In this piece, Javier Francisco talks about technology and some of its implications. He moves beyond questions of whether technologies shape social institutions or social institutions shape technologies, to explore the ways in which they are intimately tied together. This is done by looking at perspectives about technology throughout history, examining several myths about technology today, and exploring the ways that technology affects our social relationships.
Hello, this is Audio Anarchy Radio, we’re starting off with a series that introduces a few different concepts from anarchist perspectives. And today we’re going to be talking about technology. The idea isn’t to give you a line about what is right and what is wrong, but to explore some of the aspects and critiques of technology that might not be regularly discussed. We have Javier here, who is going to talk over some of the things that he has been thinking about.
So, Javier, let me start by asking how you define technology. “Well a dictionary definition of technology is the general term for processes that which human beings fashion tools and machines to increase their control and understanding of the material environment. The term comes from the Greek words techne which refers to an art or craft and lochia meaning an area of study. So it means the study or science of crafting. For me I use it to refer to all the tools and machines that humans use to shape, modify, or understand their environment.”
And do you make a distinction between certain types of technologies, or consider technology to be socially neutral?
“Well I think each technology, each tool, or each machine should be considered separately. I think each individual technology has different social consequences, that I definitely don’t think they should be considered neutral for society. But I also don’t make too many distinctions or aggrupation’s in like, oh good technology, bad technology or things like that. I just think that we should take into consideration each technology individually, notice what characteristics it has, and how it shapes the social institutions and deal with those questions. “
And what do you think some of the most prevalent popular or interesting analyses of technology have been throughout history?
“yeah well, the one that comes to mind first of all is Marx. He uses the term `means of production` vaguely to what I would refer to as technology. And it’s a very central concern for him, however his analysis of the way in which technology affects social institutions is limited to who controls the technologies, or the means of production. And he does a class analysis based on this where the bourgeoisie control the technology or means of production then you have a class society. If the Proletariat controls the means of productions there will be a classless society. Stuff like that, I think that Marxists -most Marxists- follow this analysis, I also think a lot of other people do. Anarcho-syndicalists are very influenced by this kind of thought, but others have been a lot more sceptical about this kind of simplistic view of technology. There’s been for example the appropriate technology movement, and more drastically the anarcho-primitivists, definitely think that there’s a lot more to technologies than just who controls it.”
And what do you think are popular perceptions or critiques of technology today?
“Ok, well I think today, some environmentalists do have certain critiques of technology which is you know they question technologies themselves and who controls it. Their critique or analysis is based purely on environmental aspects and not social that much and those I think in general today people take technology kind of for granted. And they refuse to question it because they think it’s kind of like a natural thing for humans to have. Theirs I think a couple of myths that really kind of inhibit our analysis of technology. For example I would say the myth of progress is a very basic myth, well it basically states that humans have never lived in a better situation than today. And that throughout history continually progressing towards a better state, things are pretty much getting better. It also demonstrates that progress is inevitable and we can never go back because of where we try to do something like that and we will eventually advance again, back to the way we are now. This myth is really annoying to me because it kind of served the purpose of justifying our current institutions and makes it kind of impossible to criticise technology or a lot of other things that are considered progressive. I can’t say there isn’t some truth to that, but whether progress has made things better or not is just a matter of personal preference. I think of an important thing to point out though is that humanity did not get to its present state of technological or social development by a process of you know continual progress. It was not a process of like consensus, democracy or any other kind of libertarian philosophy or any you know practice that really respected individual freedom. I mean a great amount of cultures were forced to accept specific kinds of agriculture. You know through imperialism they were forced to for example massively harvest coffee or other products for Europeans. And even some cultures were forced to take on agriculture when they were hunter-gatherers. Other than in the Industrial revolution people were taken off their lands and in a lot of cases chained to machines in order to have the industrial revolution really work. So these things that are usually seen as advancements were not so much a product of human ingenuity but in a lot of ways a product of tyranny and oppression. To say that humans naturally developed industrialism and that we can never, that we would always inevitably develop it again if we go back, if we abolish industrialism is to say that authoritarian institutions are a part of our nature, I think.
Another myth that a lot of people take it as truth is that progress and technological progress has a consequence that we have more leisure. Most anthropologists agree that almost every society that has less advanced technology has more leisure time. So even hunting and gathering provides for more leisure time than farming. However its easy to see why some people think that more or more advanced technology leads to more leisure. I mean a superficial analysis would conclude that you know pushing a button is easier than doing manual labour. The problem with this analysis is that it doesn’t take two things into consideration; what goes into building the machine that allows for you to just push the button so the machine does the work for you. For example its less intensive, less labour intensive to drive a car than to walk, but if you take into consideration the labour involved in manufacturing the car from extracting the raw materials, extracting the oil for it to run, to run the factories that build it, extracting the metals to build the car, rubber to build the tires etc, you know that’s a lot more labour intensive than just walking. The thing is that traditionally I think the distribution of leisure and labour has you know favoured the ruling classes. It hasn’t really been distributed equally. Some people have to do a lot of labour and pretty much finance the leisure of the ruling class. That’s why some people have to work really hard and don’t have any cars and some people just go to an office building and have the most luxurious cars. So you know that way you can see that it doesn’t provide for more leisure to have more technology, at least not necessarily.”
And so, what are some of your thoughts about technology and how it affects the environment today?
“Well definitely I think this is perhaps the most, or these are the most obvious consequences and people you know talk about it continually how cars pollute and stuff like that. I think its useful however to try to find some general characteristics of technologies that tend to intensify the environmental impact. I’ll try to mention a few that I think are not as commonly discussed. One of them, one of these general observations, I would say that technologies that are labour intensive are usually more or have a bigger impact on the environment. This is because changing the environment is something that requires labour, so the greater impact usually is because there’s more labour involved and required to do it. Also centralisation is something that generally increases environmental impact, and this is because it concentrates the impact in a small area, making it harder for natural mechanisms to repair the damage. I mean most environmentalists are aware of this. The environment can modify itself to make impact not as damaging if its done in a scattered way and not concentrated in one place. Also technologies that require homogeneous persistent human activity increases the impact because they make it harder for nature to slowly adapt, so I mean for example assembly lines come to mind where you know what is done is continually done it’s like massively done, and this doesn’t allow for the environment to adapt to allow to small changes.
So, an important thing to notice about all these implications is that these kinds of activities and technologies are almost exclusively found in authoritarian societies. You know the observations that I made that recognises that are labour intensive, centralised and homogenised human activity. You know people when they are free from many authoritarian institutions they tend to preform tasks that involve the least amount of labour to achieve, they make decisions in a pretty sporadic manner, and decentralise and also they like usually to engage in a variety of diverse activities. There’s only one coherens where people engage in dangerous and unpleasant labour intensive activities like mining, these activities are the ones that have such a great environmental impact. So I think realising this, leads to a very different approach to a problem of environmental destruction than the one I think most people argue for right now. I think most people now argue for more centralised control, you know the government regulating factories, regulating emissions, you know more rules or you know everything that we do because we can’t seem to manage ourselves without causing environmental problems. But this analysis actually states kind of to the contrary; it states that humans when free of authoritarian institutions produced the least amount of environmental impact.
So I think, I mean as an Anarchist I think this is the analysis that you know that’s more useful, from my perspective. Yeah, another useful thing to notice is that advanced technologies tend to have a high environmental impact. What I mean by this is that when I use the term advanced technology I mean that technology that depends on previous technologies to function, so therefore its total impact becomes not only the impact that the specific technology has but the added impact of all the technologies that are required for the specific technology. You know like the examples are I think pretty easy to see like you know electrical appliances need energy supply or power supply and so the power supply has I mean you know like maybe a little electrical appliance doesn’t have that much environmental impact but the whole electrical infrastructure that is needed to power it does. And you know different technologies like that, I think what this analysis leads to is that it doesn’t make much sense to make more advanced technology that is supposedly going to be more environmentally friendly.”
So, what are some of your thoughts about the social implications about technology throughout history and today?
“Okay, and this I think is something that is not usually talked about, so I think its important to consider. Okay, so technology claims to provide society with the tools to achieve its goals. Society however is not like a monolithic entity formed of homogeneous individuals with identical goals. Different individuals in society have different goals and the technologies used will inevitably provide society with the tools to achieve the goals of some and not all members. And it also, I mean also technologies not spread like equally amongst all members of society. It will provide some members of society something while maybe refusing something else to others. So, taking this in mind that considers some of the implications of technology in society. First of all, organisation, different technologies require for their application different social settings, in terms of centralisation or spreading social activity, technologies can have several implications. If a technology requires for its use many individuals, social activity is centralised around the technology. If the technology allows for only one or a small number of individuals it promotes decentralisation. So centralisation implies that a form of decision making where a single consensus has to be reached by the group, not allowing for individuals to reach different decisions and be autonomous. In big groups this phenomenon usually leads to representation or other forms of mediation for the individual to make his or her decisions. So there are you know an individuals ability to make their decision is taken further and further away from them. To put an example, a factory can be well it can be owned by a single boss that has authority over many individuals who work there, or it can be cooperatively owned by the workers. In any case each individual will have to adapt his or her schedule to the factories, they will have to preform the job that the factory assigns and they will have to receive from their work what the factory decides. They will have to produce what the factory decides when it decides and how it decides. Obviously cooperative ownership offers the individual worker more of a say in the decisions of the factory than the owner model, but the individuals will never be able to reach a decision that’s different from the one assigned by the factory. The individual is alienated from the decision-making process, in the case of the capitalist process the alienation is pretty complete, like you don’t have absolutely any input into the decision making; in the case of the worker run factory this alienation is mediated by a process that can be you know in different ways it can range from consensus to some kind of representative democracy. Or you know the level of let’s say authoritarianism that you can have is can vary, but autonomous decision making is pretty impossible in the context of a factory. Whereas other technologies allow for individuals to make their own decisions.
Okay another interesting aspect is the distribution of technology. Proportionately to the energy and labour required for its production technology becomes a scarcity. The more labour is used to produce a machine the less the number of machines society can produce. In class societies this usually implies that the members of the ruling class have access to the technology and the others don’t. This causes a widening in the power gap between the classes, the ruling classes are provided with more tools to control their environment and society and the rest loses control in the same measure.
Another aspect is the shaping of human resources. It’s obvious that technology has a profound impact on the educational system of a society, you know whether the goal of the educational system is to modify the individual so that he can better serve society. Or just to provide him and her with the knowledge and skills needed to preform the social roles, to provide for themselves, it would always take into consideration that society uses. If the technology is very complex and complicated the educational process will be long. If the technology requires monotonous centrally organised work, skills like discipline and obedience will be encouraged in the educational process. A point may be reached where the society needs for its survival to produce a certain kind of individual, this will very likely tend to make its educational institutions coercive rather than voluntary.
Another point is specialisation. Certain technologies demand that the division of labour in society that tend to produce specialisations. This means that certain individuals are required preform a socioeconomic role and others are obliged to preform these tasks through this class of specialised individuals. So individuals cannot perform or individuals that are not specialists cannot preform these tasks by themselves. Our current society has many examples; individuals need lawyers to legally defend themselves, cops to physically protect themselves, media to be aware of things that influence our lives, architects to build houses etc. It is important to know how specialisation is not simply an individual having an extraordinary ability, it is the assigning of an individual or individuals to perform a social role and excluding others from performing it. To put an example of a specialist which is I think a useful example and perhaps the oldest example is the priest. In certain societies it is assumed that the only person or class of persons that can communicate with the deities is a priest. Other individuals are forced to perform only through the priests. In this way the class of priests effectively control the spiritual aspect of the society, and often this is used to also control other aspects like the moral standards and other taboos and customs of the society. So that obviously has like enormous power of consequences on the power relationships of the society. There’s different ways in which specialised roles are imposed or assigned for some you know to perform certain things you need a diploma, a certificate or some kind of authorisation from an appropriate authority to perform it. Technology works in a different way to assign these roles increasing in complexity, technologies become impossible to be wholly understood by an individual and individuals have to specialise in a particular aspect of the technology and depend on others to specialise in the rest and you know when this happens everybody loses their autonomy and their ability to perform jobs by themselves.
Another important consequence- social consequence of technology is the creation of environments. Every technology as we have said before is essentially a modification of the environment, from an environmental point of view the implications you know have obvious consequences, but its also very relevant from a social point of view. Some relevant questions are you know who gets to modify the environment for others or whose environment do they modify? And how do these modifications impact the lives of the individuals who live there? To me the issue of empowering versus disempowering environments is noteworthy. Certain environments provide each individual with the means for his or her subsistence in a quite egalitarian way. If each individual is able to access the resources they need to survive in an autonomous way then this is an empowering environment. But other environments do quite the opposite, for example modern urban environments pretty much eliminate all of the resources from our environment and the ability to access the resources that we need to survive is pretty much denied. So you know the modern urban environment pretty much puts the resources in the hands of the few people and then all the rest of the people has to acquire these resources through monetary exchanges. The individual is forced to participate in socioeconomic and political institutions set before her to be able to have access to the resources needed to survive. With the impossibility of directly accessing resources one has to acquire money which is the modern socially imposed means to access resources in order to survive. And then those who control the money; have most of it, effectively control both resources and the individuals who want access to those resources. In Ivanovitch’s words “modernised poverty deprives those affected by it of their freedom and power to act autonomously, to live creatively. It confines them to a survival through being plugged into market relations, the opportunity to experience political and social satisfaction outside the market is thus destroyed. I am poor for instance, when the use value of my feet is lost because I live in Los Angeles or live in the 35th floor .”
Mediation and autonomy. Direct action is a commonly used word in radical circles, it is usually considered an anarchist value. The reasoning goes that if to achieve our goals we must go through others then we’re not in direct control of our lives, we’re not in direct control of the consequences of our actions. And so mediated action is the opposite of direct action, autonomy increases as mediation decreases. Technology is always a medium through which we interact with our environment, a medium through which we accomplish our goals and access our resources. So the same reasoning applies here, to increase autonomy we must decrease mediation. This is especially true when technology also implies a social mediation, when the technologies we use and the technology we need to preform our activities are controlled by others. Then our actions are not only mediated by material objects but they’re also mediated by social institutions, which we might not like and which in effect can become quite controlling of our actions.
So as a conclusion I would say that the implications of technology has, goes well beyond its stated purposes. By this I mean that you know like if a technology says that it will just transport people like cars for example, well yes the consequences are that it transports cars but also that we need streets, that it also implies that not everybody’s going to have access to cars because they are very labour intensive and so therefore a class of people can own cars will exist and one that doesn’t have access to cars is etc. an important thing to note is that all the implications that I found are inherent in the technology itself and do not depend on who controls or uses the technology. Only by being aware of all the implications the technologies have will we be able to make those decisions that will help us to achieve the society we desire".
That’s it for todays introduction to a critique of technology. Check out Audio Anarchy on the web audioanarchy.org