Thursday, May 6, 2010

Technology, Closed-system physics, and Frankenweeds

Most people I speak with, even those with an otherwise “liberal” worldview, have a visceral knee-jerk reaction to the primitivist anti-technology mantra.  For some, the thought of a no-tech lifestyle is on par with eating live babies. 

A common response among those few who continue speaking to me is that an unmechanized life is too labor-intensive.  If it weren’t for our modern technology, we would be spending most of our time in menial labor devoted to providing life’s necessities.  Technology frees us so that our time can be spent in “the pursuit of happiness” (which, ironically, almost inevitably involves interaction with yet additional technology). 

The pervasiveness of the myth that technology reduces labor and frees up time is evidence of the effectiveness of corporate marketing.  This myth, of course, is easily exploded by looking at the amount of free time in indigenous subsistence societies: the often-cited statistic that hunter-gatherers spend about three and a half hours a day in “subsistence,” with most of their time (even the laborious part) spent not just in the pursuit of happiness, but deeply enwrapped in its actual embrace. 

Then there is the fact that much of our time in our high-tech society is spent working directly or indirectly to support technology itself.  A person commutes to her job in part to pay the expense of owning and fueling a car so that she is able to commute to her job.  And don’t even get me started on the mental and physical health costs associated with eating high-tech fast food because our technology-infused lifestyle doesn’t provide enough time to grow or prepare real food.  The pursuit of an early artery-clogged or cancerous death does not square with what I would consider to be the pursuit of happiness.

But even more pervasive than the myth that technology frees up time is the myth that technological innovations actually solve any of the problems they were designed to deal with.  Technology never solves anything.  It never has.  It merely “redistributes” the problems.

Let me explain.

Consider the first law of thermodynamics (conservation of energy).  In an isolated system, energy can neither be created nor destroyed.  If you will allow me a bit of metaphoric license, we can apply this empirical fact of physics to the “problems” specific technological innovations are supposed to solve.  It is possible to change a given problem’s form, or redistribute the problem in time or space, but the total amount of "problem-ness" remains, and will eventually turn up somewhere else, requiring the development of yet additional technological innovations. 

As a concrete example, there was an article in the NY Times a couple days ago about “superweeds” that have evolved resistance to the herbicide used on corporate corn and soybean fields.  The farmers (really outdoor factory workers) are now left with the choice of using an even more toxic chemical (probably atrazine, but the article didn’t specify) or (gasp!) pulling the weeds by hand.  One of the farmers was quoted as saying that technology-wise this development has knocked them back 20 years. 

That’s not exactly true, though.  Twenty years ago these superweeds didn’t exist.

The specific herbicide (Roundup) is a technological innovation designed to address a specific problem.  But its use didn’t solve the problem.  It merely redistributed the problem, changed its form, and pushed it into the future.  The original problem was pesky weeds.  The herbicide killed the pesky weeds (one problem), but increased the amount of toxins in the environment (another problem), and in the process, set the stage for the evolution of these superweeds (the original problem returns in a more “problematic” form).  Technology can redistribute a problem to other places and other people, but the overall quantity of “problem-ness” is always conserved.

When you think about it, that’s how all technology works in our corporate-dominated society: generating short term profit for some limited group of people by pushing problems off onto others.

For some reason, I’m reminded of a recent news item about an oil spill…

No comments:

Post a Comment