Discussing the Politics of Technology

breaking the frameBreaking the Frame is a low-tech event held in the UK next weekend.

“Technology dominates our world, but many people think ‘its just a neutral tool’ or that technology = progress. Although it does bring some benefits, most technology is designed and controlled by corporate, military and technocratic elites to serve their interests and exert their power. We think it’s time for a much more systematic and joined-up approach to technology that overcomes the democratic deficit in this area. We need to develop a new approach, based on bringing together the insights of different campaigns and movements, sharing skills, and learning from each other.”

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The Religion of Complexity

“The reaction of most people when I tell them I’m a scythe teacher is the same: incredulity or amusement, or polite interest, usually overlaid onto a sense that this is something quaint and rather silly that doesn’t have much place in the modern world. After all, we have weed whackers and lawnmowers now, and they are noisier than scythes and have buttons and use electricity or petrol and therefore they must perform better, right? Now, I would say this of course, but no, it is not right. Certainly if you have a five-acre meadow and you want to cut the grass for hay or silage, you are going to get it done a lot quicker (though not necessarily more efficiently) with a tractor and cutter bar than you would with a scythe team, which is the way it was done before the 1950s. Down at the human scale, though, the scythe still reigns supreme.”

Scythe“A growing number of people I teach, for example, are looking for an alternative to a brushcutter. A brushcutter is essentially a mechanical scythe. It is a great heavy piece of machinery that needs to be operated with both hands and requires its user to dress up like Darth Vader in order to swing it through the grass. It roars like a motorbike, belches out fumes, and requires a regular diet of fossil fuels. It hacks through the grass instead of slicing it cleanly like a scythe blade. It is more cumbersome, more dangerous, no faster, and far less pleasant to use than the tool it replaced. And yet you see it used everywhere: on motorway verges, in parks, even, for heaven’s sake, in nature reserves. It’s a horrible, clumsy, ugly, noisy, inefficient thing. So why do people use it, and why do they still laugh at the scythe?”

“To ask that question in those terms is to misunderstand what is going on. Brushcutters are not used instead of scythes because they are better; they are used because their use is conditioned by our attitudes toward technology. Performance is not really the point, and neither is efficiency. Religion is the point: the religion of complexity. The myth of progress manifested in tool form. Plastic is better than wood. Moving parts are better than fixed parts. Noisy things are better than quiet things. Complicated things are better than simple things. New things are better than old things. We all believe this, whether we like it or not. It’s how we were brought up.”

Read more: “Dark Ecology, searching for truth in a post-green world“, Paul Kingsnorth, Orion Magazine. Image source. Related: The motorized “solution” to harvesting wheat in Nepal.

The Future Will Not Be Like The Past (2)

“We do not have to revert to the old ways but, for many good environmental reasons, we do need to find alternatives that offer the same benefits.”

Ralph L. Knowles in “Sun Rhythm Form” (1981). You can read about Knowles’ work in “The solar envelope: how to heat and cool cities without fossil fuels“.

The Future Will Not Be Like The Past (1)

“We imagine that energy decline and economic collapse will eradicate all high tech, and reduce the whole planet to a preindustrial lifestyle, because it’s easy to imagine. It’s harder to imagine a collapse that’s unevenly distributed. Historically, economic collapses do not reduce everyone to poverty, but increase the gap between rich and poor. I think the same thing is going to happen with technology: while overall resource consumption decreases, the proportion spent at the leading edge of technology will increase. Less energy will be spent moving physical stuff, and more will be spent moving information.”

“Not only will there be a wider gap between the places with the highest and lowest technology, there will also be a wider gap between the highest and lowest technology used by an average person. Already there are African villagers with cell phones. In 20 years you may be living with a group of friends in an abandoned suburb, burning scrap wood for heat, growing open-source genetically modified sweet potatoes, and selling brain time to the dataswarm to gain credits for surgery to install a neuro-optical interface so you can swap out custom eyeballs.”

Quoted from Ran Prieur’s blog.

Where Are The Adults?

“Science has enjoyed broad public support as a foundation for technology. But as science increasingly tells us what we can’t expect to do in a world of diminished resources and compromised environment—rather than only opening up new possibilities—we’ll see how popular science remains.” Read more: The future needs an attitude adjustment.

The Natural Limits of Science

“I know it’s utter heresy even to hint at this, but I’d like to suggest that science, like logic before it, has gotten pretty close to its natural limits as a method of knowledge. In Darwin’s time, a century and a half ago, it was still possible to make worldshaking scientific discoveries with equipment that would be considered hopelessly inadequate for a middle school classroom nowadays; there was still a lot of low hanging fruit to be picked off the tree of knowledge. At this point, by contrast, the next round of experimental advances in particle physics depends on the Large Hadron Collider, a European project with an estimated total price tag around $5.5 billion. Many other branches of science have reached the point at which very small advances in knowledge are being made with very large investments of money, labor, and computing power. Doubtless there will still be surprises in store, but revolutionary discoveries are very few and far between these days”. A quote from John Michael Greer.