article image
Cover Courtesy New Society Publishers
Why Technology Won't Save Us or the Environment

Techno-Fix (New Society Publishers, 2011) shows that negative unintended consequences of technology are inherently predictable and unavoidable, techno-optimism is completely unjustified, and modern technology, in the presence of continued economic growth, does not promote sustainability, but hastens collapse. The co-authors demonstrate that most technological solutions to social and technology-created problems are ineffective. They explore the reasons for the uncritical acceptance of new technologies, show who really controls the direction of technological change, and then advocate extensive reform.

There are few who are not impressed by the seemingly endless stream of technological innovations: computers, cell-phones, video cameras, the Internet and countless electronic devices. New technologies often have an immediate appeal, with attention being focused on short-term benefits while long-term negative consequences are not anticipated.

As Jerry Mander observes,

We are hypnotized by the newness of the machine, dazzled by its flash and impressed with its promise…. Compounding this problem is the fact that every technology presents itself in the best possible light. Each technology is invented for a purpose and it announces itself, as it were, in these terms. It arrives on the scene as a “friend”, promising to solve a problem…. What’s more, the new machines actually do what they promise to do, which leaves us feeling pleased and impressed. It is not until much later, after a technology has been around for a while — bringing with it other compatible technologies, altering economic arrangements and family and community life, affecting culture, and having unpredictable impact on the land — that societies both familiar and unfamiliar with the machine begin to realize that a Faustian bargain has been made.

As was pointed out earlier, it is inherently impossible to design new technologies that are guaranteed to never have negative effects of any kind (Chapter 1). Certain segments of the population will profit and other segments will not. Those who enjoy the benefits are likely to be techno-optimists. Unfortunately, the mass media exploit the public’s ignorance and the inherent fascination with novelty to promote the false view that there will be only positive effects both now and in the future. This is done by presenting the most positive aspects of a new technology while omitting to mention potential negative side effects. As Jerry Mander writes,

That our society would tend to view new technology favorably is understandable. The first waves of news concerning any technical innovation are invariably positive and optimistic. That’s because, in our society, the information is purveyed by those who stand to gain from our acceptance of it: corporations and their retainers in the government and scientific communities. None is motivated to report the negative sides of new technologies, so the public gets its first insights and expectations from sources that are clearly biased.

Why do the mass media exhibit such a positive bias toward new technologies? Before attempting to answer this question, we need to understand the function of mass media in industrialized societies. According to the model of propaganda developed by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, “The ‘societal purpose’ of the media is to inculcate and defend the economic, social, and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state.” The mass media are controlled by those who are able to pay for access to it. This situation is described by Edward Herman’s “power law of access” and the “inverse power law of truthfulness,” which can be summarized as the greater the economic and political power, the easier it is to gain access to the media and the more freedom is granted to tell complete lies. Information distributed by the mass media is often greatly biased because it has first to pass through a number of filters, such as inoffensiveness to influential owners of media conglomerates or to corporations that pay for the advertisements. Anything that even indirectly places media profits at risk has a very small chance of being broadcast. The result is that through careful selection of topics, framing of issues, filtering of information, special emphasis and tone, the public debate about controversial topics such as the introduction of new technologies is kept within the bounds of the prevailing paradigm: any technological innovation is “good” and its value is not open to question. As Herman and Chomsky conclude,

In sum, the mass media of the United States are effective and powerfulideological institutions that carry out a system-supportivepropaganda function by reliance on market forces, internalizedassumptions, and self-censorship, and without significant overtcoercion.

Corporations develop and market new technologies for a very simple reason: to increase their sales volumes and profit margins. Technological innovation is a proven way to increase a company’s market share and competitiveness, but only if the new products can be advertised heavily through the mass media. Since many corporations have large marketing budgets, they have easy access to the mass media by purchasing advertising space and time. Since the goal of all corporations is to increase profits, it is necessary to present new technologies only in the most favorable light. The negative side effects of technological innovations, even when known, are omitted or minimized. The mass media, therefore, convey an unrealistically positive view of new technologies because they are, to a large degree, controlled by the very corporations that stand to profit from them.

It would be a mistake, however, to hold corporations and the mass media entirely responsible for the rampant technological optimism in the United States. As Neil Postman observes in Technopoly, the belief that a new technology creates only positive effects is much more than a conspiracy of entrepreneurs and corporations against the public. It is, in fact, a deeply embedded cultural phenomenon:

In cultures that have a democratic ethos, relatively weak traditions, and a high receptivity to new technologies, everyone is  inclined to be enthusiastic about technological change, believing that its benefits will eventually spread evenly among the entire population. Especially in the United States, where the lust for what is new has no bounds, do we find this childlike conviction most widely held…. This naive optimism is exploited by entrepreneurs, who work hard to infuse the population with a unity of improbable hope, for they know it is economically unwise to reveal the price to be paid for technological change. One might say, then, that if there is a conspiracy of any kind, it is that of a culture conspiring against itself.

The Decline of Techno-Optimism  

In order to suppress anything that might threaten social cohesion or challenge the power structure, every society has taboos related to certain kinds of discourse and action. In modern industrialized societies, there is a strong taboo against challenging the faith in science and technology and their supposed contribution to “progress.” Any questioning of that faith is seen as heresy. Those who criticize new technologies are labeled “anti-progress” or, in more derogatory terms, “Luddites,” after the machine-smashers who opposed the mechanization of labor during the Industrial Revolution of 19th-century England. Indeed, the idea of “progress” is used to suppress criticism, to enforce passivity and to avoid debate about the introduction of new technologies. Criticism of technological and industrial development is often stifled by invoking the illusion of inevitability, the “you can’t turn back the clock” argument (see Chapter 10). As Jerry Mander observes,

The operating homilies remain the same: “You can’t stop progress”, “Once the genie is out of the bottle you cannot put it back”, “Technology is here to stay, so we have to find ways to use it better”. In reality, these are all rationalizations to cover up a culture-widepassivity; a failure to take a hard look at technology in all of its dimensions, or to draw the obvious conclusions from the evidence at hand.

In addition to “there is no turning back” arguments, technological developments are often promoted as value neutral. As will be discussed in Chapter 10, the myth of value-neutrality is employed to convince people that technological change occurs in an objective and rational way, thereby presenting it as inevitable and legitimate, and deflecting potential criticism. Finally, even if critical attitudes toward technological development are expressed, most dissenters have insufficient financial means to access the media. Individuals in our society generally lack the freedom of public speech, which is effectively reserved, as mentioned above, to those who can pay for it. The general public is, therefore, unlikely to hear about the potential negative aspects of new technologies, thereby promoting the impression that all technological change is good.

Despite the many ways in which criticism of technology is discouraged and even suppressed, there has nevertheless been a decline of faith in science and technology during the past century. The idea of progress being brought about by science and technology was dealt a number of severe blows, first by the technologically facilitated violence and destruction witnessed during World War I and World War II and later by the many serious environmental problems precipitated by synthetic organic chemicals, large-scale industrialization and the adoption of materialistic, resource-intensive lifestyles. As Thomas Parke Hughes describes in Changing Attitudes Toward American Technology,

The carnage of World War I and the well-publicized exploitationof technology brought a new ambiguity, the legacy of a century ofrarely qualified praise confronted by the obvious horrors of totalwar. It was further reinforced by the growing belief that technologywas not directed by benign providence or inexorable lawsof progress towards social objectives believed generally — andvaguely — desirable. The growing conviction that technology andprogress were not synonyms and that man needed to assume controlof, and make decisions about, the use of technology broughtless euphoric prophesies for the future.

The beginning of the environmental movement about half a century ago followed by the atrocities of another high-tech war in Vietnam engendered a highly critical attitude toward technology and the industrialized culture it reflected. As Kenneth Stunkel and Saliba Sarsar wrote in 1994,

The insight that all technological development is not a blessing has emerged in the past 30 years. Suddenly many technologies do not seem benign…. If one means by “progress” improving and dignifying the human condition, its identification with technological development has become problematic and ambiguous.

Similarly, Jerry Mander observes,

Technological society, during the past half-century, has demonstrably not achieved the benefits it advertised for itself. Peace, security, public and planetary health, sanity, happiness, fulfillment are arguably less close at hand than they ever were in the past.

Compared to religions that make grandiose promises that are inherently untestable, thereby protecting themselves against criticism and maintaining their authority and belief systems for thousands of years, the promises made by science and technology can be readily and objectively evaluated. In the early stages of scientific and technological development, when many promises were fulfilled or even exceeded, the countless negative consequences that later appeared have also been objectively quantified and to some extent publicized, thereby eroding somewhat the earlier optimistic belief in scientific and technological progress. As Jeremy Ravetz observes, “‘Losing faith’ is supposed to be a problem that afflicts the religious; but on reflection we see that belief in progress and science is also vulnerable in its own way.” Indeed, science and technology has come under increasing attack from various quarters: the environmental and counter-culture movements, anti-establishment intellectuals and religious fundamentalists.

These critics point to overwhelming evidence that advances in science and technology have caused not only many unintended negative and often irreversible consequences but also have not fulfilled the earlier promise of greater human happiness and well-being. As discussed in Chapter 2, the number of unintended consequences is large: environmental pollution, ecosystem destruction, species extinction, global climate change, human overpopulation, increased violence and destruction, as well as social and moral dysfunction, which result from the adoption of an overly materialistic lifestyle. As will be discussed in Chapter 9, despite rising material affluence in industrialized nations, people are not happier than before, indicating that much of the “progress” brought about by science and technology has been an utter failure in terms of human psychological well-being.

Georg Friedrich Juenger observed more than 50 years ago in The Failure of Technology that “progress is an optical illusion.” It is an illusionembraced with the fervor of a religious faith, and it is promoted andexploited by those who profit most from the development and distributionof technological innovations.

Clearly, a redefinition of progress is needed. Hopefully, our improved understanding of the limitations of science and technology will result in a new paradigm of progress: progress will no longer be seen as the technological control and exploitation of nature and people for the benefit of the few with negative consequences for the many. Instead, progress will consist of increasing our awareness and understanding of how to adapt to our natural environment and live within its limits, and how to improve our well-being and happiness in non-materialistic ways. This paradigm shift and its implications for our lifestyle choices as well as for the practice of science and technology will be discussed in more detail in Part III.

Reprinted with permission from Techno-Fixby Michael Huesemann and Joyce Huesemann and published by New Society Publishers, 2011.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.