September 02, 2001

The most recent issue of Shift Magazine features a 5000 word article called why technology is failing us [and how we can fix it], by Chris Turner. The following is my response to the article, in which I rant about environmental reform, oil companies, and hip technology magazines. I'm posting it here for feedback (and quite possibly, amusement) before I send it to the folks at Shift.

posted by dru in politicsoftech

I was intrigued by the recent Shift cover that proclaimed to know what was wrong with technology, and more interestingly, how to fix it. I was also glad to see that Chris Turner's 5000 word piece promised to take environmental issues seriously. A breath of fresh air, to be sure. I even enjoyed reading Turner's conversational, vernacular prose (though I can't say I agree he's the best magazine writer on the planet).

I was really disappointed, though, for two simple reasons: Turner didn't say why technology is failing us. Nor did he say how we can fix it. What he did say was that technology is, in fact, failing us, and that we can fix it if we want to. I'd like to venture a few thoughts about the why and the how.

Turner is absolutely right that we're messing up the environment in a big way. He notes that environmental "issues" get mentioned "with far less regularity than the fluctuations in Nortel's stock price", though he doesn't say why. He even says that big companies buy up new technologies to control the rate of change, but he still doesn't say why. At least, he doesn't offer anything beyond the most superficial of explanations: oil companies don't want to stop selling lots of oil, and car companies don't want to stop selling cars.

But it runs a bit deeper and stronger than that. When asked whether Bush would urge Americans to use less energy, press secretary Ari Fleisher explained: "That's a big no. The president believes that it's an American way of life, and that it should be the goal of policy-makers to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one."

Mixing of religion and politics aside, it's fairly obvious that the oil companies (and other old school energy companies) have tremendous sway over policy, and the media is singularly uncritical of this. More concretely, the US government subsidizes the oil industry to the tune of tune of tens of billions of dollars per year.

It's easy to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but the oil industry is worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and it's hardly going to forgo meddling in government and media to preserve this enormous income (from governments as much as from consumers).

The solution to all this, says Turner, is sensible enough: let's just throw a billion or two at green energy, and things will improve. If only the green energy folks had slick web sites and more money, he says, green tech could be everywhere. There is a little bit of truth to this. Maybe.

Actually, the bit about slick web sites is hooey. When the Union of Concerned Scientists published their Warning to Humanity, not only was it printed on nice paper and subsequently posted to a professionally designed web site, but it was signed by the majority of Science Nobel Laureates. Yet the media coverage of this rather shocking document was almost non-existent.

The problem with Turner's argument goes beyond web design, however. He naively believes that creating a "new economy"-style bubble around green tech will lay down the infrastructure for real change. But did the internet "revolution" (which, Turner correctly points out, wasn't much of a revolution) really change anything? Let's see, who is still in control? Microsoft, IBM, Sun, AT&T, Cisco. No young upstarts with new ideas on that list, so why would it be any different with oil companies who have much more power than those ever did.

The problem with Turner's argument is that green tech simply isn't the answer to all of our problems, or even any of them. Even if all the cars in the world were zero-emissions vehicles in five years (which is unlikely, to say the least), we would have made some progress in slowing down climate change, but what of the other problems? The fact is, we simply do not have the resources on this planet for everyone (heck, it's bad enough with just Canada and the US running amok) to eat meat everyday, own a car, take plane rides, and generate anywhere near the amount of waste that North American society does. Our way of life, whatever the technology used, is fundamentally unsustainable. That's what's inimical to clean air and water. Green tech might help, but it's sure as heck not going to take care of all of our problems.

So what to do? Turner is on to something when he says that there is "absolutely nothing inherently rational or reasonable about our economic system". It's a human creation. We created it, we perpetuate it, and we can change it. The solution is fairly simple: we decide what we want to do with the resources of the planet we live on and the economic system we live in.

Undoubtedly, development of green technologies is part of a solution, and ironically enough, massive investment in green tech is probably the easiest part of any plan to clean up our act. All we need to do is steer a billion or two per year of the (US) federal government's oil subsidy into solar panel companies, fuel cell manufacturers, and whatever else. As a bonus, we could ask that there be tangible societal and environmental benefits from this investment, instead of just giving the money away.

So how do we go about this? I'm pretty sure it has to do with making policy decisions ourselves, instead of letting only obscenely rich people to set the agenda. It's about eliminating poverty (no small task, but hardly beyond our means) and eliminating institutions that see the third world as "underpolluted". It's also about making personal choices that seem pretty hard without a local group of supporting and encouraging folks.

Some people suggest revolution, some just say we should use our democratic power. I suggest the latter, if it's still there, and the former if it's not. A full-fledged way of ensuring clean air and water for the future involves environmental education, smart policies, sound personal decisions, and a lot of work. A whole lot.

All this is not to say that I'm not glad that magazines like Shift (you've gotta admit, Wired beat you to the tech-magazine-questions-technology-with-provocative-cover scheme) are criticizing our use of technology. I am. It's just that I think you could do a much better job of it.

That said, I have a theory about why Turner didn't cover the really meaty parts of what's wrong with technology (after all, he was so close). It's because talking about corruption and obscured truth isn't hip. Talking about getting people to think about the environment, organize, educate, and act responsibly isn't hip either. But talking about how technological progress is gonna make everything great is hip. And that's what magazines like Wired and Shift are all about.

You've gotta have a hip audience to sell to companies who want to associate their product with your hip magazine. It is, therefor, paramount that your readers be thinking about how cool technology is, and not about being an activist and actually working for change. Because people who do that buy a lot less stuff than the folks who are in awe of the latest gizmos (whether it's a web-enabled cell phone or a fuel cell), and I don't have to say which audience the advertisers are after.

And theres's an even bigger problem: if you want to seriously criticize the "free market" or anything else we tend to assume is somehow fundamental, you've got to prove everything to a T, otherwise you're a left wing wacko conspiracy theorist. Definitely not hip. But being academic and rigorous isn't hip either, so why bother?

I'd love to be proved wrong about the motivations of your magazine (you sound sincere enough), and in return I'll try to prove myself wrong. Just say the word, and I'll write 5000 words about why technology is really failing us, and how we can really fix it. I'll be as hip as it gets: I'll include lots of personal anecdotes, I'll write in a conversational tone -- heck, I'll even use words like "fuck" and "vacuous ass". We can include lots of cool-looking photos of kids in black "read Chomsky" t-shirts busting up Starbuck's and Niketown to give the feature that elusive rebellious edge. After all, rebellion is imminently hip, so what could be more hip than actual revolutionaries who have their facts straight and their shit together.


Dru Oja Jay

left wing wacko, writer, and student

p.s. I'm serious, except for the bit about the photos.