Saturday, March 10, 2012

Technology is rarely neutral

This is a sad hoax, for industrial man no longer eats potatoes made from solar energy; now he eats potatoes partly made of oil. 
(Howard T. Odum, Environment, Power, and Society, 1971)

The Greeks knew the power of steam and built the first steam engine as a plaything; they even knew the principle behind electricity. Water toilets were developed in Egypt some 5000 years ago and were used by the Romans, but it took thousands of years before they came into common use. The wheel was known in Latin America, but was not used productively before Columbus. The first faxes were developed in the nineteenth century but it took another 100 years for them to become common.[1] Fuel cells, which are seen as technology for the future, have been around for more than 150 years, but never reached the stage of a technological breakthrough. The first steam engines in Sweden stood idle, collecting dust, mainly because they were not profitable and partly because there were no competent operators (Hård and Jamison 2005), a situation similar to that of a lot of technologies that are, mistakenly, introduced in developing countries today. All these examples show clearly that the existence or the knowledge of a technology doesn’t mean it will be used. 

Many reasons exist for why a technology is or is not used. The word technology comes from Greek techne, meaning ‘art’, and we know that a lot of technology was (and still is) used for pleasure, for the demonstration of power or for religion. Realms with a large population and a small elite whose wealth is based on extortion of the masses most likely developed very few productive innovations, the majority being developed to amuse and entertain the rulers. Therefore, technological development was very slow in the big agrarian empires.

War and conflict have been forceful drivers of innovation, comprising examples of the importance of government-supported innovation. The Egyptians knew of the wheel, yet their slaves used sledges to pull boulders for the pyramids. But the use of the wheel rapidly spread in its military application in the form of the chariot. One can also compare the spread of the saddle and the spur with the spread of the harness. The saddle and the spur were of critical military importance and gave a marked advantage to the armies using them, so they spread rapidly. The harness was mainly used for draught animals in farming and spread across the world very slowly (Lönnroth 1977). Modern examples of innovations with a military origin are pasteurization, the Internet and antibiotics. Communications is another area in which innovation was (and still is) very strong. Innovations in shipbuilding or navigation played a major role in determining which people would rule. The supple Viking ships could reach into narrow fjords and rivers and were key to the Viking expansion; later the cogs of the Hanseatic League took over, owing to greater capacity (Lönnroth 1977). Thus, societies that developed quicker or safer means of communication or those of higher capacity had a marked advantage over others. 

The Chinese emperors were sceptical to technological development as it threatened stability. The Japanese are another example. Japan first came in contact with guns in the sixteenth century. In the early seventeenth century, it produced more and better guns than any other country in the world. However, the samurai, the military nobility, felt threatened by this foreign invention and gradually managed to curb production and licensing. Ultimately production ceased altogether, and resumed only when the first American warships appeared in Japanese waters in 1853 (Diamond 1997). In France, the scythe was not allowed to replace the sickle for a long time because there were communal rights to graze cattle on stubble, the value of which would be lost if a scythe were used (Boserup 2005). 

Technology is not neutral. It serves the interest of the social group that develops it. With its symbolic power it supports the legitimizing ideology of society and the worldview it represents. Think of the steam engine or the space ship not to speak of the atomic bomb. Schiermeier et al. write that nuclear energy has ‘benefited from decades of expensive research, development and purchases subsidized by governments; without that boost it is hard to imagine that nuclear power would currently be in use’ (2008: 18). Technology has also enabled development of the modern city and the relative independence of its hinterland. The early cities were, with a few exceptions, built on the relationship with the surrounding agrarian landscape. A lot of production occurred in the farms and the economy of the city and its hinterland was interwoven. With the Industrial Revolution, the transport revolution and capitalism, cities could free themselves from ties to their hinterland for raw materials, labour and markets. Thus, workers in Manchester spun cotton from the United States, picked by African slaves, and sold the fabrics in India.  

Technology also creates or cements power relationships and patterns of exploitation in various ways. Mostly, technological developments lead to suppliers of raw materials getting a rough deal compared to those who use the products of a certain technology. This is the basis for accumulation of capital, for profit, in industrial processes where ‘raw materials + work + cost of production’ has a lower value than the product resulting from these inputs. The same holds true in international trade or in the international division of labour. Alf Hornborg (2009) goes as far as stating that technology in a fundamental way is about such price relationships and a tool for exploitation; there is no technological rationality separate from issues of distribution.

[1]            To soon be forgotten again. Young readers will probably have to look up ‘fax’ in Wikipedia to check what it is.

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