Thursday, May 1, 2014

Technology: A Daoist View

"Technology is neutral". This pernicious fallacy undergirds the destruction of our world and ourselves. People actually believe that a computer can be neutral, as though its use does not already imply a host of values and pre-determined behavior, as though a PC does not already prefigure a sedentary lifestyle that has the social, political, military, and economic leverage to commandeer natural resources and deprive them from others, convert it into electricity via pollution-generating factories that themselves already imply the wage-enslavement of disenfranchised miners and dyspeptic white-collared engineers alike. As though a computer did not require that all the spontaneity and wholesomeness of humanity be jettisoned for the sake of a more efficient, clock-work production process. As though industry and government did not have to conspire to subtly (or not so subtly) manipulate parents and children from an early age to pursue high-prestige science and technology jobs ("Get kids into science early! Give them the head start they need for SUCCESS!") to ensure that software engineers, programmers, hardware manufacturers, and the whole bevy of varied specialists are produced with each generation, all to guarantee that computers continue to exist, or as though this specialization doesn't necessarily imply the existence of a government to enforce it in the first place. As though children naturally want to grow up to raise machines. As though using the internet to connect to others does not further enable the atrophy of face-to-face interaction, just as the existence of municipally-filtered water and now bottled water enable the ruin of our streams and rivers (nobody drinks from them anymore so no one pays attention or gives a shit; over 90% of America's waterways are non-potable now and no one cares because that's not where drinking water comes from anyway--we all know drinking water comes from Coca-Cola and Pepsi or otherwise Fiji and wherever Evian comes from).

The very term "technological progress" should already tell us that technology is not neutral. If a technological innovation changes the way people do things, that, by the most basic definition of the word, indicates that it is in no way 'neutral'. So many innovations have been hailed, giddily, as world-changing--well, fossil fuel technology is literally changing our climate, computers were supposed to change the way the industrialized world lived, antibiotics were supposed to change the way we died, and so on and so forth. Changing things is, after all, the whole point of pursuing technology. And yet, these same technophiles insist that these world-changing innovations are neutral--apparently, something that can change people's lives in fundamental and often unexpected and undesirable ways is still neutral. I would have to ask, then--what would be considered NOT neutral?

However, I suppose many would be quick to point out that this is not what is meant by 'neutral' when discussing technology. Rather, it seems that by 'neutral' one means that any given technology may be used to either benefit or harm people--it all depends on how it's used. This is an extremely comforting belief and is indeed ideologically necessary for civilization. Unfortunately, the benefit and harm that result from any given technical innovation has very little to do with how it's used, just whether or not it is used at all.

Let's examine the question through a Daoist lens. The philosophical Daoism of Laozi's Dao De Jing has strong anarcho-primitivist themes, though it still presupposes civilization to a large extent. One maxim of the Dao De Jing says that the world cannot be improved:

Do you want to improve the world?
I don't think it can be done.

The world is sacred.
It can't be improved.
If you tamper with it, you'll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you'll lose it.
--Dao De Jing Chapter 29 (trans. by Stephen Mitchell)

One example of this can be found in the meteoric rise and now impending collapse of antibiotics. Only one year after Penicillin was introduced into commercial use in 1945, fourteen percent of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria were already resistant to it. By 1950, the figure rose to fifty-nine percent, and by 1995 all but five percent were resistant. In 1999, a mere forty-four years after penicillin entered commercial production, the first Staph strain found to be resistant to all existing antibiotics was discovered. Currently, western medicine is losing its war against antibiotic resistant bacteria, the enfants terribles of antibiotics technology. To wage this war at all is to already be losing it. Resistance in bacteria cannot be solved because it's not a problem in the first place. It is a necessary adaptation in bacteria to help maintain ecosystem balance for the sake of all organisms, not simply the ones who insist on living against natural principles and foolishly believe that technology will allow them to defy the consequences. The eradication of bacteria is not a sane goal, as literally all life on the planet depends entirely on their existence. Nothing could replace bacteria. If people are horrified at the deaths that bacterial infections have caused in the past, then they are the ones out of touch with nature, not bacteria:

Heaven-and-Earth is not sentimental;
It treats all things as straw-dogs.
--Dao De Jing Chapter 5 (trans. by John C.H. Wu)

The only way to thrive in a world completely determined by natural principles is to live in accordance with those principles, not to try and transcend or subjugate them. Nature is not trying to exterminate humans via bacterial infections, but rather attempts to optimize her ecosystems, sometimes through the actions of bacteria. It is commonly felt that forager infant mortality rates are exceedingly high (40-50%), and that modern medicine, with the aid of antibiotics, has brought infant mortality down to a much lower rate. Presumably, most people believe that the ideal would be an infant mortality rate of zero, with each child being given a chance at life. However, if foragers have had a relatively stable rate of infant mortality as people like to think, then for two million years the rest of the biosphere has calibrated itself to that rate and the implications it had for human population and stress on the environment. Nature does not feel that a 50% mortality rate is high. Let's try thinking outside the anthropocentric box for a moment. A mature oak tree, for example, will yield 70,000-150,000 acorns in a good year. Virtually each one of these acorns has the potential to grow into a five hundred year-old oak tree, and it's important to the natural balance that it is so, because at least some of the acorns must replace dying oak trees, and the tree doesn't know ahead of time which ones will be eaten. Every acorn, if given the chance, will try to germinate, to sprout, to grow. Just as important to the forest, however, is the fact that most of them won't get that chance. Most are eaten by the other denizens of the forest and serve a purpose outside of propagation--like everything else in an ecosystem, the acorns and their parent oak trees only serve their own interests in so far as it supports the entire ecosystem. The "death" of the majority of the acorns, like the death of half of all infants born in non-agricultural societies, is a critical and supportive aspect of life for the larger ecosystem, which in the end benefits the oak trees and the people, too. It is not necessary for the oak trees to "understand" this principle, nor is it necessary for people to do so either. The important thing is that there's really not anything either oak trees or pre-industrial peoples can do to misguidedly alter it. Instead, the reality of death guides adaptation. In the case of humans, it causes societies to develop a cultural maturity about death and its inevitability, a maturity that has largely disappeared with the advent of antibiotics and life-supporting technologies, leading to strange notions that nature somehow has to be improved, and that death is an arbitrary, unacceptable tyranny. Unrealistic notions about life and death both are caused by and in turn themselves encourage attempts to master nature through technical means.

Philosophical Daoism holds that nature is already an optimized state and all things must stay calibrated to nature's parameters (the Dao or "Way") or else the system deteriorates in some way and must strive again to recover harmony. One aspect of the system cannot somehow "succeed" at the expense of the rest of the system. This would be akin to the attempt to eradicate infectious disease via antibiotics, or saying your immune system is "fitter" and "more successful" than your lungs during an anaphylactic reaction. The body's immune system would be undermining its own support system if it damaged or killed the body by inappropriately constricting airflow. It wouldn't make sense to favor one aspect of the body over another. It's the bigger picture, the health of the body as a whole, that is important, and various parts of the body wax and wane at different times in a unified effort to support the body. A blood cell will eventually get worn out and need to be destroyed by the spleen. No one mourns the natural death of their blood cells or curses the recycling function of the spleen because these things are understood to be necessary for maintaining homeostasis, the key to health.  It makes no sense to champion just one aspect of the body and promote it at the expense of the rest. Philosophical Daoism perceives the human body as a microcosm, a hologram of the larger universe, and therefore, it does not consider the natural death of any person or thing to be tragic and something to be prevented if possible, just as in the microcosm of the body one would not consider the natural recycling of old blood cells by the spleen to be cruel. Of course, ill health happens all the time, mostly in the highly unbalanced environment of modern civilization, so it is not impossible to deviate from the Dao, but when it happens, disharmony is the reflexive consequence. However, having lost touch with the Dao ever since the European Enlightenment, industrialized peoples unsurprisingly fail to perceive an overarching, integrated bigger picture, and their culture holds fast to a belief in progress that at its core is psychotic.

Psychopaths don't believe the other people around them are real, and so they don't extend the same status to them as they do to themselves, making it very easy to objectify, exploit, and harm others. This mental and spiritual illness is most institutionalized in industrial civilization, though it is the basic mentality in all forms of domestication. No one participating in the modern global economy would think to ask the forest for permission to chop it down, and no one would thank the forest afterward either. No one thinks there is anyone to thank--the personhood of the forest is not a concept that exists in modern industrial culture. This is contrary to the feelings of the vast majority of pre-industrial peoples, including pre-industrial agriculturalists, who cross-culturally regarded the elements of their environments as equals or as parents. If you are dealing with equals or parents, you cannot just take what you want but instead must ask for things and reciprocate when you receive them. Of course, thanking the earth for sustenance or supplicating the spirits for assistance may not actually have any real-world effects. This is really beside the point, which is that this mentality serves as a cultural check against wanton exploitation of the rest of the world, safeguarding it from and for these peoples. A healthy relationship with the world, the relationship we were evolved to have, is based on seeing it as a source of company, succor, and mirth; the scientific relationship with the world is very explicitly based on exploitation, mastery, and enslavement.

To say that humans are of nature and therefore anything they do is natural is utterly disingenuous. It's possible for siblings to mate, but I don't know one could argue that that is perfectly normal and natural just because it's possible. It's possible for a fish to be put on dry land, but even a child knows that that fish's natural environment is water. To argue that there can be no inherent baselines for anything is just false. Humans are no different from fish or any other aspect of nature in this sense--just as a fish is evolved to thrive best in a certain environment, so are humans. Any changes to that environment must occur slowly enough for evolution to have a chance to respond. Humans require a human-scale world wherein their evolution, their "human nature", works perfectly for them, not constantly against them. And yet, the whole purpose, the whole appeal, the whole promise of technology is to take humans out of their environments of evolutionary adaptation--essentially, to find ways to take the fish out of the water so that it will have the chance to see dry land.

Modern technology's entire purpose is to do away with a human-scale world, to change things from how they were, away from the parameters that humans need to thrive. Obviously, there would be no point to technology if it didn't change anything--that is, if it really were neutral. There can be no debate as to whether technology is good, bad, or neutral. Technology will ALWAYS be pernicious because, regardless of personal feelings or ambitions for discovery and knowledge, motivations of greed or benevolence, it is beyond debate that humans are evolved to thrive only within certain parameters, and no matter how much some people may enjoy the novelty or knowledge, in the end we cannot fare well when those parameters are systematically transgressed, no matter what noble justifications are used. In light of all the evidence available from the fields of archaeology, anthropology, medicine, and biology, the readily available information about both past and extant forager societies, the sheer fact that humans have lived in anarchist forager societies for over ninety-nine percent of their existence and that we are all still physically, mentally, and spiritually adapted for that mode of life, how can technology, whose purpose is explicitly to cause change, be neutral, beneficial, sane, or ethical?

1 comment:

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