Dave King responds to Evgeny Morozov and Richard Barbrook at Cybersalon.
Evgeny’s critiques of techno-progression are very welcome, and his emphasis on a political understanding of technology in its economic and social context is important. His examples and analyses are helpful, as far as they go. His criticism of the technofix tendencies in the American alternative technology movement of the 1960s is well taken. But he is wrong to dismiss the entire appropriate/alternative technology movement because of the liberal politics of its American representatives. Writers like Illich and Schumacher, and those who set up the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales and the Intermediate Technology Development Group (now Practical Action) were well aware of the need for democratic participation in technology design and for technology to serve real social needs. And their critique of industrial gigantism is just as valid today.
Sadly, over the last 30 years much of the alternative technology movement has succumbed to co-option and the technofix mentality. In fact, our Luddites group is organising a cafe discussion event on these issues on January 13th (see www.breakingtheframe.org.uk). However, where this critique fails is that there seems to lack an understanding of technology as a power system and ideology. Although he emphasises that we need to look at the interaction of technology and its social and political context, in fact the entire focus of his critique is on the latter, and in his efforts to avoid being labelled anti-technology, in several places he very crudely denies that artefacts can have any inherent politics.
As a result, his critique seems to fall into a classic left apologia for technology – it’s not technology that’s the problem, but the capitalist politics that distort it. The flaw in that is that it’s little different from the liberal claim that technology itself is inherently ‘neutral’, which is always favoured by scientists and technologists. It is because he comes from the left, which has (mostly) seen technology as the engine of progress, that he is so excessively dismayed by the technologists’ criticism that he is a techno-sceptic: I am your friend, he wants to tell them, you can’t accuse ME of that. He thinks that they’re missing his point – he agrees with them about the liberatory potential of technology, it’s the social institutions that are wrong. But, really, he shouldn’t waste his time: the Silicon Valley ideologues and their friends in the US media won’t be able to respond any more intelligently to his critique of neoliberalism than they can to what they perceive as his attack on technology. Evgeny’s desire not to critique technology is revealed very clearly in his reaction to Richard’s discussion of the history of IT and the shaping of its development by neoliberal and technocratic ideologies. He wants to keep technology in its supposedly nonpolitical bubble, and wants us to believe that technology develops with its own internal dynamic, and only when it comes to the market is its use shaped by social forces. In fact, as Richard’s research has demonstrated, those ideologies are there at stages before technologies are even technically feasible; in fact, the notion of information as central, the ‘Information Revolution’ arose far earlier than the 1960s, in the Taylorist/Fordist revolution of the early 20th century.
Because Evgeny, by the logic of his position, must resist histories of the intertwining of technology and ideology, he is reduced to simply denying the factual correctness of Richard’s research and claiming that Steve Jobs never promised a global village (as if that mattered). In reality, any amount of STS research and analysis by technology politics activists shows that the idea that technology has no inherent politics is simply not true: capitalist (and patriarchal) values and interests are embedded deep in technologies, so that they absolutely cannot ‘be used for good, just as much as bad purposes’. And those values and interests go far beyond the emphasis on individual solutions that comes from neoliberal culture, although that is certainly a crucial part of technofix
culture. But the problem with technology in our society is worse than that. Technology springs from a technocratic culture and worldview that began with the Scientific Revolution: the view of nature as dead mechanism and the legitimacy of absolute control and domination of nature through science and technology. A nuclear power station, or the idea of geoengineering, the supposed technofixes for climate change is a perfect expression of that philosophy of domination; it is inherent in those technologies. That worldview and system of knowledge/power initiated by Francis Bacon is distinct from the economic and social domination of capitalism, but because it
shares so much of its philosophical basis with capitalism, it meshes almost (but not completely) perfectly with it. So technofixes can’t just be blamed on nasty neoliberal capitalists who want to use technology to make money. They spring from the technocratic mindset, which is not confined to scientists and engineers but pervades the managerial and professional classes, and because their worldview is dominant, in bourgeois society, popular culture. That worldview actually genuinely wants to help people, which is why it is so good at selling itself as progress, through ideologies like the Californian.
The problem is that it always misconstructs ‘the problem’ in a way that technology provides the solution. Because the only tool that the technologists have is a hammer, every problem looks to them like a nail. In particular, these days, because their tool is information technology, it looks to them that the world is just another complex system, and what is needed is a more sophisticated management system (sensors, big data etc), to iron out particular ‘bugs’. And those solutions make sense within a technocratic culture. Technofixes spring primarily from the technocratic mindset, not from capitalism, but of course in a capitalist society and when the engineers concerned are mainly working for corporations, or as entrepreneurs, it’s no surprise that they fit perfectly with the corporate business plan. So what I think Evgeny Morozov’s analysis lacks is the understanding that it’s not just capitalism that we need to consider when assessing technology, but a critique of the technocratic ways of thinking and forms of power that both shape the techno-fix solutions and make them seem sensible to enlightened progressive middle class people. With an understanding of technocracy, I think you CAN have a ‘robust philosophy of technology’, which critiques the consistent shaping of technology by technocratic thinking, but does not need to condemn all technology. In my own technological area, genetics, the existence of a political critique of the technology itself, developed by radical scientists like myself, has been absolutely critical to the success of the movement. We have been able to show how the defects of GM technology spring from a reductionist biology, which in turn arises from, on the one hand a mechanistic, technocratic model of nature and on the other from capitalist tendencies towards reification/commodity fetishism. It has been the linking of this critique of the technology with critiques of industrial agriculture and capitalist corporations that has made the anti-GM movement so successful. I would argue that every technology politics movement, including those focusing on information technology need both types of critique.
Finally, Richard’s comments on the Luddites need some refinement. Jacquard Looms were not introduced into England until after the Luddite period (although one famous image of the Luddites shows them anachronistically attacking a Jacquard loom), so we can’t know how they would have reacted to them. Although deskilling was part of their concern, more central to them was simply technological unemployment.
In Notts, the issues were to do with wage cutting, ‘colting’ (use of unapprenticed labour) and the use of a particular type of new machine to produce low quality goods that spoiled the reputation of the stocking trade, as expressed in the line from their song General Ludd’s Triumph, ‘full fashioned work at the old-fashioned price [wage]’. So their critique of technology is quite broad politically, not a simple matter of how skilled the work is. They were rebelling against the Industrial Revolution, that paradigmatic act of technocracy that was destroying their way of life and
communities by means of machines. Their slogan was to ‘put down machinery hurtful to Commonality’, i.e. to the common people, common good, and to the whole worldview based on cooperation and sharing the commons. Contrary to Evgeny’s use of the word, they were not anti-technology: they broke specific machines that were destroying their livelihoods, and left other machines alone. What for me is important about Luddism is that it was not just a working class anti-capitalist movement, but also an anti-technocracy (not anti-technology) movement. It is a middle way between liberal/Marxist technoprogressivism and the romantic/primitivist reaction to it, not an example of the latter.