Resources for a better future: Technology

Note from the Uneven Earth editorial team: This entry is the nineteenth to be published within Uneven Earth’s new Resources for a better future series: ​a glossary of crucial concepts in political ecology, alternative economics, and environmental justice.​ We are calling on experts and activists to help us put out easy-to-read, clear, and opinionated explainers of some of the most important issues. Anyone can write an entry, and we will help with editing to make them readable to wide audiences. The time is now to put forward concise definitions of key concepts, to explain our political position firmly and clearly.

Technology is everywhere. Its influence on our lives and the world around us is enormous. In this article we’ll explore the definition of technology, then see how it relates to two important areas: nature and society. We’ll also include some current examples of political debates and struggles in which technology figures centrally.

So what exactly is technology? Easy: it’s computers and hovercraft and steam engines and cyborgs and remotely operated sex toys and stuff, right? Well yes, but actually it’s not so straightforward. Although extremely common, the term technology is not as easily defined as its usage might suggest [1].

The term is also relatively new. Despite a very long history of tool use and ‘technological’ development, the word only became widely used in the 20th century. It is formed from a combination of Greek τέχνη, techne, “art, skill, cunning of hand”; and -λογία, -logia, roughly translating as “science of craft”, and originated as a translation of the German word technik [2].

In discussions around technology, certain ideas are frequently repeated. For example, most definitions refer to things (tools, machines or techniques) being used to solve problems or satisfy human needs or purposes. The tools and machines need not be physical; things such as organisational methods or computer software also fall under definitions of technology. The economist W. Brian Arthur, uses an extremely broad definition, extending the meaning of ‘a technology’ to include anything that can be considered “a means to fulfill a human purpose.” [3].

Science also often comes up in writing about technology and many definitions of technology refer to the application of scientific knowledge to accomplish a task. In fact, science and technology are so intimately connected that it is often difficult to distinguish between them. Stemming from this, the understanding of nature through observation and measurement, and the ability to influence or even control natural processes and our environment are other common themes in discussion around technology.

Technology also concerns the interaction between tools and techniques and the people and systems that create, use or are affected by them. The idea of technology includes a social context and there is a continually evolving relationship with other aspects of society or culture. Technologies are hugely influenced by ideologies and social structures, such as capitalism, and act as real world manifestations of the ideas behind them (more on this below).

So technology includes tools and machines, needs and desires; it involves science, society and nature, and it is inherently political. However, the dominant modern idea of technology treats it as apolitical and inevitable, as if it is an unquestioned representation of human progress. So where did these ideas come from? Looking to the history of this dominant ideology of technology-as-progress, we can see that it is based upon a worldview grounded in the domination of women and nature.

Nature

Many identify the European Enlightenment in the 18th Century as instrumental in shaping today’s understanding of technology and the role it plays in society. Science and reason were seen as driving forces throughout human history, progressing towards better, more ‘civilised’ societies. Importantly, this also combined with a view of nature as being something to control and dominate towards human ends, with explicit links made between the domination of nature and the domination of women.

Francis Bacon was a key figure in influencing these views on nature. He described how the use of science and technology would lead to the “Dominion of Man over the Universe” and render nature the “slave of mankind” (he probably wasn’t much fun on wildlife walks) [4].

However, since then, many other thinkers have pushed against this ideology, suggesting that instead of continuing a relationship of superiority and domination, technology has the potential to bring us closer to nature. For example, jumping to the 1970s, Murray Bookchin thought that technology had the potential to both free people from the toil of repetitive labour and to reconnect them with the environment [5].

In terms of current debates on nature and technology, there are two fairly distinct and competing views on how technologies relate to ecological crises such as climate change. One involves an acceptance that the immensity and imminence of ecological crises means there is no hope of making fundamental societal changes in time. It argues that democratic change or building the conditions for revolution would be too slow. Therefore, this position holds, people should harness the power of technology as it exists within the current capitalist, statist framework to find technological solutions to ecological crises (e.g. developing and using genetic engineering and geo-engineering, mining asteroids to overcome resource constraints, even populating other planets). Accelerationism and ecomodernism are both attitudes which fall within this kind of approach. Accelerationists believe we should enthusiastically embrace and accelerate both economic growth and technological advancement, saying that this will lead to the technologies we need to avert ecological disaster. Ecomodernists argue that humans should use technology to separate themselves further from the natural world, both reducing dependency on nature and preventing further environmental harm.

However, both represent a dangerous ‘technofix’ or ‘techno-optimist’ mentality, where people rely on technology to provide solutions to all manner of problems, while lacking a critical understanding of the role technology plays in creating the problems in the first place. They also fail to recognise how we are part of nature and the ecosystems that we rely on for survival, creating an illusion of independence.

On the other hand there are those that say relying on these sorts of technological solutions to environmental problems further entrenches the same kind of thinking that contributed to our current predicaments. They propose an approach of constraining certain (not all) technologies in an effort to undermine and subvert the growth paradigm. The degrowth movement, for example, seeks to end growth-based economics and replace it with a form of ecological economics that prioritises well-being for all and ecological sustainability. While adherents to the first paradigm often critique this second position for being “anti-technological”, what is actually at stake is not a question of being for or against technology in total, but disagreements as to which specific technologies are best suited to address our ecological crisis in just, equitable and effective ways.

Inspiration can also be found in ideas that have been around for a long time: indigenous knowledge, and worldviews and systems of thought from other cultures that have been overshadowed or deliberately undermined by colonialism and the predominance of modern ‘scientific-western’ thinking. How do they conceive of and relate to nature? What role did or does ‘technology’ or crafts play in these cultures? What systems and practices formed around their use of tools and how might we learn from them in shaping future technological relationships?

Argroecology is an example of how humans can use technology in a more harmonious relationship with the rest of nature, and has been practiced for millennia across the globe. Agroecological farming methods, such as diversifying farms and avoiding chemical inputs, strongly contrast with industrial agriculture and can help to address, rather than contribute to, ecological crises like climate change or habitat loss. As well as keeping carbon in the ground, supporting biodiversity and rebuilding soil fertility, they also provide the basis for secure farm livelihoods. Transnational social movements such as La Via Campesina (The International Peasant’s Movement) are championing agroecology in order to move towards a just, sustainable and viable food and agriculture system.

Society

Technologies are shaped by and shape society: they can originate from human needs and desires (social determination of technology) and they can also profoundly influence them (technological determinism). Technologies can have inherent politics, both wound up in the individual technologies themselves and in the specific way they are designed, distributed and implemented. As critical writer on technology, Langdon Winner, said:

Technologies are not merely aids to human activity, but also powerful forces acting to reshape that activity and its meaning. [6]

So how do forces such as capitalism and the state direct the development of technology?

One powerful illustration of this relationship can be found in the internet and digital communication technologies. The enhanced ability to share information and new modes of interaction offered by such technologies clearly have enormous potential to benefit society. However, they were created and exist in a social context that powerfully shapes their nature. Capitalism’s constant need to generate profit leads it to expand into new areas as others become exhausted or not sufficiently profitable. So the internet and the world of digital communication became a new sphere from which to extract profit. Just as workers are separated from the products of their labour and turned into consumers, now people are also separated from ‘their’ information: that which relates to them or is produced by them. It is extracted, processed and commodified by the corporate monoliths dominating the web. In exchange people are given the ‘free’ services offered by social media platforms, search engines, email accounts and the like. However, this goes deeper than just control of modes of communication and flows of information. Through digital communication technologies, capitalism’s insatiable appetite has pushed it further into the realm of people’s mental processes and their social ties [7].

Due to underlying systems of power, the tools and technologies designed to improve people’s ability to communicate have radically altered the way they communicate. The ideologies embedded within digital communication technologies have fundamentally shaped the new behaviours and cultures of communication that have emerged. For example the corporate/neoliberal influence on online social media is enormous. Individualist self-promotion and branding influence social identities and interactions. Clickbait instant gratification affects attention spans, the depth of content and critical thinking. The insidious influence of profit extraction can be seen throughout. Vast amounts of data are collected, stored, analysed and commodified, leading to huge intrusions on the privacy of billions of people and increasing the susceptibility of their behaviour to be modelled, predicted, profited from and controlled. This is an example of how the interests of corporate profitability and state social control intersect. They reinforce one another in shaping technological processes and aligning them to their priorities [8].

However, it doesn’t have to be that way. If the digital world is treated as another terrain of struggle and effective strategies adopted, it could shift the balance of power towards those who seek liberatory change rather than those seeking to control and exploit [9]. Social movements around the world fighting against authoritarian regimes have exploited digital communication platforms for rapid organisation and dissemination of information. In many cases they have been able to adopt and adapt to technologies faster than state institutions, out-manoeuvring those who seek to repress them.

Another example is the free, open source or ‘libre’ software movement. It aims to make software that can be freely used and modified by others (the Linux operating systems are perhaps the best known examples), as opposed to a proprietary model where the programming source code has a legal owner. The open content philosophy has been applied to a huge range of areas, including open hardware and there are now ‘open content’ text books and education materials, building designs, vehicles and medical equipment. Although it has been partially co-opted by capitalist interests, there is still a community resisting and fighting to maintain the original politicised principles of free/libre content [10].

Conclusion

While dominant attitudes towards technology are naively optimistic, technology (in the broad sense) can still be something to be celebrated and enjoyed; an expression of creativity and a powerful tool at our disposal. But it must be re-imagined so that it no longer embodies ideologies based on domination and exploitation of humans and nature.

Technology is not neutral. We’re inside of what we make, and it’s inside of us. We’re living in a world of connections — and it matters which ones get made and unmade [11]. – Donna J. Haraway

This text is taken and modified from ‘TECH: A guide to the Politics and Philosophy of Technology’ by Corporate Watch. Corporate Watch is a not-for-profit co-operative providing critical information on the social and environmental impacts of corporations and capitalism.

Recommended Reading

  • TECH: A Guide to the Politics and Philosophy of Technology by Corporate Watch (ISBN 978-1-907738-27-2)
  • Technology : critical history of a concept by Eric Schatzberg (ISBN 978-0226583976)
  • The death of nature: women, ecology, and the Scientific Revolution and Reinventing Eden : the fate of nature in western culture, both by Carolyn Merchant (ISBN 978-0062505958 and 978-0415644259)
  • The Social Shaping of Technology: How the Refrigerator Got Its Hum by Donald MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman (ISBN 978- 0335150274)
  • Whose Streets? Anarchism, Technology and the Petromodern State by Michael Truscello and Uri Gordon (issn 0967 3393 )

References

1. See the Intro Essay in MacKenzie, Donald A., and Judy Wajcman. The Social shaping of technology : how the refrigerator got its hum. Milton Keynes Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1985. ISBN 978- 0335150274

2. For an extremely detailed explanation of the word’s origins see Schatzberg, Eric. Technology : critical history of a concept. Chicago London: The University of Chicago Press, 2018. ISBN 978-0226583976

3. Arthur, W B. The nature of technology : what it is and how it evolves. New York: Free Press, 2009. ISBN 978- 1416544050

4. Quotes from : Fideler, David R. Restoring the soul of the world : our living bond with nature’s intelligence. Chapter 8, “In the Name of Utility: The Exploitation of Nature and the Decline of Pleasure.” Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2014. Print

5. Bookchin, Murray (published under the pseudonym Lewis Herber). Towards a Liberatory Technology. Anarchos, no. 2 (Spring 1968) and No. 3 (Spring 1969)

6. Winner, Langdon. The whale and the reactor : a search for limits in an age of high technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. Print. ISBN 978-0226902111

7. The Internet as New Enclosure. crimethinc.com 10/06/2013 <https://crimethinc.com/2013/06/10/the-internet-as-new-enclosure > [accessed 5 Sep 2020]

8. Return Fire. Caught in the Net. Return Fire vol.4. Autumn 2016 (Available at Anarchist Library <https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/return-fire-vol-4-supplement-caught-in-the-net?v=1501280195> [accessed 5 Sep 2020])

9. Karatzogianni, Athina. Firebrand Waves of Digital Activism 1994-2014: The Rise and Spread of Hacktivism and Cyberconflict. Houndmills, Basingstoke Hampshire New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Print. ISBN 978-0230242463]

10. Technological Sovereignty, Vol. 2. <https://sobtec.gitbooks.io/sobtec2/content/en> [Accessed 5 Nov 2020]

11. Haraway, Donna. A Cyborg Manifesto. Socialist Review, 1985. (Full text available online here: <https://sites.evergreen.edu/politicalshakespeares/wp-content/uploads/sites/226/2015/12/Haraway-Cyborg-Manifesto-2.pdf> [accessed 4 Sep 2020])