The Technological Tempest: Charting a New Course
Chapter 2: What was promised?
Broderick, like many others, looks at recent developments of technology and projects them into the future. Such projections of technological progress are usually seen as offering a pathway to a Utopian or Dystopian future (or anywhere on the spectrum in-between). Utopian projections are typically the domain of optimistic science fiction writers and futurists. Such people tend to emphasise the perceived benefits of technology and predict a future based on these, largely ignoring or glossing over the drawbacks and negatives. Many ‘utopians’
tend to assume that the problems caused by technological progress will be solved by technological progress. Dystopian projections are likely to come from social critics and those who are already somewhat discontented with what they see in their society. These predictions take the opposite tack, projecting the negative effects of technological development whilst discounting the perceived benefits, or perhaps paint such ‘benefits’ in a negative light. Science fiction writers may also select some aspects of technology and use these to create ‘monster’ scenarios, like out-of-control computers or organisms created by technology.
These are typically variations on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster story - of science escaping the control of its creators. In fact, some people, like Derek Jensen, suggest that science and technology have already escaped human control (Jensen and Draffan, 2004).
Picketty in his 2014 book ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’ suggests that there is empirical evidence to support Rousseau’s bleak general analysis of civilised society by making the following claim in relation to 19th century France:
‘As I will soon show, the structure of the income and wealth hierarchies in nineteenth- century France was such that the standard of living the wealthiest French people could attain greatly exceeded that to which one could aspire on the basis of income from labor alone. Under such conditions, why work? And why behave morally at all? Since social in equality was in itself immoral and unjustified, why not be thoroughly immoral and appropriate capital by whatever means are available?’ (p. 240)
Henry David Thoreau was another who was suspicious not only of modern civilisation but also its governments, stating in the introduction to his book ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience’ the following:
‘Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government. The standing army is only an arm of the standing government. The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.’
‘Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor.’ (Thoreau, 1854, para. 19).
Greg (1936) makes the following argument in relation to simplicity:
‘It is often said that possessions are important because they enable the possessors thereby to enrich and enhance their personalities and characters. The claim is that by means of ownership the powers of self-direction and self-control inherent in personality become real. Property, they say, gives stability, security, independence, a real place in the larger life of the community, a feeling of responsibility, all of which are elements of vigorous personality.#_ftn1" name="_ftnref1" title="" id="_ftnref1"> style='font-size:12.0pt;line-height:115%;font-family:"Times New Roman","serif"'>
Nevertheless, the greatest characters, those who have influenced the largest numbers of people for the longest time, have been people with extremely few possessions. For example, Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, Kagawa, Socrates, St. Francis, Confucius, Sun Yat Sen, Lenin, Gandhi, many scientists, inventors and artists. "The higher ranges of life where personality has fullest play and is most nearly free from the tyranny of circumstance, are precisely those where it depends least on possessions. . . . The higher we ascend among human types and the more intense personalities become, the more the importance of possessions dwindles.’ href="#_ftn2" name="_ftnref2" title=""> (section IX)
Finally on this point are more recent advocates of simple living Alexander, Trainer, & Ussher (2012):
‘Once our basic material needs are met, the limitless pursuit of money and stuff merely distracts us from more meaningful and inspiring things. As the ancient philosophers told us long ago, those who know they have enough are rich, and those who have enough but do not know it, are poor. Consumerism, it is clear, represents a mistaken idea of wealth, and it is based on a mistaken idea of freedom.’ (p. iii)
So we have seen one type of utopia – a simpler world living closer to nature. Is it possible that we can exist in a closer state to nature and still be happy? (technology after all, is largely about separating us from a state of nature.) It may well be so, and this is a topic we return to in Chapter 7.
Two variations on dystopian themes of futuristic societies are presented in the books ‘Brave New World’ and ‘1984’.
Aldous Huxley’s 1932 book “Brave New World” is a tale of a futuristic society in which everyone seems to be free, but desires are manipulated by the state (through behaviour conditioning) and various
state-favoured forms of amusement are promoted. In particular amusements based on casual sexual relations, a variation on cinema movies (called ‘feelies’) and a legalised drug called soma. Consumerism is encouraged and slogans like “ending is better than mending” contribute to a “throw-away” mentality in the population.
In Chapter 17 of ‘Brave New World’ Huxley presents the following conversation between two of his characters: John the Savage, who was raised in uncivilised reservation, and Mustapha Mond, Resident World Controller of Western Europe:
‘Mustapha Mond shut the [philosophy] book and leaned back in his chair. "One of the numerous things in heaven and earth that these philosophers didn't dream about was this" (he waved his hand), "us, the modern world. “You can only be independent of God while you've got youth and prosperity; independence won't take you safely to the end.” Well, we've now got youth and prosperity right up to the end. What follows? Evidently, that we can be independent of God. 'The religious sentiment will compensate us for all our losses.” But there aren't any losses for us to compensate; religious sentiment is superfluous. And why should we go hunting for a substitute for youthful desires, when youthful desires never fail? A substitute for distractions, when we go on enjoying all the old fooleries to the very last? What need have we of repose when our minds and bodies continue to delight in activity? of consolation, when we have soma? of something immovable, when there is the social order?”
“Then you think there is no God?”
“No, I think there quite probably is one.”
“Then why? …”
Mustapha Mond checked him. "But he manifests himself in different ways to different men. In pre-modern times he manifested himself as the being that's described in these books. Now …"
"How does he manifest himself now?" asked the Savage.
"Well, he manifests himself as an absence; as though he weren't there at all."
"That's your fault."
"Call it the fault of civilization. God isn't compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness. You must make your choice. Our civilization has chosen machinery and medicine and happiness. That's why I have to keep
these books locked up in the safe. They're smut. People would be shocked if
George Orwell’s book ‘1984’ (published in 1949) presents a more overtly controlled society in contrast to the more subtle and sophisticated methods of ‘Brave New World’. A society in which government engages in mass surveillance so as to detect and eliminate any possible resistance or threats to the government or the dis-information it disseminates.
Aldous Huxley argued in a letter to George Orwell that the covert means of control used in Brave New World was more realistic than 1984’s overt methods:
‘the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency.’ (Huxley, 1949)
Note that the driver of this process is believed by Huxley to be ‘a need for efficiency’, the type of motivation one might expect in a technocratic society, a society in which efficiency is defined or conceived in such a way so as to exclude many negative side effects (i.e negative externalities) - a topic which we will return to in a later chapter.
One pattern that appears to emerge from our brief analysis of visions of utopia and dystopia, is that utopian societies can be ones with relatively little technology (or at least with relatively simple technologies) or ones with very sophisticated technology, like Broderick’s book ‘The Last Mortal Generation’. Dystopian ideas, however, tend be almost exclusively associated with societies that have attained a level of ‘high technology’. It is as though highly developed technology is itself somewhat ominous, somewhat less controllable by everyday people, and somewhat more empowering for dehumanised abstractions, like state power or ideologies. This may in part be explained by the fact that societies without technology are seen as more imaginable, perhaps the underlying, and unsaid, understanding is that one need only study historical societies to know what less technologically sophisticated societies would be like. This implies that any future society that does not use highly sophisticated technology would be very much like one or more societies of the past. But is this true? Could we not have a society that is in many ways different from past societies, even if we were to revert back to a much simpler way of living? Does this assumption of future-being-like-the-past place too much emphasis on the role of technology in society? Perhaps this perspective itself, of seeing and judging societies based on their levels and use of technology is a product of our own ‘technologically biased’ mindset? Someone visiting from a past time period brought to our modern world may overlook our technology entirely. Rather than being in awe of our technological achievements they may be well be horrified at the high cost and slowness of our justice systems, the levels of ill health and obesity, the fact that vast numbers of people sit all day in offices, the enormous amounts of time (and energy) spent travelling, the inequality of wealth, the waste and epicureanism all around. They may well regard our opinion of ourselves as an ‘advanced human culture’ as altogether conceited, and in many ways inaccurate.
There are however, some who conceive the possibility of a life closer to nature, with simpler technologies, and see this not as a return to the past, but as an entirely new culture. David Holmgren and Bill
Mollison proposed permaculture as a system for redesigning society for a ‘low energy future’. Such a pattern of reaching a peak of resource use, followed by a sudden collapse is one of the scenarios predicted by modelling in the 1972 report, sponsored by the Club of Rome, called the ‘Limits to Growth’. The Limits to Growth report also tackled technological determinism as depicted by statements like:
‘There are no substantial limits in sight either in raw materials or in energy that alterations in the price structure, product substitution, anticipated gains in technology and pollution control cannot be expected to solve’ (pg 130)
In response, based on their modelling, the report’s authors conclude:
‘The basic behavior mode of the world system is exponential growth of population and capital, followed by collapse. As we have shown in the model runs presented here, this behavior mode occurs if we assume no change in the present system or if we assume any number of technological changes in the system.’ (p. 142)
An alternative vision of society is provided by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, both of whom have written extensively about the system they call ‘permaculture’. Bill Mollison describes permaculture as
follows (Mollison 1991):
‘The word itself is a contraction not only of permanent agriculture but also of
permanent culture, as cultures cannot survive for long without a sustainable agricultural base and landuse ethic.’ (p. 1)
Mollison (1988) also states that a principle of permaculture is ‘Cooperation, not competition, is the very basis of existing life systems and of future survival’ (p 2)
For his part, Holmgren (2002) states:
‘I am suggesting that we need to get over our naïve and simplistic notions of sustainability as a
likely reality for ourselves or even our grandchildren and instead accept our task is to use our familiarity with continuous change to adapt to energy descent’ (p. xxx)
By energy descent Holmgren is referring to notions of a global peak of energy use followed by a rapid decline, with its associated chaos.
Holmgren’s and Mollison’s vision is a variation on, and perhaps a direct descendent of, the vision of Professor J. Russell Smith who in 1929 published a book called “Tree Crops” (Smith, 1929). Smith argues for a system of agriculture that relies more on trees and less on annual grains. Smith claims this will protect soils from erosion, and require less work than pure grain crops whilst providing farmers with a diversity of crops to protect them against the failures that may affect single crop systems. Smith proposes that nut and fruit trees should be used largely to provide animal feed, not just human food. Like permaculture Smith also suggests that this will provide a system of ‘permanent agriculture’.
The visions of the Smith, Holmgren and Mollison stand in stark contrast to the ‘predictions of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and other macho sci-fi novelists whose future worlds were always filled with space traders, superslick salesmen, genius scientists, pirate captains and other rugged individualists’ (
The idea of the power of the individual seems to be embedded in American culture. John Ralston Saul (1992) has suggested that most cultures are based on a kind of mythology or ideology. In America, this mythology seems to be based around the idea of the ‘self-made man’. In other words, the ability of any American to become rich if they just apply themselves. If you are rich, it is because you deserve to be rich. In America, unlike Old Europe where wealth is inherited, people become rich by applying themselves to hard work either in industry, their own education or both. Based on this concept of meritocracy, America has promoted itself in the past as the ‘land of opportunity’.
This myth based around the merits of the individual has always been questionable. Let us consider the merit of the bankers who take home enormous sums; are the people whose ingenious inventiveness in derivatives led to global financial collapse in 2008 really worth those large sums? Presumably, merit in a meritocracy, such as America claims to provide, should lead to benefits for all? Otherwise, it is not really a system that rewards merit at all – or least not what most people would consider merit, but rather a system that rewards pure selfishness and greed. And that at the expense of everyone else.
In fact, it is likely that it is selfishness and greed that is taking away many of the opportunities that Americans have enjoyed in recent decades. For example, many American opportunities for gaining work and experience in a range of fields are either disappearing overseas (to China, India and other low-wage countries) or being automated away (Ford, 2007). The opportunities that are not automated away probably mostly remain with vulnerable small to medium enterprises (with
varying degrees of profitability) or with large bureaucratic organisations in which work is (and thus workers are) standardised and controlled as never before. Recent evidence suggests that active efforts are underway by large players to eliminate smaller ones as quickly and ruthlessly as possible. This is especially the case with respect to agriculture and food production, which appears to have a revolving door between corporate positions and government regulatory roles, much like the American financial industry.
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‘Those skills eventually made him or her highly marketable, whether in developing applications-software or implementing networks. The hacker became a technician, an inventor and, in case after case, a creator of new wealth in the form of the baby businesses that have given America the lead in cyberspatial exploration and settlement.’
to right wing conservatism and suggests the influence of Ayn Rand. Rand’s philosophy suggests that one’s abilities and talents are entirely one's own. Thus those fortunate enough to be gifted by nature with intelligence and ability owe nothing to their fellow man.
In fact, these unfortunates are to be despised, as most likely (according to Rand – see her book ‘The Fountainhead’) their ignorance and incompetence will just hold back those who are more talented. Is this the meritocracy of America? Where the strong exploit, rather than help, the weak? Sadly, that seems to be evident in both banking and corporate behaviour more generally in America.
It seems that such one-sided arguments as Rand’s which argue for freedom but not for responsibility can lead to reckless, unjust and inhumane behaviour. And it is not just Rand who promotes such views. The following extract from the article by Morozov (2015) discusses the influential theories of free-market economist Friedrich Hayek and links those theories to an example of the very sorts of problems that such unbalanced free-market thinking seems to lead to:
‘In the free-market utopia of thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek – the true patron saint of the sharing economy – your reputation would also reflect what other market participants know about you.
Thus, if you are a nasty customer or an ill-mannered driver, everybody else will soon discover this, and specific laws to police your behaviour are
The good news, according to Hayek, is that once our norms change – what was considered nasty 50 years ago might be perfectly acceptable today – our reputations would reflect these changes immediately.
Laws, on the other hand, would take quite some time to be altered.
In reality, though, such a perfectly liquid and dynamic reputation
marketplace is nowhere to be seen. A recent lawsuit in the US highlights its
absence. Uber drivers have been accused of discriminating against disabled people by refusing to put their wheelchairs in the boot of their car. One would think that anti-discrimination laws that apply to taxis would also apply to Uber. Uber says it has anti-discrimination policies – and that it’s not a taxi company, it’s a technology company, a platform. Here, there is clearly no easy feedback mechanism to assist disabled travellers: this is what consumer protection laws are for.
#10;margin-left:36.0pt;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height:normal;text-autospace:<br /> none">There is still a chance to achieve a reduction in CO2 emissions that would keep the world broadly on track to limit global warming to around 2 degrees Celsius (2°C) above pre-industrial levels. This study outlines how it could be done’.
#10;margin-left:36.0pt;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height:normal;text-autospace:<br /> none">
#10;margin-left:36.0pt;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height:normal;text-autospace:<br /> none">‘The study specifies the technologies that would be employed in this energy system in a reference scenario (the “low mitigation scenario”, LMS) in which no concerted action on climate change is undertaken, and in a range of low-carbon scenarios (LCS) in which emissions reductions would be broadly in line with a
2oC global warming target. In this way the study sets out the major
technologies needed for this energy system transformation, with associated costs.’
#10;margin-left:36.0pt;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height:normal;text-autospace:<br /> none">
#10;margin-left:36.0pt;margin-bottom:.0001pt;line-height:normal;text-autospace:<br /> none">‘Importantly, this study assumes that future GDP growth is the same in the LMS and the LCS,
which implies that investments in low-carbon technologies do not affect other investments outside of the energy sector, such that the overall effect of investment patterns on growth is the same in both scenarios’
So the Grantham Institute for Climate Change’s 2013 report seems to provide evidence of how our society desperately seeks technological solutions to resolve the problems caused by technology, seeking at the same time to preserve our technological system and the ideologies associated with it.
So what has gone wrong with our technological society? Why are we faced with such momentous calamities? Why have our utopian dreams around the possibilities of progress been unable to deliver happiness and security? Perhaps the answer is alluded to in the writings of Friedrich Georg Juenger in his 1920 book titled ‘The Failure of Technology’. In this book Juenger writes about the authors of utopian visions as follows:
‘No one will look for prophetic gifts in a Jules
Verne or a Bellamy, for they lack almost everything that makes a prophet. Most of all, they lack the vocation, the call, and with it also the necessary wisdom, and the language in which this wisdom speaks. At best, they make a lucky guess that something will happen. They play with the imaginary, they play with the future, but it can never have for them the certainty it has for him who thinks and lives in religious terms. What they project into the future is merely a possibility emerging in the present, expanded by them in a logical and rational manner.’ (pg 2)
Is it true that utopian authors and peddlers lack wisdom? Perhaps at leastit is true that they lack the calling, as frequently they are seeking to tell a story, seeking perhaps to titillate the intellectual senses, rather than address real problems of the world in a holistic and wise manner? Who do we turn to then we want to consider what sort of society we want and how we might achieve it? Perhaps the first question to answer here is: What sort of society do we want? Hopefully the following chapters will help shed some light on what aspects might be desirable, and also what might be undesirable, as well as offering some lessons in regard to the question of how to achieve what we might want.
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"Property: A Study in Social Psychology," by Ernest Beaglehole, Alien
& Unwin, London, 1931.
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"The Christian Attitude Toward Private Property." by Vida D. Scudder
(a pamphlet), Morehouse Pub. Co., Milwaukee, Wis.; cf. also Chapter VI of
"Our Economic Morality," by Harry F. Ward, Macmillan