Thursday, March 8, 2012

some thoughts on science, technology, and society (i.e., why Mud Lab exists)

This long winded piece is a work in progress so congratulations on having a sneak peek at some ramblings! You are welcome! …
Modern technological use in the United States pervades every aspect of our day to day lives, even at the most fundamental levels concerning what we eat, what we wear, where we live, and how we relate to one another. The bulk of commodity food feedstocks, corn, soy, etc., are the product of laboratory genetic engineering to produce traits and thus products than can turn a profit. Synthetic materials derived from oil make up a large portion of all the clothing worn (and most of the cotton has been genetically engineered). Any electronic device is comprised of so many machine- and hand-crafted components that you generally have no understanding of the story, or even the length of the story, of how it got to you. There are mysteries in every single thing that surrounds you, and generally when you dispel these mysteries you often won’t like what you discover. Exploitation, whether you believe it is a necessary evil or can be done ethically, is the name of the game. Exploitation of resources, human or non-human, living or non-living, is how nearly everything produced in a modern industrial society gets to you. The recent increased focus on the working conditions at Foxconn, the behemoth Chinese manufacturer where a significant portion of all the electronics in the world originates from, is a perfect example of the hidden (often intentionally) costs of modern life. Modern life being what it is, you can’t disconnect from it. You cannot distance yourself from the exploitation that is necessary to sustain industrialized society, not if you’re being honest with yourself.

It’s relatively simple to point out and examine the many ways that science and technology are used to sustain and propagate Capitalism. All the bells and whistles provided for by industrial production are almost unquestionably held up as belonging to an ideal. This works out pretty well for the companies that produce these items, and has predictable results for political discourse. If a country is producing and exporting a ton of expensive shit, then that implies that country is bringing in all the revenue to ostensibly provide for the needs of its citizens (there are ample examples of this not being the case: Burma’s natural gas production, oil production along the Niger Delta, etc.). Expanding production in these sectors leads to “economic growth,” something you will never, ever hear the leadership of this country disparaging (the furor over reviving US manufacturing is constant … who cares what we manufacture, just make some shit to sell). In an ever-expanding global manufacturing sector there will necessarily be ever-increasing material and energy demands, demands that we are already dangerously incapable of meeting responsibly.

It bears repeating: if you do not believe that continuous economic growth and a sustainable future are compatible then there is literally no reason to expect any part of the US government to significantly assist in your building your vision of what is sustainable. The institutions in this country are not designed to function in this way and so they all have to either be challenged or dismantled outright in order for human beings to live in a sane manner.

I have not seen technology used in an overt way to challenge Capitalism. While having different options to be outside a fossil fuel economy may be useful in some ways, it doesn’t tackle the crux of environmental problems. A very good example, and pertinent to a discussion on technology, is our food system.
For many of us who dream of escape, whether to some pristine mountain or forest oasis, there is a lot of comfort in knowing that escape from this modern world is somewhat possible so long as you know how to provide for your own food. Not everyone can though due in large part to the knowledge of how to provide food for ourselves being drained away into the metallic structures of combines, genetically modified organisms, and the corporations that develop those things. However, if you can provide your food for yourself you can effectively escape. Much better still you can confront some of the worst aspects of industrialized society by providing for yourself. But what about energy?

How can a solar cell challenge the structure of industrialized civilization? Well … it can’t, at least not by itself. A solar cell as a means to dismantle Capitalism has to do what growing your own food does, it has to empower you. You don’t grow filet mignon, you grow the shit you need. Likewise we shouldn’t be providing the energy we need to power stupid or harmful things, but providing what we need to be fulfilled.

There are many dangers in overestimating how far technological solutions can get us. This is evident in the sometimes blind pursuit of clean energy without consideration of how much we actually need. These pursuits narrows environmental concerns down to how we power our laptops, not where our laptops come from or why we are using them to use just one example. Using a laptop to work a job you hate and isn’t providing anything for you or the planet or using a laptop as a simple escape to the things you hate doesn’t justify powering it or making it. But if we think about how to use technology to dismantle the systems that make us perform an endless stream of unnecessary or harmful jobs while at the same time creating spaces where technology is seen as a tool to create a better future, and not as a crutch to escape our current one, then we will be moving towards a space with real power.