Withdrawal from Technology

(I write this is a US-centric perspective, but most if it can apply to the developed world in general.)

The developed world’s addiction to technology, and absolute faith in it, is one of the main factors in its enslavement of the rest of the world. This faith lies, in large part, to the culture of science fiction that has arisen, and is a peculiar feature of developed nations. It is no coincidence that Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan point to a story from the early 1600s, around the time the features of modern capitalism started to form, as the first example of science fiction. Asimov even goes as far as to lay claim that a Poe story from the 1830s is the first example of “hard” sci-fi, the fictitious cousin of industrialism, in that “many of its details were carefully and rationally worked out.” It should also be noted that science fiction did not really appear in Russia until the Soviet era of heavy industrialization. We have been bombarded with extraordinary tales of technology and the future for hundreds of years, and it is no wonder that we have yet even begun to doubt the sincerity of the technology that dominates our lives.

The truth is, technology distances us from ourselves and our environment. Children do not play outside anymore, in favor of exploring virtual worlds. Even adults do not directly talk to each other, favoring cell phone calls, status updates, and text messaging…even though at least half of human communication is nonverbal. The postal service is on the verge of collapse with a 20% decrease in physical mail over the last six years… We have replaced the somewhat physical act of writing a letter, with the intangible email. We have given up a part of our humanity in favor of instantaneous communication across the globe, even though the majority of messages do not ever have to travel nearly that far.

Not only are immediate social effects of technology not questioned, the long term sustainability of it is considered a given by many. While our leaders tout green and renewable energy as the future, Mikko Virtanen notes that “It has yet to be proven if we even have the raw materials available to make enough wind turbines and solar panels to keep up current levels of energy consumption or any significant level of industrial production at all.“ These materials, called “rare earth metals,” being used to make things like solar panels and wind turbines (not to mention computers and smartphones) are themselves not renewable. In fact, they are already in such short supply that China, the world’s leading exporter of rare earth metals, has been steadily decreasing its exports since 2009. Just as OPEC has had a stranglehold on the energy market as it moves to secure its dwindling oil reserves, China will play the same role in the future as we move further into green technologies.

The shift towards so-called renewable energy has even more dire consequences than our markets being forced into compliance with the Chinese state. The worst case scenario is that we start to mine for rare earth metals in our backyards. In 1998, Mountain Pass Mine, in California, was shut down. A federal investigation found that since 1984, at least 60 spills, some unreported, occurred from the mine pumping radioactive wastewater way from the site…for a total of about 600,000 gallons of hazardous waste being pumped into its surroundings. Environmental infractions aside, major operations at the mine resumed in 2004, and it continues extracting material from the ground.

To use the words of Toyota’s environmental communications manager, “Mining in any way, shape or form is never an environmentally friendly process. That’s the nature of the beast.” Is rare earth mining something we want happening here? Currently, plans are in progress to increase rare earth mining in the US, Canada, and Greenland. Are the last untouched stretches of land in these countries worth a few more iPods? Is despoiling the last vestiges of nature worth chasing the dragon of green energy, instead of finally admitting that industrial society is unsustainable?

Our society’s addiction to technology distances us from nature both physically and mentally. We are sold fascinating stories of societies that have conquered nature and beyond, and live in glorious utopias, while we ourselves eat away at the last of the natural resources our planet has to offer. The same gadgets that enslave us mentally are becoming the objects that are ruining us physically. Unless we withdraw from the myth that technology is our savior…that we humans will always think our way out of anything, and that the technology developed by Capital can do anything but eat away at the planet…we will destroy ourselves.

 
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