There is much sociological research examining the relationship of technological development of democratic processes. A particular concern is the way that technological innovations by governments and institutions give rise to technocracies which can create alienation and disenfranchisement among the population. Beck argues that technological progress can be understood as “legitimate social change without democratic political legitimation” (Beck, 1992, p214). Heinz Von Foerster argued that even in his world of 1970 there was not so much a “world of technology” (as many argued) but rather a world of technocracy. He went on to explain “we have, hopefully only temporarily, relinquished our responsibility to ask for a technology that will solve existent problems. Instead we have allowed existent technology to create problems it can solve.” (Von Foerster, 1984, p212) In addressing this issue of what amounts to ‘undemocratic’ social change, Feenberg argues for a deeper politicising and democratising of technology. He says “Technology can deliver more than one type of technological civilization. We have not yet exhausted its democratic potential” (Feenberg, 2010, p29). The Boundaries Observatory actively seeks to explore the ways in which alternative forms of technological civilization might be possible. In order to do this, it is focused on describing the real properties and causal power of technology so that these can be understood. The Boundaries Observatory asserts that deeper understanding of technology’s causal tendencies by policy makers will result in a more democratic approach to technology.
The observatory is about understanding what technology does and what people do in relation to it, and as a consequence how their understandings of the fundamental notions relating to human relations that are the focus of the work may be changing. These relations will involve issues of identity, privacy, trust, reputation, responsibility, community, gender and fairness. The aim of the The Boundaries Observatory inquiry is to produce new knowledge, new ways of conveying that knowledge and new stimuli to ask deeper questions among policy makers and anyone else who has to make strategic decisions. In this way, technocracy can be exposed as irrational. Technocratic policy tends to ignore the deep aspects of human experience, focussing on behavioural change produced by technological implementation, at the expense of more nuanced exploration of changes in the understandings of fundamental notions that drive these behavioural changes. Though this may give an impression of scientific rationality, the deeper relations between human understandings, human behaviour and technological implementation are more complex.