Sunday, March 13, 2011

It Bears Repeating

Much as I hate to repeat myself, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to, shall we say, augment my post of a couple weeks ago concerning our "smarter" planet. Once again, the impetus for this post was a commercial, which might seem a bit trivial; but then, what are commercials if not barometers of cultural desire? Commercials show us what we want, or at least what we think we want, and the fact that so many of them show us thinking we want technological solutions to planetary problems suggests something significant about where we are today.

Enough preamble. The commercial of which I speak was, I think, for GE, and its slogan, after showing lots of people (doctors, salespeople, nuclear plant workers) dancing in some ungodly, earth-spanning conga line, was this: "Technology that makes the world work." My response was: here we go again.

Let's look at this in two possible ways. By "makes the world work," the commercial might be suggesting that technology gives people jobs. (That's the standard corporate and government line, even when they're pushing supposedly "green" technologies: they'll put people to work.) But "makes the world work" could also mean "makes the world function." That is, in the absence of technology, the world would break down, fall to pieces, and ultimately, I guess, cease to exist.

Both of these suggestions are nonsensical. Yes, in a technological society, technology does provide for employment--but it also provides for unemployment. Just ask anyone who's lost a job to a machine whether technology "made them work." My grocery store has trimmed the number of cashiers drastically by installing automated scanners; every time I try to reach someone on the telephone to complain about the breakdown of some piece of technology I purchased, I have to punch fifty-seven keys into the automated system then wait an hour to talk to the one living human being still employed by the company. Unemployment in the U.S. still stands at a whopping 10% (and remember, that figure doesn't include those no longer looking for work, those who are underemployed, or those who are employed in below-subsistence-level occupations). And the U.S. is a lot better off than much of the rest of the world. So much for technology as a panacea for joblessness.

Technology, it would be fairer to say, makes the work that is necessary to sustain itself. In its absence, the work taken up by technology would be taken up elsewhere.

But even more nonsensical is the suggestion that technology makes the world function. The world was functioning just fine before we came along, thank you. Rather, once again, it's a purely circular process: technology creates the conditions under which further technology can be called into action. So technology pollutes rivers and cleans them, sickens people and heals them, trashes the planet and tries to patch it up. If you can name one technology that has solved a problem technology created, I will grant that I'm being hyperbolic. But you can't. You can only name cases (such as the case of CFCs and ozone) in which the removal of an existing technology was necessary to begin to resolve the problem it had introduced.

I am not, in the end, a technophobe, a Luddite, a primitivist. Technologies have achieved some very nice things (such as enabling me to disseminate these words). But let's not kid ourselves about their capacities. Let's not forget that every time I fire up the blog, I expend energy (most of it produced by coal) that dirties the planet and sickens its inhabitants. Nor let us forget that when you read these computer-mediated words, you distance yourself, if only ever so slightly, from primary contact with the physical world.

If we must have technology, then so be it. But let's be prepared to deal with the consequences, and not imagine we can so transform the world through technology that it will, at long last, work.

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