Will technology save us from collapse?

Progress Namibia - Will technology save us from collapse?
14 January 2019

"There are no limits to growth because there are no limits to human innovation."

I am sure you have all heard this statement in a variety of forms before. The underlying assumption of this statement is that, no matter what happens, technology can, and will, save us. There are a few assumptios that I will speak to in this Weekly today. All of them are part of the top assumptions Dana Meadows relayed are made by society that keep getting us into trouble. I share them here below:

  1. Technology can solve any problem that comes up. There is no cost to technology, no delay in attaining it, and no confusion about what kind of technology is needed. Improvements will come with better technology, not better humanity.
  2. The future is to be predicted, not chosen or created. It happens to us, we do not shape it.
  3. People are basically bad, greedy and not to be trusted. Good people and good actions are rare exceptions.
  4. We know what we are doing.
Technologies are usually declared as 'neutral', no matter the inherent biases in their shaping and development. The markets decide what kind of technologies are created. They inform technological development. These are dictated solely by profit: investors put their money in technologies that, in their opinion, could scale up and have good returns on investment. Making the world a better place does not form part of that equation. We need to remember to ask ourselves the question, who and what does technology currently serve? Technology thus does not serve better humanity, it serves (mostly) to make money for shareholders.

We thus end up with digital futures as something to be 'predicted'. The future of technology has become less a thing we create through our present-day choices for humankind and more a predestined scenario we bet on with our venture capital and arrive at passively. This has freed us from the moral implications of our activities. And as a result, technological development has largely become less a story of collective flourishing than driving corporate profit. No one asks or deals with the moral predicament associated with unbridled technological development in the name of corporate capitalism.

Most of us have seen the downsides of this - the rise of automated jobs, the gig economy, and the demise of local retail.

But nowhere is this full throttle digital capitalism more negatively impactful than on the environment and the global poor. I wrote an article the other day about the development of mobile phones and their use of slave labour, unsustainable and highly suspect mining of rare metals, the list goes on (never mind the inbuilt redundancy forcing you to permanently buy new). Even the Fairphone, which I spoke about in that article, learned it was near impossible in our current system to build a truly fair, sustainable phone.

And we have no idea what went in to creating the technology, nor of its impact on us, on our fellow humans, or on our life support systems (i.e. the environment). This out-of-sight, out-of-mind externalisation of poverty and environmental damage does not go away just because we immerse ourselves in an alternate reality like video games and media content. The longer we ignore the social, economic and environmental repercussions, the more the problem starts knocking at our door. This becomes a cycle then as it encourages us to further withdraw, isolate ourselves and enhance our own paranoia about impending doom that we "cannot control". And thus more desperate and distracting technologies are developed.

Digital platforms have not created a better world. Instead, they have turned an already exploitative and extractive market place into an even more dehumanizing process. The more committed we are, in turn, to the view of the 'demise world', the more we come to see humans as the problem and technology as the solution. Any bad behaviours of technology are just a reflection of our bad selves. Our bad sides are stronger than our good. So we applaud things like billionaire tech giants launching electric cars into space, as if it symbolizes more than just one rich man's capacity to promote his own corporate interests. I am citing this and many ideas of this piece from a really interesting and well-written article written last year where the author wrote about being invited to advise a table of the richest men in the world about how to use their money to develop technology to insulate themselves from impending doom. Their key question was around how they could deal with their security staff (who would be employed to stop the masses from breaking into their underground bunkers) not turning on them when money was rendered useless. When asked why they did not instead invest their immense wealth into technology for a better world to avoid the collapse, they found that to be too optimistic and utopic. They believed for all their wealth and power, they could not affect the future.

I agree with the author that we are a conscious collective who have the power to make a change. We may not be the ones who have the funding to disown our own humanity and isolate ourselves or try and build some sub-optimal world somewhere else. And therefore, we do not have to develop and use technology in such antisocial and degrading ways. As he says, we can either become the individual consumers and profiles our devices and platforms want us to be, or we can remember that we have the power and that the truly evolved human does not go it alone - we are in this together. Whatever future humans have, it will be together. And we have the power to shape our role towards this future.

So, in short, technology can save us. But will it? Right now, no. But we can choose to change that, can't we? After all, we are the ones who build it, and use it.

[Image Source (quote added based on Dana's Meadows assumptions by humanity): https://www.redletterchristians.org/root-humanity-messy-recalcitrant-lives-better-robots-drones-human-replacing-technologies/]