Technology, Sustainability and Belief
Questioning our blind faith in technology – the belief in science’s inherent Innovative capacity?
‘Hi-Tech’ is desirable and taken for granted, but its inner workings a mystery. What goes on inside a mobile phone? How does the internet actually work? Knowing how and why things work is understood by the few, and ignored by the many.
Technology has advanced exponentially in the last century, following the revelations of quantum physicists and the inventions of Tesla and Edison for example. An economic system based on consumption, and supply and demand facilitated the transfer of these ground breaking insights into daily use in our lives. Entrepreneurs could perceive the market value of these concepts so supported financially their transformation into buyable things.
Today, most of us live surrounded by the fruits of these path breaking scientific discoveries. At the same time, our understanding of the science behind them is very limited. How many of us who have a TV understand the science behind it? How many people who use mobile phones understand how they work, what are their internal workings? How does Wifi work? Electricity is what exactly?
Is it the complexity involved in these things understandable to the few only? Is it that education systems have not been able to adequately teach these subjects? Or are there are traces of intent by ‘the powerful’ to maintain our ignorance of the workings of science, to maintain an illusion of wonder and mystery? Keeping the workings of the ever present technology out of popular discourse.
It is a paradox that the mundane things we use so much we understand so little about. Technology has an essential role to play in the sustainability of human existence. We need our cutting edge technology to be employed to address the issue of human sustainability.
The dawning of the mechanised age was accompanied by Jesus and the Devil hand in hand. For huge numbers of citizen’s (of country’s rich enough), it has brought momentous advances in terms of labour saving, health, leisure, a generalised easing of life’s difficulties, the emancipation of women from domestic chores. This allowed humans to focus on enjoying life, and gave us the free time to advance our knowledge in a myriad of ways.
However, these advancements occurred within a commercial system based on perpetually creating and then satisfying consumer demand, and the virtue of perpetual ‘growth’. Within such parameters, science and technology made more and more things, bigger and bigger things, and accustomised us to luxurious amounts of energy, cheap. Our mechanised way of living has a voracious appetite for natural resources, and excretes an obscene amount of material to be processed. It is dawning on us though that there is simply is not enough resources in the world to continue supplying this appetite or space for this excretia.
We are a bit like frogs in pan of warming water, or Easter Island residents when they saw food was getting scarce yet did nothing to change or escape their fate. We seem unable to address the fact that our way of life is destroying the very things that allow us to live. At the same time, in terms of scientific and technological advancements, we are living at a peak. Scientists have unravelled the secrets of DNA, the universe, and harnessed the power of the atom.
We marvel at science and technology’s cleverness, whether it is broadband internet, stories in newspapers about cloning, unravelling DNA or latest developments at CERN. We don’t really understand any of it. Scientific advancement is part of the fabric of our lives, it is always happening. We hold blind faith that science will solve any difficulty because, conveniently, we don’t understand it. This allows us to cling to the hope of a miracle that our mechanised way of living is sustainable.
The political and economic mainstream’s optimism about our scientists’ abilities to innovate over current and predicted environmental hurdles is never specific about how scientists will actually achieve this. It is always to take place in the perpetual future. It stems a belief in technology as having an abstract quality of overcoming obstacles under pressure. ‘When the time is right science will find a way’ is an unsubstantiated belief. In seeking truth, our faith in a given hypothesis must be flexible enough to be swayed upon presentation of un-repudiated fact. Belief on the other hand requires blind trust in faith, by its nature unquestioning. It is time for us to be scientific about the limits and possibilities of our science. De-mystifying and rationalizing our understanding of it.
A true optimism about the future must stem from the recognition of the capacity our civilisation has for technological innovation. Recognition that our technology already has the solutions to the difficulties we face. However, this awareness must be tempered with the strongest sense of immediacy. A trust in the abstract capacity of innovation is akin to believing in the imminent return of the Messiah. What we need is honest assessment of the future, and the widespread implementation on a wide scale of what we already know.
Is this essay really about a belief in science’s inherent innovative capacity? The belief in science’s inherent capacity to innovate beyond limits.
I say science is like a belief not from some sort of anti-Darwinian critique; it is specifically the belief in science’s capacity to innovate that I attack. I am saying that the belief, (typically found in discourses informed by mainstream economics) that science will always be able to innovate around ecological limits or whatever difficulties humanity may face in the future, is an unscientific belief inherently.
The innovations of modern technology are wonderful things, and I marvel that all have been created by human minds in more or less the last century. These scientific breakthroughs need to be democratised. The theory behind scientific advances needs to be more available (such as electrical-engineering, solar power for example) in order to have more socially useful innovations all around us. Socially useful inventions which are not necessarily informed by the profit mechanism but by necessity and social utility.
A more democratised understanding of science would also make citizens more aware of ‘big scientific discourse’ such as energy policy, as well as alternative, more democratic and socially useful ways of using finite resources in an ever fuller world.
However, while the inner mechanics of technological machines remain understood as a ‘very complicated and difficult’ body of knowledge, which is restricted to qualified scientists (this is where I got the idea for science as a church and the scientists as priests analogy), humanity / we / the citizens remain mere consumers of machines, without questioning their efficiency, or social utility. Also, from a developmental perspective, peoples are kept from their potential by scientific secretism from innovations which could otherwise have a direct and positive impact on their lives.
Scientific innovation is all around us, there are wonderful things that are happening at the moment and have been for the decades, but, because we are principally mere consumers of machines, these ideas remain as prototypes because there is no profit mechanism to drive the research and development needed to scale them up, or to distribute them. Also, it is undeniable that because there is so much money and vested interests involved in current technology (the oil economy is an easy example), there is active suppression of potentially path breaking inventions and technologies by the corporations and shareholders who have the most to lose. As we are on the whole uninformed, such losses to humanity pass by unnoticed.
The case of WIFI in the Congo is interesting. Kinshasa has 100% wifi coverage, the UN put it in, and it was easier to provide 100% coverage than to try and create a market (and because it was Kinshasa, it was also perhaps not interesting enough, or profitable enough for an energy market to be created. It is somehow wonderfully ironic that Kinshasa has 100% free wifi by virtue of its poverty and under development.
I think Ivan Illich was on the right track when he wrote that we need to re-conceptualise the benefits of industrial mechanisation according to use value rather than exchange value, but such a re-calibration would require a radical socialisation of technological education, as well as a socialisation – control and regulation of the industrial mechanical mode of production.
From a philanthropic perspective, in a Utopia, perhaps a Foundation could be established which promotes popular understanding of technology and science in different spheres:
- Pro-poor practical technological innovations – Teaching practical technological innovations and (creating a new market even). Using and offering practical innovations, and providing their basic components (and supporting entrepreneurs involved in this area of actuation)
- Children and Youth supplementary education – A widespread supplementary education for children and youths on understanding technology and technological perspectives as well as practical capacity-building.
- A programme of support for governments, states and municipalities interested in developing non-traditional and sustainable technological innovation. The programme offers ideas of programmes to be implemented, practical support. For governments it offers policy advice on how to put together an incentive/penalty programme regarding technological innovation and the creation of new markets.
- A very well funded global benchmarking project on technological innovation. Radical in that it sets to buy socially useful patents, and release them to the public domain, or through targeted pro-poor interventions. Also benchmarking and cross pollination project of research on existing innovations.