Saturday, August 27, 2016

Is Technology Always Bad?

I've recently been sharing a presentation with friends and one of the slides in it is this -

What I say in this slide should come as no surprise for long-time readers of this blog. I have argued for a number of years that technology is not what it appears to be on the surface, that it is always open to question and always anti-nature. One of my earliest blog posts exhorts the reader to question technology.

Following the presentation, a friend of mine asked me a question by email:

"Now you've got me thinking if I can make some exceptions to the premise that all technology is anti-nature and therefore bad. I am skeptical of the words always and never. How abut a flashlight that I pump up with my hand or a bicycle powered by my legs. Do you consider those technologies as bad inventions?"

Here is my response to her:

It depends on the perspective we take. From the perspective of modern humans, both the flashlight and bicycle are benign inventions that help us in very practical terms. It is hard to imagine life without them. But from Mother Earth's perspective, from nature's perspective, they are both products of a long journey of separation from nature. By the time we invented the light bulb, the industrial revolution was well underway. The mass produced light bulb wouldn't have been possible without massive centralization of power and resources, mass schooling and all the other trends that have beset civilization, which we now know have been indicators of separation from nature. A modern flashlight requires plastic which is derived from petroleum, so we're really talking about an entire infrastructure that needed to be there to give us the flashlight. We don't get this fuller picture if we look at the flashlight in isolation.

Now, I am not at all arguing that we give up our flashlights and bicycles. My work is not about changing people's behavior but to only examine the current situation and find out how we got here. To the extent that I would like to see people change their behavior, it is only to see them prepare for the coming times. And in this process, I find that all our modern conveniences, even the smallest ones like plumbing and flush toilets, are, in the final analysis, anti-nature because of what it takes to make those at a mass scale. I might sound like a hypocrite when I use the Internet and deride technology at the same time. But that's a logical fallacy called Tu Quoque :) It's like preventing a literature major from criticizing the English language because they are using the very English language to do so.

I realize this argument is a bit philosophical at this point. For me to say a flashlight is anti-nature and that there are no exceptions to "technology is always bad" requires me to define what exactly technology means. Does making fire count as technology? Does using a tool to crack open a nut count as technology? Does language count as technology? My basic understanding of what technology is this - anything that we use to overcome our natural limitations. And it's a gray area even then. If we use a sharp stone to crack open a nut, it could be argued that it's technology because we can't otherwise do it with our nature-given hands. But seeing in the dark is a high degree removed from using a stone to crack a nut, or learning how to speak sentences. And it makes sense that the flashlight, or the light bulb emerged at the tail end of our civilization, a mere 150-200 years ago, Isn't that what a flashlight gives us? An ability to see in the dark? I'm a night owl and I should know :)

For almost 200,000 years, our ancestors lived just as happily, if not more so, without needing to see in the dark, without flashlights. And without bicycles. To me, it's as simple as this - we can have our modern conveniences but we will then have to face extinction sooner or later. It's mathematically and physically impossible to have the former without the latter. It's simply a question of time. Extinction is inevitable when we continue the journey of separation from nature. The system, the societal organization, the political economy and the culture that gives rise to the flashlight also gives rise to the nuclear bomb. It's not possible to have one without the other because underneath both of them is the basic reality of deviant behavior, a lack of respect for nature and other earthlings and a culture that looks down upon tradition and age-old wisdom. This journey of separation has been some 10,000 years in the making, if not longer, and we're in the last phase, it seems. A phase where we are given the means and the resources (thanks to the Internet, libraries, etc.) to take a real long and deep look at just how we got ourselves into such dire existential crises as climate change and nuclear war. When we take this opportunity to empathize with the primordial humans that walked on the Earth long long ago, we'd see that we live in a time warp, an era of make-believe. What an era! And a rather short one at that.

I enjoy spirited debates like this one. Hope you don't take anything here personally. I like making my point passionately :) Thank you for the question and for giving me this chance to elucidate!

There's been plenty of work done by critics of Technology such as Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, Lewis Mumford and John Zerzan. These are just a handful of people who have seen Technology in the larger context of how it impacts society and culture as well as where it leads us and the planet ultimately.

More here at the Wikipedia page "Critique of technology".

We are all familiar with Technology's "end points". These are the means by which we interact with the technological infrastructure we have today. The smart phone, for example, is one such end point. A smart phone is a fine example of our modern technological prowess but it hardly causes us to think of the cell phone tower it is communicating with, the vast network of antennas and towers all over the world, and the satellites in orbit and the under-sea fiber optic cables that connect them all up. And all that is only part of the infrastructure that's needed to enable a single voice call. There are many more components (computers, switches, etc.) not to mention the vast and complex electric grid that powers it all. Picking up a smart phone and making a call hardly invokes this set up in our mind. So the smart phone ends up being just one way of interacting with a highly complex global technological infrastructure. The convenience of using a smart phone masks the true impact of such monstrosity of an infrastructure on the sustainability and even viability of life on the planet as we know it.

This is how we go about connecting the dots. Or not!