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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Technics (p. 342)

From chapter "Technotopia: Industry"

For a technotopia to succeed, it needs to meet two main conditions. First, sustainable alternative technologies need to be possible—and they have to be developed—to replace essentially all current (unsustainable) industrial processes. And second, those sustainable technologies actually have to be implemented within that society’s social conditions, power structures, and economic system.

The first condition requires a profound leap of faith. The problem is that industrial civilization itself is based on unsustainable technologies, like annual grain agriculture and the use of fossil fuels. If you invent a new technology that depends on unsustainable infrastructure, your technology is simply not going to be sustainable. Proven sustainable technologies of the past—like beaver dams or cheese fermentation—start from the context of a healthy living biome. It’s safe to say that proven sustainable technologies of the future will start there as well.

The term “green technology” has been thrown around so much these days that it is essentially meaningless. Most supposedly green industrial technologies—like bioplastics—fall apart under scrutiny, and only look promising when compared to industrial society’s abysmal ecological track record. Industrial green technologies are more promise than substance, and in essentially every case green technologies are essentially prospective or theoretical. If we rely on them for our future, we are once again giving up our agency, once again making ourselves powerless, once again falling for a distraction when we should be looking for the way out of the cage.

But it’s the second condition that’s really the final nail in the coffin of technotopias. Belief in a technotopia requires not only that sustainable industrial technologies exist, but that those technologies be implemented at the expense of current unsustainable technologies. And the history of garbage we’ve discussed in this book has been the complete opposite. Over the past century, low waste systems have been deliberately dismantled by corporations and governments, specifically because they were low waste systems. We’ve discussed some of their motivations for doing this, but there are deeper and subtler reasons that we can tease out.

I think the idea that “technology is neutral” is one of the most dangerous myths of our time. If we fall for the myth, it blinds us to the many the ways that various technologies determine social structures and influence power relationships. We’re often told that technology is “simply technology” and can be used for “good or for evil” but is fundamentally amoral. In other words, that whether a technology is harmful or beneficial depends the intent of whoever is using it. Hence, we should ignore issues around technology and focus on more productive approaches to changing the world, like choosing which wealthy capitalist to vote for at the ballot box.

This belief probably has more to do with constant repetition than with deliberate misdirection. If we can see through the myth, however, we can see a whole new layer to the human world, and a whole new history. One of the first and most brilliant people to explore and document this history was Lewis Mumford. Throughout the vast majority of the twentieth century, Mumford wrote extensively, beautifully, and insightfully on the interplay between technology, history, hierarchy, social mythologies, and systems of control. And he didn’t buy into the “technology is neutral” myth. Mumford made a clear distinction between two classes of technologies: those which were democratic, and those which were authoritarian. Moreover, Mumford explicitly recognized that society structure and technology went hand in hand, and used the term “technics” to encompass both the cultural and industrial aspects of technologies.

According to Mumford, democratic technics are comprised of some of the earliest human technologies. These technics are human and community scale, “resting mainly on human skill and animal energy but always, even when employing machines, remaining under the active direction” of autonomous human communities.Such technologies, Mumford notes, are widely available, require minimal equipment or resources, and both robust and highly adaptive. These technologies, like gardening or pottery, “underpinned and firmly supported every historic culture until our own day.” In addition, they had something of a moderating effect on the impact of tyranny. “Even when paying tribute to the most oppressive authoritarian regimes, there yet remained within the workshop or the farmyard some degree of autonomy, selectivity, creativity.”

Authoritarian technics are another story. Rather than being ancient, Mumford identifies them as being more recent, specifically equating them with the origin of civilization. Authoritarian technics are based on centralized, top-down control, on a much larger scale. Mumford writes: “The new authoritarian technology was not limited by village custom or human sentiment: its herculean feats of mechanical organization rested on ruthless physical coercion, forced labor and slavery, which brought into existence machines that were capable of exerting thousands of horsepower centuries before horses were harnessed or wheels invented.”

He continued, “. . . above all, it created complex human machines composed of specialized, standardized, replaceable, interdependent parts—the work army, the military army, the bureaucracy. These work armies and military armies raised the ceiling of human achievement: the first in mass construction, the second in mass destruction, both on a scale hitherto inconceivable.”

The development of authoritarian technics climaxes in what Mumford called megamachines, massive centralized social machines with human beings as their components. For Mumford, these megamachines could certainly include industrial technologies, but that aspect was secondary, since megamachines like the Roman Empire predated the industrial revolution.

Obviously, Mumford’s concepts of authoritarian and democratic technics overlap with his ideas of polytechnic and monotechnic approaches.

Mumford’s categories are a useful starting point for debunking the myth of technological neutrality. There are also specific questions we can ask if we want to evaluate any particular technology for its neutrality.

First, there are questions about the prerequisites for the technology. How many people are required to make and run the infrastructure? Does the use of the technology presuppose the existence of other infrastructure like roads or energy distribution grids? Can the materials be obtained sustainably? Can human-scale communities with minimal hierarchy implement the technology? Or is a large, hierarchal society required to utilize it?

And second, there are questions about who can direct and make decisions about the technology. Is the infrastructure distributed so that it is under the control of many people, or is it centralized under the control of an elite? Does the technology allow people to become more autonomous and fulfilled, or do people surrender their autonomy to meet the needs of the technology? And who gets veto power? Can the technology be repealed or stopped?

And third, there are questions about the inherent effects of the technology. Are any benefits widely available? Are there barriers to accessing them? Is the technology useful to all, or only to an elite? And are the costs paid by the same people who get the benefits, or are the costs exported? Does the technology affect the degree of stratification and hierarchy in social?

Many of the technologies that we take for granted clearly fail the neutrality test and fall into the camp of authoritarian technics. Nuclear power and nuclear weapons are especially strong examples of this.