Democratizing Technology: risk responsibility and the regulation of chemicals

By Anne Chapman . Published by Earthscan Books , September 2007 . ISBN 1844074218

Reviewed by Elizabeth Hanna

National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, The Australian National University

Democratizing Technology: Risk, Responsibility & the Regulation of Chemicals was not intentionally intended for public health audiences. Environmental lawyers, policy makers, philosophy enthusiasts, educated lay public, those challenging the political status quo, and the few, but increasing number of individuals who follow chemical regulation are well targeted with this book. However, if public health is to be viewed as a morally responsible exercise striving, through policy, to advance the health and wellbeing of human populations, then this text broaches the core philosophical values inherent to public health. Anne Chapman has converted her PhD in Philosophy into an authoritative text that while being acutely specific, also spans diverse realms of deep relevance to a very broad public health readership.

The text essentially examines the impact of technology on human life and the planet. The reader is taken on a journey of self exploration of personal assumptions and faith in modern western democracies in action. This is not an esoteric escapade, but rather a well plotted course through a minefield of misconceptions. The focus is democracy as applied to technology, its emergence, trends and intrusion into modern life. Readers should not expect the rantings of an ill-considered luddite, but rather a presentation of well-founded evidence and objective analysis.

Where the book excels is the thoughtful exploration of questions of profound relevance to public health, such as divergence between our understanding, our behaviours and public policies with respect to risk and responsibility. The analysis provides innovative insights for behaviouralists, policy development in both theoretical and practical spheres, ethicists, political analysts, environmental health scholars and all who encounter technology, and wonder about how we personally and collectively respond to technology in our midst.

Although technology, in its broadest sense is under the spotlight, Chapman contextualises her examination by critiquing European legislation of synthetic chemicals. The ‘radical’ element emerges as she challenges whether decision making, designed ostensibly for the public good, instead gives primacy to economics as its key stakeholder above human wellbeing, or indeed survival of the planet. Here again, Chapman's text offers an analysis that carries poignant transference to public policy in general, and certainly for policy making in Australia.

Through careful avoidance of jargon and adherence to an economy of words, Chapman ensures the text is precise and accessible to a broad audience from undergraduates upwards. The well researched content and intellectual rigour relieve the book from the potential of being an arduous read.

The book's greatest strength – or indeed greatest relevance to public health – lies in the exploration of risk, responsibility and morality of policy making. Extending this is its potential to shed new insights into core public health areas of health promotion.

Organisation is the weakest part of this text. However, an examination of disparate areas while on the one hand appears a little disjointed, on the other hand provides a synthesis that brings perspectives from multiple angles, not routinely explored through the public health literature. As such, the book reasserts the value of reading outside the ‘designated’ public health literature.