The Case for Technorealism
We cannot navigate towards a sustainable future without tech
Last week I interviewed activist and author, Max Wilbert, about Bright Green Lies: how the mainstream environmental movement has been coopted by capitalism, the extent of the movement’s greenwashing, the bid to continue business as usual (swapping out cars for electric vehicles), and how the real solution is, of course, systemic change.
Towards the end of the episode Max discusses technology:
“Technology is not just a computer. It's not just a smartphone, it's not just an electric car. Technology includes our stories, our culture, our way of being, the way that we transmit information to children, into the next generation. And in that sense many different cultures around the world have developed, throughout human history, this incredible technology of sustainability…
We're smart, we have these opposable thumbs, we have these big brains, these social tools to communicate and work together in groups. And those powers allow us to do terrible things, and sometimes they even allow us to deceive ourselves into thinking those terrible things are wonderful things. So when we can reign ourselves in and master ourselves, that to me is the true height of sort of humanity embodying its potential.
It's not a nuclear reactor. It's not a man on the moon. It's human beings over generations passing down information to one another and living in such a way that they create a paradise for future generations. That is the most sophisticated and important technology that human beings have ever developed and can ever develop.”
What is technology and why is it useful?
One branch of the environmental movement is techno-optimism, that everything will work out fine because we will simply figure out what to do: technology will save us. It must save us.
Obviously this doesn't combat the problem of having finite resources on a finite planet. In order for this to be true, technology will have to become sustainable in and of itself. Even this future of certainty and faith in mankind’s technological prowess demands a paradigm shift, that we make things to fulfil the very purpose of sustainability, not for the purpose of substitutability.
Such technology is viable. The problem is the economic framework of for-profit models which demand technology quickly become redundant not in the name of progress but in the hunt for capital.
Another branch of the environmental movement is techno-pessimism—that our relationship with technology is part of the very problem driving the climate crisis; humankind’s alienation from nature and, “therefore”, sustainability is evident in our reliance on technology.
Let’s get techno-realistic.
The problem is the system within which technology exists, not technology itself. Humankind’s evolution is largely down to our symbiotic relationship with technology, the first of which was fire. Had we never discovered fire and learned to live and work with fire, to use it, civilisation would not be what it is today. And for all the pessimism about human civilisation, that it is a scourge on the planet, to disavow the incredible achievements of humankind because we are still in the very early stages of error correction is to misidentify the problem: judgement. Without technology, without civilisation, we wouldn't have art, literature, travel, education, the knowledge which can be transmitted through generations. We wouldn’t be able to help future generations without technology, even if now we are trying to help them with the problems we have created. It would be foolish to reject the very thing which allows us to reach both into the future and the past. The world of tomorrow requires progress, not regress.
The dictionary definition of technology is: the application of scientific knowledge to the practical aims of human life.
If the aim of human life is to ameliorate the human condition for everybody and every living thing, and to live sustainably, then technology will be the very thing that we need to figure this out. To reject technology would be to say we simply cannot feed 8 billion people, for example, and allow all but the luckiest to starve.
We should direct all of our resources into establishing how to support our ecosystems, our population and the species with whom we share this planet. We simply cannot do so without technology. Therefore, repairing our relationship with technology as scientific knowledge that we use to improve the practical aims of human life might just be the fundamental value shift or paradigm shift which we need to navigate the future. Obviously, it demands the undoing of capitalism, which is a topic often discussed on Planet: Critical, but for today let’s focus on why the suspicion of technology arises.
What is critical to understand is that technology shapes our own existence: we would not exist as we do without millennia of technological developments: the wheel, the sword, the vaccine. Investing time and resources into developing technology allows for a different world, and often a better world. It allows for citizens to improve their own quality of life, their intellectual and artistic capacities, their ways of organising collectively. It allows people to evolve not merely as biological organisms, but as citizens.
Building a better world with technology doesn’t mean electrifying our fossil fuel economy. Frankly, that isn’t a sustainable future. It’s a first step in a better direction, an important error correction, but a truly sustainable future is one which will allow humankind to exist very differently to how we do today. It will allow for different kinds of social, political, artistic innovations that perhaps we cannot currently envision because we don’t yet have the technology to imagine so.
This is techno-realism—that technology in and of itself is not a problem. It's the aims of people who wield technology which can be problematic. And yet the counterforce to those aims is, very often, technology, a technology built by those who wish to make the lives of their community better, not profitable. Whilst CEOs dictate engineers to figure out how to hook under-10s to Instagram for Kids, web developers are releasing apps for free which help you reimagine your relationship to your phone and to social media. (Check out the one sec app if you haven’t already!)
So the problem isn’t tech, it’s (some) people, and a fantastic example of this which is so critical to the climate crisis is nuclear.
Nuclear energy is amazing. It's very clean and generates a tiny amount of waste. Had we invested in nuclear energy 30, 40 years ago whilst we had the opportunity, the earth’s biosphere simply wouldn’t be in the state it is today. This isn’t merely conjecture or wishful thinking: France doubled down on nuclear energy and is reaping the rewards, producing a negligible carbon footprint compared to its neighbours.
The reason the rest of the world didn’t move ahead with nuclear energy was twofold: a couple of explosions at nuclear reactors, and the fear of nuclear war. The deaths due to problems at nuclear plants simply were not enough to warrant decommissioning the industry—think of how many people die each year from cars, yet we don’t demand they are taken off the road (although we should, for myriad reasons).
As for nuclear warfare, the technology of nuclear got conflated with politics: the potentiality of destruction was mistaken for the human judgement which weaponises destruction. We rejected the best energy technology we had at that moment because we didn't think critically enough about what each piece of the puzzle meant. We villainised the technology rather than warmongering geopolitics.
Max also talks about this destructive mindset, about the trauma of being descended from colonisers. That the genocide committed by for generations by the ancestors of white people will have affected our epigenetics and created a pathology in whiteness—a pathology which still rules the world with an iron grip. Such a pathology creates a “normal” which isn’t normal at all, and is emblematic in the nuclear example: rather than correctly pointing the finger at the instability of geopolitics and our inability to manage our geopolitical institutions, relationships, and unwillingness to collaborate, to form a global community, to work with rather than agains, to give up some of the power in the zero sum game our political organisation demands, rather than doing any of that, which would have allowed us to have clean energy, we blamed the technology.
We suffer from this unwillingness to admit our wrongs—the whole world suffers because of the West’s unwillingness to admit its wrongs. The identity of the descendants of empire is that of torchbearers of progress and freedom, and that the world is better off in some way because of the colonial mission. The world is better off because of technology—and worse off for others because of what we chose to do with that technology.
The pathology of Western exceptionalism is that we have the right to act for the greater good, that only we can perceive the greater good. To admit that we would struggle to manage our nuclear technology because we have fundamentally unstable politics which were built on a tradition of imperialism, dominance, control, genocide, would ruin the very illusion that attempts to keep the world in an iron grip.
It was easier to blame the technology than admit our fallibility.
Techno realism is critical: Technology advances human existence. The repression of scientific knowledge by the fossil fuel industry, for example, has led to technology causing problems in our natural world. Had we done something about it when all of that information was available in the sixties and seventies, rather than allowing lobbying companies to keep that information—that technology— out of public discourse, the world wouldn't be what it is today.
What is so important about definition, the application of scientific knowledge to the practical aims of human life, is if we get out of the imperialist mindset which creates a dominance, a hierarchy, with whiteness being the most important form of human life, then we can start to trust in technology, in a sense. Because only then will technology be about advancing the practical aims of human life, not just white life.
Techno-realism means not rejecting the very thing that could be used to navigate our way towards a sustainable future—as long as we stick to the true definition of what it can achieve: the practical aims of all human life, not just some life.
Planet: Critical investigates why the world is in crisis—and what to do about it.