Monday, November 15, 2010

Who says we can't simply walk away?

One of the most often cited clichés about technology is that once a technological innovation has occurred, it can’t be undone.  Technology is accumulative and irreversible.  So we are stuck with nuclear weapons and cell phones.  We simply can’t go back, so our only recourse is to press forward with evermore sophisticated technology.  Our salvation lies in technological advancement.  

Leaving aside for the moment the insanity of the idea that the cure for our illness is to swallow more of the poison that has made us sick in the first place, the idea that technology is accumulative and possesses an inevitable progressive momentum is directly refuted by factual history.

There are prominent historical examples of entire civilizations being abandoned, along with the vast majority of their technological accoutrements.  The citizens of the Mississippian culture apparently walked away from a complex and dynamic empire.  And what of the Maya and the Olmec and the Anasazi?  The fact that there are people alive today who rightfully claim these folks as ancestors suggests that the children and grandchildren of the last denizens of these societies continued living, and in a technological state that was qualitatively different than the one present while the civilization flourished.  So much for progressive inevitability.   

As an aside, note that these are frequently cited as examples of failed civilizations.   The idea of failure, however, only applies if you assume a progressive view of civilization in the first place—a view that germinated in the capitalist soil of the European industrial revolution.  Apparently technology is accumulative and inevitable as long as you get it right.

There are also countless examples of specific technologies that have been abandoned or rejected despite the lack of clearly superior alternatives.  For example, asbestos is no longer a primary ingredient in home construction despite the absence of a clearly superior fireproofing agent.  When the dangers of a technology are found to outweigh its advantages, as was eventually evident with asbestos, abandoning the technology is the only logical choice. 

The long-term dangers of our corporate consumer civilization—dangers to the planet and to humanity—far outstrip any potential short-term advantages.  Unfortunately the evidence of these dangers has been obscured by the glitz and glitter of consumer mass marketing, and by the frenetic pace of a technology-saturated acquisitive lifestyle. 

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