21st century Technology debates & politics
The Luddites’ 200th anniversary comes at a timely moment, because, at the beginning of the 21st century, the consequences of the whole industrial capitalist path of development that began with the Industrial Revolution are becoming so severe that millions of people are coming to doubt its mythology of progress. From global warming, resource depletion and biodiversity extinction to epidemics of mental and stress-related illness, drug addiction and crime, these inevitable products of industrial society are becoming impossible to ignore. Now, as then, along with their benefits science and technology often empower the powerful and marginalise the weak, create unemployment, deskilling and dependency, destroy whole ways of life and communities based upon them and create massive environmental and health damage, generally to the most vulnerable.
Whilst many of the problems mentioned above are widely understood as being the result of our free-market/industrial society, the crucial role of science and technology within that system is often not well understood. What makes the Luddite revolt so important was that it highlighted the crucial importance of technology. As the great apologist for industrialism, Andrew Ure, wrote in 1835, ‘This invention …. confirms the great doctrine already propounded, that when capital enlists science in her service, the refractory hand of labour will always be taught docility.’ Because the Luddites so shockingly exposed this best-kept secret of industrial capitalism they have been subjected to the harshest ridicule, and have been painted not just as another bunch of upstart troublemakers, but as idiotic opponents of progress, people who ‘want to go back to the stone-age’. Yet capital intensification, ie. the displacement of labour by capital (machines) relentlessly continues to create unemployment. In the 21st century, through digital technology, it is set to create major social and economic problems.
In celebrating the Luddites’ anniversary, therefore, we are trying to shine a spotlight on technology itself. But of course, what the Luddites were facing was not merely new machines but a whole new political and socio-economic regime built around them, the Industrial Revolution. The key political elements were free market economics and a ban on trade unions. As the writer Kirkpatrick Sale puts it, the Luddites were rebelling not against machines, but against ‘The Machine’. Likewise, today, when people say they are ‘a slave to their computer’, they do not mean it literally: of course, they know they can turn the machine off, but what they are pointing to is the way in which computers have facilitated a whole regime of working, a speed of response and a set of standards and expectations of personal performance. These are demanded as part of a whole social regime that is very hard to resist of evade. In talking about the politics of technology we are not trying to demonise or blame inanimate objects: rather, we need to ask what values and interests technology embodies, what kind of world does it imply, what systems does it fit into and stabilise?
Since the Industrial Revolution, the idea that controlling nature through technology automatically produces progress has become so widely accepted that it has become unconscious, a kind of common sense that is rarely questioned. Liberals of all shades and socialists (especially Marxists) have made that dogma central to their entire philosophy. The left has also often abandoned its traditions of critical thinking and acquiesced in the liberal myth that science and technology are somehow neutral, and free of the effects of social power interests. As a result it is often difficult to have a balanced and informed debate about policy issues. Yet despite the apparent consensus, or perhaps because the consensus is so rigid, there is still great unease about new technologies and this sometimes results in a powerful backlash against new technologies, as for example in the cases of food irradiation and genetic engineering.
One of the worst aspects of the mythology of neutral and inherently progressive science and technology is the development of a technocratic class and general ideology, that sees science as the solution to all social problems. The problem with this is that technocrats tend to describe and frame social problems so that they may be solved through technology. Thus, for example, hunger caused by poverty due to unjust societies and economic policies is seen as due to a lack of food, caused by low crop yields: the solution is therefore genetic engineering of crop plants. Likewise, depression and other mental ‘illness’ becomes a biological problem in individual brains, to be treated with drugs, rather than a symptom of oppression and the social conditions created by industrial capitalism. In general, technocratic solutions involve the creation of a new product which can be sold by corporations. The result of this technocratic mindset is a distortion of policy and an avoidance of difficult social issues. But inevitably, the solution generates its own problem, since it does not address the real causes of the original problem, and so another generation of technofixes, such as ‘carbon capture’, or ‘ geoengineering’ is proposed. This ongoing process is called progress.
However, even the most cursory inspection reveals that technology is anything but ‘neutral’ and it is anything but inevitable which technologies end up in widespread use. In fact, technologies are extensively socially shaped, especially by those who develop them, and since the developers are generally corporate or military, technologies tend to primarily serve their interests, even though people always find ways to turn technology to their own purposes, e.g. in the use of the internet to enable the recent revolutions in the Arab world. Another way of saying this is that power relations are embedded in all technologies, yet they are hidden by a façade of neutrality. In their turn, technologies create far reaching changes in society, generally in ways that suit the interests of the developers. In this way, the central process in the development of our societies, the process of capitalist modernisation, escapes democratic control and becomes the preserve of technocratic elites.
This repeatedly sets up a situation in which these elites then try to impose the new technologies on society. Most of the time, however, ordinary people tend to accept the ‘inevitability’ of technological change and the social upheaval and degradation of old values and ways of life that it causes: as the sign above the 1933 Chicago World Fair proudly proclaimed ‘Science Discovers, Technology Executes, Man Conforms’. Because the technocrats are taking the initiative they put their critics in the position of having to defend existing arrangements, and can therefore always portray themselves as progressive, and their opponents as ‘backwards-looking’ and “reactionary”. But as one of the Luddite songs says, ‘that foul Imposition alone was the cause, which produced these unhappy effects’. Likewise, a very strong element in the opposition of the British public to GM foods was indignation that corporations such as Monsanto were introducing these new foods without ever having consulted the public about it.
How do we judge technologies?
As we noted above technologies need to be looked at in terms of the way that they work in concert with social forces. However, there are some basic criteria that relates specifically to technology itself. One general question to ask about a technology is, ‘who is in charge, the person or the machine?’. Writers such as Ivan Illich argue that most modern technology is so powerful that it forces us to conform to its way of doing things, rather than being a tool that we can flexibly use according to our own needs. Of course, this was exactly what the Luddites were facing in the steam powered machines of the Industrial Revolution. As John Kay, the inventor of the flying shuttle put it, bluntly: “Whilst the engine runs the people must work – men, women and children are yoked together with iron and steam. The animal machine – breakable in the best case, subject to a thousand sources of suffering – is chained fast to the iron machine, which knows no suffering and weariness.
One way of thinking about the politics of technology is to ask: what does the Luddite phrase ‘hurtful to Commonality’ mean now? Commonality means the common good, but it also refers specifically to The Enclosures, which had displaced many agricultural labourers and rural artisans, creating the new proletariat of workers denied access to the land and the means of subsistence and wholly dependent on wages for survival. In 1812, the year of the Luddite revolt, Parliament passed 133 Enclosure Bills. ‘Commonality’, for the Luddites invoked the whole rural social world of mutual aid and sharing based on access to the common land that was being destroyed by the Enclosures. Based on that criterion, technologies are bad if they increase our dependence on the market, and reduce the ability of local communities to be self reliant.
In the 21st century although capital intensification and the displacement of labour which led to the Luddite uprisings continue to be a key issue, the politics of technology has expanded to include many other concerns. The table below gives a far-from-complete list of such issues.