A Primer On Technology

Events are unfolding and what we know so far is that Japan was hit by an earthquake and a tsunami that already cost 1,000 people their lives. At least one nuclear power plant is in grave danger of a melting core if the staff isn’t capable to restore power to activate the cooling.

Japan has one of the most enhanced safety guidelines for houses, industries, and energy plants in an area prone to earthquakes. These guidelines and policies will unquestionably have saved many lives. But what the fuck did they think?

For over 50 years now, beginning in the late 50s of the 20th century, politicians and industry people had been warned about the risks and consequences of nuclear technology. They ignored the problem of waste even as the waste barrels began to corrode and leak after 10 years and the salt mines in which they were stored had water inleakage that, as they had said, never would happen in the first place. They sugar-coated Three Mile Island with its partial nuclear meltdown (1979) and Chernobyl with its radioactive cloud travelling around the globe (1985). They rebranded the British nuclear processing site Windscale to Sellafield due to too much accidents (1981). In Japan they tested their reactors to withstand earthquakes on a magnitude of 7.9 degrees just to find themselves confronted with an earthquake on a 8.9 degree magnitude. For over 50 years now they develop, sell, and manage facilities that are alway too primitive, too faulty, too much prone to accidents. They never face consequences. The public does. They ignore or dispute that complexity is not manageable. Instead they double down. They make profits and revenues not only by selling or managing faulty equipments and sites but by charging for the necessary safety advancements they are happy inspecting authorities put on them. They earn their share when everything works fine as well as when the deals go south. They give a damn shit about it as they don’t do so in cases of oil spills, a burning Amazon, workers rights, health- and security regulations, even with regard to our children and parents. They know how to turn every event into profit. 

The egregious thing with nuclear technology in particular and with any mega-technology in general is that everybody, and I mean everybody, shares in this game. Be it industry tycoons, media moguls, politicians, most NGOs and environmentalists, systems thinkers, unions and, sometimes, the public. They know about the dangers of complex technology. But they soothe themselves. They think it ain’t real, that warnings are baseless. They double down. There is too much crap in the heads. So let me give you a short reminder of what technology is about, how it works, and what it effects. I will not browse the literature or arguments. I’ll just write it down in one straight rant to remind you of what we know to be the common bullshit about technology. Just in case you too have forgotten. 

 

1.     «Technology is neutral»

Everybody believes this. They say technology is a tool or provides tools. These tools are morally neutral, they can be used for the good or the bad.

Well, even if technology or its tools were morally neither good nor bad, this wouldn’t mean they were neutral in any proper sense. First, every tool or sub-technology is designed to serve a purpose. With that come the conditions of its proper or effective use. Inasmuch as the tool provides a range of applicability, it gives rise to a range of usages that are morally sensitive and that wouldn’t occur were the tool not at hand. Second, every tool or sub-technology is placed in a set of given conditions and circumstances as well as it creates or enforces such that have major impacts. Third, every tool and technology has unintended consequences that were not foreseen in the phase of the tool’s design or implementation. (In fact, its potential for unintended consequences is a main resource for a tool’s value and significance. It’s part of what is celebrated today as synergy.)

A gun is made to kill or threaten to kill. It has no use if you don’t use it to kill. You can use it to kill an animal to feed your family or to murder somebody. The first may be morally good, the second may be morally bad. But the point is that the gun has no other use than to kill or threaten to kill, meaning it simply isn’t very useful to make music with by making a flute out of it. The possibility to kill is the range of applications this tool provides. It can only be used for this, not for something else. And with this provision of this application arises the question of morally acceptable and unacceptable acts of killing. Now some deranged militia-member will think it is morally acceptable to kill immigrants or doctors providing abortions. A die-hard liberal will disagree. However you evaluate a specific case of application of guns, the gun’s range of application is to kill. And in general, killing is a morally sensitive matter, not a neutral one. It’s simply a fallacy to think that from indetermination or under-determination of a specific case of a tool’s application it would follow that in general the tool or its usage doesn’t have a moral quality. 

A telephone is a means to communicate but not something you should use to knock a nail into a wall. For that purpose we have a different tool. The telephone, used for this purpose, will definitely break. It is for communication, meaning it can properly be used to intimidate, stalk, call the emergency, have a love chat, whatever. You shouldn’t use it to knock a nail into the wall. Take a hammer instead. But with the telephone in your hand you not only have a means of communication. You have something that works properly only within a given infrastructure that it presupposes and that stems from a definite way of manufacturing. Not only do you have to accept a system of telephone networks that can be used for backdoor deals as well. The production of your telephone, mostly mobiles today, will proceed only with some resources like cobalt the mining of which is directly linked to slave labour in Africa, Latin America, and China. You might say that these are accidental circumstances because one might always design production- and purchase lines that do not rely on slave work or other exploitation. Well, obviously you’ve never heard from market pressure and the run for the lowest costs.

Mega-technologies, be it a fundamental technology like the computer or a complex technology like an industrial plant can only function under the constraint to delay the consequences. You delay consequences in time or in space. You give a damn about nuclear waste but hope and expect that future generations will clean up the mess. You ship your e-waste around the globe into emerging economies in Southeast Asia so that people there (not at home, not to these labour costs) suffer from heavy metal poisoning due to crude recycling. Mega-technologies are built from patterns of mutual reinforcing structures: without the computer technology neither globalization, nor free trade or international financial markets were possible. Those tools provide the means to shift the workload around the globe following time-zones, thereby effectively using the work-time of local environments. Structural unemployment at a given place is just one consequence. (British Airways was one of the first companies to divide accounting between Great Britain and India, thereby slashing 6.000 jobs in Great Britain alone.)

 

2.     «Technology is manageable»

People judge technologies or tools in isolation. Neither do they take into account the context in which they are used, nor the context of applications they provide, nor do they assess the social impacts of who enjoys the benefits and who bears the negative consequences. We judge a technology by the benefits that we as immediate users enjoy, not by the harm others may suffer.

With the folly of judging technology in isolation comes the inability or unwillingness to appreciate the complexity of any given technology. We simply don’t understand technologies, insofar as we ignore the complexity that their usage presupposes and creates. In that sense technology doesn’t resemble the neatness of a tool box but the intricacy of modern urban traffic. The significance of a technology can be measured or appreciated by the grade of complexity it creates and by the turmoil it places on environments, habitats, people, and populaces to adapt.

Technology isn’t introduced by benevolent actors, the tools and innovations acquire a character of natural force in that they create masses of constraints that no one can resist. In this sense technology resembles bureaucracies in that it appears unstoppable, makes no exceptions, leaves nobody untouched, and has no body or position of accountability. No one is responsible for the pervasiveness of a new technology. At best we call some abstract market forces to be the prime movers. But the decisive feature of a technology and a tool is that its invention as well as its expansion and proliferation are free from accountability: in its invention it is innocent because it is an act of human ingenuity; in its dispersion it is beyond individual responsibility as it spreads uncontrollable due to market forces and greed. In essence: We are never responsible for the invention and application of any tool or technology.

Given the complexity of any technology and its independence from any individual responsibility, it is simply a creed to think one (or many or even “we”) might be able to control the longterm consequences of the invention and dispersion of any new technological tool. Even China’s top-down 5-years-plan, scientifically monitored, is unable to foresee not to mention prevent the unintended consequences. Do you remember the Great Leap Forward? Or the industrial storm of steel in the USSR in the 50s and early 60s of the 20th century? More people were killed in both grand redesign-schemes than in World War I and II combined. The folly of thinking that technology is controllable is a mixture of misconceptions of what technologies are and where and how humans can influence such a process.

 

3.     «Technology is a means to solve problems»

This folly is widespread in what I’d like to term “materialistic holism,” the endeavour to apply systems thinking (in the tradition of Donella Meadows and others) on matters of economy, technology, science, and social organization. To think that a swarm of fishes, the organization of crystals, the transmissions between the neuronal cells of the brain, the interactions between people in groups, society, riots, and festivities, the production- and delivery-lines of companies, etc. can all be treated on the same level means to disreagrd everything that makes such complexities individual and specific. One result of this can be seen in economic conceptions that dissolve the difference between companies, employer, employees, and their customers, degrading the latter to a stop-over or link in the supply chain that reaches from production to delivery. The upshot is that customers become unpaid co-employees of the companies whose services or products they purchase. When the delivery of goods from here to there becomes the goal, respect, craft, expertise, service are of minor importance. In the end, the customer is trapped somewhere in the service line, unable to reach somebody who might be willing or able or authorized to answer his requests.

Technology in this way of thinking is an ever evolving fluid-like pattern of relationships that grows by intensifying its pressure on all participants to accommodate – be it humans, animals, environments, cultures or customs. In this way of perception social or environmental problems cannot even be recognized as problems anymore, as they simply become variables in a vibrant, dynamic pattern. As values, responsibility, history, biodiversity, languages, traditions turn into assets of this process, they cease to be recognizable as individual items with their own characteristics and values. Systems thinking is thinking that demotes. Complexity becomes a flutter, a sparkling, a dynamic of changes that reduces its participating parts to crossovers into another change. How can one, in this approach, recognize, identify, highlight, and emphasise anything as a problem? There are none left.

 

4.     «Technology is a means for social action»

Of course there are ways to focus on problems, even in the complex spheres of current technological development: it’s screaming. It’s when people try to defend some part of their lives against the intrusion of forced change. Luckily we now have technology even for that, the internet, the social media, the throves of platforms and applications that help people organize. The problem only is that in the context of such media communication becomes push-and-pull. It ceases to be a conversation and becomes rallying for causes. But every attack provokes a defense and counter-attack. One cannot talk with someone who isn’t willing to listen. So what results is that any social change is tantamount to a war-like situation induced by pressure. And as is custom in such situations, conversations are stream-lined to chains of command. It is no coincidence that even in endeavours like Wikileaks its founder Julian Assange demanded obedience from his co-workers: “Do not challenge leadership in times of crisis,” was his telling statement. The point is not that this shows some allegedly bad character trait of Assange, it shows what happens to conversation when it is turned into effectiveness-oriented communication in the medium of push-and-pull. It’s what communication in the context of social agendas becomes. The main problem with this approach is that one must have a goal prior to any communication (and action) taken. This procedure isn’t capable of enabling the finding of ideas, the scrutinizing of nuances and ambiguities. Push-and-pull must flatten the conversations to messages that can be understood by crowds of followers. It’s the opposite of what conversations aim at: to find a common goal by and during the course of a discussion.

 

5.     «There can be sustainable technology»

When we identify technology with market capitalism the concept of permanent growth inherent in capitalism pairs itself with the concept of technological progress. Isn’t it a good thing to be able to cure illnesses former generations were unable to? Isn’t it laudable to genetically redesign crops to yield the basis for nutrition even in arid areas? And, if we can do such things, wouldn’t it be immoral to refrain from doing so? 

Again, the seemingly benevolent effects of new tools and technologies are presented as if there had been a choice in the beginning. There was none. We cannot choose. This is so because usually the choice is somebody else’s (who has other motivations than altruistic ones to push them). Again, those who bear the burden of the consequences are usually not those who enjoy the benefits of the innovation. Those who push for new innovations simply exploit the need or desire of many to market a new product or service. For that to be feasible the original problem or desire is not allowed to be solved or satisfied by the new means, as market saturation would stop the flow of revenues. Innovations are not introduced to solve problems, they are introduced to milk them (even if only via the human intensity connected to them).

Inasmuch as technology and capitalism are more or less only conceptually distinct, growth and progress act as interchangeable concepts. Both amplify each other. The main error environmentalists and environmental thinking of the last 60 years have been victim of was the belief that economic growth is about material resources. To say that infinite growth on a finite planet isn’t possible is true as long as growth is understood to consist in the production of goods that consumes material resources the consumption of which puts strain on habitats, biodiversity, and natural resources. But growth doesn’t need to rely on the consumption of material resources. It can rely on anything, any resource that can be used to create a value for which people are willing to or can be forced to pay for. Services, financial products, health care, entertainment, education are just examples of industries that do not consist in manufacturing products by consuming material resources. In fact, as long as capitalism can restructure, reshape or rearrange a society with the introduction of new strains and products, and as long as people can (be forced to) adapt to these changing circumstances, capitalism can keep following the primacy of permanent growth. Given these conditions, technologies and tools enter the stage inasmuch as they create and foster such changes in a culture and society. There are enough technological innovations that never saw the stage of the market as they could not compete with other tools that were in use to create revenues.

 

6.     «Technology is a tool»

Technology and capitalism are the same inasmuch as both put the burden of change and adaption on people, cultures, and environments. Once a pristine landscape has been depleted and turned into wasteland, the companies move on for other shores. These shores are primarily defined with the help of a new business idea, a new way not so much of doing things but of making money. They don’t need to lie farther away in the “prospects,” they may “return” back home as well. Again, for capitalism growth is indispensable, but it is rather arbitrary through which endeavours and means this growth is achieved. The intrusiveness of capitalism continues regardless whether one produces material products or focuses on services, entertainment, education, information, etc. Capitalism reshapes its societies, changes areas from one form of dwelling, production, entertainment, culture, and the relationships between people, to another. Each generation experiences a “new“ rush of capitalism as it invades former “insulated“ parts of life. Their exploitation and their being left behind as wastelands at first creates a sour and bitter feeling until the former ways as well as the former pristine landscapes are forgotten. The new state then is the way things always have and had been.

Capitalism is a strong spiritual concept. Not only does it apply the concept of craftmanship and effectiveness to material goods or tangible services but it also enforces them onto the inner realms of the human being. Being useful or effective is just the overt way of treating someone like a thing, as something that has no inherent sense or value but has to be given some from the outside. Treating oneself (or being treated by others) as a thing not only aims at enhancing our performances in society, it also includes our coping with our demons and pathologies. Life, our own life, now has a sense only insofar as we give it one. Accordingly, psychology (not religion) became the way, people in the West came to understand and describe themselves. That the very concept of our “own” life would have sounded rather ridiculous to former generations is just an anecdote in passing. 

Technology, in this context, is the way to put into effect the model of craftmanship that permeates the inner and the outer of the human sphere. Permanent growth in capitalism and permanent growth in the inner realms of the soul via spirituality, healing, therapy, etc. mirror each others. Technology is not a tool, nor a set of tools, nor an environment created by the applications and interactions of tools. Technology is primarily the visible way to understand who we are. The people of the West always described the essence of Man in terms of and with the help of the most perfect machine available in their times. We chose clocks, steam-engines, computers to understand who we are. And as long as technology strives and capitalism blooms we are assured our understanding of who we are and what we are aiming at stays unchallenged and fixed. No wonder that swarms became a leading image when systems thinking suggested a model that embraces Man and Nature alike.

 

7.     «Technology is innocent»

As it became fashionable again to embrace technology with naïveté, enthusiasm, oblivion, innocence, and greed, it is advisable to remember what Jerry Mander said some 20 years ago: Technology is guilty until proven innocent. Not that this will help much as even former exponents of the Counterculture like Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly or scientists like James Lovelock now engage wholeheartedly in mega-tech propaganda – needless to say in order to save the planet, the biosphere, and all the rest. But as long as you imagine your connectedness to Life as being a tiny blip in an ever-changing network of transmissions, you may even be happy with this. 

 

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