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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Little Boxes

Yesterday I attended the 2010 Legislative Roundtable at Georgia Tech, organized jointly by the Georgia Tech Research Institute and the Technology Association of Georgia. The purpose of the event was to bring together business leaders and state legislators with academics and others to discuss matters related to science and technology policy in Georgia.

After the opening plenary, there were four sessions, one each on energy, transportation and logistics, health IT, and education. I attended the sessions on energy and transportation, and was immediately struck by the same pattern I noticed at CNU 18 back in the spring: the world of policy and practice is divided up into lots of little boxes. What is of central importance in one box may not even be of peripheral concern in the box right next to it, even if there are obvious connections between the two boxes.

In the session on energy policy, for example, much was said about solar power and the prospects for electric cars. Very little was said about the infrastructure to support electric cars, and nothing at all was said about traffic congestion and the difficulties of maintaining roadways without fossil fuels. Come to think of it, nothing was said about possible unintended consequences of shifting to electric cars, including the geopolitical and environmental consequences of producing, using, and disposing of all those batteries. But then, those are the concern of other policy areas: natural resources policy, foreign policy, environmental policy. This was a session about energy policy, focused narrowly on matters of production and distribution.

In the session on transportation and logistics, on the other hand, nothing was said about energy policy, except to note that higher gas prices lead to fewer gallons being purchased, which decreases the amount of money available to build highways. Nothing at all was said of the effect of fossil fuel depletion on their confident projections of how much freight would be moved by truck in twenty or thirty years. Nothing at all was said of the connection between land use and transportation challenges. One of the panelists defined transportation as moving people and goods from point A to point B as efficiently and safely as possible, but it occurred to me to wonder: Why do I want to get to point B? and, Why is it so far away? But no, those are the concerns of other policy areas: energy policy, urban planning, and zoning. This was a session about transportation policy, focused narrowly on tons of freight, highway maintenance, and measures of traffic congestion.

Surely, there must be a way to take a more comprehensive approach to these matters, to be able to see the deep connections among energy, transportation, land use, and other human concerns when setting policy. Otherwise, legislators and agencies are bound to end up working at cross-purposes, to the detriment of everyone.

The experience brought to mind a passage from Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac (Oxford University Press, 1949) in which he sets out his own distinctive position in the philosophy of technology. He begins with a kind of creation myth according to which all technology can be traced back to the shovel and the axe.
Other ancestors, less remote, have since invented other tools, but each of these, upon closer scrutiny, proves to be either an elaboration of, or an accessory to, the original pair of basic implements. We classify ourselves into vocations, each of which either wields some particular tool, or sells it, or repairs it, or sharpens it, or dispenses advice on how to do so; by such a division of labors we avoid responsibility for the misuse of any tool save our own. But there is one vocation - philosophy - which knows that all men, by what they think about and wish for, in effect wield all tools. It knows that men thus determine, by their manner of thinking and acting, whether it is worthwhile to wield any (p.68)
As a philosopher I am, of course, flattered by Leopold's characterization of my vocation. Setting that aside, though, I can say that I wish the legislators and business leaders involved in the Roundtable had been more philosophical in this sense.

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