When it comes to technological development, I often hear the words: What can be done will be done – sooner or later. Many people think that technological development follows a path directed by quasi-natural laws that head into one and only one direction – called “progress” – which is: to use more technology, more complex technology, more expensive technology, more powerful technology. Now, if this were true, if everything that is technologically feasible will be done one day, humankind and the planet are finished. The detonation of thousands of nuclear warheads and the unleashing of artificial killer creatures manufactured by synthetic biology would wipe out life on earth. Sooner or later.
Technology as mythology
However, this narrative of quasi-automatic, unstoppable, mono-directional development of technology belongs to the realm of mythology. Which technology is developed and which is not, which is used and which is not, all of this is based on decisions made by people, decisions that could look quite different. Let’s take the automobile system as an example. It is perfectly feasible to organize efficient mobility in cities without cars. The technologies for this have existed for more than a hundred years. But it is not done. And there are reasons for this. It is also perfectly doable, to feed the whole world with organic peasant agriculture, and much better than today, to save 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions by that and dramatically reduce fresh water use. The technologies for this have existed for a long time as well. But it is not done. And there are also reasons for it. It is also easily doable to communicate over large distances without buying every year or every second year a new pocket computer that is consuming huge amounts of resources. The reasons why this is not done are the same as in the other two examples.
The forces that decide, which technologies are developed and implemented, are not rooted in technology itself, in a mysterious drive within technology to “progress”, but they are rooted in the way our society functions. The global system, of which we are parts, has been called by different names, for example the modern world-system in world-system analysis, modernity (in more vague terms) or simply capitalism. I use the word megamachine as a metaphor, a term coined by Lewis Mumford fifty years ago in his famous book “Myth of the Machine”. This system has evolved in Europe around 500 years ago, it has very violently spread around the earth since then, and it is based on two key dynamics: the principle of endless accumulation of capital; and the hunger for territorial expansion and control by the militarized modern state, an institution that has developed in a co-evolutionary manner with the institutions of capital accumulation since the 15th century. Now it is hardly surprising to find that the most important technological choices that have been made in the past centuries – and that have helped to create the mess we are in – were shaped by these two forces.
The automobile system
Let’s take again the example of the automobile system. If people would have been asked a hundred years ago, if they would like to spend hours each day in traffic jams, to keep their children from playing in the streets because it is too dangerous, to suffer from an acute hearing loss because of permanent traffic noise, to die of a lung disease and to leave a planet devastated by climate change to their kids – or if they would like to move around quickly in emission-free public transport systems, that go to and fro every minute: What would they have chosen?
Well, the choice has been made for them. And it was made by certain people in the industries and the state. In the US, companies like GM and Standard Oil bought up a fairly developed public transportation systems in cities like LA, New York or Chicago in the 1930, 40s and 50s, only to do what? To decommission and destroy them, and to build instead, on the former railway and streetcar tracks, highways, on which GM cars would drive with Standard Oil fuel. Now do the reasons for this development lie in technology itself? Of course not. Have people yearned for that? No. The reason for people from Mumbai to Mexico City, from Paris to Cape Town being trapped in the nightmare of that irrational system of individual motor car traffic, is very simple. When your economic system is based on the necessity to sell more and more stuff to people in order to keep accumulating capital, than it is a problem, when certain needs – like transport – are easily met. Once an efficient public transport system is in place, you cannot sell more stuff anymore, apart from renewing infrastructures once in a while. So you have to come up with something new. For example selling each and every citizen his own power engine, so he can consume more fuel, more metals, more stuff. Later, when almost everyone had a car, the car industry invented the system of planned obsolescence, encouraging people to buy less and less durable cars for more and more money more and more often.
In the Matrix
Mobile communications technology is another perfect example of how the powers of capital accumulation and state control converge to shape decisions on technology. When I was small, almost all citizens had telephones, and they used them all life long. There was no reason to change them. While that was good for citizens, it was bad for telephone companies. So they came up with wireless phones, mobile phones and finally with smartphones, which have been becoming more and more powerful and demanding and are consuming more and more resources, not only for the phones but for the transmitters and computer infrastructures. Today, almost everyone has several phones, much more expensive phones, and what is most important, gets a new phone every couple of years.
All this development did not start, because telephone customers in the 1980s were lamenting about their stone-age phones, but simply because companies needed to find ways to profitably reinvest the money they have once accumulated. They have succeeded in transforming a simple need of human beings – to communicate – into an endlessly growing industry, urging people to throw away their devices in ever shorter intervals, and to replace them with new ones. The coup of all this is that users retrospectively think they have been following their own desires while they were just serving the wheelworks of the Great Machine.
Smartphones are great toys
Now I am not saying that smartphones aren’t smart. They are great toys. And for some people they are more than toys, for example for many people in Africa who do not have fixed line networks and who can now talk to their friends and relatives, and to their kids who have fled to Europe. But for all the positive things that you can say about this technology, the problem is that the huge dark sides of it are systematically pushed aside or ignored in the public debates. For example the extreme environmental destructions through mining in order to get the metals and rare earths used in these devices. Or the wars that are fought for these resources. Or the huge piles of junk on the other side of the chain.
Additionally, this technology is not only used by consumers but also by states. For example to set up surveilling measures of which the totalitarian rulers of the 20th century could not even dream of. Whatever restrictions were still in place, they are removed with every new terror attack. The marvelous thing about all this is, that citizens buy the technologies, that surveil them, voluntarily and with their own money, while enjoying the feeling that they have gained more freedom. You cannot imagine a more perfect convergence of the interests of capital accumulation and state control. As Julian Assange pointed out rightfully, IT companies and intelligence agencies have created a “turnkey state”, ready for totalitarian and even fascist use. Digital technologies are not only used by states but also by employers for surveillance and enforced exploitation at the workplace. In recent a study by he German Trade Union Federation (DGB) the majority of employees stated that workload as well as surveillance on the job has significantly increased by digitalization.
Impacts on health and environment
There is also growing scientific evidence for massive health risks due to overdoses of digital media, ranging from cognitive disorders among children to tissue damages caused by pulsed microwave radiation, including cancer. It’s not only the industry that is denying or playing down these risks, but also many users who do not want to face these inconvenient truths. Whoever raises concerns, be it just citizens or scientists or doctors, is often labeled as an enemy of technology, progress and even civilization itself. There is quite a remarkable and effective propaganda machine around all this.
Politicians and representatives of the IT business keep on telling us, that we are just at the beginning of the digital revolution. Not joining in for “industry 4.0”, the “internet of things”, driverless cars and so on means, so they say, missing the future and being left behind by global competition. There it is again: the narrative of an unstoppable, mono-directional development called “progress”. According to the industry’s plans, autonomous cars will use a new 5G mobile communication technology, transmitting for each car 50 Gigabytes of data per hour – about the amount that today an average internet user transmits per month. For this purpose, the whole country and the whole continent must be equipped with a completely new, extremely resource- and energy-intensive infrastructure of transmitters and computing nodes. There is absolutely no public debate about the enormous environmental hazards and possible health impacts. Or about the costs, for example in relation to 800 billion people starving on the planet. Or about the massive new opportunities for surveillance as well as for dangerous hacker attacks. The most absurd phenomenon, however, is, that one simple question is never asked: What for? What sense does all this make? Because there is a much simpler, cheaper and environmentally sound alternative, which is to go for a user-friendly public transport system instead of the outdated and irrational individual motor car traffic. But this is not even mentioned. The example shows that all of this is not about meeting needs but about keeping the machine of accumulation running, a machine that will finally run the whole planet into the ground, if do not stop it before.
Giving away the world for a few gimmicks
If you are taking all this into account, it becomes evident that with the boundless digitalization, promoted by governments and industries we risk some of the most precious values of life, namely our freedom, a sound environment and our health, while on the other side we are getting hardly more than a few gimmicks. Think about it: Is watching 4K-movies on a screen of the size of your palm, or standing with a driverless car in a traffic jam, really worth all the destructive drawbacks? Again: digital technologies have created brilliant inventions. But if someone offers you nice, shiny glass beads for all your land and belongings, the question is not if the glass beads are beautiful. Sure they are. The question is what you give away on the other side and what relation there is between giving and taking. But this weighing up is not happening. We are all mesmerized by the glass beads, while the traders are taking away our land, our health and our freedom.
Immersion or: The abolition or reality
While the Megamachine is running the planet into the ground, it also provides the technological means to divert people from this unpleasant reality. In his science fiction novel The Futurological Congress, the Polish author Stanislav Lem described a world in which people are trapped in a perfect pseudo-reality created by chemical drugs in the air, in the water and in the food, whereas they really live in a post-apocalyptical landscape of ruins. When the protagonist takes a counter-drug, the delusion is striped away. Where he saw posh people in luxurious, shiny elevators a minute ago, he now sees human wrecks pulling themselves up with their naked hands on rotten cables.
The digital replacements of reality today have a similar function. The more our world is paved with screens, the more reality is faded out. Virtual reality headsets are symbolic of that. In the industry the complete loss of reality is called immersion. You become completely part of the artificial world that the company has created for you. If you think this through, it is again a perfect win-win-situation for big business and the authoritarian state: Citizens are turned into consumers, who voluntarily buy the technologies that keep them from looking at their real situation and from starting to change it.
Discarding the bodily world
For some of the leading figures of Silicon Valley, however, this is not enough. Ray Kurzweil, for example, the head of the development department of Google, has been dreaming for decades of getting rid of human beings as physical creatures and turning them into networks of data highways. This “trans-humanism” is very wide-spread among the developers of Artificial Intelligence (which, by the way, is a gross misnomer, because intelligence needs understanding but machines do not understand, they compute.) Many of these people – unsurprisingly almost all of them are men – are waiting yearningly for the so-called “singularity”: the moment when the computing powers of machines will transcend – as they imagine it – the thinking capabilities of human beings, making bodily creatures redundant. In this vision, the business interests of Silicon Valley converge with a radical mechanist ideology that leads us to the very roots of the Megamachine: the idea that humans, animals, plants and the whole universe are nothing but machines. Famously already the French philosopher René Descartes claimed in the 17th century that animals could be easily copied by “reverse engineering” once you have understood how they are constructed. And this line of thought became mainstream in modern science – although it has being significantly challenged by many scientists from the beginning.
The yearning for the moment when human beings as bodily and emotional creatures can be finally discarded, is symptomatic of a technocratic world of men, who are so deeply alienated from their inner world, that they cannot discern thought, feeling and perception from computing – which is the only thing computers can do. It is the endpoint of the submission of human beings under the logics of the machine, the blind mechanics of endless capital accumulation and the disciplinary apparatuses. The digitalized human only exists as a set of data, and consequently all that makes up life – spontaneity, emotional experience and creativity – have vanished. Of course this is not what Google is saying, quite the contrary, but it is what happens, if you follow their ideas.
Now, the question is: Do we want to entrust our future to people with visions of that kind? Do we want to feed them with our data, see the world through their Google glasses and move around in cars that are steered by their algorithms? Or are we going to free ourselves from the Matrix they have created, in order to regain reality, our bodies and our minds?
The illusions of progressive technological optimism
In spite of these developments, techno-optimism is still quite wide-spread among liberals and leftists. The US sociologist Jeremy Rifkin and the British journalist Paul Mason for example believe that capitalism will abolish itself more or less automatically by technological progress. Open source software and hardware, 3D printers, the “internet of things” and peer-to-peer production will, according to Rifkin and Mason, eventually replace capitalist forms of labor and value production. When marginal costs are near zero, we shall enter a world of abundance, ending the rule of scarcity. This concept reminds one of the Marxist notion that the technological development of the productive force will one day create the foundations for a communist paradise. While this idea was somewhat plausible 150 years ago, when industrial production indeed seemed to have the potential of providing a certain amount of common wealth, today, given a dystopian technological development on an overstrained planet, this concept looks somewhat bizarre. Progressive techno-optimism forgets or underestimates the enormous environmental costs of digitalization. 3D printers need the exact same dirty resources that industries consume and are already seamlessly integrated in capitalist accumulation. To expect a quasi-automatic world revolution from such machines is symptomatic for a technocratic society that is loosing its sense of reality and taking refuge in magical thinking in the face of the chaos created by an overrunning Megamachine.
Towards a new evaluation of technology
To free ourselves from the Matrix of disempowering, delusional and dehumanizing technologies does not mean to abolish computers or to return to a romanticized pre-industrial world. It rather means to ask: What are desirable technologies for a humane, just and truly sustainable world? How can we talk and decide about technology in a rational realistic manner? And above all: Who decides? Because the myth of an unstoppable technological progress, with a predetermined direction, conceals the fact, that beyond every development there are decisions, that can be changed, and that behind every decision there are real people with names, addresses, interests and above all: bank accounts.
Searching for socially and ecologically beneficial technologies means to step out of the logics of capital accumulation and the militarized state. While IT companies, car manufacturers and the like want to design our future – with massive state subsidies –, trying to sell us the idea, that what is good for them is inevitable for us, we should stand up and say: Nothing is inevitable. Designing hope in this context means to ask: How can we make sure that needs such as transportation and communication are met in the least harmful way? And this eventually means for people in the industrialized world: How can we live better with less goods? How can we distribute wealth more equally?
We should develop ways of talking and deciding about technologies in a differentiated and multi-dimensional way. The question is not if feature X or Y is cool, or if technology Z is efficient or profitable. The question is what it does with our societies and the planet. The cultural anthropologist Andrea Vetter has developed a very useful tool for this purpose which she calls “Matrix of convivial technology”. She asks, which impacts the production, the use, the disposal and the necessary infrastructures have on human relations, nature and health, within five dimensions: relatedness, access, adaptability, bio-interaction., and adequacy.
Now all of these transformations within the realm of technology are not possible without changing the larger context, in which technologies are embedded. Living better with less production and less harmful technology means: leaving the crazy rat race of overproduction and overconsumption. The challenge is to get out of the destructive logics of endless capital accumulation. Now to some this might sound too big or too bold. But in the crisis of civilization that we are in, being bold is the only way out. It is up to us, if we leave the future of the planet to transhumanists, billionaires and the surveillance state, or if we take it back into our own hands.
This article is based on a chapter of the book “Chaos. Das neue Zeitalter der Revolutionen” (Vienna 2017). It was published in German in the Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, 12/2017.
The English version has been published on the blog degrowth.info: Breaking the chains of delusion -Technological progress mythologies and the pitfalls of digitalization.