Sustaining the Present
January 25, 2022
What approach to technological development gives humanity a chance of reaching the Tenth Millennium? This is a serious and significant question, and no greater challenge faces the imagined ascenturians than the problem of technology. The ascenturian is bound to hold ideals that make possible the continuation of present diversity into the one hundredth century after civilisation's founding. That requires a far more critical relationship with our tools (and the networks that embed them) than almost any that can be found today.
I have said that the ascenturians have opponents but not enemies, and one of their most prominent opponents are the accelerationists. This term, coined by science fiction writer Roger Zelazny, describes anyone who thinks it is in humanity's best interests to accelerate technological development, whether they believe that high tech offers us salvation or, as in some Marxist variants, a catalyst for social collapse and thus revolution. Either way, this is an absurdly reckless philosophy. To assume that accelerating technological expansion is the means for humanity to survive (much less thrive) for another 48 centuries is to adopt an existential version of the Martingale gambling strategy - a foolhardy succession of 'double or nothing' bets pursued in desperation until (by chance) you win and cover your losses. That anyone would think this a sensible way to approach our shared world is really quite astonishing, and entails every farcical implication that this metaphor alludes to: gambling the future of both our species and our planet.
In The Virtuous Cyborg I suggested that we will misunderstand who and what we are today if we don't acknowledge that we are cyborgs embedded in the networks of technology required for us to live as these hybrid beings. It is the networks, rather than the technology, that makes the difference here. A hammer, once made, requires nothing further to be an effective tool. A computer, conversely, is worthless without the networks of electricity, programming, and communication, that are required to make such a device appear useful - and that conceal, with effortless denial, the tremendous collective labour required to maintain these networks. There is no such thing as an individual cyborg: there are only the networks, and the cyborgs ensnared within those networks.
I do not think it possible, plausible, or desirable to expect us to simply give up this state of being to which we are simultaneously addicted and in denial of, although we can certainly admire the Amazonian tribe who has not yet been incorporated into our industrial world, or the Amish communities that manage to exist alongside it. Yet we still need ways to think differently about our relationships with technology, since the ones we have are colossally destructive in almost every dimension. It is both fascinating and disturbing that we are so swept up in this passion for the technological that we fail to see the ongoing catastrophe attached to it. Writing in 1993, Raimon Pannikar named this disaster 'technocracy', and saw clearly that acceleration was right at the heart of the crisis, boldly comparing it to cancer, the uncontrolled growth that destroys an organism.
The 'energy crisis' is a helpful way of exposing the problem. Supposedly there is a 'crisis' because we are not able to make enough 'energy'. Thus, some who lean towards accelerationism, like British physicist Brian Cox (who was in the year ahead of me when I studied Astrophysics at Manchester University) suggest that 'the energy crisis is over if you want it to be' - meaning, if we invested sufficiently in nuclear fusion research, we could 'solve' the energy crisis. Firstly, this is another bet: we do not know how fusion pans out as a power source on the scale of fifty years, let alone on the scale of fifty centuries. Secondly, and more importantly, having greater access to 'cheap' energy is not likely to solve any crisis we are currently facing. It is far more likely to facilitate even greater environmental damage once the limits on power supply that currently constrain industrial growth are removed. If there is an 'energy crisis' it is that we want too much energy, not that we cannot make enough.
Technocracy transforms our tools from craftsmanship to dominion, and this analysis is not specific to this one problem, 'energy', it is the essential problem of technology. We cannot know the consequences of developing new tools until the problems have already manifested (and in some cases, not until it is too late to prevent them). Furthermore, we assume every crisis can be solved by throwing more technology at it, ignoring how the creation of ever more varieties of technical solutions reproduces the problematic circumstances we are attempting to resolve. Plastic-eating fungus sounds like a wonderful application of technology to an environmental problem we created - I wonder what we will end up creating to eat the fungus...?
I keep returning to Martin Heidegger's reflections on the problem of technology, because the German philosopher's thinking successfully exposes this issue at its conceptual root. Once we adopt 'technology' as our understanding of how we relate to the world around us, once we surrender to technocracy, everything is reduced to standing reserves, resources to be exploited. The 'energy crisis' came about because we developed new tools to burn fossil fuels, which were limited resources. Yet what made this 'limit' was the technological mindset - I might even say the accelerationist mindset. It is all very well saying we have plenty of deuterium for nuclear fusion, but it is still a limited resource no matter how plentiful it may seem now. In twenty centuries time, who knows what degree of energy supply might be needed to power the projects an accelerated technology wishes then to pursue...?
The term 'sustainable development' is bandied around so much today that we don't seem to recognise that it is a contradiction in terms. 'Development', meaning industrial development, is by definition unsustainable, for it is wed to the idea of standing reserves to be co-opted to our purposes. It is no good reversing the concept either - 'sustainable regression' is hardly plausible either! Yet our fictional ascenturians require a principle of the sustainable in some form or another, because clearly we cannot expect to reach the Tenth Millennium without attaining some kind of relationship with our world that can be maintained over the long term.
Accelerationists sometimes fool themselves with the mythology of fleeing the planet - 'we can't make it work here, so we must escape into space!'. What a bizarre proposition that is... since we cannot manage to devise any form of sustainable living arrangement for the planet we have, abandoning it is self-evidently a doomed strategy. Lyn Margulis is far from the only scientist to have recognised that if we cannot solve the problems of continued human existence here on Earth, there is no possibility at all of surviving in space, let alone reaching other worlds. This delusion is merely the brutal colonial arrogance of the Age of Sail wed to the devastating industrial ignorance of today. How dreadful to imagine that all we have to do is blast off into space and find other pristine life worlds to barbarise, even assuming that these planets are out there to be found by creatures like us, with the resources we might be able to squander on such a project. I love science fiction stories, but I will not pretend that they are realistic when it comes to colonising the universe.
Accepting that most of us cannot live like the Amish, and accepting also that a latter day 'technology freeze' is just as unthinkable (there will be no Neo-Amish movement for more reasons than one), we are left with the question of what ideal we can offer to cyborgs such as ourselves. We are now so dependent upon our electrically-powered network of devices that a former colleague of mine could suggest in all sincerity that losing internet service was akin to being 'sent back to the Stone Age'. To escape the trap of technocratic dependency, I suggest for our fictional ascenturians something like this principle of sustainability is required:
Reject accelerating technology for perfectible techniques
'Perfectible' is the vaguest of ideas here, the blank canvas onto which new visions can be projected. I will not claim to know all this means or implies, I merely suggest that some kind of ideal of 'perfectible techniques' is within reach for us cyborgs. With it, we might stand some small chance of avoiding the risks of accelerating technological development, and the colonial ransacking of our world that comes with it.
Why bring up colonialism in the context of technology? There is a continuity here we tend to overlook. For instance, when we think of Africa we tend to forget that a great many of the problems of that continent were caused by enforcing European-style economies onto places that had previously lived in a sustainable fashion. Once the possibility of selling natural resources abroad had been established through colonisation, these nations could no more kick the habit of exploiting their standing reserves than Europe, and the United States is only the most successful European colony, and in no way an exception to this pattern. Technocracy - the ideology of technology - is the science fiction heir to colonial expansion.
Yet even if the imaginary ascenturians are somehow able to escape the finger trap of technological acceleration, even if they are able to reimagine their tools as perfectible rather than infinitely expanding, they still have to face the problem of population. On this front, the environmental movements have run aground, for once again the 'left' has the insight to identify problems but is utterly incompetent at negotiating solutions. Meanwhile, the 'right' are baffled and amused by the way that prophets of environmental disaster make strange statements around the idea of 'not bringing a child into this world', meaning both 'I will sacrifice my reproductive rights for my environmental ideals' and also 'the degraded environment of the science fiction dystopia in my mind is not a fit place to bring a child'. What madness this seems from the perspective of the 'right', who alone seem to understand that the family is not going anywhere! In refusing to acknowledge this, all attempts at environmentalism grind to a nearly hopeless halt.
As already pointed out, it will not do to imagine that a population crisis can be solved by fleeing the planet so that we can enthusiastically overpopulate other worlds, or become refugees in space as in the gloriously gloomy 1972 movie Silent Running (pictured above), or as a kind of Battlestar Galactica in reverse. My best estimate of the number of humans that can live on Mars without support from Earth is zero, so the availability of millions of other planets 'out there' doesn't have a hope of resolving this issue. Even if this is an underestimate, a strategy that depends upon overcoming all the disadvantages entailed in living in environments hostile to our kind of life cannot possibly be saner than defending all the advantages our home planet already provides us.
Colonising other planets appeals because it provides a fantastical scope for future growth, yet this expansion is precisely the problem. “If there aren’t enough people for Earth, then there definitely won’t be enough for Mars,” laments Elon Musk (father of six), using 'enough' in just about the opposite sense usually applied to our vast population. All but unseen behind all these population issues is the centrality of the family to the human experience. The 'left' has traditionally opposed the concept of 'family' because of ideological commitments that, as usual, are well-intentioned but hopelessly impractical. The Communist attempt to neutralise the family as a political entity (which has unfortunate roots in Plato's political philosophy) failed utterly, and if we can just be honest about our temperament as a species for a moment it is not hard to appreciate why.
It follows that in addition to a principle to guide sustainable tools, we need a principle to guide sustainable families, which I might call a principle of normalisation, in the sense of 'stabilising' and also in the sense of 'making normal', i.e. making acceptable. Once again, since our ascenturians are purely imaginary beings, science fiction people for a future we can imagine but not truly envisage, this normalisation principle does not have to actually answer the problems, it only has to sketch the ideal that is somehow to be achieved by an ascenturian-influenced collection of societies. Something like the following, vague though it may be, might suffice:
Achieve neutral population growth without abandoning families
While a great many objections could be raised to this principle, it is important to remember that the founding concept of the ascenturians is not just that we imagine a people capable of reaching a century of centuries of civilisation, but also that these people would seek to ensure that the diversity of human experience today might survive and thrive into the Tenth Millennium in some form. The family is undeniably part of that diverse experience, and the rage of those who fell out with their parents and joined culture bubbles out of spite for their upbringing has no bearing on how this problem is to be resolved. Any number of non-familial cultures can co-exist with the human family as classically understood, provided that across all of the societies and bubble cultures being collected together, neutral population growth can be attained.
I am often accused of idealism, and I am indeed absurdly proud to be still able to muster any idealism at all in this bleak and ignorant world we have made together. But I do not think the ideal of neutral population growth is fanciful, and neither do I think the traditional concept of a family cannot be squared with it. If we consider Europe as just a single example, it attained a neutral population growth almost effortlessly, without any extreme eugenic interventions or governmental interference. Neither is it necessary to evoke draconian legal restraints such as 'maximum two children per family' or the like... not every person wants to have any children, and it is this factor more than anything else that has allowed Europe to reach neutral population growth. Not a limit on 'children per person', but a balance point between those making families, and those choosing a different path.
If we talk about 'sustaining the present', it can sound as if we are asking for stasis, or the misleading 'right' ideal of preserving tradition, which as I have already pointed out really means remaking those traditions in a sequence of new forms. But sustaining the present is one of the most imaginative science fiction thought experiments we can take up, as Dune already exposed. To imagine that humanity in all its current diversity is still thriving after another 48 centuries is nothing short of incredible - and such a fictional world need not and should not be closed to new ways of being, new bubble cultures and societies we cannot imagine now, and that we do not need to think about in order to undertake this challenge. We don't need to understand the worlds to come to prepare for them, which is fortunate, because the future lies forever beyond any hope of accurate predictions.
What 'sustaining the present' means is solving the problem that the accelerationists bungled with their reckless Martingale strategy of hoping that the next technology is the one that pays for all the social, economic, and environmental harms of the previous set of tools. It means coming at these problems from a new angle, one that need not mean giving up our ingenuity or our familial affiliations. It just requires us to stop seeing the future as a place we are racing to get to as fast as we possibly can... We will get there at one second per second as we always have. Yet to get there at all, we cannot continue treating our world as a standing reserve to be exploited, nor keep pretending that new techniques are morally or environmentally neutral options in an toolbox we are expanding 'for the benefit of all humanity'. Surely we know now that industrial technology was anything but beneficial for 'all humanity', let alone for all life on our world? Singling out the technological 'wins' while wilfully ignoring all the accompanying technocratic 'losses' is simply dishonest.
Our imaginary ascenturians know how to sustain the present, and thus know how they can reach the future. All we might have to do to help them come into being is abandon our utterly naïve dependence upon 'the next big thing' to save us. You cannot save cyborgs by further imprisoning them in their networks of dependency. And the first free cyborg, if such a thing can ever come to pass, has every hope of becoming the first ascenturian.
Next week: Restoring the Commons
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