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Is Modern Technology Killing Us?

Friday, 19 September 2014 09:28 By Erica Etelson, Truthout | Op-Ed
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2014 919 tech st(Image: Andre Lyra)"Science now makes all things possible . . . but it does not thereby make all possible things desirable." - Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine

The first thing I'd like to say about modern technology is this: I'd be dead without it. So would my son, surgically delivered and hospitalized for jaundice, and so too most of the people I know who at some point or another have stamped out life-threatening infections with antibiotics. As I pen this screed, I'm mindful of the fact that a good deal fewer than 7 billion humans could survive on this planet without the machinery, fuel, communications and computation devices that are the blood and backbone of contemporary civilization. But the fact that technology has enabled the human population to grow to 7 billion doesn't necessarily mean that it can sustain this many of us forever. To assume that it will, without examining its (and our) vulnerabilities, is reckless.

The problem with technology is that most innovations have unintended consequences, and those unintended consequences are piling up, causing harm and creating dangers of existential magnitude.

The problem with technology is that most innovations have unintended consequences, and those unintended consequences are piling up, causing harm and creating dangers of existential magnitude. We turn a blind eye to those dangers and uncritically presume that, for all but the creepiest technologies (such as animal cloning), the benefits outweigh the risks and that technological innovation is humanity's highest calling.

Global monoculture rarely sees a technology it doesn't like. Working off the tacit assumption that technological innovation can and will solve the most critical threats to civilization - the collapsing environment, poverty, tyranny, disease pandemics and resource depletion - we are quick to celebrate unproven technologies and slow, oh so dangerously slow, to critically examine their safety and utility. It's as though a magical spell has pervaded our groupthink, immersing us in deluded fantasies of meeting human needs with a few swipes of a touchscreen.

If you would like to be the laughingstock of your next dinner party, challenge the cultural presumption in favor of technological progress. Other than a few head nods about how we really should unplug from our hand-held devices for a few minutes a day, you will likely be scoffed at as a backward-thinking loser whose resentment probably lies in your pathetic inability to figure out how to organize your iTunes library.

You might even be called a Luddite, because most people, liberals included, think the Luddites were knee-jerk reactionaries scared of any form of technology when, in fact, they were tradesmen and artisans engaged in a class protest against "all Machinery hurtful to Commonality" (i.e. forms of mechanization that damaged people and uprooted communities by forcing skilled workers to become wage slaves in factories). To be labeled a Luddite today is to be intellectually and culturally dismissed even by class-conscious leftists who have a blind spot when it comes to the politics of technology.

Technology is the practical application of scientific knowledge, the manipulation of elements (fire, water, rock) to create tools, methods and products. Primitive technologies like fire and spears enabled humans to meet their basic needs more easily and, hence, be fruitful and multiply. Modern technologies optimize comfort, convenience and speed, enabling humans to be very fruitful indeed, not only with respect to procreation, but in our astonishing ability to create and share ideas, literature, art and music. Still, it must be said that very rich cultures predate modern technology by centuries, and modern communications technologies may have reached a tipping point where what is authentically created and shared is overshadowed by market-driven, corporate-generated content that is sold or imposed.

Technology has its place. After all, the alphabet and the magnetic compass were innovations in their day, and I feel pretty confident in asserting that literacy and knowing which way is north are, on balance, good things. What we as progressive thinkers must do - because no one else is doing it - is acknowledge the ways in which technology can serve us, understand the ways in which many technologies have harmed us and develop some kind of rubric through which we can evaluate the merits of existing and emerging technologies. Furthermore, we must be mindful of the ways in which technologies can be used by corporate and government actors to repress and control us and question whether the benefits of using the technologies outweigh the risks.

The Dangers of Technology

In which the author bemoans some of the unintended consequences of commonly used technologies

1. It weakens our resilience.

A resilient community is one whose people collectively possess the requisite knowledge and skills to meet their basic needs and are healthy enough in body and spirit to meet challenges and take care of less able members of the community (children, seniors and disabled people). Members of modern societies think themselves very clever though we lack even rudimentary knowledge of the biological and artificial life systems that support us. Lacking much authentic wisdom and knowledge, we tend to take vicarious pride in the inventions of others - I, who cannot so much as spark a flame without a match, feel intelligent by dint of my fellow human's invention of the combustion engine.

Our deluded pride in our species' intelligence blinds us to the core deception of technology - that it makes us more resilient. A species that is utterly dependent on the seamless functioning of a fabulously complex global superstructure with millions of impersonal moving parts, none of which most of us have even passing acquaintance with, is not, by any stretch of meaning, resilient. Evaluate your own resilience next time you turn on the faucet - what would you do if nothing came out? Do you even know where your water comes from? Many of us cannot imagine how we would survive without mobile phones much less indoor plumbing.

As techno-literacy expands, eco-literacy contracts.

Consider the sad history of the Arctic Ihalmiut people who are the subject of Farley Mowat's The People of the Deer. Mowat chronicles the Ihalmiut's adoption of rifles and subsequent loss of the ability to hunt with bow and arrow as their forerunners had done for millennia. Intermittent access to ammunition (and squandering of shells on fox whose pelts they sporadically sold to white traders) resulted in waves of starvation that reduced their numbers to a handful. The Ihalmiut, understandably seduced by the prospect of an easier means of securing meat, lost their resilience. The same story is now playing out among young Igloolik hunters who use GPS to navigate their ancestral landscape. A recent article in The Atlantic ("The Great Forgetting," November 2013) reports on the rise of fatal hunting accidents as these hunters get lost or wander blindly onto hazardous terrain.

As techno-literacy expands, eco-literacy contracts. As the saying goes, "We know more and more about less and less." We know how to create PowerPoint presentations, but don't know a watershed from a wetland. Worse, the more tech-savvy and eco-ignorant we become, the more we delude ourselves into believing that humans are immune to the laws of nature and can magically replenish our planet's finite resources. We're unwilling to take even relatively simple, easy steps that would reduce demand for water, electricity and fuel unless a smart marketing campaign convinces us that we'll save big bucks. Modern conveniences have not only made us lazy, but have led us to assume that the arc of human betterment is inevitable, and that we are but passive observers of its triumphant mastery over nature.

Our attachment to technology often fosters hubris. And though in many cases it enhances community, it also often fuels our cultural bias toward hyper-individualism by making it all too easy to forego human community and place our bets, instead, on the techno-nanny to care for us. We think that we humans are so smart that each of us can go it alone. It's a dangerous dynamic in which we acquiesce at our peril.

Ironically, the internet and social media have made possible an unprecedented flow of cross-cultural communication and provide a means for mobility-challenged and geographically or socially isolated folks to connect and learn. Much of the re-skilling that is taking place (learning to garden, mend clothes, preserve food, etc.) is greatly facilitated by the vast electronic information storehouse. But as one homesteading educator ominously warns, "Be sure to print out a hard copy of this material, just in case . . ."

2. It fuels hyper-consumption.

This is fairly self-evident: Machines and fossil fuels enable humans to manufacture far more stuff, far more cheaply than we could ever produce by hand. Our stores are crammed with products that are cheap enough to buy without a second thought. Even online activity consumes more energy than most users realize, because massive data servers require ghastly quantities of electricity.

Technology separates us from the natural world by diverting our focus from natural to human-made wonders.

The philosopher Lewis Mumford wrote, "Every theoretic innovation, no matter how innocent in intention, automatically multiplies the number of practical products - and, more significantly, profit-making wants." In a capitalist economy, in which technological innovation is financed and controlled mostly by the private sector, this dynamic is clearly at play. And once the new product hits the shelves, it's not long before citizens all over the world clamor for it.

Technology separates us from the natural world by diverting our focus from natural to human-made wonders. Every day, we are offered a free gift of joy and serenity courtesy of Mother Nature, but we usually opt instead for artificial pleasures like video games. A vicious cycle is born, in which our separation from nature and from each other leaves us feeling empty and compels us to seek more creature comforts to fill the hole, and we then become addicted to the pleasure of consuming and spend even less time connecting with people and nature.

3. It accelerates environmental ruin, resource depletion and resource wars.

Where does all that hyper-consumption land us? In the dawn of the sixth mass extinction, it seems. Atmospheric carbon is approaching the dreaded tipping point Al Gore warned of nine years ago. We're poisoning our air and drinking water, poisoning ourselves and wildlife with pesticides, and quite literally trashing the oceans. We're rapidly depleting non-renewable resources like fossil fuels and rare earth metals and stripping renewable resources like forests, aquifers and fisheries faster than they can regenerate.

Technology has thus far largely shielded us from the real-life consequences of our hedonism, but ecosystem failures are starting to catch up with us faster than technology can respond.

Thanks to mass production, it's very easy to make and consume products. But our consciousness, our ethics, lag behind our technological mastery. We're highly motivated when it comes to creating and consuming new things but relatively uninterested in conserving and reusing those things. Technology has thus far largely shielded us from the real-life consequences of our hedonism, but ecosystem failures are starting to catch up with us faster than technology can respond. God save us when 3-D printers hit the shelves, and everyone can manufacture from their living rooms products to satisfy every fleeting fancy that passes through their heads.

Certainly, we know how to minimize if not outright abandon our use of dangerous or scarce materials; but, trapped in a wicked knot of inertia, corruption and hubris, we stay the course, and will even place our young in harm's way to secure foreign-owned supplies of the raw materials that fuel our unsustainable lifestyle. Is there a single violent conflict in the world that is unrelated to resource scarcity or conquest, be it water, oil, natural gas, coal, metals, minerals or food? A comprehensive review of global conflict is beyond the scope of this article, but the short answer is "no."

This delusion that we are separate from nature is the perilous essence of the techno-topian myth.

As dire as our environmental crises have become, there's a curious lack of interest or concern outside of environmental circles. Environmental issues appear way down on the list of the public's priorities, below Medicare, crime, education, terrorism, the budget deficit, tax reform and jobs and the economy. The environment is in our blind spot partly for lack of media attention and partly because people have a natural tendency toward tunnel vision, focusing intensely on the issues that they understand to be directly affecting them in the present moment and ignoring everything else. But there's something more insidious going on: The fact that people do not see how environmental degradation is affecting them right now is yet another symptom of our techno-topian delusion. Having never known anything but an artificial lifestyle, we have no reason to think that the degradation of the natural world is of any consequence to us. Sure, it's sad that the fish will all be gone in 50 years and, yes, it sure is unusually hot outside, but I can just pop my frozen lasagna in the microwave and turn up the air conditioning. This delusion that we are separate from nature is the perilous essence of the techno-topian myth. The sooner we can shatter it, the better.

4. It carries some seriously scary risks.

In 1999, a $125 million Mars probe crashed and burned because one team of rocket scientists did their calculations in millimeters and the other in inches. Okay. We all make mistakes. But here's my point: We all make mistakes. Scientists are not infallible and we cannot expect products to be harmless just because the scientists and spin doctors say so.

Some of the most dreadful unintended consequences of technology are those whose dangers we've overlooked or downplayed. Pesticides, antibiotics, flame retardants, asbestos, food additives, plastic bags, lead in toys - the list goes on, from the moderately harmful (refined sugar) to the potentially apocalyptic (nuclear power). There are countless consumer products in widespread use that have undergone little to no health and safety testing, including 80,000 chemicals the health effects of which have never been tested, but are - incredibly - presumed safe until proven harmful. You'd be forgiven for assuming that our regulatory scheme is grounded in the precautionary principle (unauthorized for widespread use until proven safe), but you'd be sadly mistaken.

We're all subjects of the biggest radiation exposure experiment in history.

Look at cell phones and Wi-Fi, universally adopted despite the fact that 75 percent of non-industry-sponsored studies have found that cell phones damage our DNA and that brain cancer in children has increased 1 percent a year for the past 20 years. On top of this, we bombard ourselves 24/7 with the radiation emitted from wireless networks and cell phone towers with nary a study of health effects. With cancer latency periods of up to 30 years, it will be another 20 years before we know the full extent of the harm. In the meantime, we're all subjects of the biggest radiation exposure experiment in history.

It's now common knowledge that, for decades, the tobacco industry suppressed evidence of the inherent harmfulness of cigarette smoking until there were just too many dead bodies for society to overlook. Given the propensity for industries to conceal the harmfulness of their products, our trust in the $3.1 trillion telecommunications industry's self-serving assurances is naive. As a great American president once said, "Fool me once . . ."

The most existentially threatening technology of all is playing out right now in Fukushima. If you're like most news consumers, you've probably been made to understand that the 2011 meltdown is safely behind us. You might want to sit down: In November 2013, the Tokyo Electric & Power Company (TEPCO) began a high-stakes operation to remove the 1,331 damaged, spent fuel rods from Reactor 4 and entomb each rod in an underwater cask. (Fuel rods from another damaged reactor cannot be removed at all right now because they are so hot they're literally melting into the ground and allowing unknown amounts of radiation to seep into the Pacific).

Depending on whom you ask, the worst-case scenario if something goes amiss could be anything from a massive release of radiation necessitating the evacuation of Tokyo to an apocalyptic explosion that would force the evacuation of the West Coast of the United States.

The removal procedure, which will take some uncertain number of months or years to complete is, by all accounts, extremely dangerous. According to anti-nuclear activist Harvey Wasserman, the amount of radioactive cesium stored at Fukushima is 15,000 times the amount released at Hiroshima. The fuel rods were damaged and bent during the earthquake and there is debris floating in the cooling pool in which the rods are currently housed. During the removal process, if a rod is exposed to air or comes in contact with another rod, it could explode, which could trigger a chain reaction among some or all of the 1,331 rods. The operation, which nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen likens to pulling cigarettes out of a crumpled pack, allows for no margin of error. Oh, and by the way, it's never been done before, not by TEPCO or anyone else.

Depending on whom you ask, the worst-case scenario if something goes amiss could be anything from a massive release of radiation necessitating the evacuation of Tokyo to an apocalyptic explosion that would force the evacuation of the West Coast of the United States . . . or worse, unthinkably worse. Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority Commissioner has directed TEPCO to exercise "extreme caution" due to the "very large risk potential."

The safe resolution of the Fukushima crisis hinges on human infallibility. To feel confident that the procedure will be carried off without incident, we must have faith that the engineers considered every contingency, that the executives cut no corners, that the laborers do not drink or grow tired or daydream or pull the wrong lever. Or sneeze. It's come to this, our fate in the hands of a few underpaid human beings handed a responsibility of existential proportion.

Assuming we dodge the nuclear apocalypse, there are other dangerous technologies in play or on the horizon, many of which are conceived of as techno-fixes for the unforeseen consequences of previous innovations. A couple of examples: 1) "Roundup-ready" crops genetically engineered to withstand the herbicide Roundup have led to unprecedented levels of herbicide application which have given rise to herbicide-resistant superweeds. The techno-fix? Stronger (more toxic) herbicides; 2) Running out of fossil fuels? Plan B is to hydrofrack every last drop of oil and gas out of the earth and never mind the fact that we're forever contaminating scarce water supplies in drought-ridden places like California. And when we run out of shale oil and gas, don't worry, Chinese scientists have plans to install a ring of solar panels around the moon's equator. The moon. You know, that celestial sphere that controls the ocean tides and rotational axis of the Earth. What could go wrong?

5. It often diminishes rather than enriches our quality of life.

Technology's greatest contribution to human well-being, we have been made to believe, is the invention of machines that carry out the dangerous, exhausting and tedious tasks previously performed by humans. Thus humans are liberated to pursue more inspiring, creative pursuits. Tell that to a worker on an iPhone assembly line (assuming she hasn't yet committed suicide). As for the products we consume, how blissed out were you last time you interacted with a "customer care" voice tree when your latest gadget failed to boot up?

Many times, in the thrall of our toys and drugs, we devalue life-affirming activities and ways of being.

If rates of depression, anxiety and the disintegration of social bonds are our guide, we already have too much technology for our ancient souls to integrate. Many modern activities are, simply put, not wholesome, that is to say, the activities serve to disconnect and numb us. If the critique of unwholesomeness seems quaint, I submit that this is my entire point. Many times, in the thrall of our toys and drugs, we devalue life-affirming activities and ways of being.

Pushing buttons and swallowing pills can be so easy. And so unfulfilling. A rash of studies has shown what we could have guessed - that having everything done for us (growing and preparing food, cleaning our homes, transporting and healing ourselves) denies us our sense of agency and purpose and makes us depressed and anxious. We think we want all the conveniences modern life has to offer, but when we adopt them, a deep, ancient part of what makes us human quietly slips away.

The "Mad Men" sold Betty Draper appliances to manage her home, television to entertain her children and cigarettes and pretty dresses when suburban isolation and the boredom of empty leisure festered into clinical depression. Ever since the post-war years, we've increasingly turned to machines instead of people to help us. And when we don't need people for our survival, we become isolated from one another and distanced from the richness of human traditions, lore and knowledge.

As a parent, I'm keenly aware of how anemic my child-rearing responsibilities are now that the primal breastfeeding chapter is long behind my son and me. Parents through the ages have passed along to the next generation vast amounts of knowledge and skills to navigate the world around them - how to hunt, collect and grow food, where to find water, how to find and use healing herbs, how to build fire and shelter, how to make clothes, bowls, instruments, toys, you name it and they made it. What can I teach my son beyond how to bookmark his favorite web pages and operate the remote control? It makes me sad.

6. It erodes our privacy.

This bears mentioning even though it seems that many Americans under the age of 60 don't really care very much. If we did care, Edward Snowden's revelations alone would have toppled the government. What's interesting here is the unspoken Faustian bargain between the public and internet and software companies - we get to make use of their often "free" products, and they get to data mine the hell out of us and turn over the minutiae of our private lives to digital marketing and government agencies.

The erosion of privacy may not directly kill us (as the title of this article suggests), but it makes it easier for government to adopt totalitarian practices that, as we saw all too much of during the 20th century, can lead to state-sponsored repression, brutality and genocide. In fact, it's difficult to conceive how a government could control a large population withoutaid of modern technology. Even if government passes up the chance to empower itself with our personal data, corporate marketers most certainly will not, and we can expect to be tracked, analyzed and served up increasingly personalized ads that will lead us to buy ever more stuff.

7. It deepens inequality.

University of Michigan economics professor Mark Perry reports on his blog that US manufacturing worker productivity has increased by more than eight-fold since 1947. This trend is largely the result of robotics and software. Productivity gains could and should mean higher wages and benefits and shorter working hours, but that's not what's happened. The gains have inured to the benefit of corporations and their executives and shareholders, the now notorious 1% who, by Credit Suisse's reckoning, own 46 percent of global wealth.

Productivity gains could and should mean higher wages and benefits and shorter working hours, but that's not what's happened.

In a non-capitalist economy, productivity gains could theoretically benefit workers. However, even in the case of a democratic socialist utopia, the profits from increased productivity might be shared more equitably, but the environmental impact will be the same - more stuff, more consumption, more pollution until, eventually, we simply run out of materials to cut and mine and burn, or choke to death on soot and smog.

New economic elites are born of the technocracy, many of them libertarian and decidedly uninterested in problems such as poverty and structural inequality that cannot be solved through software hackathons. They gush about "disrupting" without much thought to what and who are the disruptees.

We are witnessing the rise of the digerati, the Jeff Bezoses of the world who are amassing enormous wealth by leveraging online efficiencies in marketing, distribution and staffing. (Witness the rise of online "crowd workforce" sites such as Bezos' Mechanical Turk and Crowdflower, where anonymous workers earn an average of two dollars an hour performing tiny tasks for high-tech companies happy to skirt wage and hour laws.) The digerati's concentration in cities like San Francisco has caused rental and real estate prices to skyrocket, meaning working class households can't make ends meet and, ultimately, simply cannot afford to live in San Francisco.

Just because we can have machines replace people doesn't mean we should.

Poverty is unhealthy and often deadly. Residents of poor neighborhoods with high violence and without access to quality food and health care have shorter life spans. Technology-induced unemployment is not the sole cause of poverty, but a heavy contributor. Just because we can have machines replace people doesn't mean we should.

At the same time that technology is disrupting communities, it is also providing us with an accessible, low-cost platform for mobilizing resistance. It's hard to imagine, for example, how Occupy would have become an overnight sensation without Twitter and Facebook alerts or how anyone would have a clue as to what's really going on without sites like Truthout. Moreover, online organizing and socializing is surely of huge benefit to people with mobility issues or who live in isolated regions. Then again, up until 20 years ago, humans managed to overthrow monarchies, strike against unfair labor practices, desegregate schools and lunch counters and more, much more, usually without even a land line much less a smart phone. Organizers and alternative media creators and consumers clearly cannot hope to galvanize millions without use of modern communications technologies, but should be mindful that these tools do take a personal, interpersonal and environmental toll and can never wholly substitute for face-to-face, community-based organizing.

Appropriate Technology

Some technologies have helped more than they've hurt, though the list is, by my reckoning, shorter than one might expect and cannot in good conscience include pillars of modern living such as nuclear and coal-fired electricity and most of the entertainment and communications devices they power, cars, air travel, processed food, GMOs and single-use products. As for antibiotics, the jury is out until we see whether drug-resistant superbugs become the nightmare scenario many are now predicting.

What technologies can most safely, effectively and efficiently meet the world population's basic needs for clean water and adequate food, hygiene, shelter, clothing, medicine, birth control, education, arts and transportation?

There are 7 billion people on this planet, many of whom have been conditioned to expect their standard of living to improve. Certainly, most of them will be disappointed to learn that it would take five planet earths to enable everyone to live like a North American. Putting aside that fantasy, the question becomes: What technologies can most safely, effectively and efficiently meet the world population's basic needs for clean water and adequate food, hygiene, shelter, clothing, medicine, birth control, education, arts and transportation? A secondary question is: What additional technologies should be used exclusively by people uniquely in need of them? Examples might include personal vehicles for elderly and disabled people and air conditioning for people with certain health conditions. And lastly: What technologies might we share as a community rather than each owning our own (e.g. computers, vehicles, phone booths - remember those)?

Appropriate technologies are those that meet human needs and enhance people's lives and communities, without exploiting or endangering workers and without damaging the environment. The best go one step further and actually restore damaged ecosystems. Examples of restorative technologies include permeable pavement that allows for rainwater to replenish aquifers and mycologist Paul Stamet's remarkable use of fungi to clean up toxic spills and radiation.

The good news is: We already have most of what we need to live comfortable and healthy lives. Many of the technologies that serve us the most safely and effectively are toward the low-tech end of the spectrum and have been around for decades if not millennia - composting, gray water, indoor plumbing, fermentation food storage, greenhouses, irrigation, herbal and homeopathic medicine, acupuncture, condoms, electrolyte solutions, bicycles, trains, LED lights, solar panels, windmills, printing presses. We know how to thrive without nuclear reactors, fossil fuels, pesticides, air cargo and smartphones; we're just not doing it on a societal scale.

In a crony capitalist system in which corporate interests determine which technologies to develop and bring to market, the public interest is, by and large, irrelevant. So, what's a neo-Luddite to do?

Take the need for human waste disposal for the billions of people who don't have flush toilets: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sponsored a toilet design competition. The winning toilet is a nifty, high-maintenance $2,000 contraption involving a solar-powered electrochemical reactor and hydrogen fuel cells. That toilet might be just the ticket for one of the Gates' vacation homes but, for a rural dweller in a developing country, there are already cheap, sanitary, low-tech toilets available through organizations like SOIL. The hubristic toilet competition encourages innovation for the sake of innovation, an egotistical trap that blocks viable, existing solutions from widespread adoption.

Evaluating the appropriateness of new and existing technologies is no easy task, and it's easy to see how one's biases can distort the process. A writer, for example, might be quick to conclude that the benefits of personal computers outweigh the environmental and spiritual damage they cause. The following questions might serve as a good starting point:

  • Who owns and controls the technology?
  • What are the benefits? To whom do they accrue?
  • Has the technology been proven safe beyond a reasonable doubt (the precautionary principle)? Who is sponsoring the research and do we trust them?
  • Who are the subjects of safety tests? Have they given informed consent or are they a marginalized population being exploited to test new substances or procedures? If they are animals, do the benefits justify the animals' pain, suffering and captivity?
  • What are the downsides and risks? Are there risks of catastrophic harm that can never be mitigated (e.g. nuclear accidents)?
  • Does the technology bring us together or drive us further apart?
  • Is there a less energy-intensive alternative?
  • Does the technology deplete finite resources?
  • Does manufacture or operation endanger worker or consumer health and safety?
  • Can the technology be applied to weaponry or spying?
  • Would widespread adoption of the technology displace and render obsolete classes of workers?
  • What mental and physical capacities will atrophy when we adopt the technology?
  • Can all 7 billion of us adopt it and, if we do, what are the consequences?
  • Can an ethical argument be made for adoption by some subset of the global population and, if so, who, and who decides?

What About Communications Technology?

I've touched on some of the benefits and pitfalls of communications technology in this essay, but there are others, so many in fact that the exercise of evaluating these technologies is quite challenging. I don't hold myself out as the arbiter of whether smartphones and Wi-Fi and Facebook do more harm than good. I simply argue that these technologies are not exempt from the same risk-benefit analysis I suggest all technologies undergo.

What's a Neo-Luddite to Do?

It's all well and good to undertake individual assessments of the merits of various technologies, but how do we translate our formulations into law and policy? There are no easy answers here, and the path wends through terrain familiar to many progressive causes. In a crony capitalist system in which corporate interests determine which technologies to develop and bring to market, the public interest is, by and large, irrelevant. So, what's a neo-Luddite to do?

Organize. Given such unparalleled heights of corporate power, the "Move to Amend" movement to strip corporations of constitutional personhood is essential so as to enable the enactment of draconian campaign finance reforms, the more draconian the better, given how thorough corporate political control has become. It should be noted that Move to Amend has already galvanized widespread support, thanks to the convenience of online petitions and other "netroots" tools.

There's a push for states and, ultimately, the federal government to adopt the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) as a more holistic and accurate measure of social and economic well-being than the GDP. The GPI would take stock of several of the risk factors technology presents, including environmental impacts, physical and mental health, divorce rates, educational achievement, etc.

Emerging technologies are approved and regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and other government agencies run by scientists and policy makers who worked in the past - and will likely work again in the future - within the very industries they are entrusted to regulate. To pick just one example of many, Tom Wheeler served as the head of two telecommunications lobbying groups before being sworn in as FCC commissioner in 2013. Until the revolving door is firmly shut, there's little hope of regulation in the public interest.

Ultimately, sound decision-making about emerging technologies may not be possible in a market versus a planned economy. By its very nature, market economies are technologically driven, with corporate players constantly racing to be the first to bring new technologies to market. Absent a system in which accountable elected officials oversee economic development and conduct risk-benefit analysis of proposed new products, the odds will always be in favor of new technologies.

Be skeptical. Technology certainly can address some problems, but don't assume the proposed techno-fix is the answer just because it's receiving breathless media hype. Reporters love innovators and startups and their megalomaniacal founders, sometimes going so far as to portray them as supernatural heroes (Steve Jobs). Caught up in the techno-topian dream as much as any of us, reporters tend to pen glowing odes to the latest and greatest invention or product and avoid penetrating questions about its utility, safety and environmental impact. Don't believe the hype. As Ralph Waldo Emerson forewarned, "Don't trust children with edge tools. Don't trust man, great God, with more power than he has, until he has learned to use that little power better. What a hell we should make of the world if we could do what we would."

Reject scare tactics. Putting the brakes on the rollout of new technologies will not, as the technocracy and their libertarian champions would have us believe, destroy the economy any more than any form of regulation, which is to say, not at all. Will it "disrupt" (to use a techie term) business as usual? You bet it will; that's the whole idea. In its stead, people-powered and eco-friendly technologies and businesses will arise and will hire new workers, lots of them. If technocrats find some of their wealth, power and mythical prestige diluted in the process, that is all to the good.

Opt out. If all 7 billion of us cannot live large, American-style, why should any of us? Contemplate and discuss with your family and community what you really need to live a healthy, meaningful and resilient life. Experiment with how close you can come to that standard of living voluntarily, and be prepared to accept involuntary cutbacks that are surely in store for us all, either in the form of a carbon tax, economic crisis, war, disease pandemic or ecological collapse. In the meantime, don't be so fast to download the newest app or buy the latest device. Ask yourself both what the app or device will give you and what it will take away.

Small acts of resistance and the adoption of new/old lifestyles will, eventually, coalesce into a force that can arrest our civilization's race toward the cliff's edge. Change seems to unfold slowly, but that's only during the early, underground stages. Once the shoots break through the surface, things can change very quickly. Who foresaw the dismantling of the British Empire? Who in 1965 expected cohabitation of unmarried couples and recreational pot-smoking to become commonplace within 20 years? Who predicted a black president and the acceptance of gay marriage in the first decade of the 21st century?

Once a tipping point in human consciousness is reached, once a noticeable number of people start rejecting what is cruel and destructive and begin reinventing their beliefs and lifestyles, things can change very quickly. With respect to our current predicament, they have to.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Erica Etelson

Erica Etelson is a recovering human rights attorney and environmental activist and writer. Follow her on Twitter: @iluvsolar.


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Is Modern Technology Killing Us?

Friday, 19 September 2014 09:28 By Erica Etelson, Truthout | Op-Ed
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2014 919 tech st(Image: Andre Lyra)"Science now makes all things possible . . . but it does not thereby make all possible things desirable." - Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine

The first thing I'd like to say about modern technology is this: I'd be dead without it. So would my son, surgically delivered and hospitalized for jaundice, and so too most of the people I know who at some point or another have stamped out life-threatening infections with antibiotics. As I pen this screed, I'm mindful of the fact that a good deal fewer than 7 billion humans could survive on this planet without the machinery, fuel, communications and computation devices that are the blood and backbone of contemporary civilization. But the fact that technology has enabled the human population to grow to 7 billion doesn't necessarily mean that it can sustain this many of us forever. To assume that it will, without examining its (and our) vulnerabilities, is reckless.

The problem with technology is that most innovations have unintended consequences, and those unintended consequences are piling up, causing harm and creating dangers of existential magnitude.

The problem with technology is that most innovations have unintended consequences, and those unintended consequences are piling up, causing harm and creating dangers of existential magnitude. We turn a blind eye to those dangers and uncritically presume that, for all but the creepiest technologies (such as animal cloning), the benefits outweigh the risks and that technological innovation is humanity's highest calling.

Global monoculture rarely sees a technology it doesn't like. Working off the tacit assumption that technological innovation can and will solve the most critical threats to civilization - the collapsing environment, poverty, tyranny, disease pandemics and resource depletion - we are quick to celebrate unproven technologies and slow, oh so dangerously slow, to critically examine their safety and utility. It's as though a magical spell has pervaded our groupthink, immersing us in deluded fantasies of meeting human needs with a few swipes of a touchscreen.

If you would like to be the laughingstock of your next dinner party, challenge the cultural presumption in favor of technological progress. Other than a few head nods about how we really should unplug from our hand-held devices for a few minutes a day, you will likely be scoffed at as a backward-thinking loser whose resentment probably lies in your pathetic inability to figure out how to organize your iTunes library.

You might even be called a Luddite, because most people, liberals included, think the Luddites were knee-jerk reactionaries scared of any form of technology when, in fact, they were tradesmen and artisans engaged in a class protest against "all Machinery hurtful to Commonality" (i.e. forms of mechanization that damaged people and uprooted communities by forcing skilled workers to become wage slaves in factories). To be labeled a Luddite today is to be intellectually and culturally dismissed even by class-conscious leftists who have a blind spot when it comes to the politics of technology.

Technology is the practical application of scientific knowledge, the manipulation of elements (fire, water, rock) to create tools, methods and products. Primitive technologies like fire and spears enabled humans to meet their basic needs more easily and, hence, be fruitful and multiply. Modern technologies optimize comfort, convenience and speed, enabling humans to be very fruitful indeed, not only with respect to procreation, but in our astonishing ability to create and share ideas, literature, art and music. Still, it must be said that very rich cultures predate modern technology by centuries, and modern communications technologies may have reached a tipping point where what is authentically created and shared is overshadowed by market-driven, corporate-generated content that is sold or imposed.

Technology has its place. After all, the alphabet and the magnetic compass were innovations in their day, and I feel pretty confident in asserting that literacy and knowing which way is north are, on balance, good things. What we as progressive thinkers must do - because no one else is doing it - is acknowledge the ways in which technology can serve us, understand the ways in which many technologies have harmed us and develop some kind of rubric through which we can evaluate the merits of existing and emerging technologies. Furthermore, we must be mindful of the ways in which technologies can be used by corporate and government actors to repress and control us and question whether the benefits of using the technologies outweigh the risks.

The Dangers of Technology

In which the author bemoans some of the unintended consequences of commonly used technologies

1. It weakens our resilience.

A resilient community is one whose people collectively possess the requisite knowledge and skills to meet their basic needs and are healthy enough in body and spirit to meet challenges and take care of less able members of the community (children, seniors and disabled people). Members of modern societies think themselves very clever though we lack even rudimentary knowledge of the biological and artificial life systems that support us. Lacking much authentic wisdom and knowledge, we tend to take vicarious pride in the inventions of others - I, who cannot so much as spark a flame without a match, feel intelligent by dint of my fellow human's invention of the combustion engine.

Our deluded pride in our species' intelligence blinds us to the core deception of technology - that it makes us more resilient. A species that is utterly dependent on the seamless functioning of a fabulously complex global superstructure with millions of impersonal moving parts, none of which most of us have even passing acquaintance with, is not, by any stretch of meaning, resilient. Evaluate your own resilience next time you turn on the faucet - what would you do if nothing came out? Do you even know where your water comes from? Many of us cannot imagine how we would survive without mobile phones much less indoor plumbing.

As techno-literacy expands, eco-literacy contracts.

Consider the sad history of the Arctic Ihalmiut people who are the subject of Farley Mowat's The People of the Deer. Mowat chronicles the Ihalmiut's adoption of rifles and subsequent loss of the ability to hunt with bow and arrow as their forerunners had done for millennia. Intermittent access to ammunition (and squandering of shells on fox whose pelts they sporadically sold to white traders) resulted in waves of starvation that reduced their numbers to a handful. The Ihalmiut, understandably seduced by the prospect of an easier means of securing meat, lost their resilience. The same story is now playing out among young Igloolik hunters who use GPS to navigate their ancestral landscape. A recent article in The Atlantic ("The Great Forgetting," November 2013) reports on the rise of fatal hunting accidents as these hunters get lost or wander blindly onto hazardous terrain.

As techno-literacy expands, eco-literacy contracts. As the saying goes, "We know more and more about less and less." We know how to create PowerPoint presentations, but don't know a watershed from a wetland. Worse, the more tech-savvy and eco-ignorant we become, the more we delude ourselves into believing that humans are immune to the laws of nature and can magically replenish our planet's finite resources. We're unwilling to take even relatively simple, easy steps that would reduce demand for water, electricity and fuel unless a smart marketing campaign convinces us that we'll save big bucks. Modern conveniences have not only made us lazy, but have led us to assume that the arc of human betterment is inevitable, and that we are but passive observers of its triumphant mastery over nature.

Our attachment to technology often fosters hubris. And though in many cases it enhances community, it also often fuels our cultural bias toward hyper-individualism by making it all too easy to forego human community and place our bets, instead, on the techno-nanny to care for us. We think that we humans are so smart that each of us can go it alone. It's a dangerous dynamic in which we acquiesce at our peril.

Ironically, the internet and social media have made possible an unprecedented flow of cross-cultural communication and provide a means for mobility-challenged and geographically or socially isolated folks to connect and learn. Much of the re-skilling that is taking place (learning to garden, mend clothes, preserve food, etc.) is greatly facilitated by the vast electronic information storehouse. But as one homesteading educator ominously warns, "Be sure to print out a hard copy of this material, just in case . . ."

2. It fuels hyper-consumption.

This is fairly self-evident: Machines and fossil fuels enable humans to manufacture far more stuff, far more cheaply than we could ever produce by hand. Our stores are crammed with products that are cheap enough to buy without a second thought. Even online activity consumes more energy than most users realize, because massive data servers require ghastly quantities of electricity.

Technology separates us from the natural world by diverting our focus from natural to human-made wonders.

The philosopher Lewis Mumford wrote, "Every theoretic innovation, no matter how innocent in intention, automatically multiplies the number of practical products - and, more significantly, profit-making wants." In a capitalist economy, in which technological innovation is financed and controlled mostly by the private sector, this dynamic is clearly at play. And once the new product hits the shelves, it's not long before citizens all over the world clamor for it.

Technology separates us from the natural world by diverting our focus from natural to human-made wonders. Every day, we are offered a free gift of joy and serenity courtesy of Mother Nature, but we usually opt instead for artificial pleasures like video games. A vicious cycle is born, in which our separation from nature and from each other leaves us feeling empty and compels us to seek more creature comforts to fill the hole, and we then become addicted to the pleasure of consuming and spend even less time connecting with people and nature.

3. It accelerates environmental ruin, resource depletion and resource wars.

Where does all that hyper-consumption land us? In the dawn of the sixth mass extinction, it seems. Atmospheric carbon is approaching the dreaded tipping point Al Gore warned of nine years ago. We're poisoning our air and drinking water, poisoning ourselves and wildlife with pesticides, and quite literally trashing the oceans. We're rapidly depleting non-renewable resources like fossil fuels and rare earth metals and stripping renewable resources like forests, aquifers and fisheries faster than they can regenerate.

Technology has thus far largely shielded us from the real-life consequences of our hedonism, but ecosystem failures are starting to catch up with us faster than technology can respond.

Thanks to mass production, it's very easy to make and consume products. But our consciousness, our ethics, lag behind our technological mastery. We're highly motivated when it comes to creating and consuming new things but relatively uninterested in conserving and reusing those things. Technology has thus far largely shielded us from the real-life consequences of our hedonism, but ecosystem failures are starting to catch up with us faster than technology can respond. God save us when 3-D printers hit the shelves, and everyone can manufacture from their living rooms products to satisfy every fleeting fancy that passes through their heads.

Certainly, we know how to minimize if not outright abandon our use of dangerous or scarce materials; but, trapped in a wicked knot of inertia, corruption and hubris, we stay the course, and will even place our young in harm's way to secure foreign-owned supplies of the raw materials that fuel our unsustainable lifestyle. Is there a single violent conflict in the world that is unrelated to resource scarcity or conquest, be it water, oil, natural gas, coal, metals, minerals or food? A comprehensive review of global conflict is beyond the scope of this article, but the short answer is "no."

This delusion that we are separate from nature is the perilous essence of the techno-topian myth.

As dire as our environmental crises have become, there's a curious lack of interest or concern outside of environmental circles. Environmental issues appear way down on the list of the public's priorities, below Medicare, crime, education, terrorism, the budget deficit, tax reform and jobs and the economy. The environment is in our blind spot partly for lack of media attention and partly because people have a natural tendency toward tunnel vision, focusing intensely on the issues that they understand to be directly affecting them in the present moment and ignoring everything else. But there's something more insidious going on: The fact that people do not see how environmental degradation is affecting them right now is yet another symptom of our techno-topian delusion. Having never known anything but an artificial lifestyle, we have no reason to think that the degradation of the natural world is of any consequence to us. Sure, it's sad that the fish will all be gone in 50 years and, yes, it sure is unusually hot outside, but I can just pop my frozen lasagna in the microwave and turn up the air conditioning. This delusion that we are separate from nature is the perilous essence of the techno-topian myth. The sooner we can shatter it, the better.

4. It carries some seriously scary risks.

In 1999, a $125 million Mars probe crashed and burned because one team of rocket scientists did their calculations in millimeters and the other in inches. Okay. We all make mistakes. But here's my point: We all make mistakes. Scientists are not infallible and we cannot expect products to be harmless just because the scientists and spin doctors say so.

Some of the most dreadful unintended consequences of technology are those whose dangers we've overlooked or downplayed. Pesticides, antibiotics, flame retardants, asbestos, food additives, plastic bags, lead in toys - the list goes on, from the moderately harmful (refined sugar) to the potentially apocalyptic (nuclear power). There are countless consumer products in widespread use that have undergone little to no health and safety testing, including 80,000 chemicals the health effects of which have never been tested, but are - incredibly - presumed safe until proven harmful. You'd be forgiven for assuming that our regulatory scheme is grounded in the precautionary principle (unauthorized for widespread use until proven safe), but you'd be sadly mistaken.

We're all subjects of the biggest radiation exposure experiment in history.

Look at cell phones and Wi-Fi, universally adopted despite the fact that 75 percent of non-industry-sponsored studies have found that cell phones damage our DNA and that brain cancer in children has increased 1 percent a year for the past 20 years. On top of this, we bombard ourselves 24/7 with the radiation emitted from wireless networks and cell phone towers with nary a study of health effects. With cancer latency periods of up to 30 years, it will be another 20 years before we know the full extent of the harm. In the meantime, we're all subjects of the biggest radiation exposure experiment in history.

It's now common knowledge that, for decades, the tobacco industry suppressed evidence of the inherent harmfulness of cigarette smoking until there were just too many dead bodies for society to overlook. Given the propensity for industries to conceal the harmfulness of their products, our trust in the $3.1 trillion telecommunications industry's self-serving assurances is naive. As a great American president once said, "Fool me once . . ."

The most existentially threatening technology of all is playing out right now in Fukushima. If you're like most news consumers, you've probably been made to understand that the 2011 meltdown is safely behind us. You might want to sit down: In November 2013, the Tokyo Electric & Power Company (TEPCO) began a high-stakes operation to remove the 1,331 damaged, spent fuel rods from Reactor 4 and entomb each rod in an underwater cask. (Fuel rods from another damaged reactor cannot be removed at all right now because they are so hot they're literally melting into the ground and allowing unknown amounts of radiation to seep into the Pacific).

Depending on whom you ask, the worst-case scenario if something goes amiss could be anything from a massive release of radiation necessitating the evacuation of Tokyo to an apocalyptic explosion that would force the evacuation of the West Coast of the United States.

The removal procedure, which will take some uncertain number of months or years to complete is, by all accounts, extremely dangerous. According to anti-nuclear activist Harvey Wasserman, the amount of radioactive cesium stored at Fukushima is 15,000 times the amount released at Hiroshima. The fuel rods were damaged and bent during the earthquake and there is debris floating in the cooling pool in which the rods are currently housed. During the removal process, if a rod is exposed to air or comes in contact with another rod, it could explode, which could trigger a chain reaction among some or all of the 1,331 rods. The operation, which nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen likens to pulling cigarettes out of a crumpled pack, allows for no margin of error. Oh, and by the way, it's never been done before, not by TEPCO or anyone else.

Depending on whom you ask, the worst-case scenario if something goes amiss could be anything from a massive release of radiation necessitating the evacuation of Tokyo to an apocalyptic explosion that would force the evacuation of the West Coast of the United States . . . or worse, unthinkably worse. Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority Commissioner has directed TEPCO to exercise "extreme caution" due to the "very large risk potential."

The safe resolution of the Fukushima crisis hinges on human infallibility. To feel confident that the procedure will be carried off without incident, we must have faith that the engineers considered every contingency, that the executives cut no corners, that the laborers do not drink or grow tired or daydream or pull the wrong lever. Or sneeze. It's come to this, our fate in the hands of a few underpaid human beings handed a responsibility of existential proportion.

Assuming we dodge the nuclear apocalypse, there are other dangerous technologies in play or on the horizon, many of which are conceived of as techno-fixes for the unforeseen consequences of previous innovations. A couple of examples: 1) "Roundup-ready" crops genetically engineered to withstand the herbicide Roundup have led to unprecedented levels of herbicide application which have given rise to herbicide-resistant superweeds. The techno-fix? Stronger (more toxic) herbicides; 2) Running out of fossil fuels? Plan B is to hydrofrack every last drop of oil and gas out of the earth and never mind the fact that we're forever contaminating scarce water supplies in drought-ridden places like California. And when we run out of shale oil and gas, don't worry, Chinese scientists have plans to install a ring of solar panels around the moon's equator. The moon. You know, that celestial sphere that controls the ocean tides and rotational axis of the Earth. What could go wrong?

5. It often diminishes rather than enriches our quality of life.

Technology's greatest contribution to human well-being, we have been made to believe, is the invention of machines that carry out the dangerous, exhausting and tedious tasks previously performed by humans. Thus humans are liberated to pursue more inspiring, creative pursuits. Tell that to a worker on an iPhone assembly line (assuming she hasn't yet committed suicide). As for the products we consume, how blissed out were you last time you interacted with a "customer care" voice tree when your latest gadget failed to boot up?

Many times, in the thrall of our toys and drugs, we devalue life-affirming activities and ways of being.

If rates of depression, anxiety and the disintegration of social bonds are our guide, we already have too much technology for our ancient souls to integrate. Many modern activities are, simply put, not wholesome, that is to say, the activities serve to disconnect and numb us. If the critique of unwholesomeness seems quaint, I submit that this is my entire point. Many times, in the thrall of our toys and drugs, we devalue life-affirming activities and ways of being.

Pushing buttons and swallowing pills can be so easy. And so unfulfilling. A rash of studies has shown what we could have guessed - that having everything done for us (growing and preparing food, cleaning our homes, transporting and healing ourselves) denies us our sense of agency and purpose and makes us depressed and anxious. We think we want all the conveniences modern life has to offer, but when we adopt them, a deep, ancient part of what makes us human quietly slips away.

The "Mad Men" sold Betty Draper appliances to manage her home, television to entertain her children and cigarettes and pretty dresses when suburban isolation and the boredom of empty leisure festered into clinical depression. Ever since the post-war years, we've increasingly turned to machines instead of people to help us. And when we don't need people for our survival, we become isolated from one another and distanced from the richness of human traditions, lore and knowledge.

As a parent, I'm keenly aware of how anemic my child-rearing responsibilities are now that the primal breastfeeding chapter is long behind my son and me. Parents through the ages have passed along to the next generation vast amounts of knowledge and skills to navigate the world around them - how to hunt, collect and grow food, where to find water, how to find and use healing herbs, how to build fire and shelter, how to make clothes, bowls, instruments, toys, you name it and they made it. What can I teach my son beyond how to bookmark his favorite web pages and operate the remote control? It makes me sad.

6. It erodes our privacy.

This bears mentioning even though it seems that many Americans under the age of 60 don't really care very much. If we did care, Edward Snowden's revelations alone would have toppled the government. What's interesting here is the unspoken Faustian bargain between the public and internet and software companies - we get to make use of their often "free" products, and they get to data mine the hell out of us and turn over the minutiae of our private lives to digital marketing and government agencies.

The erosion of privacy may not directly kill us (as the title of this article suggests), but it makes it easier for government to adopt totalitarian practices that, as we saw all too much of during the 20th century, can lead to state-sponsored repression, brutality and genocide. In fact, it's difficult to conceive how a government could control a large population withoutaid of modern technology. Even if government passes up the chance to empower itself with our personal data, corporate marketers most certainly will not, and we can expect to be tracked, analyzed and served up increasingly personalized ads that will lead us to buy ever more stuff.

7. It deepens inequality.

University of Michigan economics professor Mark Perry reports on his blog that US manufacturing worker productivity has increased by more than eight-fold since 1947. This trend is largely the result of robotics and software. Productivity gains could and should mean higher wages and benefits and shorter working hours, but that's not what's happened. The gains have inured to the benefit of corporations and their executives and shareholders, the now notorious 1% who, by Credit Suisse's reckoning, own 46 percent of global wealth.

Productivity gains could and should mean higher wages and benefits and shorter working hours, but that's not what's happened.

In a non-capitalist economy, productivity gains could theoretically benefit workers. However, even in the case of a democratic socialist utopia, the profits from increased productivity might be shared more equitably, but the environmental impact will be the same - more stuff, more consumption, more pollution until, eventually, we simply run out of materials to cut and mine and burn, or choke to death on soot and smog.

New economic elites are born of the technocracy, many of them libertarian and decidedly uninterested in problems such as poverty and structural inequality that cannot be solved through software hackathons. They gush about "disrupting" without much thought to what and who are the disruptees.

We are witnessing the rise of the digerati, the Jeff Bezoses of the world who are amassing enormous wealth by leveraging online efficiencies in marketing, distribution and staffing. (Witness the rise of online "crowd workforce" sites such as Bezos' Mechanical Turk and Crowdflower, where anonymous workers earn an average of two dollars an hour performing tiny tasks for high-tech companies happy to skirt wage and hour laws.) The digerati's concentration in cities like San Francisco has caused rental and real estate prices to skyrocket, meaning working class households can't make ends meet and, ultimately, simply cannot afford to live in San Francisco.

Just because we can have machines replace people doesn't mean we should.

Poverty is unhealthy and often deadly. Residents of poor neighborhoods with high violence and without access to quality food and health care have shorter life spans. Technology-induced unemployment is not the sole cause of poverty, but a heavy contributor. Just because we can have machines replace people doesn't mean we should.

At the same time that technology is disrupting communities, it is also providing us with an accessible, low-cost platform for mobilizing resistance. It's hard to imagine, for example, how Occupy would have become an overnight sensation without Twitter and Facebook alerts or how anyone would have a clue as to what's really going on without sites like Truthout. Moreover, online organizing and socializing is surely of huge benefit to people with mobility issues or who live in isolated regions. Then again, up until 20 years ago, humans managed to overthrow monarchies, strike against unfair labor practices, desegregate schools and lunch counters and more, much more, usually without even a land line much less a smart phone. Organizers and alternative media creators and consumers clearly cannot hope to galvanize millions without use of modern communications technologies, but should be mindful that these tools do take a personal, interpersonal and environmental toll and can never wholly substitute for face-to-face, community-based organizing.

Appropriate Technology

Some technologies have helped more than they've hurt, though the list is, by my reckoning, shorter than one might expect and cannot in good conscience include pillars of modern living such as nuclear and coal-fired electricity and most of the entertainment and communications devices they power, cars, air travel, processed food, GMOs and single-use products. As for antibiotics, the jury is out until we see whether drug-resistant superbugs become the nightmare scenario many are now predicting.

What technologies can most safely, effectively and efficiently meet the world population's basic needs for clean water and adequate food, hygiene, shelter, clothing, medicine, birth control, education, arts and transportation?

There are 7 billion people on this planet, many of whom have been conditioned to expect their standard of living to improve. Certainly, most of them will be disappointed to learn that it would take five planet earths to enable everyone to live like a North American. Putting aside that fantasy, the question becomes: What technologies can most safely, effectively and efficiently meet the world population's basic needs for clean water and adequate food, hygiene, shelter, clothing, medicine, birth control, education, arts and transportation? A secondary question is: What additional technologies should be used exclusively by people uniquely in need of them? Examples might include personal vehicles for elderly and disabled people and air conditioning for people with certain health conditions. And lastly: What technologies might we share as a community rather than each owning our own (e.g. computers, vehicles, phone booths - remember those)?

Appropriate technologies are those that meet human needs and enhance people's lives and communities, without exploiting or endangering workers and without damaging the environment. The best go one step further and actually restore damaged ecosystems. Examples of restorative technologies include permeable pavement that allows for rainwater to replenish aquifers and mycologist Paul Stamet's remarkable use of fungi to clean up toxic spills and radiation.

The good news is: We already have most of what we need to live comfortable and healthy lives. Many of the technologies that serve us the most safely and effectively are toward the low-tech end of the spectrum and have been around for decades if not millennia - composting, gray water, indoor plumbing, fermentation food storage, greenhouses, irrigation, herbal and homeopathic medicine, acupuncture, condoms, electrolyte solutions, bicycles, trains, LED lights, solar panels, windmills, printing presses. We know how to thrive without nuclear reactors, fossil fuels, pesticides, air cargo and smartphones; we're just not doing it on a societal scale.

In a crony capitalist system in which corporate interests determine which technologies to develop and bring to market, the public interest is, by and large, irrelevant. So, what's a neo-Luddite to do?

Take the need for human waste disposal for the billions of people who don't have flush toilets: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sponsored a toilet design competition. The winning toilet is a nifty, high-maintenance $2,000 contraption involving a solar-powered electrochemical reactor and hydrogen fuel cells. That toilet might be just the ticket for one of the Gates' vacation homes but, for a rural dweller in a developing country, there are already cheap, sanitary, low-tech toilets available through organizations like SOIL. The hubristic toilet competition encourages innovation for the sake of innovation, an egotistical trap that blocks viable, existing solutions from widespread adoption.

Evaluating the appropriateness of new and existing technologies is no easy task, and it's easy to see how one's biases can distort the process. A writer, for example, might be quick to conclude that the benefits of personal computers outweigh the environmental and spiritual damage they cause. The following questions might serve as a good starting point:

  • Who owns and controls the technology?
  • What are the benefits? To whom do they accrue?
  • Has the technology been proven safe beyond a reasonable doubt (the precautionary principle)? Who is sponsoring the research and do we trust them?
  • Who are the subjects of safety tests? Have they given informed consent or are they a marginalized population being exploited to test new substances or procedures? If they are animals, do the benefits justify the animals' pain, suffering and captivity?
  • What are the downsides and risks? Are there risks of catastrophic harm that can never be mitigated (e.g. nuclear accidents)?
  • Does the technology bring us together or drive us further apart?
  • Is there a less energy-intensive alternative?
  • Does the technology deplete finite resources?
  • Does manufacture or operation endanger worker or consumer health and safety?
  • Can the technology be applied to weaponry or spying?
  • Would widespread adoption of the technology displace and render obsolete classes of workers?
  • What mental and physical capacities will atrophy when we adopt the technology?
  • Can all 7 billion of us adopt it and, if we do, what are the consequences?
  • Can an ethical argument be made for adoption by some subset of the global population and, if so, who, and who decides?

What About Communications Technology?

I've touched on some of the benefits and pitfalls of communications technology in this essay, but there are others, so many in fact that the exercise of evaluating these technologies is quite challenging. I don't hold myself out as the arbiter of whether smartphones and Wi-Fi and Facebook do more harm than good. I simply argue that these technologies are not exempt from the same risk-benefit analysis I suggest all technologies undergo.

What's a Neo-Luddite to Do?

It's all well and good to undertake individual assessments of the merits of various technologies, but how do we translate our formulations into law and policy? There are no easy answers here, and the path wends through terrain familiar to many progressive causes. In a crony capitalist system in which corporate interests determine which technologies to develop and bring to market, the public interest is, by and large, irrelevant. So, what's a neo-Luddite to do?

Organize. Given such unparalleled heights of corporate power, the "Move to Amend" movement to strip corporations of constitutional personhood is essential so as to enable the enactment of draconian campaign finance reforms, the more draconian the better, given how thorough corporate political control has become. It should be noted that Move to Amend has already galvanized widespread support, thanks to the convenience of online petitions and other "netroots" tools.

There's a push for states and, ultimately, the federal government to adopt the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) as a more holistic and accurate measure of social and economic well-being than the GDP. The GPI would take stock of several of the risk factors technology presents, including environmental impacts, physical and mental health, divorce rates, educational achievement, etc.

Emerging technologies are approved and regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and other government agencies run by scientists and policy makers who worked in the past - and will likely work again in the future - within the very industries they are entrusted to regulate. To pick just one example of many, Tom Wheeler served as the head of two telecommunications lobbying groups before being sworn in as FCC commissioner in 2013. Until the revolving door is firmly shut, there's little hope of regulation in the public interest.

Ultimately, sound decision-making about emerging technologies may not be possible in a market versus a planned economy. By its very nature, market economies are technologically driven, with corporate players constantly racing to be the first to bring new technologies to market. Absent a system in which accountable elected officials oversee economic development and conduct risk-benefit analysis of proposed new products, the odds will always be in favor of new technologies.

Be skeptical. Technology certainly can address some problems, but don't assume the proposed techno-fix is the answer just because it's receiving breathless media hype. Reporters love innovators and startups and their megalomaniacal founders, sometimes going so far as to portray them as supernatural heroes (Steve Jobs). Caught up in the techno-topian dream as much as any of us, reporters tend to pen glowing odes to the latest and greatest invention or product and avoid penetrating questions about its utility, safety and environmental impact. Don't believe the hype. As Ralph Waldo Emerson forewarned, "Don't trust children with edge tools. Don't trust man, great God, with more power than he has, until he has learned to use that little power better. What a hell we should make of the world if we could do what we would."

Reject scare tactics. Putting the brakes on the rollout of new technologies will not, as the technocracy and their libertarian champions would have us believe, destroy the economy any more than any form of regulation, which is to say, not at all. Will it "disrupt" (to use a techie term) business as usual? You bet it will; that's the whole idea. In its stead, people-powered and eco-friendly technologies and businesses will arise and will hire new workers, lots of them. If technocrats find some of their wealth, power and mythical prestige diluted in the process, that is all to the good.

Opt out. If all 7 billion of us cannot live large, American-style, why should any of us? Contemplate and discuss with your family and community what you really need to live a healthy, meaningful and resilient life. Experiment with how close you can come to that standard of living voluntarily, and be prepared to accept involuntary cutbacks that are surely in store for us all, either in the form of a carbon tax, economic crisis, war, disease pandemic or ecological collapse. In the meantime, don't be so fast to download the newest app or buy the latest device. Ask yourself both what the app or device will give you and what it will take away.

Small acts of resistance and the adoption of new/old lifestyles will, eventually, coalesce into a force that can arrest our civilization's race toward the cliff's edge. Change seems to unfold slowly, but that's only during the early, underground stages. Once the shoots break through the surface, things can change very quickly. Who foresaw the dismantling of the British Empire? Who in 1965 expected cohabitation of unmarried couples and recreational pot-smoking to become commonplace within 20 years? Who predicted a black president and the acceptance of gay marriage in the first decade of the 21st century?

Once a tipping point in human consciousness is reached, once a noticeable number of people start rejecting what is cruel and destructive and begin reinventing their beliefs and lifestyles, things can change very quickly. With respect to our current predicament, they have to.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Erica Etelson

Erica Etelson is a recovering human rights attorney and environmental activist and writer. Follow her on Twitter: @iluvsolar.


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