On technology

Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.

– Albert Einstein

The word technology covers a vast array of things, from movable type to firearms, the internal combustion engine, steam power, the wheel, the transistor, powered flight, anaesthetics, symbolic logic, the lever, nuclear energy, digital computers and windmills. It is, in short, so vague as to be useless.

One thing we can say about technology in general, though, is that the often-made claim that it is value-free is nonsense. Technology comes about because people want to perform some action, and action is never value-free: that’s why the field of ethics exists. Take firearms. The AK-47 was developed in order to kill people, and so far as I can judge it’s very effective. Killing people may be right or wrong, depending on the circumstances and your ethical code, but I don’t think anyone would pretend it was value-free.

The Manhattan Project is an even more blatant example of this. Because the end product was dropped on Japan, we tend to forget that it was undertaken to pre-empt any similar development by Nazi Germany. This technology was explicitly developed for military purpose, and all the “atoms for peace” guff was plastered over it subsequently to make this less obvious.

All this leads one to the suspicion that the people who claim that technology is value-free are hoping you won’t notice what their values are. When James Watt and Matthew Boulton were trying to sell steam-engines to early industrialists in the late 19th century, they initially had a hard time of it: factories were being powered by water, and water-power is a lot cheaper than steam, especially at a time when coal was being mined by hand and was therefore expensive.

Steam won out for political reasons, that is to say for reasons to do with the power-relation between employer and employee; you can only build a water-mill in certain favourable locations, which means you need to get the local workforce to co-operate with you, whereas you can put a steam-engine pretty much anywhere, and if the locals won’t play ball, you can put it somewhere else. (See Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital (Verso Books, 2015) for the gory details of how this played out in 18th-century England.) So steam-power implies a set of values, in this case that the employer-employee relationship should favour the employer. This is not, incidentally, some sort of commandment from the Almighty, still less a law of physics; it’s a value which human beings have arrived at for our society, which could perfectly well be otherwise.

Pause for a moment, and think about all the other things to which that description applies. If you haven’t already, consider social media in this light.

But to return to our subject. Given the huge baggy mess that we put under the heading of technology, it seems to me more useful to consider technologies in the plural – what are sometimes referred to as technological suites. (Why “suite” should be collective noun for this is a mystery to me, right up there with why political measures come in “rafts”.) So for instance: let’s consider the technologies for transport available in 1820, two hundred year or six generations back from the day I am writing these words.

There are sailing-ships for long-distance travel. For inland freight transport, there are canals with horse-drawn barges, or there are carts and carriages, also horse-drawn, if you need to go along the more or less awful roads. Or there’s walking. If you read Thomas Hardy’s novels, which are mostly set in the 1830s, you’ll find a lot of ordinary people walking when they need to get from A to B.

But a lot of this involves horses, which implies a bunch of other technologies and associated infrastructure. You could expect to stay at an inn with stables attached, and ostlers to look after your horse. There would be troughs to water your horse along the way. If your horse cast a shoe, you could expect to find a local farrier to replace it. And of course there were horse-dealers to sell you your horse in the first place, horse-breeders to supply those dealers, saddlers to supply you with tack, and all the rest of it.

And almost none of this exists today in the industrialised world. The author Tim Severin wrote a book about his experiences riding from Belgium to Jerusalem, following the route taken by the crusaders (Crusader, Arrow 1990). He had great practical difficulties with such basics as stabling until he got as far as Hungary, where there is a still a strong popular equestrian tradition, or at least there was in 1990. This might give us pause when we consider what our options for travel – and indeed field-scale agriculture – are going to be once cheap petroleum goes away, as it certainly will.

The more complex a technology, the greater the scope for unintended consequences. I am not here to blame global warming on Karl Benz or Gottlieb Daimler. They were trying to solve an engineering problem, and to make a buck. A lot of people fall into that category, and from their point of view it’s eminently reasonable. I used to be one of them myself. How could Benz or Daimler have possibly foreseen that, just in the UK, there would be 18.8 million petrol-engined vehicles today? In their day, petrol was an unwanted by-product of paraffin refining. Using it to power vehicles was positively thrifty. And now look at us.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Just driving one of these things around emits a lot of CO2, and that’s before we think about the steel it’s made from, the rubber tyres, the plastic trim, the glass in the windows, the battery, the ubiquitous electronics, and all the supporting infrastructure – the filling stations (and the fuel tankers that supply those filling stations, and everything supporting them), the spare parts, the regulatory agencies, even the roads themselves. It’s a fractal mess of technological dependencies and environmental damage, all of it unintended. Karl and Gottlieb are not in the frame for any of this, but this is where we are.

All technologies are prone to this kind of thing, but some technologies are more prone to it than others. I would divide these into two broad categories:

  • Simple technologies with a very broad application. Whoever first came up with the wheel was probably not thinking this would enable Hitler to invade France in 1940, although it certainly did.
  • Complex technologies which entail many other technologies. The internal combustion engine is an example of this one, as we’ve seen.

I contend that we are suffering from a surfeit of the second kind of technology and their endless ramifications. They tend to require a good deal more in the way of energy and raw materials than they seem to on the surface. Modern industrial agriculture is an excellent example.

The modern farmer cultivates his fields using tractors and a variety of tractor-towed implements; these are made out of steel which requires iron ore and lot of energy, and the tractors rely on petroleum (extracted, shipped and refined at the expense of more energy) for fuel and lubrication. He also uses artificial fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, which are products of an immense chemical industry, as well as depending on fossil fuels as inputs. Having harvested his crop, it is packaged in plastic (more petrochemicals) and shipped by road (more steel, diesel and lubricants for the lorries, and asphalt for the roads) to the supermarket; you then drive in your car (steel, petroleum, yada yada yada) in order to get it.

And you thought it was just a bag of carrots.

There are other ways to get carrots which avoid all of this. After all, people have been eating carrots for a long time, well before Edwin Drake struck black gold in 1858. But the current arrangements aren’t set up for most people to get locally-grown carrots that aren’t grown using tractors and all the rest of it. In fact, due to the sunk cost fallacy the huge investment we have already made and continue to make in industrial farming and its huge infrastructure tends to act as a barrier to doing things any other way.

Like it or not, though, we are going to have to start doing things another way. The room is positively crowded with elephants; I’ve touched on food and transport here, but there are plenty more. Future posts will try to identify at least the largest of these elephants and try to suggest alternative directions. For now, I just want to throw two words out there: appropriate technology.

I am old enough to remember the 1970s when appropriate technology was the next big thing. Not only had people heard of E. F. Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful, quite a number had actually read it. There were a couple of events that focused minds around that time: the 1973-4 OPEC oil embargo and, at least here in the UK, national strikes by coal-miners in 1972 and 1974. The second of these put the country onto a three-day week, and because most electricity came at that time from coal-fired power stations there were frequent power cuts. Suddenly, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels seemed like a really good idea.

The bad news is that, for a number of reasons which I may discuss in a future post, we didn’t take that path. The good news is that people did a lot of research and development, a good deal was produced that has seen practical service (especially in the Third World) and a good deal more was rediscovered. For instance, the techniques of the French market-gardeners who fed Paris in the 18th century provided much of the foundation for modern intensive organic gardening. This stuff has not gone away; there are still people doing it, teaching it and writing about it.

Useful technologies to provide for our basic needs at a local level exist. They are necessarily simpler – which doesn’t necessarily mean easier – than the dominant technologies of our civilisation, and that makes them very much more resilient. I highly recommend that you find out about some of these technologies, find ones that interest you, and learn them – not just by watching a video or reading a book, but by doing things for yourself. You may be surprised what you can accomplish.

Comments are welcome, but I pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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