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Adjusting life to fit in with technology

SUNS  #5208  Wednesday  9  October  2002

Washington,  Oct (Andrew Kimbrell*) -- Over 50 years ago, sociologist Jacques Ellul was among the first to understand that we now live in a new environment, the technological 'milieu'. While our earliest ancestors lived fully in the natural environment, and our most recent forebears in a more social milieu, modern Western societies now live primarily in the technological milieu.

For us it is the technological environment, not nature, which is the immediate source of our livelihood, food, energy, education, entertainment and visions of progress. Our homes, workplaces, transportation, entertainment, leisure, education and government have all become integral elements of the technological grid.

If we tally the time spent in cars, in office cubicles, in front of TVs or computers, and using telephones, palm pilots and all our other gadgets, it is clear that we spend the vast majority of our waking hours with technology and working for the organisations, corporations and bureaucracies required to run the vast technological system in which we live. Each of us, more and more, lives in a kind of technological cocoon in which much of our action and communication is mediated through machines.

And for some at least, the substitution of the technological for the natural environment represents an immense improvement for humankind. Author and engineer Samuel  Florman  notes:  'I  can  see  no  evidence  that  frequent  contact  with  nature  is essential to human well-being.' Others, including the respected scholar O B Hardison, have urged on us 'a faith in silicone devices that is analogous to religious faiths'.

In recent years, however, the near messianic confidence of the technophiles has been significantly deflated. It has become increasingly apparent that substituting the technological milieu for natural environments is coming at an immense cost.

The technological takeover has spawned cataclysmic scenarios of destruction not even imaginable to prior civilisations. As nuclear technology has put all of humanity, and the Earth itself, on a computer trip-line to Armageddon, our industrial technologies have brought humanity face to face with the first truly global environmental crisis in recorded history.

Over the last two decades the public has been jolted by revelations about impacts of our technology on the biosphere that they had never suspected existed - global warming, ozone depletion, species extinction, deforestation, desertification. Moreover, even as the technosphere exploits and destroys the natural world, its inhuman pace exhausts our emotional and spiritual resources. This has led to an unprecedented shattering of our communities, families, and psychological well-being.

The crisis over the technosphere's current destruction of the natural and social milieu has put the current generation in a 'technological dilemma'. Much of the world's population has become fully dependent on, and deeply addicted to, the technological environment. Yet this technological milieu is threatening the very viability of life on Earth. It is becoming increasingly clear that ultimately we cannot survive with our technology; yet we can't imagine living without it.

In the early 1970s some saw this dilemma emerging. Led by such prescient prophets as E F Schumacher they began planning for the inevitable day when we finally realised that survival required devolving our technologies so that they better comported with the animate and inanimate systems of nature.

A small but persistent movement began urging the substitution of 'appropriate' technologies for the mega-technological system which was rapidly decimating creation and ourselves. Many of us in the legal profession worked hard to institute laws and regulations which limited or halted the advance of harmful technologies. We all believed that in time we would have laws that would adequately protect nature from the uncontrolled technological onslaught. We also began developing a more holistic science that could move beyond mere mechanistic thought and invention.

What many of us did not foresee was that the economic and scientific elite had a very different  solution to the looming  technological dilemma.  They  too came to realise, albeit slowly, that current technology is not compatible with life; that the contradictions between the growing technological milieu and laws of nature were ever heightening. They, too, saw that a solution was urgently needed.

To deal with this historic dilemma in our relationship with technology, they began a breathtaking initiative. This initiative, however, was not to change technology so that it would better fit the needs of living things. Rather, they decided to engineer life so that it would better fit the technological system.

Technology was not to be comported with living systems. Rather living systems were to be remade, engineered at the genetic and molecular level, to comport with the requirements of the technological milieu. All of nature was to be subject to this 'techno-genesis'.

It is in this chilling context that the enormous significance of the current revolutions in technology can be most fully understood. Recombinant DNA technology is the tool which allows engineers to alter life at the genetic level so that it better fits the technological milieu. (Nanotechnology engineers nature at the molecular level.)

Genetic engineering, in fact, allows life to be treated as technology. It is now possible to snip, insert, recombine, rearrange, edit, program and produce genetic material in much the same way as the engineers of the industrial revolution were able to separate, collect, utilise and exploit inanimate materials.

Just as the factory system allowed for the production of unlimited and identical amounts of machines, so current advances in cloning are attempting to produce industrial numbers of identical life forms. Just as prior generations initiated a patent system to encourage the production of novel machines and products, so we are now seeing the patenting of genetically altered plants, animals and even human parts. Life forms have now been redefined by the US Patent and Trademark Office as 'machines and manufactures'.

With these capabilities and patenting incentives, scientists and their corporate and government sponsors have the potential of becoming the architects of life itself, the authors of an ersatz technological evolution designed to create new, more 'efficient' species of microbes, plants and animals (including humans) which better comport with our technological system.

Seen from this perspective, biotechnology becomes the ultimate technological fix for the current industrial system. Global warming is dealt with, not by stopping pollution, but rather by genetically engineering plants and animals to withstand the temperatures and droughts resulting from climate change.

Chemical pollution in agriculture is addressed, not by reducing pesticide use, but rather by engineering herbicide-resistant plants that can survive no matter the volume of chemicals used. Spoilage of food in our global food system is solved, not by encouraging local food production, but rather by genetically designing foods for longer shelf-life.

We do not change our factory-farm system to fit in with the nature of animals: rather, we genetically engineer our poultry and livestock so that they can withstand the intensive confinement and multitude of diseases endemic to the system. Species after species is being altered to fit and better survive in the technological milieu.

Of course the actual success of the Procrustean engineering of life has been very limited. Even successes bring with them myriad and unprecedented environmental, economic and ethical concerns. But the biotechnology's citadel of experts warns us that limiting or interfering with genetic engineering could threaten virtually all future technological progress.

The repulsion that most feel about genetic engineering is characterised as 'emotional' and 'unscientific'. We are assured that biotechnology will be managed for us and for our good. We simply must begin to accept the view that we, and all of life, are just another form of technology.

As the New York Times stated in a lead editorial, 'Life is special, and human even more so, but biological machines are still machines that can be altered, cloned and patented. The consequences will be profound but taken one step at a time they can be managed.'

The technological milieu, then, is not merely supplanting the natural milieu. Rather, it is fully involved in techno-genesis - remaking life in technology's image. Through genetic engineering, life is being absorbed into technology, both conceptually and at the genetic level. Unless halted, this will forever bar a rapprochement with nature. The natural milieu will have ceased to exist.

Currently ensconced in our 'technological cocoons', many of us have become oblivious to the ongoing destruction and remaking of creation. This oblivion ensures that we will stand by and passively allow the massive and terrible experiment of the technifying of life: allow the permanent loss of creation. This cannot continue.

By personal and collective acts of will and imagination we must reassert control over technology. By acts of will we must break our addiction to the technological system and free ourselves from the techno-cocoons. We must take the political, legal and organising steps to say 'no', to halt these technologies before they are fully disseminated and decimate nature.

We must also imagine an alternative future - a biodemocracy future where the needs of nature and all living things dictate what our technology will be, and not a nightmarish future where technology dictates the shape of creation and humanity. It is only through such admittedly difficult work that we can hope to heal and re-establish relationship with nature and community. Given the scope and pace of the technological takeover, the time for such action is short.

(*Andrew Kimbrell, an  attorney in Washington, DC, is an ecologist and author of The Human Body Shop and The Masculine Mystique. The article first appeared in Resurgence, No 214.) Return to Top

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