Friday, October 01, 2004

"A Theory of Power", Chapter 7

Chapter 7: Neutral Technology and the Demands of Power

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The old saying that “knowledge is power” appears more correct than many realize. Technology breaks down to, literally, knowledge of techniques and processes. We must not consider knowledge itself as alive, not possessing the anthropomorphic qualities of good or evil. But the application, the animation of technology, creates power-relationships internal and external to its users. Returning to agriculture, we have a clear example of a technology’s power-relationships placing demands on the users of a technology that often become unobserved and non-voluntary. Agriculturalists must employ certain symbolic constructs, entirely new power-relationships, in their employment of the technic-knowledge of agriculture.[1] These new power-relationships represent the hidden demands of technology. Agriculture required ownership, sedentary populations, hierarchal government and social stratification to create and defend production structures. Critically, agriculture supported population densities that required the continuation of agriculture. People in most environments simply could not abandon agriculture. Most ecosystems could support only dramatically lower population densities should their populations revert back to a hunter-gatherer mode of production. So, while we should not define the technology of agriculture as inherently “evil”, like all technologies it has had powerful, unanticipated and often irreversible effects on its users.

The case of the artisan versus the assembly line provides a similar example of technic-knowledge. The artisan, an individual who crafts a product through the entire chain of events needed to add value for an outside user, has the complete set of knowledge needed to perform the transformation. For example, the watchmaker transforms metal through a variety of phases until it has reached the stage of a finished watch. Similarly the potter makes clay into finished pottery, the carpenter makes trees into furniture, etc. Each has the power to transform a material into a value-added product. Opposite the artisan stands the case of the assembly line. In the assembly line, individuals perform highly specialized segments of the value-adding process, but none have the knowledge to affect the full transformation. The use of the technology of specialization provides more efficient production, from the perspective of the capitalist, but a loss of power for the individual. Instead of the individual artisan, the assembly line holds the power over its human components. The production knowledge exists embedded in the process and outside of the control of the individual. The assembly line serves as an example of technology in control of people.

Can we consider neutral a technology that exists outside the control of its users, and that exerts upon them considerable influence? We should not view such technologies as sentient, conscious entities that desire to inflict harm on their human “users”. A lumber company that clear-cuts forests to sustain its profits and ensure its survival does not specifically intend, for the sake of “evil”, to inflict destruction on nature. Yet we cannot consider it neutral. The common argument for the unquestioning acceptance of technology remains this: technology does not have a good or evil nature. Rather, it has a neutral nature, which humans can use for good or bad. This statement has a clear flaw—it presupposes that humanity exerts control over the technologies it uses, not the other way around. As we have seen, we do not control the power centers of the gene, the meme or market—rather they use us as vectors for their survival. Humans must not define technology as neutral if it does not exist entirely under their control. While they do not exhibit conscious intention, technologies follow a hard-wired path of all self-replicating entities: selfish interest. Any entity that does not pursue its own self-interest in an environment of competition quickly ceases to exist. Technologies and other power-relationship complexes that have become widely employed by humans generally pass the test of evolutionary fitness. In other words, they survive because they function in a method that ensures their continuation. Like a virus, technology’s survival depends on the manipulation of human societies to serve as hosts and vectors. Also like a virus, long-term survival depends on ensuring the survival of the host population. We must use caution not to mistake the unconsciously selfish memes that we call technology with harmless or neutral tools for human use.

In an environment rich in meme-complexes competing for limited resources, the evolutionary advantage favors the entity that tends to intensify. If, in the process of intensification, plants or animals overshoot the carrying capacity of their environment then they must die back to a sustainable level. The human population acts as the host environment for the family of meme-complexes, with humans in turn depending on their hosts, the physical environment. With the increasing connectivity and scope of human interaction, the meme complex has become the Selfish-Intensifying Meme. The pace of intensification continues to accelerate, with unforeseeable results for the human hosts. Perhaps the direst of the possible consequences remains that the intensity and complexity of a meme-complex may push its human hosts to overshoot the carrying capacity of the entire Earth, resulting in the same dieback encountered in the study of ecosystems.[2] Many skeptics point out that we have no reason to doubt our capability to develop sufficient new technologies to accommodate an ever-increasing population, as we always have in the past. This logic runs into the brick wall of the realities of geometric growth; as an extreme example, at some point the sheer weight of human biomass will outweigh the Earth itself. It is axiomatic that perpetual growth, like perpetual motion, represents an impossibility. Oddly, those who express skepticism about this concept often consist of the same people who point out the benefits of investments compounding over time—as economist Kenneth Boulding said, “anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever is either a madman or an economist.”[3]

Misplaced faith in perpetual growth exists as a by-product of the intensifying, hierarchal master pattern that underlies most aspects of human society. Despite the clear reality that we live within a system limited by finite resources, our entire economy rests on the need for continual growth.

The publicly owned corporation serves as an example of a pervasive pattern that cannot accept stability; if it does not provide a regular, growth-based return to its investors, it will find itself quickly dissolved. The press, politicians and the general public often rush to express surprise at the corporate decision making process. Why won’t corporations act as more responsible citizens, help protect the environment, or take better care of their employees? Doing so may provide long-term benefits, not only for society, but also for the corporation’s bottom line. Ultimately, however, the very structure of the corporation constrains it in its decision making process: it must respond to the short-term demand to increase shareholder value, resulting in the ubiquitous, shortsighted decision making of corporate America. Like the corporation, economists see serious trouble for a country’s economy as a whole if it temporarily stops growing,[4] as the debt and inflation based finance structure cannot handle mere stability. Any entity, whether a small business or a national economy, that finances its operation by borrowing money at interest must continually grow in order to remain solvent due to the demands of repaying the time-value of money. No wonder, then, that with an institutionalized demand for continuous growth, our society seems willing to ignore the clear realities of finite resources. This process begs the question: should we view environmental overshoot as a possibility or as a foregone conclusion if we continue with our present economic structure?

We can observe examples of technological memes pushing humanity towards possible environmental overshoot in the industrial revolution, mass production and specialization. Not only have these new processes continued intensification, further increasing our dependence on them for our survival, they also place broad demands on their human hosts. While I will demonstrate why economic specialization and hierarchal organization create their own systemic problems, they do generate initial gains in production efficiency. The problem remains that production must remain compatible with the human host—a host genetically optimized for a late-Pleistocene, hunter-gatherer existence. Intensified specialization of production results in a highly stratified work force, often demanding mind-numbingly routine individual functions, and requires a level of human interaction and organization that seems increasingly incompatible with our genetically optimum small-tribe environment. The high-profile emergence of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder provides one example of human incompatibility with the demands of the industrial economy. Researchers have demonstrated that this “disorder” acts as an evolutionarily beneficial development of hunter-gather society, but that it remains medically suppressed because it makes workers incompatible with the demands of the modern economy.[5] The economic meme-complex succeeds in ensuring that we remain superficially compatible with an environment in which we increasingly represent just a cog in the works. Stopgap measures ensure human compatibility with this system, but they often prove antithetical to human health and happiness: examples include our increasing drug dependencies, medicated suppression of Bloom’s “Inner Judge” of depression, television hypnosis and vicariously living our unfulfilled dreams through the surrogate of an increasingly integrated media complex. The tendency to accept conditions that do not appear compatible with our genome serves as an evolutionary adaptation in its own right: cultures most capable of placating their hosts, while intensifying faster-than-ever, prove more evolutionarily viable. They tend to absorb or destroy competing cultures that have sacrificed intensification for human happiness.

Cultures that fail to develop, that resist or rebel against the continual intensification of production, have historically been unable to keep up with their intensifying neighbors. We can see their failure today in the rampant destruction of primitive and folk-culture around the world by American-style mass-media consumerism. Domination by more centralized, intensified cultures has been a theme throughout history, from the chiefdoms of Polynesia to the emergence of unified empires in ancient China. We would likely have more concern for the trend if our oblivious acceptance of the droning pace and pain of progress did not exist as another trait selected for in the global evolution of culture.

The current debate on globalization epitomizes the epic struggle of intensifying cultural meme-complexes facing off against the boundaries of human tolerance. Globalization—the dramatic, worldwide intensification and integration of meme-complexes—has steadily accelerated since World War II. Taking advantage of a revolution in communication technology, modern markets developed the ability to connect separate and highly specialized production and demand more efficiently than ever. This results in the creation of an integrated, memetic super-structure that transcends every aspect of human interaction.

From an economic standpoint, globalization finally succeeds in reducing the human component in production to a mere commodity, unconcerned with place, ready for optimization just like any other supply chain or production line. Spurred on by the nearly limitless mobility of capital and the increasing affordability of global transportation,[6] we take raw materials from all corners of the globe—increasingly from locations with low labor costs and lax environmental regulations. We then ship these materials around the world for manufacture into consumer products in an appropriately sweatshop-friendly locale, finally offering them for sale to consumers worldwide. The competition to attract increasingly marginal jobs by marketing lower labor costs and fewer environmental restrictions to globe-hopping corporations represents but one result of such extreme mobility of capital and products.[7]

Economists seek to steer our economies toward the optimization of a known goal. Goals such as human health, happiness and security may seem obvious to some, but in reality the goal seems institutionally fixed. The process of evolution within a system dominated by competing hierarchies demands that one set of goals consume all others: continuous growth, expansion, and increased domination. Any corporation or nation that pursues a more human-oriented goal will soon find itself squeezed out of existence for not following the simple rules of natural selection. We can only maintain such continuous growth through the perpetual increase in demand for products and the increased efficiency of supplying those products. Globalization results in the institutionalization of continuous growth, forcing production of a given product to the most efficient possible place and scale. Since the input to production provided by human labor and intellect exists as nothing more than another factor for optimization, we will soon trim away any expenses dedicated to improving individual health, happiness or security beyond the bare minimum. If such expenses don’t improve production efficiency, then they do not support the unstated economic goal of continuous growth.

Globalization appears fundamentally similar to the intensifications of the agricultural and industrial revolutions, but an order of magnitude greater in its speed and scope. Likewise, it requires ever more elaborate mechanisms to placate the human component, keeping the demands nominally within our genetic tolerance. If we do not find a way to reverse the trend, the most pertinent question may be: which tolerance will we reach first, that of human ontogeny or of the global environment?

Scientists and economists have proposed many models to bring economics and human ontogeny back into harmony. Some tout the virtues of localization and community currency as tools to combat globalization.[8] Lester R. Brown of the Earth Policy Institute suggests solving the problem by modifying accounting standards to include future environmental damage as a realized cost.[9] Others have suggested that statistical changes, such as using median instead of mean per capita income, would rectify the problem—the Kingdom of Bhutan has even adopted Gross National Happiness as their policy benchmark. One thing is clear: humanity has never suffered from a shortage of ideas, and yet none have managed to end the dominance of the hierarchal pattern of power organization. To do that—to affect true change—we must first learn to control ourselves, and then learn to control the very fabric of power itself.


[1] Knowledge of technics—processes and methods—forms the technology of Agriculture. Jaques Ellul provides an excellent treatment of technology in The Technological Society.
[2] See for an excellent discussion of human population projections and their impact on our survival.
[3] Kenneth Boulding, former president of the American Economics Association, author of Economic Analysis, as quoted in Adbusters Volume 12 Number 5 (September/October 2004).
[4] One common definition of recession: when the economy does not demonstrate positive growth in GDP for two consecutive quarters.
[5] “Whose Order is Being Disordered by ADHD”, Thom Hartmann.
[6] Phenomena largely due to subsidization. Hierarchy’s key tools in dealing with its internal inefficiencies (discussed further in Chapter IX) leverage its centralization of power to subsidize the key mechanisms of continuing intensification. This manifests today in the intense subsidy of fossil fuel use, car-culture and easily available, government-backed loans.
[7] For an excellent discussion of Globalization and the impact of capital mobility on labor, see Michael Shuman’s “Going Local”.
[8] “Going Local”, Michael Schuman.
[9] “Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth”, Lester R. Brown, 2001.

1 comment:

Paul said...


Can a technology (agriculture) that is causing the current mass extinction via its practitioners converting as much non domesticated biomass into domesticated biomass (and ultimately human mass) as possible be comsidered neutral?

From the perspective of a life form, I think the ultimate definition of evil is the causing of the extinctions of other species of life. Therefore, I would say that civilized agriculture IS evil.