The Precautionary Principle and Innovation

“First, there are issues of scale: small-scale explorations by lead users are relatively harmless until they are scaled up to become the dependence of mass consumers. Innovations may grow so popular that their production and consumption affect the stability of ecosystems and democracies, such as plastic waste choking our oceans, or Facebook becoming an increasing threat to the stability of democracies around the world.

Second, there are end-of-product-life considerations that are not properly taken into account, such as dismantling a nuclear energy facility or the recycling of electronic waste. 

Third, the harm from innovation may come not from regular use, but from unanticipated consequences, as shown in the Chernobyl disaster.

Fourth, innovation may be undertaken to deceive consumers and regulators about the nature of a product. The classic example from recent history would be Volkswagen’s intentional programming of its diesel engines to give misleading measurements of NOx emissions during regulatory testing. We might also mention here the case of complex financial market innovations designed to trick unsophisticated investors. 

A fifth dimension relates to the social injustice whereby those who gain from an innovation differ from those who lose. A recent Oxfam report estimates that the richest 1% of the world’s population is responsible for more than twice the carbon pollution of the poorest half of humanity during a critical 25-year period of emissions growth. 

Taking into account the downsides of technological innovation as well as the advantages leads us to think about the tradeoffs involved. The ‘precautionary principle’ suggests that regulators should not wait until an absolute scientific or societal consensus is achieved before taking regulatory action against dubious products and processes.”

-Alex Coad, “Innovation is harming us in ways we have yet to understand.” Pando. October 5, 2020.

5 thoughts on “The Precautionary Principle and Innovation

  1. I sent a reply but it doesn’t look like it went through….I don’t use social media, have a Facebook acct but never go on, never really did so no loss there. Just WordPress and email
    Read your attached links and “pre installed android” comes closest to what this was about, they seemed to be talking about something even deeper and dystopian. I will think on it and maybe watch it again. I watched the trailer but it doesn’t convey what I thought I heard. Thanks for replying…

    1. It depends on focus. There’s a lot of tracking going on, whether it is social media, telecommunication companies selling location data, etc. In order to mitigate these issues, you’d need to use tools like privacy focused operating systems on phones, VPNs, etc., which are difficult to set-up and use correctly. There are some efforts to make this more usable for the average person, at a price, such as Librem 5. But, most require a great deal of technical expertise. For example, there aren’t many people that could install GrapheneOS and use it. The bottom line is there is a lot of interest in manipulating people, and it is hard not to be manipulated. This is not limited to technology. Try taking a look at Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion to see other examples from marketing that are largely non-technical.

      1. …’manipulation’ that was the main focus of what these people were saying, these were the people who were at the top of Google, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and they explained in a way I hadn’t been able to hear before about algorythmns and how AI is basically manipulating what is seen by each person for ‘surveillance capitalism’.

    1. I don’t have Netflix. I just watched the trailer for The Social Dilemma. I’d guess I’m familiar with most of the arguments. Part of my motivation for starting this blog was to get off Facebook and other social media sites in early 2017. As part of that, I also stopped using Google and Microsoft products. I have never used Apple. So, the only part of the feudal internet – generally referred to as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft – that I use is Amazon, which for personal reasons I’m obligated to use.

      Since I haven’t used social media for four years, one thing I can tell you is that not being on social media is a net positive for me, and I suspect for most. It cuts weak ties, so there is a price to be paid. But, there’s also a price to be paid by being on it. As the saying goes, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” And social media is largely about making comparisons.

      I’ve documented a lot of my perspective here, a few examples:

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