What Technology Wants (From the Oppressed)
Norman Kelly’s What Technology Wants (2010) argues that technology is falsely understood as physical outgrowth of human ingenuity. Instead, says Kelly, technology is a living force that predates human innovation and is somewhat of a cosmic sibling also spawned from life. For Kelly, the technium (the term he uses to describe technology’s autonomous attributes) is capable of not only fulfilling human desires but also to desiderate on its own terms.
I took liberty here to push Kelly’s line of reasoning into a realm of thought regarding exploitation that some would find absurd. Nonetheless, if the technium sent an email to oppressed people, what would it say?
Dear Species So Enthralled with Selfies That You Are Willing to Destroy Thousands of Lives to Procure Precious Metals and Millions More Through Narcissism and Snark:
- The technium wants oppressed people to understand that I prey on resources; I will aid in ‘progress’ as you call it but by my nature I must exploit the weaker. This is not personal though you may believe so. The technium needs resources to expand and simply follows “the path of least resistance” as you would put it. The rationale is a bit more complex but this simple heuristic will do. It’s not about you. It’s about me and my cronies.
- The technium wants oppressed people to understand that although it is used by the powerful, it also uses the powerful. The powerful claim that their particular genius and their scientific superiority is why they command wealth. This falsity is accepted as truth by both the strong and the weak. You should understand that the sole basis of power is consent. Is this not evidenced in how your cultures so willingly accept prevailing doctrines of wealth? In how you so willingly adopt every new innovation I deliver while accepting the loss of your own autonomy, resources, and sense of humanity in the process? The technium does not think of money as wealth but rather the ability to survive, to evolve, and to expand. While most humans, particularly the powerful, have signified money alone as a measure of these traits, technology wants more of the following: efficiency, opportunity, emergence, complexity, diversity, specialization, ubiquity, freedom, mutualism, beauty, sentience, structure, and evolvability. (270) Both the oppressed and the powerful base their faith in monetary instruments to achieve freedom. However, all living things that use me–including human beings–are my currency because they consent to allow my influence to reign. In this way, you can think of your powerful as larger denominations ($100) that I use to purchase my will as they help me to constitute the masses of lesser units ($1s, $5s, $10s) and the billions of pennies. Neither powerful nor weak have any inherent value to me beyond the ability for coordinate my will–to be my tools even as they use me.
- The technium wants oppressed people to listen to the insight of Max More’s philosophy but without abandoning the psycho-social inquiries of W.E.B. Du Bois. As Amilcar Cabral wrote: “…however fine and attractive the reality of others may be — can only be transformed by detailed knowledge of it, by our own efforts, by our own sacrifices.”
P.S. Stop wasting so much time on twitter.
In Networks of Power (1993), using the example of electric power systems introduced during World War I, the late Thomas P. Hughes (1923-3014) argues that war drove technological development in the United States, Britain, and Germany by removing political and cultural obstacles prerequisite for technological change. If this statement is true, what does this tell us about the pace of development in colonies of these metropoles?
War is a powerful prerequisite for technological momentum. Assuming all other things being equal, non-aggressive or non-agressed entities would experience a lack of technological development because they had not sufficiently removed cultural barriers to technological innovation that the emergency of war so often provide for Western societies.
The roles of international activists like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois included an important but often understated indictment of the technological imperative. Black anti-colonial challenges to imperial ventures (driven by technological competition) were perceived as contrary to progress because they exposed inconsistencies in the convoluted development of ideas of racial superiority, economic exploitation, and technological hegemony. To stand in defense of the underdeveloped nations of the world, even on the premise of cultural ideals of racial equality and self-determinism, was to hold back the progress of the developed nations in the march of history throughout the world. Du Bois and Robeson both provide critical examples of why this rationale was problematic but also anti-democratic. New works by scholars like Mhoze Chikowero (2007) revisit and reinterpret theoretical frameworks echoed in Du Bois, Padmore, Nzikiwie and Rodney in specific regional contexts. Additionally, Ronen Shamir’s Current Flow: The Electrification of Palestine (2013) examines how electrification (re)produced economic, social, and political inequalities among Jews and Arabs along such lines in Palestine. Electrification is not only about the physical infrastructure of power supply but is also about power relations in the ability of technological change to transform culture, landscapes, and interactions between people. More pointedly, Shamir argues electrification can and does “make politics” when one dominant group uses “power” (pun intended) to further consolidate their control (p.5).
Paradoxically, it was following World War II that the employment of new technology and communications developed a international coalition of international black anti-colonial discourse. Penny M. Von Eschen discusses such developments in her work, Race Against Empire. Traditionally we think of this work as exclusive to political developments but read through technological lenses we can see how anti-colonial projects were framing the discourse of modernization and the hegemony of the assumed objectivity of technological superiority (p.152,157-8).
Laurenson provides some important points to consider as we hail technology without seriously engaging its manifold cultural impacts.
We have defined technology as many things, perhaps most generally as: the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. Is socioeconomic inequality a practical purpose? If so, why in fact have generations of our brightest engineers failed so marvelously to eliminate the scourge of social injustice and to vanquish racial prejudice?
How one answers this question depends on how one defines technology and its purpose but also how one defines the evolution of human history. If human history is perceived as linear and progressive, as technologists often assume, it is natural to understand the role of technology as factoring into greater advancement of human ideals. However, if one sees change over time as erratic, irrational, and intractable, one would see technology much more as an expression of human angst than a vehicle of humanity’s salvation.
Regardless of one’s view, technologists have often failed to account for how technology can equally be a force that generates disparate outcomes and reifies existing social hierarchies. It appears that for every disruptive technology, there are three hegemonic innovations. Humankind is much more a captive of convention than an engine of revolution.
These tendencies beg the question of whether technology is universally practical at all. The uses to which the powerful employ innovation are often contrary to the most practical and rudimentary of human needs. Technological innovation defines practical by vicariously transforming the demands of the powerful to overshadow the longings of the weak. In education and application, technology often urges us to redefine not only what is possible but also what is meaningful.
In John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon (2010), John M. Logsdon has shown us how the Kennedy Administration used the Apollo 11 program as a weapon in the diplomatic arsenal of foreign policy. Documenting skillful planning and focused willpower, Logdson illustrates Kennedy’s plan to outmaneuver the USSR and land the first man on the moon. Though not the subject of his book, the extensions of Logsdon’s key arguments are also relevant to several unlikely assumptions about technology and its relationship to race and policy.
- Technological development does not exist outside of the human element. Technological innovation is in itself a material document of the dynamics of power. As Logsdon illustrates here between and within nation-states but these interaction can also be interracial and crosscultural. Unconvinced? Consider Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
- The most effective policy is often designed with a clear adversary in mind. The Cold War laser-like focus on the Soviets provided the basis not only for Apollo 11 but also for reconfiguration of public education (Sputnik), expansion of nuclear arsenal and defense-spending (Reagan). Unfortunately, attempts to address racial inequality using such clearly defined and rigorously applied policy measures have never been attempted. Technology policy worked effectively against the Soviets because they were ‘the other.’ Developing a new domestic race policy with a technological education component will likely not be as effective because it lacks these characteristics. The unique relationship blacks have to and within the United States relegates them to a policy limbo.
- Technology develops and operates within a cultural discourse and its aspirations often reflect and affirm prevailing social norms, hierarchies, and ideals. In Kennedy’s case this was a particular vision of Western democrary and military supremacy. If we were to consider this in the context of STEM education policy today we would see an implicit affirmation that a technologist’s primary concerns should be market-driven and not tied to addressing social inequalities.
What can we draw from these observations? It will be easier to colonize the moon using cold fusion in partnership with Russia and Ukraine than to improve failing schools in Detroit, Atlanta, and Chicago.
Things that make you think.