward supporting an enhanced GAO. It is difficult to see a downside to having good information, especially when the price of ignorance is high."

Conceptual Linking to Substantive Courses:

  • Agencies:
    Sample linking: The Office of Technology Assessment was an agency, as would have been its successor. As the UPI article points out, no individual senator or congressperson has the time and/or skills to contact individual scientists for such information. That is prescisely why our legislators create agencies and appoint administrative personnel to run them. Recall that our whole government runs through administrative law; agencies do a great deal more than safety nets for social welfare.

  • Criminal Justice:
    Sample linking:

    Look again at Newt Gingrich's concerns about the OTA. Although the alteration of n agency's agenda through politicalization is not defined as a crime, it makes that agency seem untrustworthy to legislators that must or should be able to depend on it. Certainly politicalization would have an effect on the civil enactment of our laws. So this is all about the definition of crime and about civil trust, isn't it? How does this reading serve to illustrate adversarialism, mutuality, retribution, revenge, illocutionary understanding, and the need for us to work on inter-relatedness between legislators and the agencies they empower? Does this reading help you understand that the concept of civil and criminal justice go well beyond the bounds of traditional control and corrections?

  • Law:
    Sample linking: Extent to which laws are made on the assumption that we are all essentially assimilated to the dominant culture. Technology has become an integral part of our dominant culture, and we seem to be in danger of assuming that our legislators have an in-depth understanding of that technology. How does this reading help us see the need for contextual readings in law? Consider that the legislators need the context explained by experts before they can make decisions that won't boomerang in the future.

  • Moot Court:
    Sample linking: How well did Newt Gingrich nd the OTA do at illocutionary understanding? What has that cost us? What is it likely to cost us in the effects of wrong decisions based on incomplete and inaccurate information. Does it sound like Newt Gingrich and the OTA were operating on illocutionary discourse, governance discourse, or instrumental discourse?

  • Women in Poverty:
    Sample linking: Is this the kind of issue of which poor women are likely to be aware? To what extent would it matter that a large part of being poor is surviving day to day. Does this shift the responsibility for caring for those whose skills are elsewhere to the community as a whole? How do we do that? Through agencies, through privatization? What would Bolman and Deal say? "Cluelessness is a fact of everyday life." (Bolman, at p. 4.) Even more so forthe poor.

  • Race, Gender, Class:
    Sample linking: The extent to which silence has been imposed by these affiliations so that domination and discrimination have entered our unstated assumptions in interpersonal relations and the structural context arising from them. Along with the silence that has been imposed through the power of authority and domination has come lesser exposure to power negotiations and to making a minority voice heard. Don't forget that Newt Gingrich's was a minority voice. Again, as in considering poverty, we need to demand accountability of legislators and enforcers in maintaining and securing safety nets for the protection of all, not merely their own.

  • Religion:
    Sample linking: The spiritual component. Humans are spiritual creatures, creatures that recognize moments that go beyond ourselves to God, Allah, Isis, Gaia, the Universe, or a deep sense of responsibility to create our own meanng. How does the reading fit into our ability, our need to create such meaning in life? How does this link to the accountability we spoke of in agency, poverty, and race, gender, and class?

  • Love !A:
    Sample linking: What's the aesthetic link in this reading? How does it bring us closer to one another as humans? What does it tell us about our need for love, unconditional love, not rewards for doing well or being well, but caring and acceptance for being who we are? Consider that almost all of us are clueless when it comes to the intricacies of modern technology. We are dependent on the humanity and sensitization that binds us on this earth that decision-makers will do their best to do no harm, and will use every available means in good faith to gain the knowledge to do that. This is not about accountability. This is about respect for the Other as living, and that means respect for the earth as living, too.

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, June 2004.
"Fair use" encouraged.