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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Cobb

Technics

Technology is so pervasive in our society that it is the primary metric by which we tend to measure other cultures of past and present. Artifacts are often all we have left of ancient cultures, so use them to categorize how “advanced” they are, forgetting that some of most important innovations are cultural and structural. This social technology is prior to material technology. The artifacts that we call technology are the products of an important social institution called “technics.”


Technics can be understood as “know-how,” and it is this capacity for reproducing knowledge that constitutes a society’s true technical prowess. When a society’s manufacturing base is destroyed in wars or natural disasters, it can recover remarkably quickly if this technical knowledge is preserved. Such technical knowledge exists in even some of the most “primitive” societies in their knowledge of edible and medicinal plants, their methods of tracking and navigation, of hunting and fishing. Toolmaking is knowledge off this kind, but it is only a subset of such knowledge leaves a physical trace.

The ancient megamachine comprised of regimented workers was every bit as much a machine as one made with gears and pulleys. The people work together as moving parts in a seamless whole. It is similar to a hunting party or military unit functioning as a whole, or a dance troop performing a coordinated dance, or factory workers at an assembly line. The mechanization of the body precedes the creation of other tools to assist in the process.


Such mechanization is an extension of our natural tendency toward habit and muscle memory. Ritual comes from this same tendency. Yet where ritual enacts meaning, mechanized labor creates products. We consciously learn skills that then become automatic, and in the process are able to make higher-order decisions on how to deploy these skills. When we learn to drive, we have to think about shifting gears, accelerating and decelerating, checking our mirrors and blind spots, and so on, but at some point these things become ingrained in us, and we are able to listen to the radio, converse with our friends, and even let our minds wander while still performing all the mechanical functions subconsciously.


When one is engaging in a craft, such automatic habits combine with conscious planning. The craftsperson sees the end product in their mind’s eye and applies their skills toward achieving that goal. Not so with more regimented labor. Under the megamachine, each person performs a specific function to carry out the plans of someone else. The worker acts as the hands of the master. Their own intention and vision are left out of the process entirely. Even this can have a certain dignity when the worker believes in the master’s vision, as when creating some great work of architecture in which one can take some civic pride. It is another matter when the worker is alienating from even this, selling one’s labor power for a day’s sustenance, the final product being the master’s to sell for their own profit. Work under such conditions becomes a burden, a cost one bears in order to survive.


Technology has the capacity to enhance our own creative powers or to overpower us and subsume our very humanity into the machine. It can overtake not only our lives but our values, measuring success and progress by the standards of the machine. Such standards mean that productivity and output are seen as goods in themselves, rather than the means for realizing social goods. Consumption is the other side of this value system. As production becomes the supreme virtue, consumption becomes the primary consolation. Production and consumption join forces against their common enemy: leisure.


Leisure is not mere laziness. It is nothing less than the enjoyment of life. Leisure can often involve forms of labor, as when pursuing a hobby, or physical exertion, as when engaging in athletic activity. Leisure is in no way separate from work; it involves work on one’s own terms. Leisure can be incorporated into productive work to the extent that one is able to enjoy one’s own creative autonomy over the process and a shared interest in the results.


Stone and Fire

The capacity for making tools precedes our own species. Fashioning tools out of one’s environment has been observed in apes, corvids, and numerous other animals. The earliest known stone tools were fashioned by the hominid species homo habilis. These tools were likely used primarily for butchering. This species had not yet tamed fire, so this would have meant raw meat, tougher to cut up, making such stone tools all the more useful. Similar stone tools could also be used for cutting wood, though we have little way of knowing what wood tools and constructions might have existed in the past, since they would rot and decay with little trace long before our present era.


Later species such as homo erectus developed more sophisticated stone tools, along with the crucial development of fire. Archaeologists still aren’t sure if they had the ability to make fire on their own or were simply able to capture it and use it for their own purposes, but even the latter represents a significant advance in technics. Fire embodies the very principle of creative destruction. Like a living creature, it consumes matter to create energy.


Fire would become an engine of transformation throughout human history. The ability to cook food allowed for a revolution in nutrition. It could kill of parasites and all kinds of foodborne illnesses. It makes certain foods more digestible. The overall effect of cooking was to allow people to get more out of the food they consumed and spending less time trying to seek and consume it.


The fireplace would have a central place in community. Sitting around a campfire continues to hold a captivating hypnotic power over us. Its warm glow soothes and enchants. The glow of the modern television, computer, or smartphone taps into this ancient connection. The fire kept predators at bay, yet also attracted some curious company. A popular theory suggests that wolves attracted to the smell of cooking meat may have waited along the outskirts of encampments begging for scraps, leading to the domestication of the dog. Whether or not this is the case, we can certainly credit fire for the domestication of humans. The stories and songs and rituals done around the campfire formed the essence of human culture.


As people created permanent settlements, the fireplace moved indoors to become the hearth. The center of communal life became the center of domestic life. The hearth became the symbol of the domestic sphere itself. Household deities were worshipped around the hearth. Cooking became an integral part of culture. One of the most readily identifiable cultural signifiers is its native cuisine.


If the hearth was the sign of the home, the sign of the workshop was the forge. The first application of the forge was ceramics, especially pottery. The effect of this storage capacity had on society is easily underrated. Storage of grains was particularly important. This allowed for an accumulation of surpluses that could support non-agricultural endeavors. It also allowed for the saving of seed, helping people to replant crops each year and spread their crops into new areas. This storage capacity was essential to the agricultural revolution.


Metal

The forge represented a step forward in the use of fire, with the ability to modify the temperature of the fire to hammer out the impurities of metals and mold it into shapes for tools, weapons, armor, or construction. Metal tools proved stronger than wood and more malleable than stone. Such tools proved valuable extensions of human body. Farming, logging, construction, craftsmanship – all saw a whole world of new possibilities.


Farming was revolutionized by the plow. The work of multiple people tilling the soil could now be done by a single person operating a plow pulled by horses or oxen. This allowed larger fields to be cultivated by fewer people. A new division of labor developed, with men doing the plowing while women stayed inside the home to perform domestic duties such as cooking or sewing. The digging of canals further helped expand agriculture and created a great resource base with which to feed a complex society.


Construction materials became more readily available. Rocks could be quarried with metal picks. Trees could more readily be chopped down with metal axes and saws. Lumber could be used not only to build houses, but to build scaffolding for more monumental architecture. Fortifications could be built to defend cities and frontiers from attack, and weapons of war could be forged to attack and subjugate others.


Cities arose as seats of empire. The administrative state grew out of a need for logistical planning that arose under this new phenomenon known as civilization. The ability to create finely crafted tools went with the ability to regulate and administer a stratified society. Classes and castes grew to ensure that there was a reservoir from which to draw the differing forms of labor needed to keep this system going.


Obtaining metals meant extracting them from the ground. Such tasks were not suitable for free men. This was a task for slave labor. The mines were fraught with dangers, from collapses to toxic fumes and any number of respiratory diseases. Miners would sleep in the mines, sometimes going months at a time without seeing the light of day.


The mine was a dead zone. Where the agricultural worker encountered life in all its vitality, the mine was a place of raw matter. The miner encounters matter as a given quantity of this or that substance, no different from any other quantity of that same substance taken from another mine. The aggregate quantity of substances to be molded and crafted into tools and artifacts becomes the model of a certain way of seeing the world. The mine is the birthplace of materialism.


The need for slaves to mine the metals necessitated conquest, and the metals they mined allowed for the building of new weapons armor to equip the armies and help them conquer yet more territory and take new slaves. The Bronze Age saw the birth of empire. Mining, metal, slavery, and empire all went together.


The War Machine

New technology was readily adopted in weapons of war. With other economic activities, one may maintain a concept of “good enough,” but in military matters, one must always keep up with threats from without. The arms race is as old as arms themselves. No matter how peaceful one wishes to be, it remains a necessity to defend oneself from threats.


The military is the first megamachine. Troops with the discipline to operate as a cohesive unit were able to conquer more easily. Armor and weapons develop in tandem, with defensive and offensive equipment mutually surpassing one another. As city walls and defenses develop, so do siege weapons. The continual investment in military technology helps one stay ahead of the game.


Those who are good at conquering others can gain greater access to resources and then use those resources to strengthen their military and conquer even more territories. Much like the profit that the capitalist keeps reinvesting, for empires, conquest begets conquest. With a powerful enough army, one can often avoid a fight, as territories willingly surrender and submit rather than face destruction.


Not all militaries follow the machine model. Some are proud warrior cultures whose warriors charge into battle seeking glory and honor. The soldier-warrior dichotomy can be found throughout history. The Roman legion vs Germanic and Celtic tribes, Athens vs Sparta, the British army vs Scottish Highlanders. Soldiers are the engines of empire. Warriors are the resistance to empire. One might think the Mongol hordes were an exception to this, but in truth, Genghis Khan organized a highly trained and disciplined armed force out of what had once been a warrior culture.


The war machine involves more than just weapons and tactics. It also includes logistics, transportation, surveillance, communication, medicine, cryptography, and espionage, among other areas. Because of this, military technology often trickles down into civilian life. We can see this in our own society through such technologies as computers, internet, jet engines, satellites, and weather radar. To be a military society is to be a technological society. In our own time, we see universities cutting back on the humanities and social sciences while directing their funding toward STEM fields. Yet even here, it is not all STEM fields that are emphasized, but only those that have some usefulness to capital and to the military-industrial complex. Thus we see funding for physics and engineering, but not so much ecology or zoology. Meanwhile the one social science that does get more funding is economics, the high priesthood of capitalism.


As militarism brings about this technological boom, it also mechanizes society itself. The need to keep the troops fed, supplied, informed, and ready to deploy necessitates that civil society become regimented, surveilled, regulated, policed, and disciplined. The Roman empire built roads between its territories to facilitate troop movements just as the interstate highway system was created during the Cold War to be able move troops anywhere in the country at a moment’s notice. Mass surveillance has become more and more a part of our lives. Commercial enterprise functions on the basis of a regular work schedule to which workers are expected to adhere.


Police are often thought of as separate from the military, but in truth they are none other than a standing army used against one’s own citizens. Military-grade weaponry is readily adapted to this domestic military. Police forces as such are only a couple centuries old, but policing of conquered territories by standing armies is as old as empire itself. In the modern era, the conquered territory is not just on the outskirts of the empire, but within its very heart. The conquered are the subjugated classes of society, and the police exist to keep them under the thumb of empire. The police may indeed be “peacekeepers” who maintain “law and order”, but the question of whose peace – whose law and order – is rarely asked.


The carceral state extends the machine through the practice of human warehousing. Prisoners provide a cheap source of labor that was once provided by slavery. Indeed, where prisoners of war once provided slave labor to work the mines, today’s prisoners are captives of a war on the subjugated classes. Oppressed ethnic minorities have their communities patrolled by police, searched on flimsy excuses, and treated as a criminal class. When accused of crimes, they are often pressured to accept plea deals, which puts them into the system as people to be tracked and surveilled and kept out of certain sectors of employment. Meanwhile, prisons serve as something of a solution to housing shortages. The housing market can be devoured by speculators while those dispossessed by the system can be readily housed and fed in correctional institutions.


The security state is a machine that drives the machine of commerce. For all the exaltation of markets as markets as beacons of freedom, they are ultimately held up at the point of the gun. Conquest has always served as a means of extracting surpluses to fuel further expansion. Capital does the same thing today, with the support of the military-industrial complex. The army, police, prisons, surveillance, tech, bureaucracy, and finance all form a framework for the extraction of wealth and maintenance of a global class system. The forces of empire break down boundaries while building up barriers. They take all that is unique and personal and subjugate it to the machine.


Power

The ancient megamachine showed just how powerful a purely human machine could be. Accentuating this was animal power in the form of strong livestock such as horses and oxen. Muscle power, both human and animal, was the chief engine of civilization. This included human livestock in the form of slaves, who powered the great empires of history, as well as the coercive might of the military.


Fire formed another crucial power source. Fire allowed people to shape their tools and weapon, cook their food, boil water, warm up in the cold, and provide lighting at night. Fire in the hearth, the forge, the candle and oil lamp, represented a constant companion and a looming danger.


The use of water was also common, from the earliest irrigation systems to aqueducts to complex hydraulic systems. Cities and other population centers tended to be built next to major waterways, allowing supplies to be shipped to and from there in boats. Water acted as a passive force to be redirected, while human and animal power formed an active force to be applied where it was needed.


Wind power existed ever since people first put sails on their ships. The use of windmills for mechanical purposes is known as far back as ancient Mesopotamia. Windmills saw an explosion of use during the Middle Ages, when they were used to grind grain and pump water. Around this time, the watermill also came into maturity. It was a time when these natural forces in one’s own environment could be harnessed in a way that harmonized with the landscape. It saw advances in optics, woodworking, and craftsmanship, with new ways of organizing labor for mutual benefit.


Lewis Mumford dubbed this age of water and wind the “Eotechnic” age. Power and production in this age was not for its own sake, but for the enhancement of life. Water and wind were renewable and could not be monopolized. They allowed nature to take care of repetitive tasks while freeing up the hands of workers for more creative pursuits.

Hydraulics during this era allowed for the development of the first mechanical clocks. The interlocking gears and precise timing mechanisms formed the model for later machines. Automatons using the same structure were often featured in elaborate clock towers. Such automatons inspired Descartes to develop his mechanistic metaphysics. The clockwork universe would eventually overtake the consciousness of an entire civilization.


Water, fire, and air were all brought together in the development of the steam engine. The earliest steam engines were known to exist in ancient times. It was used to operate automatons, open doors automatically, and perform other tricks meant to wow temple worshippers. Yet it was only at the end of the 17th century that the first commercial steam pumps were available. They were used in mines and to pump water wheels that powered textile machines. The steam engine developed further over the course of the next century to become the symbol of the Industrial Revolution.


Trains were one of the most visible manifestations of this. The steam locomotive vastly reduced the limitations of time and space. People and supplies could move across a continent in a matter of days – weeks at most. Steamships could forge new ocean trade routes without depending on the wind. The world became much smaller. It was around this time that capitalism started to come into its own. The shrinking of the globe meant its openness to the movement of capital.


These steam engines required a heat source, and that source was coal. The mines filled up with a flood of new industrial proletariat. Coal mining towns were dens of poverty, drinking, and crime. The mines were owned by private companies, who would often own the whole town as well. The houses, the stores, the houses worship, all owned by one company. Some company towns would even issue their own currency that could only be spent at the company store. The miners may not have technically been slaves, but their lives very much belonged to the company. To this day in places like West Virginia, coal companies are often the one major job provider and exert an enormous influence over local politics.

The industrial regime was fueled by a drive to be bigger, faster, stronger, more expansive. Production became the measure of man. As productivity advanced, the power of the worker waned. As the machine amplified the power of the worker many times over, at the same time it diminished them in stature. The machine was the means by which the worker enacted their own servitude.


Steam power required centralized, large-scale production, with a central heat source to power all the machines. The development of electric power, a more distributed system became possible. Electric power does not dissipate as much as thermal power, so factories had more flexibility in how they arranged their production line. Where the steam engine had to occupy a central position on the factory floor along which production units had to be placed, with electricity each machine could have its own electric motor that could plug into any outlet.


Energy

The reliance upon coal continued from the age of steam to the that of electricity, though it was exported outside of the factory into the power plant. Coal power remains one of the most common energy sources in the world. It is also one of the leading sources of air pollution and carbon emissions in the world.


Yet electricity can be produced in a variety of ways. Nuclear power was long advocated as a viable alternative to coal. The creation of a new nuclear plant is an immense and costly undertaking, requiring massive government subsidies, but once operational, it produces electricity in a clean and efficient manner, until of course it has to be shut down, which is also an immense and costly undertaking, even setting aside the chore of storing nuclear waste for 1,000 years. Then of course there is the risk of a nuclear meltdown, which is rare, but whose horrific fallout we can still see in Chernobyl or Fukushima. Yet if you just focus on the middle part where the plant is operational, and assume it will be safe from disaster (taking precautions and creating failsafe mechanisms that are also a huge investment), then it looks like one of the most efficient and productive forms of energy. Construction of new nuclear plants declined significantly following the incidents in Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl, but self-styled “serious” people continue to insist that it the only way forward to get off fossil fuels. Smaller, less dangerous forms of nuclear power have been proposed, but in the meantime alternative energy forms have advanced considerably.


An alternative way forward is often referred to as “alternative energy,” though this term designates certain forms of energy production that, taken by themselves, may not have the capacity to meet current energy needs, or at least, will not be able to meet the energy needs of a capitalist economy that requires unlimited growth. Wind, solar, and hydro power all had their origins in the eotechnic regime, albeit not for electrical power.


Hydro power was widely used in the twentieth century, but the building of massive dams often had devastating environmental consequences, disrupting food chains and radically transforming ecosystems. There are more small-scale distributed forms of hydro power that avoid this, known as micro-hydro, which can be incorporated not only into rivers but even in plumbing systems. Tidal power can also be used along coastlines. Geothermal energy could be placed along tectonic plate boundaries making use of the natural heat under the Earth’s crust. It is cleaner, more cost-effective, and reliable than coal or nuclear, but it has limited applicability due to geological factors, and can also cause hydraulic fracturing, which can contribute to earthquakes. Solar power has the advantage of being clean and decentralized. Solar panels can be installed on any rooftop. However, they only work when the sun is shining, so there’s only a varying window of time in which this energy can be collected. The efficiency of solar power has increased a great deal since its introduction, as has the ability to store energy, and has become much more cost-effective. However, solar panels rely upon rare earth metals whose mining operations are every bit as destructive as coal. Wind power is becoming one off the top energy sources today. It’s clean and efficient, but like solar, it is an intermittent energy source, only working when the wind blows.


The reason these sources tend to be underrated is because they are taken to be mere substitutes for other power sources like coal and nuclear, but these power sources themselves simply constitute elements within an overall energy strategy known as “soft energy paths.” This strategy involves distribution of different kinds of energy sources according to where it can be optimally collected, stored, and redistributed. The “smart grid” that distributes energy to where it’s most needed helps overcome intermittency issues with certain renewables such as solar or wind. Micro-hydro can also serve as a counter-weight to solar, since there is often increased water flow during the winter. With a good enough smart grid, the need to store energy will be minimal, but if needed, this can be accomplished through hydrogen fuel cells.


The generation, storage, and distribution of electricity are not the only aspects of the soft energy path. There is also the need to power down and use less energy. Energy efficiency is often addressed in buildings incrementally, as a supplemental consideration taken up after a building has already been designed. This is largely because architectural design and engineering are often done separately. The architect takes aesthetic and social functions into account when designing the building before handing it to the engineer to figure out how to make it work. Smart design can tunnel through the cost barrier by making use of passive solar, cogeneration, and efficient airflow, among others.


If efficiency in building design is important, urban design is even more so. A well-designed city integrates the needs for power along with transportation, water and sewage, and waste disposal, in ways that flow seamlessly with the lives of its residents. The smart grid is part of this, but having easy access to services in one’s community is also essential. American planners often envy their European counterparts for the well-designed public transportation systems the latter have. The real dichotomy is not so much between driving and public transportation as it is between driving and walking. Walkable spaces are the key, with public transportation as the vehicle to take people from one walkable space to another. The closer people live to their place of work and essential shopping supplies, the less driving they have to do. Keeping all such essentials within walking distance was of course a necessity until the twentieth century, so smart planning often means planning as if driving was not an option for most people.


All of this requires that we transcend the paradigm of capital accumulation. Technics will always take on an authoritarian character so long as it serves an entrenched ruling class. The power of capital demands a certain technical landscape that serves their need for accumulation of power. To reach sustainability we must restructure our institutions to serve human needs, not the dictatorship of profit. The life of servitude to the power of capital must be transformed into a life of vibrant communities in which work is in done in service to one another as an extension of our communal bonds and as an expression of our own creative gifts. We will find that the energy needs of such a life are far less than those needed to serve the empire of capital. Only then will we be able to live within our means and stop destroying the planet.


Industry

The Industrial Revolution created a world of black skies and a thick layer of soot. Lung disease was rampant, and the smell of smoke permeated the air. Lung disease was rampant. At the same time, however, improvements in sanitation reduced water-borne diseases and dramatically cut down on child mortality. This led to a massive boom in population, which in turn created an immense pool of laborers.


The conditions in the mines and factories are the stuff of legend, with children filling the mine shafts and women working in crowded textile factories. The “Satanic mills” described by William Blake devoured the natural world and corrupted the human soul. Overcrowded slums sprung up to house the massive influx of workers.


Advances in textiles created a major demand for cotton, and the slave economy saw a major expansion as a result. The cotton gin, which was meant to save on labor, ended up making cotton a much more viable commodity than it had been before. Slave markets exploded with new demand. More slaves to pick more cotton to spin more thread and create more clothing. Around this same time, the idea of fashion as we know it today came into being. Certainly past eras had known fancy clothing, particularly for the aristocracy, but the idea of clothing going in and out of fashion from one season to the next would have been nonsensical to a person living a century earlier – clothes were worn until they were either outgrown or fell apart (and even then, only after they could no longer be sewn back together. Yet because capital must always seek to create the demand for their products, the fashion industry had to be created to ensure that the new middle class would keep buying clothes year after year.


When slavery was abolished, a system of sharecropping took its place, effectively a new form of serfdom. This too was displaced by the industrialization of agriculture. Drip irrigation, sprinkler systems, harvesting machines, and several other innovations had a radically transformative effect on the economy. The number of workers required to harvest the fields diminished radically. At no time in history has a civilization had such a small portion of its population working in agriculture. It was the industrialization of agriculture along with the introduction of electrical power that essentially completed the Industrial Revolution and paved the way for a new technical regime.


The Industrial Revolution enhanced the productivity of the worker several-fold, but in this new age, which Mumford calls the “neotechnic,” machines begin to displace the worker. Industrial agriculture displaced the worker from the farm and led to a mass influx of workers into the city, where factory jobs were abundant. Then, however, automation began to displace the worker from the factory. There was actually a good deal of excitement about this for a while. With machines taking over the work of human labor, it would liberate humanity to pursue other goals.


However, what replaced productive work was not leisure but service work. The new factories were not those that produced car parts and electronics, but burgers and fries. The old factories were shipped overseas. Interestingly, they often became more low-tech in their new countries that they had been originally because the lower cost of labor meant fixed capital was at a premium, where before it was labor that was at a premium. Today, factory production is spread throughout the world, with parts of the same products are produced in different factories in different countries before finally being sold as finished products. The modularity of the process means that production occurs wherever is most convenient for capital and can change on a dime.


Miniaturization is the paradigm of the neotechnic phase. The computer is the greatest exemplification of this. There was a time when a whole office building would have one computer. Today, not only do offices typically have a personal computer for every worker, but the same person might have a laptop, a tablet, and a smartphone as well. We live in an era where the distinction between different electronics is dissolving into a myriad of different screens of different sizes with similar computing capacity. Information storage capacity doubles every couple years.


Technology under this regime becomes more a matter of facilitating the production and transfer of information. Before the internet, this was done primarily through paper, flow in and out of offices and delivered across the globe through an international postal service. In the digital age, information can travel nearly instantaneously across the globe. Every computer, server, satellite, and cell tower is so much infrastructure by which this global web of information that is never simply located in any one node.


This decentralized network should in principle be more amenable to decentralized organizational structures, but in this new era, information has been yet another commons for capital to colonize. Capital seeks to monopolize the infrastructure of this vast network, buying up competitors and their patents to extract rents from them through intellectual property. In the age of social media, users themselves become free sources of information to be sold for profit.


Intellectual property was first developed as a way to facilitate trading of information between firms. Guilds operated through the use of trade secrets, which members swore solemn oaths to protect. This kind of disciplined loyalty could not be counted upon by early capitalists operating outside the guild system with hired wage laborers working under them; such workers were loyal only to their paycheck, which would just as soon get from another employer looking for a competitive advantage. A firm copying the technology of another enjoys its benefits without the cost of developing it. Patents and copyrights allowed a firm to make a profit off the use of their technology and information by charging a fee for their use.


Such claims required a vast legal apparatus to uphold, which in turn required the development of the bureaucratic nation-state. In the modern digital age, nation-states themselves operate as part of a vast network of nodes in which capital operates. States nominally have the sovereignty to determine their own laws and regulations regarding intellectual property and other aspects of this information economy. However, capital seeks standardization in these laws, which it achieves through international banking systems and free trade treaties. The free flow of capital and international enforcement of intellectual property rights constitute a global mandate for which countries can face harsh sanctions for violating.


Decentralization also happens in workplaces, with workers divided into teams and individuals often operating relatively independently within a firm. There is a creative dynamic between nodes in the network that produces all the innovation and value. Capital simply captures this value and sells it as its own. Firms themselves are bought up as vassals of larger conglomerates. The extraction of resources, the production of commodities, the development of technology, all take place in a vast global network ruled by a global rentier class.


Appropriate Technology

The socialist approach to technics has long been to intensify the technics of the capitalist order. The Soviet Union and China industrialized rapidly using the Taylorist and Fordist methods of the capitalist west. Marxist theory has often focused on unleashing the forces of production to accelerate the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Under this logic, a kind of state capitalism is practiced under the premise of accumulating surplus value for the worker’s state and bringing out the internal contradictions. The surplus value is used to fund an extensive welfare state similar to that of social democracies, but the need for growth and accumulation remains.


This is promissory socialism: the people are assured that the exploitation of their labor is done not to enrich the capitalist class but to build a socialist system in which the means of production will finally belong to them and they will no longer be alienated from their labor. A post-scarcity society is sought, in which machines will do the work for us, and the people will be free to pursue leisure and recreation. Yet all the while, the workers are subsumed into the same megamachine as those living under capitalist regimes. The machine breeds a sense of servility in the worker that is not alleviated in the least by declaring it the People’s Machine.


An alternative approach seeks to liberate work itself through a more liberatory approach to technology. This approach, known as appropriate technology, seeks to use technology to satisfy needs rather than promote accumulation of surpluses. Rather than seeking to maximize efficiency in producing as much as possible, it seeks to optimize the work process and final product for the community involved. It thereby seeks to reorient production away from the capitalist growth imperative and toward communal values that serve the common good. The result may appear relatively “low tech,” but it is not arbitrarily so: it simply places the good of the person at the center, and uses whatever tech is best suited to such purpose.

This involves a decentralized approach, in which technology makes optimal use of local materials, local energy sources, and local labor to produce goods and infrastructure for the local community. Trade and information networks are maintained, but rather than structuring the community to serve those networks, it adapts those networks to serve the community. Production serves the community first, and only then produces surpluses to be traded with others. It is the same global network, but the nodes are built up, rather than subsumed to the empire of capital.


Ivan Illich uses the term “conviviality” to describe a harmonious relationship with technology. Convivial technology is technology that enhances our creative powers rather than replace them. The problem with technology is we sought to make our slave, and in the process we became enslaved. We become free to the extent that we treat technology as a collaborative partner rather than a servant. Technology is convivial to the extent that it is accessible to everyone, that it requires little specialization to use, and that its use is directed by the user. Convivial technology tends to be small-scale, which is to say, human scale. It works with us, not for us.


Illich identifies fives ways in which technology can disrupt our lives. First is environmental, in which large-scale technology stresses the environment beyond its carrying capacity. Next is radical monopoly, in which a technology entrenches itself into society in such a way as to render itself a necessity. Then there is overprogramming, in which the technology lends itself to overspecialization and professionalization. Next is polarization, in which structures and institutions are built that include some and exclude others, creating dominator hierarchies between the haves and have-nots. Finally, there is planned obsolescence, creating a technological rift between past and present.


It is not that one can or should have a society that makes exclusive use of convivial technology. Some technologies simply do not lend themselves to such flexible, personal use, yet may still be useful enough to keep. Every society will have its own balance to create between convivial technology and what we may call “rigid” technology. The point is that such decisions should be made in a democratic manner that respects the whole of human life, rather than just the profit motive. We must awaken from the slumber of technocratic life that has taught us to value production, efficiency, and growth, and make wiser decisions about how we augment and experience human life.


The wise management of technology does not mean an end to technological progress. Innovation would go on as before, but the purposes to which innovation is dedicated would change. Our current trajectory yields innovation directed toward endless expansion, toward the creation of consumer wants, to planned obsolescence and the regimentation of life. A more humane trajectory, a path of innovation directed toward the realization of the good life, is possible. More than that, it is necessary. The alternative is annihilation.

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