Let technology set you free

The techophobes of the New Left emerged victorious over the technophiles of the Cold War era. It is time we took them down.

James Heartfield

Topics Science & Tech

This review is republished from the June 2007 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

Since Christ was born, the world’s population has grown from 300million to six billion. More than half of that growth took place in the past 50 years. Life expectancy has grown from 22 years in Ancient Rome, to 30 years worldwide in 1900, to 64 years today. For that growth to take place, the world’s ‘carrying capacity’, its ability to support human life, had to grow at the same rate. ‘Go forth and multiply’ is a command that makes no sense if there is nothing to live on. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins used to say that Stone Age man lived a life of leisure, but even if that is true, there were a lot fewer of them for the earth to support.

Getting more out of the earth than it offers us straight away is the complicated miracle that we parcel up as ‘technology’. Herding, planting, reaping, carving, mining, smelting, forging, spinning, weaving, rowing, driving, flying, counting, writing and phoning are all activities that have wrung more out of the earth than she wanted to give us. And getting more stuff out of the earth gives us, as a species, more free time, just as it shrinks the amount of time dedicated to the drudgery of work. To do these things, we have made ever-more complicated tools: yokes, ploughs, sickles, knives, picks, furnaces, looms, boats, carts, pumps, tarmac, abacuses, paper, calendars, compasses, telescopes and then later machines, engines, condensers, generators, chemical fertilisers and the ‘universal machine’, the computer. Technology, the collective term for all these tools, has set us free.

Unfortunately here in Britain, where a lot of the innovation that made the modern world was begun, industry is in a poor state, according to economics correspondents Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson. Their sharp critique of Tony Blair’s Britain, Fantasy Island, is a very funny and often quite angry polemic against what they call ‘bullshit Britain’, the empty boosting of the Knowledge Economy, a weightless world where we can all ‘live on thin air’ (in the now retracted words of Department of Trade and Industry adviser, Charles Leadbeater), getting rich on intellectual property while the Chinese dirty their hands making our stuff.

Elliott and Atkinson point out that though it would be a good strategy to ‘brain up’, the high-value end of British industry has been wildly exaggerated, and an under-productive service economy of hairdressers and domestic servants is more characteristic than one of designers and pop musicians. And even in those high-value creative industries that the government promotes, investment is poor, performance patchy at best, leaving Britain’s balance of payments in manufacturing pointedly in the red. Elliott and Atkinson expand their analysis of the British economy into wider society, showing the way that the British armed forces are trying to save the world on a shoestring, and that a government that has given up on the social democratic ideal of guiding industry opts instead to direct our personal lives through health campaigns and marriage guidance.

The technology historian David Edgerton also attacks our preoccupation with ‘weightless’ firms like Visa, celebrated in most literature about the New Economy of IT – not just in Britain, but worldwide. In his fascinating book The Shock of the Old, Edgerton overturns received opinion about work by looking empirically at technology in use today where most innovation-oriented technology writing focuses on the latest gadgets for which a gleaming future is anticipated. Edgerton’s approach constantly surprises, showing that most productive activity uses technology that would be called redundant in the pages of Wired or PC World: world bicycle output (100million) has outstripped car production (40million) since 1970; B-52 bombers that ceased production in 1962 are still flying, and are expected to fly until 2040; the world’s richest man is not Bill Gates, but a carpenter, Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad; the Morris Oxford car my mother drove still rolls off Hindustan Motors’ production line in West Bengal.

Moreover, many of today’s ‘new’ technologies are really old ones. Electric cars were commonplace in Chicago and Berlin in the 1920s, Edgerton tells us, and cable television had been phased out in the 1950s before fibre optics revived it. Edgerton pulls us away from eye-catching novelty to show us what is really happening. Contrary to expectations, post-Fordist Britain makes more cars than ever before, and the weight of car production remains firmly in the developed world. Our picture of the poor world specialising in food exports to the rich is wrong, too, since the greatest gains in postwar productivity were in agriculture in the developed world, while Wal Mart imports half a million containers of goods a year, mostly from China. And for all the importance attached to Research and Development, maintenance absorbs a greater share of output. Edgerton is impressed by Creole technologies, like the 5,000-strong motor repair shop in Ghana, the Malaysian Tuk-Tuk scooter rickshaw, or the Bengali well pump-powered boats. As he says, income levels determine the spread of technology more than technical incompatibility – if you cannot afford the latest gadgets, you improvise with what you can afford.

Edgerton takes issue with the term ‘technology’, insisting that these are just things that we can use or not, rather than a total system – though here one could object that one of the common misunderstandings of technology-use is the belief that we can just pick and choose, say to generate our electricity by solar panels or travel by bicycle instead of car, without taking into account the redistribution that enlarging these minority (in the West at least) activities into majority ones would involve. Edgerton is resistant to the idea that progress is inevitable, reminding us that most of us are living in what the pundits would call ‘the past’.

In Imaginary Futures, the CyberSalon’s Richard Barbrook questions the way that technology has been made into a fetish. Barbrook starts by showing us that our visions of the future are oddly old-fashioned, and most of the themes of the dotcom boom – the weightless world, the disappearance of nation states, computerisation – were all promised to us back at the 1964 World Fair, along with mass space travel and electricity too cheap to meter. Like Brian Aldiss (in Trillion Year Spree, 1986) or Jasia Reichardt (in Robots, 1978), Barbrook historicises the future, calling those technological utopias into question.

Barbrook identifies the key role played by the American Cold War left, those intellectuals who drafted a progressive American alternative to the Soviet challenge of the postwar period. For them, the science of cybernetics, where mechanical processes are governed by ‘feedback’ mechanisms, communications and computerisation were going to overcome the problems of social inequality and national conflict that the communists thrived upon. Barbrook tells a rich and thrilling story of how Walt Rostow reworked Marxist theory to make industry into the blind agent of history, while men merely served it – the take-off theory, or anti-Communist Manifesto – and Canadian Marshall McLuhan believed communications would abolish national differences.

In contrast to the ideal of liberation set out at the beginning of this review, Barbrook points out that most of us encounter production processes as the property of the firm, alien from us, and even enslaving. At a time when Karl Marx is more celebrated than read, it is refreshing to see the way Barbrook uses Marx’s theory of the alienation of machine production to demystify the overworked idea of artificial intelligence (AI). When commentators invest machines with intelligence, he explains, they disguise ‘the hard work involved in designing, building, programming and operating them’. Far from being an automatic process, Barbrook explains, technological development was a struggle. Often the goal was to defeat the Soviets. It was a revelation to me that the Advanced Research Project Agency was trying to head off Khrushchev’s threatened ‘cybernetic communism’, the ‘Unified Information Network’, when they started work on the ARPANET – which we know as the internet – and also that the father of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, was witch-hunted in America as he was lauded as a pioneer of socialist science in the East. (However, Barbrook is astute enough to suggest that cybernetic communism was a technical fix for the real gap in Soviet Communism: democratic participation.) The Cold War left used its system-analytical model of society to crush Third World liberation movements, most sickeningly in the method that Walt Rostow and ex-Ford MD Robert McNamara developed to quantify success in Vietnam – the ‘kill-ratio’.

Barbrook’s analysis of the Cold War left is not meant as historical scholarship alone, but to shine a light on the Blairite Third Way and other contemporary echoes, as he makes clear in his last chapter, ‘Those who forget the future are condemned to repeat it’. Though a critic of technology fetishism, Barbrook wants to win back control of IT for the people, and is interested in user remodification, much as Edgerton is in Creole technologies.

Still, seeing the present wholly as a lauding of technology ignores the elephant in the room: hostility to technology. Reading the Imaginary Futures account of the disintegration of the Cold War left, broken on Vietnam, there is too little weight on that other, counter-current of romantic anti-technology, that was surely just as much part of the same constellation. Alongside Rostow and McNamara, some of the important critics of the war were also part of the Cold War left, like theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (who had supported the war at the outset), the émigré Marxist and CIA officer Herbert Marcuse, and JK Galbraith. These men also wrote the script for the New Left’s rebellion against the technocratic society, taken up by Tom Hayden in the Port Huron statement and the widespread teaching of Theodor Adorno’s anti-technological manifesto Dialectic of Enlightenment.

Arguably, today we live much more in the world made by those anti-technological critics, forerunners of today’s environmentalists and therapy-addicts. If so, Barbrook’s singular focus on the fetish of technology could be assimilated into the hymns to that other fetish: the fetish of nature. As István Mészáros argued: ‘“The God that failed” in the image of technological omnipotence is now shown around again under the umbrella of universal “ecological concern”.’ (1) David Edgerton’s points against the cult of the new, however well supported, reinforce a cult of the old, traditional world of make-do-and-mend. Of course, there are material limitations that mean, for example, that black South Africans cannot move back from the townships to the cities they were expelled from – those townships are several times the size of the cities now. Still, the division between the poor world and the rich one ought to be overcome, not accepted as a given. According to development economist Arghiri Emmanuel, ‘if capitalism is hell there exists a more frightful hell: that of less developed capitalism’ (2). That change will mean big changes to the diffusion of technology, changes that are already happening in China, to the dismay of the anti-technology critics. We have to qualify the opening argument here that ‘technology will set you free’, to read: ‘technology can set you free, but the lack of it will definitely enslave you’.

The victory of the ecological heirs of the New Left over the technophiles of the Cold War is damaging industrial growth right now. West German rules on emissions added to the costs that pushed East German industry into recession upon reunification. East European countries adopting EU environmental standards made side agreements to phase these in over 25 years for fear that they would suffer East Germany’s deindustrialisation. UN rules against the use of DDT against mosquitoes in Africa led to a deadly resurgence in malaria. The EU ban on genetically modified food is forcing up food prices, not just in Europe but also in those former colonies that are assisted under the Lomé agreement and therefore forbidden to import GM grains from the US. In Britain, as the government now concedes, the prohibition on greenfield development choked off house-building for the past 10 years, pushing up house-prices – and despite official assurances of a better deal, volume house-builders are already planning further reductions in output after the announcement of new ‘zero-emission’ standards.

James Heartfield is author of Let’s Build! Why we need five million new homes in the next 10 years. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK))

This review is republished from the June 2007 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

The Shock of the Old: Technology in Global History Since 1900 by David Edgerton was published by Profile Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK))

Imaginary Futures: from thinking machines to the global village by Richard Barbrook, was published by Pluto Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK))

Fantasy Island by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson was published by Constable and Robinson. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK))

(1) The Necessity of Social Control, István Mészáros, Merlin Press, 1971: p19

(2) Appropriate or Underdeveloped Technology, Arghiri Emmanuel, John Wiley (London),1982: p102

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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