Technology as a Force in Human Life

I worry about technology as a force in human life. I see how much harm it had done in the past; how it degrades our present; and how it might ruin our future. This is a minority view at present, as technology seems to be embraced by almost everyone as an unambiguous, unmitigated good. Let me begin by invoking the words of Marshall Mcluhan: “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us,” to indicate one of my concerns. I think it is a fair question to ask just how much we want to be shaped by our tools, and to further inquire as to whether we even have the volition to choose. I have seen very little evidence that the people of our culture have ever been able to say no to technology, no matter how horrendous in implication that technology might be. I am thinking of things like the building of the atomic bomb, genetically engineering life-forms, and pursuing nanotechnology. All of these seem extremely dangerous to me, and, once brought into the world, difficult if not impossible to control. But it is not just these extreme technologies that concern me. I worry about virtually all technologies as having the potential to draw human societies into territory that is not good for their long term prospects. Here let me introduce a stanza or so from a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“Things are of the snake,
The horseman serves the horse,
The neatherd serves the neat, [sheep]
The merchant serves the purse,
The eater serves his meat
‘Tis the day of the chattel,
Web to weave and corn to grind,
Things are in the saddle,
And ride mankind.

There are two laws discrete
Not reconciled
Law for mankind and law for thing;
The last builds town and fleet
But it runs wild
And doth the man unking.
‘Tis fit the forest fall
The steep be graded
The mountain tunneled
The land shaded
The orchard planted
The globe tilled
The prairie planted
The steamer built.” (from Ode Inscribed to William H. Channing)

I wish Emerson had expounded further on these “two laws discrete” that he brings to our attention. Discrete and not reconciled, he says, as if this were a proposition he understood. Not knowing exactly what he means or intends, I will venture a speculation.

The word unking suggests the loss of sovereignty, as do all the verses quoted here. Loss of sovereignty in these “days of chattel” (chattel being personal property that is moveable), is nicely captured in the line, “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” This poem, written in the time of chattel slavery (1847), could not foresee atomic weapons, Frankenfoods, and itsy-bitsy self replicating nanoparticles, nor quite envision how technology would come to insinuate itself into human institutions and our common experience, as well as embed itself in individual human lives. But Emerson grasped the principle that technology, and “things,” are “of the snake.” We shape our tools and then our tools shape us. Believing that tools would somehow improve their lives, our distant ancestors shaped spear points, arrowheads, knives, baskets, and bowls, and I would be hard put to say that those particular items did them more harm than good, as those items helped keep them alive. Now, in the global world of the twenty-first century, we as a people hold the faith and belief that technology has brought us better lives than those who have gone before, and that technology will continue to better our lives into the indefinite, but ever-improving, future. This is a faith; it is part of a belief system—but it is a faith that I question, and in fact doubt.

I have publicly expressed these doubts in the context of speculating about future human survivors of the coming, and converging, catastrophes. I call these (conjectural) survivors the People of the Fresh Start, and I raise the question of just how much technology they can safely and morally allow into their lives. Both of these words, safely and morally, arise from lines of thinking I’ve explored in other places, but let me speak to them briefly here. I see the culture of civilization as being based upon theft, deception, and violent destruction. Civilization itself is founded upon empire, which is in turn based upon injustice—to other people, to other places, to other species. And I see all artifacts of this culture as carriers of the perceptions, values, and stories of this same imperial culture–and technology is certainly included among the artifacts of culture. A giant earth-moving machine assumes that gouging out the flesh of the Earth is permissible and desirable. There is nothing neutral about this, or any other, technology. Even something as simple as an ax has far reaching implications: changing interpersonal dynamic within a group as well as making the chopping down of trees an easy option.

The conditions I am assuming are post-energy-bubble, when the remaining survivors of cataclysm have to live within the daily solar budget. Not having resources to squander, and meaning to live in such a way that many generations of humans could follow them, my People of the Fresh Start need to have a clear understanding of their actual situation, and leftovers from a failed culture and civilization are not likely to serve their needs. People today, who are anchored in the present and are reluctant to envision a future without all the amenities of the present, ask me pointed questions. I’ll include a few exactly as I received them:
“At what point would the People of the Fresh Start draw the line in adopting technologies? Is agriculture okay? How will they enforce these taboos? And by what means did they come to understand the rather advanced concept of Holonic Reciprocity? If they devised an ax would it inevitably lead them to do something bad with it? Do they need to have taboos against particularly helpful tools lest their inherent inability to use them only in constructive ways lead them into problems? My point is that you are perhaps brining in holonics to ensure their safety, but not really trusting it to protect them from the potential harms of new technologies.”

By way of response to these good questions, let’s start with these two words: trust and technology.

If you look at the history of our people, you see one long unvarying pattern: technological advances continue to be made, and our people (almost) never say no to them—if we can tunnel we tunnel, if we can till or plant or grade, we do it, and usually without much thought to what is being transformed, or understanding the long-term effects of those transformations. It is difficult to explain within the metaphysical framework we have inherited how technology could have a will of its own, but it nevertheless continues to be the case, as Marshall McLuhan has noted:”We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” Or, as Emerson suggests: “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” So the word trust, or its opposite, is appropriate. How much technology can these People of the Fresh Start handle? And by what criteria do they come to their own decisions about this?

The Law of Holonic Reciprocity is alluded to in one of the questions, and let me here state that the holonic worldview may not come all that intuitively to the people of the culture of civilization because we have been taught to believe that we and Nature are separate, that it is the Other, and (laughably) that it is subordinate to the human order. Within such a context the concept of holarchy and holonomy may seem advanced, but most indigenous tribal peoples, including our own wild ancestors, not only understood the concept but lived by it. The anthropological literature is replete with data supporting this view. But this does bring us to another one of the questions, and that is: By what means do they come to understand the holonic worldview?

If we can go by what has worked for many thousands of years, a partial answer would be oral culture: the stories they tell themselves about their past; who they are, what they are here to do; and what is valuable. But where do the stories themselves come from? Judging from the past, and from those few cultures relatively uncontaminated by our own, a people’s body of cultural beliefs derived from present group experience, from past group experience (the ancestors), and from the land itself, including from the spirit world that inhabits (and perhaps animates) a group’s immediate life-giving environment. Animism and shamanism have been the spiritual traditions of tribal peoples everywhere–for tens of millennia–and I would say that makes animism and shamanism the archetypal human spiritual tradition, and one that is hard-wired into our human collective unconscious—no matter how we moderns may deny it, with our overlay of monotheism and science. Remove the overlay of the culture of civilization, and I believe our descendants could easily be back in touch with their own deep ancestors and with an animate Earth. Or, granting them not even that much, but just an intellectual capacity equal to our own, wouldn’t you think that after seeing our ways of living in the world crash so spectacularly– with cascades of ecosystem failure and the breakdown of civilization–these People of the Fresh Start might be able to come up with some stories and taboos of their own? If there is any hope for their success at all, it is a requirement that they be at least adaptive enough to question the assumptions, and lifeways, that have brought us to the brink of collapse—and soon (I’m sure) beyond. As for how these people will enforce their new cultural taboos—that would be the same way as always: group consensus, peer pressure, and punishment for offenders (from ostracism to fines to banishment). In small groups, these methods are time-tested and proven.

At what level of technology do these People of the Fresh Start draw the line? By their time, they have to have figured out that technology is a slippery slope that leads humans to becoming tools of their tools. In addition to this cautionary insight, they are out of the resource and energy bubble that plagues the world and supports our delusions today. They have their daily solar budget and their daily ecosystem services (we hope) and they have no choice but to live on the interest of Nature’s economy, and not (like us) on its capital. They aren’t making rifles and loading ammunition, for instance, nor forging ploughshares. Not only have we mined everything there was to mine of all the non-renewable resources, we’ve mined all of the fish in the ocean and all of the forests of the world and other such resources that could have been “sustainable” had we lived off the interest instead of the principal. By living as we have (and continue to live) we leave our descendents very little to work with. Of course it is inter-generational injustice of a most pernicious and self-centered kind, but our narcissism doesn’t permit us to think much about others, and our economic system doesn’t allow us to think very far ahead—and of course our political system is owned by our economic system, so there is no help for the future there. If these People of the Fresh Start are living by the Law of Holonic Reciprocity, then they are considering the seventh generation, and beyond; and not only the seventh generation of humans, but of All Our Relations; and of not just the Community of Life, but of all that supports that Community, including the air and the water and the Gaian systems that make life possible.

One big question remains. How do these people feed themselves? If the domestication of plants and animals–what has been alternately called the Neolithic revolution and the Neolithic catastrophe—was a branching in the human path that led ultimately to the failed experiment of civilization, how much agriculture, if any, can these People of the Fresh Start allow into their lives? I think the answer has to be, not much—and for two reasons. The only agriculture that was really ever “sustainable” was practiced on flat river bottoms that were supplied with fresh fertility from distant mountains. Right now, water backed up behind dams has drowned most of these once-rich areas. Practices like permaculture offer, perhaps, a transitional technology, but permaculture, like all forms of horticulture or agriculture, requires the importation of fertility to keep things going. Importation of fertility, without fossil fuels, means a huge expenditure of energy to transport it—and that is not the worst of it. With our present imperial mind-set, we think nothing of stealing “resources” from other places, other people, other species, but our descendents are going to have to think differently than that. Justice, sustainablilty, and the Law of Holonic Reciptocity require fairness to all, and to the All. That is the Law of the Universe, and though we have circumvented it for a time, and the Law of Cause and Effect has been temporarily deferred, the Law will not be denied. Because everything is interconnected and mutually interdependent, stealing from Peter to pay Paul has no long-term viability.

Does that mean bows and arrows, obsidian knives and willow and hazel-wood baskets are going to be the preferred technology of the human future? Is hunting and gathering really the only viable way for humans to go on living on this finite and damaged planet? Well, I don’t know. We can speculate about the future, but it is not really ours to see. When you think in terms of trends and trajectories, it seems that the trend of agriculture leads, ultimately, to the parade of horribles now visited upon the world, including, of course, our massive population overshoot, resource overreach, and our poisoning of the biosphere. Agriculture is another one of those slippery slopes where our technique for feeding ourselves, by transforming Nature into something not Nature, has the effect of enslaving the human, and making us the tool of our tools.

The anthropologist Marashall Sahlins, author of Stone Age Economics, has called those who practice the lifeway of the hunter-gatherer “the original affluent society,” because our ancient ancestors usually devoted only a couple or three hours a day to “earning a living.” With the rest of their time our wild ancestors could do whatever pleased him or her, in a life that offered variety and great potentials for individual growth and development. This is the opposite of what he have been schooled to believe by our own self-promoting culture of civilization. In this way our culture is like our economic system, and like technology itself: it has its own agenda, and just uses us to serve its ends. Most of us haven’t figured this out yet. I am trusting that our People of the Fresh Start will.

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