by Scott London for Friction Magazine
December 10, 2001
“Megatechnology” is a word that appears quite often in your writing. What does it mean?
I use the term “megatechnology” to describe a new reality where many technologies intertwine to create new technologies. For example, we talk about computers as if they were a single technology, but in fact they are intertwined with many, many other technologies. So it’s no longer possible to relate to the computer on a one-to-one basis. We live in a new kind of global environment where everything is mediated by technology. We are interactive with it every minute of the day. We are in a car, or in an office with all kinds of machines, or relating to computers, or watching TV, or walking down the street (which is also a form of technology). So, we are constantly relating to it. We live in a technology environment, a technosphere.
What do you think that does to us?
Well, just as other creatures co-evolve with their environment, we are co-evolving with our technologies. In nature, creatures evolve by adjusting and reacting to other creatures. It used to be that way with human beings as well. But now we are co-evolving mainly with machines. Our compromise with them is that we start to become like them—we have to become a little like them in order to use them.
What do you mean?
I mean that if you’re going to play a video game, for example, the point is to speed up your hand-eye coordination. The better you get at the video game, the faster your hand-eye connection. What you are doing with your hands and eyes is involving yourself in the computer program. So you are creating a cycle of actions and reactions with the computer technology. As your awareness and your nervous system become tuned to the computer, you are changed accordingly.
This is true of any technology. Look at television, for example. To watch television is to take in images that are artificially created for a specific purpose. By carrying these images, you begin to turn into them. That’s basic to education and to all experience: as you ingest your environment you begin to evolve with it. In the case of television, you are evolving on the basis of carefully selected and programmed images, so you are getting acted on in a very aggressive manner. Television turns you into its own images. It rearranges your mind.
A point you make quite often is that technology is not neutral, as many people presume. It may seem neutral when we look at it in purely personal terms—the personal benefits of a computer, for example — but from a broader social and political perspective, technology actually changes our reality in dramatic and sometimes dangerous ways.
We need to understand how technology affects the whole system. Although we may find computers to be very helpful, or television to be entertaining, or cars able to move us rapidly where we need to go, these things also have serious effects on the environment, on the speed of life, on the way we think, on how we view ourselves, on how we react with nature, and on how power changes in the system. All of these are systemic changes; they are things that happen in the system as a whole.
It’s not enough for us to say that cars are great because they will drive us someplace. Cars speed up life, they make oil wars happen, they create terrible waste problems, they require a lot of pavement, and they kill people. So you have to ask a series of systemic questions before you can make a judgment about whether cars are good. The same goes for computers, for TV, and for every technology.
How do you respond to the argument that technology is not inherently good or bad, it’s how we use it that matters.
That’s the major homily of our time. And it’s a very serious mistake. The idea that technology is neutral—that it doesn’t have social, political and environmental characteristics—is really dangerous.
Consider nuclear power and solar power. Both are energy forms, but they have entirely different effects on the system. Nuclear power is an inherently centralized technology. It requires centralized military-industrial institutions. Nobody knows what to do about 250,000 years of dangerous wastes. If we were to judge energy only in terms of who uses it, that would be like saying, “Well, if some good people got together and ran the nuclear power industry, the wastes wouldn’t have to be safeguarded for 250,000 years.” But these things are intrinsic to the technology. It’s not a question of whether good people use them.
Solar technology is the exact opposite — it is inherently localizing. A couple of people can easily put it together, it’s not expensive to use, the community can run it without having to hook up to the grid, and it has no lasting negative effects.
Some people feel that computers are inherently localizing, as you put it, since they decentralize institutions and empower and connect people in new ways.
Well, that is another example of failing to take a systemic viewpoint. People may edit their copy, communicate with their friends, connect with other like-minded people, and so on. But the computer doesn’t change the fact that great centralized institutions — corporations, trade bureaucracies, militaries, governments and so on — are able to use those same computers with far greater connections and with far greater real power. So the Internet will not stop a forest from being cut down or global money speculation from affecting the fates of whole societies. These technologies have to be viewed in all their dimensions.
If computers enable you to do your work a little better, I don’t argue with that. But it’s an illusion for us to believe that our use of the computer will somehow change the centralized system of power. For those who would like to see equitable and sustainable systems develop, the use of the computer amounts to a net loss, not a net gain.
In your book, In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations, you make the case that we need to think more seriously and systematically about the effects of technologies before they are introduced.
Yes. If you give some time and thought to the potentialities of technologies and see all the directions that they can go in, it will reveal much about how they are going to be used. It’s very necessary to understand those before a technology is used in a way that we don’t approve of. Of course, people often say, “Well, we don’t know how a technology is going to turn out.” The point mentioned in the book is that we do know how technology is going to turn out. We can make lots of predictions about technology. Corporations live and die by how well they predict the uses of their products. A corporation is not going to put zillions of their dollars into creating a technology without studying every possible use (and every possible downside) of that technology. What could go wrong? What great catastrophe could it cause? What small catastrophes could it cause? A corporation wants to know everything. So they spend a lot of money on figuring out what these technologies are going to do. And what they tell us is only the good things that they are going to do. They don’t tell us the downside of the story. We have to know the downside of the story now, before the technology is too far upon us.
Imagine how different America would look if we had predicted the effects of the automobile 70 or 80 years ago. Being stuck in traffic on a Los Angeles freeway always makes me wonder about the so-called benefits of technological progress.
Well, it’s been documented that in the 1930s the automobile industry and the oil industry conspired to undermine and eventually destroy Los Angeles’ public transportation system, which was very good at the time. San Francisco’s public transportation system was also very good. There used to be trains going across the Bay Bridge and you could get to Oakland very fast and very comfortably. But the trains were wiped out on purpose. The automobile and oil industries conspired to destroy the commuter railroads and replace them with freeways. Now people are wondering about what to do with all the cars. They’re studying how to put trains back on the bridge again.
One of the most striking passages in your book, In the Absence of the Sacred, is where you describe a trip to the MacKenzie Valley in Northwest Canada to speak with an Inuit women’s association about the effects of television.
I was invited by an organization called the Native Women’s Association of the Northwest Territories, an organization of Dine and Inuit women. The MacKenzie River Valley is where the Russian nuclear satellite came down some years ago. At the time, everybody was worried that it would fall on London or New York, but instead it fell on a so-called icy wasteland up in Canada. That’s the place where I was invited to go. It was 40 degrees below zero the day I arrived.
The MacKenzie River Valley has 22 communities of native people. They are spread over an enormous area. They still have a very successful traditional economy based on hunting and fishing and live in a communal manner in log houses.
I was invited up there because television had begun to arrive in the area. The Women’s Association was noticing startling changes in the communities where television had arrived. The men didn’t go out on the ice to fish as often. The animals weren’t being taken care of as well. The kids didn’t want to go out and play traditional games. The kids were starting to want things — like cars (even though there are no roads there). The neighbors weren’t hanging out together, working on the nets together, cooking together, eating together and so on. The community life was breaking down.
The most important thing, they told me, was the loss of story-telling. In the evenings, it used to be that the very old would gather with the very young in a corner of the house — several families together — and the old people would tell traditional stories and stories from their past. By hearing those stories, the young people could remember who they are, what’s good about their people, and how to live in that very harsh environment. The stories were a window to their roots. Also, the process of young and old hanging out together in that way was very important. There was a lot of love flowing back and forth and the kids were proud to be connected to their grandparents.
Apparently, all of this has been wiped out by television. Story-telling has come to an end. Now families sit together silently — all these generations together — and watch Dallas, a bunch of white people standing around a swimming pool drinking martinis and plotting against each other.
What is the appeal of a program like Dallas?
Human beings are genetically programmed to pay attention to anything that is new. It goes back to our time when we lived in jungles and had to depend on the information coming in through our senses. It’s part of our survival technique: we pay attention to anything new that takes place in our environment. But in this case it’s not an animal hiding behind a bush, it’s a whole technology speaking into our heads. It’s very hard to change ourselves genetically to keep up with the technological changes.
As human beings, we are supposed to believe what we see. Our system is constructed for seeing-is-believing. If we see birds flying south, we depend for survival on the fact that the birds are in fact flying south. But we’ve moved out of the forest and into the city and now we depend strictly on what is delivered to us as information. When we see images on television, we don’t know how not to believe them. Television is very powerful and compelling.
So, of course they watch Dallas. It’s completely exotic. If they are watching television, of course they’re going to want to see something different than a bunch of Indians sitting around. They are going to want to see something different, and television provides them with that. It’s a dream-machine.
I find it interesting that it was the women, not the men, who invited you to come.
I don’t know why it was the women and not the men. I presume it is because they are the keepers of the family and they are worried about the breakdown of family-life.
I’ve been told that there is now an Inuit version of Sesame Street that is quite excellent.
Oh, well. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good development. I’m not a fan of Sesame Street. It’s a very arch Western style of television. The way the imagery is presented on the show is tantamount to advertising. It was originally created by advertising people, that’s why it’s edited in that rapid-fire, repetitive fashion. It’s an advertising technique that people really respond to.
But this is presented as an example of how native communities are adapting educational programming to their own unique culture and tradition.
It’s not true. The fact that native people are producing Sesame Street doesn’t mean that it has been integrated into their culture. It’s a sign that the native culture is being destroyed and integrated into Western culture.
Native people are getting trained in all kinds of technologies now. The stuff is being brought in and promoted like crazy. The Canadian government very strongly wants them to watch television. They want them to turn from Indians into Canadians and therefore become workers and consumers. They want them to be inculcated into the culture. They want to get in there and show how it can be better. So they say things like, “Keep the native culture, but use computers.” Or, “Keep the native culture, but use television.” I think the government understands that by introducing these technologies, they are doing exactly the opposite — not preserving the native culture, but assimilating native people.
Tell me something about your own relationship to technology. Do you have a car?
I have lots of modern technologies. It’s impossible to function and not have some relationship to technology.
Do you own a car?
Yes, I have a car.
How about a computer?
No, I don’t use a computer. My feeling is that computers really strongly change the way we think. I think computers are changing the world more rapidly and more negatively than any other around. So I would really like to maintain a disconnection from that.
On the other hand, that’s a false distinction because I’m a writer. Eventually, everything I write is entered on a computer in order for somebody to publish it. So, there is no way around it. The car that I drive has computers in it. The microphones that we’re talking through have computers in them. The office I work in is full of computers.
Do you have a television?
There is a television in the house, but I don’t watch it.
You actually have a television?
The way you’re asking me that, it’s like you’re trying to catch me in some hypocrisy.
Well, you wrote a book called Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television but you still have one in the house. I’m curious about that.
That’s not as significant as it may sound. I’m sitting here in a room with two microphones talking on the radio. I sometimes fly to meetings on airplanes. I wear machine-made shoes. I have lights in my house. I use some home appliances. What is important is for every person to develop a relationship to technology that expresses their views of what is important and what is not important.
So, in the case of television, I don’t have a relationship to it. For example, I don’t appear on television. By not participating in that medium, I am making a statement about not supporting its output of information.
I’m glad you agreed to this radio interview.
I do go on radio, but there is not a whole lot of difference. There are some benefits: it’s a much less expensive medium, it’s much less centralized, and it keeps listeners imagery operating. But as a mass medium, it still has many problems connected with it.
The thing that people need to do is decide which technologies they want to relate to, and why, and try to stick by that as much as they possibly can. In my case, I could go live on a farm and use oxen but I’m not sure that would be a net gain in the end. I have to decide what is necessary in order to stay in the process and share my ideas. We all live in a compromised situation. So we do the best that we can.
Wendell Berry is right: the idea is to minimize as much as you possibly can all the relationships that you have. If some lesser level of technology will get the job done, you’re obliged to use that. That’s the principle that I go by.
Scott London is a writer and radio producer based in Santa Barbara, California. This interview was adapted from his radio series “Insight & Outlook.” For more information, visit his web site at: http://www.scottlondon.com