Thursday, April 24, 2008

The promise of alternative technology

Or at least very high efficiency technology. The idea started after World War II that if efficiency in manufacturing processes could be increased by working more intelligently and designing things according to an increasing sophistication instead of through brute force. People's skill and creativity could be applied in a cooperative way, including workers giving input and collaborating on solving problems with the engineers and other people in the hierarchy. By working smarter, not harder, to use a cliche, it would be possible to design products and production processes that were inherently ecologically sound without compromising efficiency. Computers were thought to be very good potential aids to the process through the capability of them to manage processes through cybernetics, which despite the sci-fi name just refers to a sort of automated control and production management system. Of course, the ideas relating to scientific management that could be used to potentially make things easier could be used to further enslave people, like the time and motion studies of Taylor in the early 20th century that turned people into more thorough cogs in the machine. It could also lead to permanent technological unemployment if not done in such a way that people still had employment after the efficiency increased to the point where not as many people were needed. I think some sort a compromise could be reached with workers in charge of the processes in general and the computer principles having a lesser part. Now that I'm thinking of it, the automation is potentially really bad in that a shift towards more computer management could also shut workers out of control of the production process and making it harder for them to have real control over their jobs. But it could potentially work, I hope.

Anyways, the thought was to combine all this with social values like decentralization and some sort of enforced limitation of hours worked without a reduction in pay as well as social benefits so that competition would be kind of short circuited, meaning that the new technology wouldn't be able to be used to viciously throw people out of jobs and fund a sort of social darwinist society without any sort of popularly controlled social structure.

Well, all this sort of, isn't what I was aiming for. People have called this state a post-industrial economy or a post-modern economy, with a typical hard core modernist economy being based on heavy industry from the less sophisticated technology of the industrial revolution. Although some people say we're there in the United States it's largely a lie since industry has just been off shored. We haven't gotten past it, it's just someplace else, which leaves tech jobs more visible here than they otherwise would be. To really implement it in a productive way we'd need to combine new production processes with industry started to provide jobs while being protected from complete free trade.

*on edit: there appear to be two or possibly three major problems or contradictions that flow from increased technological efficiency in the sense described.

The first one deals with the power that an increasingly technology dependent society, even one where the technology is used for good purposes, gives to the engineers who design it. Workers are potentially disempowered, but the status of engineers and to a certain extent scientists is boosted considerably by this arrangement, leading to increased self realization on their part without necessarily empowering society in the same way. Some people have suggested that Technocracy is the appropriate form of government in this situation, which would mean letting the engineers decide everything to the detriment of the people. The opposite, though would probably be the best case: let technology and development be subordinated to social goals that are democratically decided on. This would also have to be socialist in orientation as well because ultimately in our society the engineers are subordinated to capitalism in regards to what they produce, making the inventions that come out oriented towards making money rather than purely serving human needs.

Secondly, the technology is potentially alienating to consumers themselves. Technology can be set up in such a way that it actually reduces the potential for self reliance that people have by shutting them out of using the new devices in ways that they choose. Instead, things can be dumbed down so that instead of having people take advantage of the tech to do interesting stuff they're reduced to pressing a button and getting a uniform result, with no other options. The computerization of cars is an example of this in that it's harder these days to work on cars yourself in the way that people used to. Instead, garages have more power over people's lives to the extent that they use newer cars. But cars these days are undoubtedly much more efficient and cleaner in their functioning than the sort of muscle cars that typify the do it yourself ethic. There are benefits but there's also an increasing sense of alienation, one that could be reduced by purposely making products with more sophisticated user input in mind. The same could be said of production processes that are increasingly technologized.

The final problem is more abstract, and consists of the scientific paradigm that engineering exists under. To some extent it's dominated by the sort of mechanistic Enlightenment worldview that emerged in the 18th century and that has exerted an enormous influence on American life. The absence of alternative models of the universe shuts off access to potentially helpful solutions as well as to holistic oriented solutions that might be more in harmony with ecological consciousness. The benefits could go beyond ecology, though. In Russia after the Revolution the fact that a non-Enlightenment materialism which was more flexible to alternative ideas, based on ideas derived from Marxism, took hold lead to innovations both in theory and in practice that are still being felt, for instance the proto-systems theory known as Tektology developed by Alexandr Bogdanov and the ideas behind modern rocketry.

*on edit: the idea of people getting control of technology has been taken to its ultimate conclusion, or at least one of them, by people who have applied the Paulo Freire model of popular education to technology by going into communities, when invited, and brainstorming on common problems then bringing in experts who collaborate with people in order to find an application that solves the common problem that they can use. A more direct way, or another way, to boost popular participation would be to spread technical education around to the point where people were competent on basic mechanics and engineering, complemented by making tech more open to people who don't have a hyper specific understanding of the stuff. This would ideally be a combination of competency in computers, in some technological area, and in basic stuff that makes up traditional working class occupations like carpentry and building trades.

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