Technology is crucial to all the big issues, but criticism is hampered by mythologies and structures of power, writes David King. Designed by and for corporate interests, modern industrial technologies embody a 400-year old technocratic philosophy of control of nature and people which must be confronted.
Isn’t it funny that although practically every big issue about the future of global society hinges on technology, mainstream politics barely acknowledges them?
Even on the verge of climate and biodiversity catastrophe, how much were issues of technology politics discussed in the election campaign?
Governments come and go, but if the shadowy world government so beloved of conspiracy theorists really existed, you can bet that its main priority would be steering the development of technology, not stopping or starting wars. For no matter which political clique is in power, technology determines the material structure of the world, and defines what is possible.
The fundamental basis of any society is its relationship to nature, and that relationship is articulated through technology. So, as the green movement first began to argue around fifty years ago, it is the technological system of our society – industrialism – that is just as much to blame for the current crisis as the capitalist economic system.
In order to stop us really getting to grips with this problem, the powers that be have developed mythologies that stop us thinking critically about technology. Technology, we are told, is “just a neutral tool”, the development of which always creates progress. In any case, they tell us there’s nothing we can do about it because, “you can’t stop technology!”
But, as anyone who has been involved in campaigns like those against fracking, GM food or nuclear power can tell you, those dogmas have more of religion than of fact about them. What the campaigns have taught us is that the corporate-military-industrial complex designs technologies to suit their interests, not ours. It would be weird if they didn’t.
From GM crops designed to boost sales of Monsanto’s herbicides to software designed to steal your personal secrets from all-pervasive planned obsolescence to the unending drive to eliminate people’s jobs through automation, the use of technology as a tool of corporate power is fairly obvious.
At a deeper level, the fundamental business plan of capitalism for the last 250 years has been to undermine subsistence with cheap industrial goods, in order to make us dependent on technologies they control.
Of course technologies have brought genuine benefits, but what gets developed is far from inevitable, and the progress is invariably bought at a huge cost – but one that only becomes known once the cat is well out of the bag.
Breaking the Frame
Now, a group of techno-heretics going under the name Breaking the Frame has decided to tackle those myths head-on. Nothing less than a fundamental reassessment of technology is needed if we are to get to grips with the environmental crisis.
What we have been exploring is the even more alarming notion that technology is fundamentally not neutral, that it in fact has a politics of its own, which we are calling ‘technocracy’. To be more precise, technologies developed within the regime that began with the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century create and embody their own power system.
Other human societies have developed large-scale technological systems that have been compatible with human flourishing and ecological sustainability. But what developed in 17th century Europe was an explicit ideology of the control of nature through technology, without any limit, and a worship of the machine.
That ideology, which our society calls ‘rationality’, treats nature as nothing more than a set of resources to be extracted without any restraint and produces technologies of total suppression of nature, such as pesticides.
It is this underlying politics of western technology that, just as much as the capitalist drive for unending growth, has landed us in the mess we are in now. The idea of technocracy also explains attempts to control society by controlling human nature through, for example, eugenics and the pharmaceutical mental health system.
The intensification of technocracy, through the Industrial Revolution, Fordism and our current computer surveillance-based ‘post-Fordism’ shapes capitalism and our whole society. The apostle of 20th century technocracy, Frederick Taylor, put it simply:
“In the past the man was first. In the future the system will be first.”
The realisation that there exists this underlying politics of technology means that we have to rethink our existing responses to it.
One natural response, anti-technology primitivism, misses the point that it is not ‘technology’ itself that is to blame, but ‘technocracy’: the particular politics, economics and legalities of technology that have dominated western society for the last 400 years.
Technocracy allied with industrial capitalism has, over the last 250 years, done more than all previous human societies put together to destroy planetary ecosystems. But we must be sceptical of the claims of those who want to ‘hack’ industrial mega-technologies such as information technology.
IT deeply embodies the system-centred technological control philosophy whose product is cybernetics, and thereby shapes our minds, disseminating the technocratic mentality beyond its usual realm of scientists, engineers and managers to everyone.
Are you using IT for your purposes or is it using you?
No green technofixes!
The green movement is also susceptible to this tendency. A hallmark of technocracy is the propensity to believe in technofixes – the habit of framing and understanding problems in technical terms, so that they can be solved technologically.
Technofixes always purport to be politically neutral, but because they ignore social and political understandings of the problem they are actually nearly always serve the interests of the powerful. For example, if the problem of world hunger is not about inadequate crop yields but poverty, then the solution is not GM crops but economic and political system change.
Is ‘the energy problem’ a merely technical issue of producing enough low-carbon energy? If we ignore the issue of whose interests they serve and what social forms they imply, our best alternative technologies turn into monstrous nuclear power stations, hated industrial wind farms, and corporate biofuel landgrabs.
These are some of the issues that we’ll be discussing at the Breaking the Frame gathering in a few weeks with leading thinkers from campaigning green groups and other radical social movements.
Putting technology issues at the centre of politics means we’ll be thinking about what democratic control of technology might look like and what technologies we need for the transition to a sustainable and economically just society.
Dr David King is a former molecular biologist who has been writing and campaigning about issues related to biotechnology and other technologies for 25 years. He is the main organiser of the Breaking the Frame gathering.