Technology isn’t Magical

Technology isn’t the problem.

Our ideas about technology are the problem. The stories we tell each other and ourselves about technology are the problem.

We started this whole Enlightenment project with the thought that we’d be able to conquer and subjugate nature, eliminate poverty, and transcend the crude labor of physicality through the wonders of science and technology. And, man, we made it to the moon. We’ve got robots on Mars. It’s almost easy to think that we’re succeeding, that the vision is possible.

But we’re not.

The vision is empty. It turns out that this narrative – this mythology – is based in false assumptions. It turns out that nature is way more complex than those Enlightenment era fellows thought. Nature isn’t a passive cornucopia, and when you mess it with it messes right back with a vengeance.

The ironic thing is that the narrative of the power of science has had a corrupting effect on understanding science and technology itself. People think that clean technology X will replace dirty technology Y and we’ll keep on our merry way, but they don’t understand the numbers behind X and Y. They don’t get that X and Y are not interchangeable.  We can do better, but we can’t do the same things we’ve been doing better. We need to do different things.

The Story of Science is blind to what the science is actually saying that we can’t keep doing what we’re doing, we’re running into hard limits, and our understanding of natural systems was wrong. In short, the science is saying that the way our civilization is fundamentally structured doesn’t work.

Understanding this is the first step. Everything else follows.

2 Responses to Technology isn’t Magical

  1. Clifton Lemon says:

    As I see it much of the moral force behind the Enlightenment was a reaction to religion as the predominant source of knowledge, and a replacement of religion with individual empirical experience. So in a way we turned science into a religion, as we have done with subsequently with art and sex and food and capitalism and.. (insert personal obsession here), right?

    In its context of exploration and rebellion, Enlightenment thinking often valued polarity and separation, as in Descarte’s statement “man’s fundamental freedom is to doubt.” And this drive to separate also included a new concept of “man” as distinctly separate from “nature”, which is amazingly persistent today. I always wonder whether some of this concept is still rooted in the Garden of Eden mythology, whereby mankind was cast out of paradise for daring to doubt God’s word and submit to those most utterly human qualities of curiosity and pride. The Greeks were onto the basic idea of scientific method (and atheism, too) way back, obviously- in many ways the Enlightenment, like the Renaissance, was a cyclical rediscovery of their ancient ideas.

    So today, if scientific method seems, in practice, to be negating itself, to not be entirely consistent with its own premises, this is worth exploring. But I see what’s happening as a continual redefining and evolution of both scientific method and technology (we also happening to be completely redefining economics and a lot of other shit in the meantime BTW). On all fronts in science today, we’re beginning to see irrefutable proof of our deep connection with and similarities to all other organisms, an we’re gaining a deeper understanding of our connection to our environment, for better and for worse. The culture and practice of science turns out to be a constant, messy negotiation, and the deeper we dig into it, like with quantum physics, the more we need to use poetic language to understand what we’re dealing with, and strangely enough, as with the Heisenberg principle, the less we can rely on direct empirical observation – Hume’s fundamental organizing principle of Enlightenment scientific thought.

    We’re also completely redefining what constitutes technology. When we start to think about what the foundation of our technology is, it’s rooted in things like industrial tooling, where the tools that make the tools that make the tools are made. We think of it as a lot of metal that a lot of energy is poured into and thrown at, and we’re not far off And I think we often forget that without this foundation. all of the other things we take for granted like computers, wastebaskets, and bottled water just would not exist. (I found your discussion of the concrete lathe fascinating because it shows that old materials used in new ways can make this heavily resource intensive industrial base that much more efficient and “sustainable.” Science, design, and innovation is delivering thousands of opportunities like this all the time.)

    But now what constitutes technology includes squishy, non-metal things like biomemetic processes, engineered bacteria, software, and on and on. I wonder…how will we evolve away from a heavy metal based technology infrastructure ? What will that look like?

    I don’t think the way we view science now necessarily precludes finding scientific and technological solutions to our problems. Certainly we have to discourage attempts to apply quick single technology fixes to fundamental structural problems in our infrastructure and economy, and we must continue to advocate for game changing approaches over incremental ones. We agree that it’s not a technology fix, it’s a Design fix, with a capital “D” that we need.

    But this is entirely possible, feasible, and available as a path within our current capitalist, democratic, technologist culture. We often ignore the many significant advances that have already been made in energy and water efficiency, environmental regulations, and government policy.

    I like Tainter’s (scientific, BTW) analysis of the rise and fall of civilizations as a cyclical process of investing and deinvesting in complexity (of which technology is certainly one of the key components). Maybe it’s a bit capitalist at heart, but when the investment in complexity doesn’t pay off, the organism (culture) contracts, sometimes to rise again. Evolution of species can be seen in this light as well. Its…The Circle of Life (theme music….)
    We seem to definitely be hitting complexity limits all over the place right about now, don’t we? There’s a project under construction in New Mexico that’s supposed to reduce control systems for entire cities to a certain number of algorithms:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/25/opinion/sunday/not-so-smart-cities.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=smart%20cities&st=cse

    You and I know what needs to be done about control systems in general, right? And it’s not to make them more complex!

    • flowxrg says:

      Yeah I think in many ways I’m not being rigorous with my use of the term “Englightenment” – we’ve already had several intellectual reversals/rejections to it, but it did kick off a lot of thought that is still with us. Yes, we totally turned science into religion (generalization).

      I think what is happening with technology that you’re talking about – moving away from heavy-metals and dense energy consumption industry towards squishy things, biomemetic design and products that are grown instead of forged — all is extremely interesting. We had to go through the heavy metals industry, but can we move out of that and implement high technology without (or with considerably less) heavy resource use. John Michael Greer talks about the next stage of industry being a salvage industry, mining the materials of the Industrial Age, which I think is related and also very interesting.

      “But this is entirely possible, feasible, and available as a path within our current capitalist, democratic, technologist culture.” I don’t know… I think what evolves over the next few centuries and settles down into a low-energy society (The Emergent Society) will be pretty fundamentally different. Sure there’ll be similarities… I just think that between running at full-speed into Gaia’s physical limits (oh, an economic model based on limitless growth doesn’t work on a limited world?…) and designing our communities out of insane lifestyles that we’ve found ourselves in — I just think things will necessarily operate quite differently.

      “We often ignore the many significant advances that have already been made in energy and water efficiency, environmental regulations, and government policy.” I hear that.

      Neat link btw, thanks. I do think that widespread understanding of complexity and the network topology of our society and technology (internet, power grids, etc) is crucial. Simplicity (koko, kanso, also shizen) as leading design philosophies of infrastructure…

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