Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Shouting Down the Techno Cheerleaders

Those who would argue in support of the status quo frequently cite a standard laundry list of the amazing benefits that modern technology has provided, suggesting (usually stating outright) that our lives are far better off than they would have been otherwise. 

Okay, let’s start with the idea that modern industrial technology is beneficial, and leave the question of whether we are any better off for another time.  To begin with, the very idea that technology imparts “benefits” is part of a conceptual perspective embedded within the efficiency calculus of a technoindustrial world view.  For example, cell phones provide us with the benefit of rapid and convenient communication.  But to claim this as a benefit is circular reasoning.  Rapid and convenient communication is useful only because of the specific demands of life in a modern technoindustrial society that includes cell phones.  Likewise, the benefits imparted by industrial agriculture emerge only when you have large numbers of people displaced from their family farms (as a result of industrial agriculture) and living in cities. 

What about medical technology?  Modern medical technology provides us with the inarguable benefit of extending the population’s average life span.  But average population life span has no meaning whatsoever outside of an industrial assembly-line world view that reduces all meaningful information to statistical data.  The upper end of human life expectancy has probably not changed in the last 50,000 years.

We have been trained to think in “production efficiency” terms that make no sense from a truly human perspective.  Take the often touted reduction in infant mortality that has occurred (at least in wealthy industrial nations) as a direct result of advances in medical technology in the last century: the reduction in infant mortality (along with industrial agricultural practices) is partially responsible for a dramatic increase in the global human population, so the number of individual infants who die each year—actual human deaths—is orders of magnitude larger than it was in, say, the middle ages.  Where’s the benefit of having more babies live if it means that more will have to die?  

Outside of a hollow, strictly quantitative, more-bigger-quicker industrial production perspective, the technology = benefits argument has no teeth.

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