Doomed by Technology or Promise of a Bright Future?
It is increasingly clear to many that we must build a movement to put political power in the hands of humanity and take it away from corporations. Knowing that the shape of our future depends on how we form our movement now, we consider here the role of technology in shaping our lives, its potential, and our ideas and understanding about technology.
The way to use technology differently is to understand it differently. We’re taught to think of technology as the stuff, the gadgets that increasingly dominate our lives, but that doesn’t serve us very well. Just as the old saying goes, “can’t see the forest for the trees,” we can’t understand something just by looking at examples. We must pull the camera back to get a larger view.
Suppose instead that technology is the totality of our understanding of the world, and how we apply that to our lives. This changes everything; we are no longer doomed to be ruled by robots or blow ourselves up; we can now see what technology really offers us. It means that productivity (how much we can produce with a given person-hour of labor) is much broader than just robotic automation. Technology in that broader definition has allowed us to achieve the potential of an absolute abundance for the first time in human history.
Abundance, the ability to satisfy the basic living needs of all humans, lays the foundation for a human future without hunger or want, without rank, oppression or war. Yes, we could destroy ourselves, we’ve reached that point of power, but there’s nothing that says we have to.
Technology (Greek techno “art, skill, method” + logy “to speak of”) offers us choices; do we use our knowledge of atomic decay and the energy of atoms to create bombs, to see inside solid objects, or to track the age of ancient objects? We are not commanded to any of these by the knowledge itself, but by the necessities of the social system and its dominant, or ruling class. The atomic bomb was not created for the greater good of humanity; it was made and dropped for political purposes having little to do with Japan or military strategy, and more to do with the Soviet Union and China as threats to global corporate expansion.
Once We are Free of Capitalism
Once free of the laws of the market system, we can make choices based on what’s best for the continued development of humanity, which in the larger sense means rebuilding and maintaining the dynamic balance of conditions that are the natural foundation for our lives. We need no longer be dominated by the corporate market version of abundance — endless marketing to create incessant desire for instantly obsolete commodities. We don’t have to automate everything, and we don’t have to create systems that can “Terminator” us. Again, we will have choices. We don’t have to become sedentary dolts for whom all is delivered without human effort, but we will have to choose to use physical, mental, and emotional effort.
While it makes great sense to continue automating manufacture of electric motors, or vehicles, or many other kinds of everyday machinery and processes, it would be dangerous to eliminate human involvement in creation of the things we use. It’s to our advantage to use computers where precision and speed beyond human capability is essential, and where conditions are dangerous for humans, but we’ll want to maintain our ability to override them and shut them off, and to decide their purpose.
With this in mind, there are many areas in which we will find it important to rely on human “touch.” In healthcare, for instance, it’s increasingly documented that human relations and even touch play a vital role in healing. Capitalist healthcare constantly seeks to reduce and eliminate human contact in both quality and quantity, for the same reasons it seeks to reduce human labor elsewhere. It evaluates medicines and procedures based on their profitability. It looks at humans without acknowledging that we are still the same species that walked the plains of Africa 100,000 years ago, living then and now in a complex, intertwined relationship with the natural world.
This dehumanizes and de-professionalizes the entire field, making it impossible to evaluate the validity of various technologies. Ancient herbal medicine is used by a modern, clinically trained practitioner to rid a patient of two debilitating, parasitic diseases after doctors at UC San Francisco Medical Center pronounced him “incurable.” Nurses once studied therapeutic massage as part of their training, and considered it part of their calling to use that in their work with patients. In Cuba, doctors live in the community they serve, know every family and its household, and make house calls. Health is the total functioning of a person in his or her environment. The highest technology in healing is and will be human knowledge and care, aided by tools both “old” and “new.”
Food production is another area for transformation. No one debates that we must grow food on a massive scale to sustain humanity, but we can’t go on as we are. Corporate agribusiness toxifies and depletes soils and oceans, de-nutrifies food, produces drugresistant pathogens, and wastes astonishing amounts of food, water and energy. As with medicine, the capitalist scale of food value is based on “added value” — the more they do to it, the more profitable it becomes.
Contrary to agribusiness doctrine, we are learning that petrochemical-based, monoculture farming is destructive, and that farms utilizing sustainable, organic, polyculture techniques are not only more productive in the long run, but create more true nutritional value as they continually build and rebuild the soil. (See The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan) The capitalist fantasy of getting any food anytime, grown with petrochemical fertilizers and poisons, from anywhere in the world, is just that; a fantasy to guarantee we stay tied to them through our emotions, taste buds and stomachs. They are destroying humanity with the implications of that fantasy.
Does this mean going back to some idealized, olden-day version of farming? Not at all; we are already seeing new forms of farming, carried out by families and communities instead of “corporate persons.” It takes more people to farm well. They integrate and communicate with each other on a cooperative basis more and more, they are more connected with urban life than ever before, and they use electronic technology integrally with the natural biology of cultivating food. The only thing old-fashioned is that farming is once again becoming a life of real people, close to the soil and seasons, good-natured and respectful of life, as life should be.
There is nothing to say that this type of agriculture can’t be done on a nationally, even globally networked basis. How best to do that is for farmers, their communities, their regions, and on up to work out, in collaboration with the best science we can muster. That, in turn, speaks to what a new kind of government might be like; wouldn’t the government we need be an integrated network of groupings related to a particular field, including farmers, biologists, zoologists, ecologists, geologists, meteorologists, marine scientists, nutritionists, health practitioners and food distributors, plus others we don’t know of yet?
Frightening Questions Before Us
Is it good to use devices, yet know nothing about their source and process of manufacture? Is it good to know how to operate a calculator, but be unable to do math? Is it good to eat food and have no idea where it comes from or how to grow it, and to have no sense that we take life to sustain ourselves? What happens to a society whose citizens understand nothing of the technologies pervading their lives?
Capitalism drives us in that direction because it has use for us only as workers and consumers; they educate us narrowly to work and consume for them, and only for that purpose. It has no use for our development as citizens of a whole society. Fully developed citizens are dangerous to a ruling class. Fully developed citizens know something about every aspect of life, and a lot about the things that interest them most.
These questions also reach over to philosophy and education. Food is an important connection to the natural world; life lives off of life, and most of what we eat was once alive. Is there a connection between health and survival, and respect for life? How are destruction of exchange value (the core value of the market system), devaluing of life (a commodity under capitalism), destruction of our environment, and the capitalist approach to food production manifested in each person’s life?
What do our children need to understand about their world? Hundreds of students were asked where “chicken” comes from. Most answered “from the store”; many said “from KFC.” Many didn’t know that it had been a living being.
Our answers to these questions, and our process of answering them, re-shapes how we think about the world and in turn gives form to our movement. In this way, we see the new world we’re fighting for and understand why it’s worth fighting for.
When we shift discussion from “what will technology do to us at the hands of corporations?” to “how to use technology to meet the needs of humanity living in connection with the world?” we are saying that we will do something different with it when we have political power. This is how we take the political offensive.
May/June 2013. Vol23.Ed3
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011