Monday, April 4, 2011

Three myths of technology

“The only lasting contribution of the megamachine was the myth of the machine itself: the notion that this machine was, by its very nature, absolutely irresistible—and yet, provided one did not oppose it, ultimately beneficent.  That magical spell still enthralls both the controllers and the mass victims of the magamachine today.”   (Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine, Volume 1, p. 224)

Three pervasive myths regarding the nature of technology:
1. the myth of technological progress
2. the myth of ultimate beneficence
3. the myth of inevitability

The myth of progress
According to this myth, the idea that technology is progressive is a demonstrable fact.  All you have to do is look around at the increasingly comprehensive ways in which technology is being applied in our lives.  The progressive nature of technology is a fundamental feature of technology itself.  Technology is cumulative; older technologies provide the foundation for new and improved versions, and set the stage for innovation.  Once an innovation occurs, once a new technological application is created, the ratchet sets, and it becomes a permanent part of an ongoing and ever-expanding process.

The problem here is that accretion and accumulation are not the same as progress.  Progress entails a target or goal, an end to which the current state can be compared.  What is the goal that provides us some way to gauge progress?  What is the goal of technology?  Is there some future techno-utopia in which every aspect of nature has been replaced by a technological facsimile? 

Part of the problem is that we often talk about changes in technology as “advancements.”  And it is true that within a strictly mechanical-production frame, new technology is frequently an improvement (e.g., it is faster, more efficient, etc.) over old technology.  But this interpretation of advancement does not translate to anything meaningful when you apply it outside of a limited mechanical-efficiency frame.   What are we advancing toward?  What are we advancing from?  How is an increase in the capacity to consume resources, curtail individual freedom, increase population, and impoverish the biosphere an improvement over previous technological conditions?

If there is any sense in which technology can be said to be progressive, it is only in the synonym-for- accumulation sense.  In this sense, technology is indeed progressive: it is progressively corrosive of the natural world, and progressively insulating, isolating, alienating, and dehumanizing with respect to the human condition as a whole. 

The myth of beneficence
Even the most hardcore technophile will admit that technology can create intractable problems (nuclear waste, anyone?).  Despite this, technology is seen as ultimately beneficial.  This myth is closely tied to the myth of progress.  Who could deny that technology is making life progressively better? The problem with this is that “better” is not a stand-alone generic term.  Things are never generally better; they are better in specific ways.  And by restricting the conversation to the specific ways that a limited set of conditions is “better,” the myriad ways in which things may have become worse are often completely ignored. 

The myth of beneficence becomes particularly salient when it is applied to medical technology.  Where would we be without polio vaccine or Prozac or dialysis?  Clearly medical tech has a demonstrably positive impact on the quality of life.

Let’s ignore for the moment the millions of individuals with medical problems that require technological intervention who will die because they do not have access to the technology, either because they are too poor or because they had the misfortune of being born on the wrong part of the planet—or both.  The number of people (with access) whose lives existing technology will be able to extend does not begin to offset the suffering of people currently dying from medical conditions caused directly or indirectly by life in a physically and psychologically toxic industrial society.  When you consider that the overwhelming majority of medical conditions that require treatment using advanced medical technology are themselves direct or indirect results of our dependence on technology, the argument that medical technology is making things “better” dissolves (I credit John Zerzan for this insight).  Consider diabetes, heart disease, depression, and most types of cancer.  For years I have been intrigued by the irony behind exposing people to the carcinogenic effects of X-rays as a way of detecting lung cancer.  Before anyone suggests that modern technology does more good than harm, they need to first weigh the costs and benefits associated with advanced medical technology—taking care to include the hidden physical and mental health costs associated with the corporate industrial infrastructure that serves as a precondition for modern medical technology’s existence in the first place.  You don’t get MRIs or antibiotics without a toxic environment and a crowded, stress-filled, nutritionally-deficient modern lifestyle.  The need for advanced medical technology is a direct byproduct of the conditions that support its very existence.  And the increase in need appears to be outpacing medical tech’s ability to keep up.  How much of an impact is modern medical tech going to make in Japan, as tens of thousands of people start to manifest symptoms of radiation poisoning?  Whatever the impact of medical tech turns out to be in this case, the results will be incomparably inferior to the health conditions that would have existed had the nuclear power plant never been built to begin with.  

The myth of inevitability
The myth of inevitability applies not just to technology, but to civilization more generally, and it is also closely tied to the myth of progress: “the ratchet of progress.”  Technology is inevitable.  It is a feature of the internal logic of the machine.  It is, in Mumford’s words, “absolutely irresistible.” It is an emergent property of human intellect.  It is an unavoidable feature of humankind’s cultural development.  This myth is extremely difficult to dispel despite the fact that, of the three myths discussed here, it has the least in the way of either logical or empirical support.  The belief in inevitability can only be arrived at logically through inductive reasoning (e.g., I know that technology is inevitable because I cannot think of a valid case in which its use has not been cumulative and persistent) based on a history-textbook view of Western civilization that ignores numerous actual cases in which technological innovations were never implemented or were abandoned in favor more primitive versions. 

From an empirical standpoint, the belief in inevitability glosses over numerous concrete example cases of whole-scale societal reversion to lower-tech life-ways, such as what happened with the Mayan and the Mississippian cultures.  According to the myth, these were obviously imperfect attempts at civilization that failed to generate sufficient technological solutions to the problems they encountered.

And what of the directionality problem associated with historical points of contact between technologically “advanced” and indigenous cultures?  Westerners frequently “go savage” but the indigenous never freely choose civilization.  Technology has always had to be forced on the “primitives.” 

This last feature of technology, that its acquisition is frequently the result of coercion and compulsion, may provide some insight into the true source of this myth.  For those on the receiving end of an overwhelming power differential, resistance means oblivion.

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