Sunday, January 15, 2012

Musings on fear vs optimism, collapse vs innovation

Writing about tech is comfortable in the sense that it's almost always about progress, problems getting solved and annoying tasks replaced with invisible automation. Tech bloggers, journalists and readers are generally optimists. Those of us who do worry a bit mostly do so over totalitarian tendencies in the largest tech companies and most heavily gadget-armed governments. Malthusian fears may seem alien - what do you mean, "the earth isn't growing"?

Facts: Most of Earth's physical resources are finite. Human population and consumption rates are increasing in exponential rates. Our ability to utilize resources, our productivity, increase somewhat linearly long term but in phases of bumps, stand-still and setbacks. At current consumption rates the store called Earth will be sold out in a couple of decades. Although such simplistic extrapolation clearly isn't creating realistic prophesies (even a dysfunctional Capitalism would at least partly solve the issue) we all know there is a problem. (Except fanatical Capitalists who will solemnly ignore the "temporary" glitches of their system when it produce mass starvation and global riots.)

How do we stay happy? How do we hold on to the conviction that future technologies will solve any problem? Some of us need to hold progress in our hands, see it flicker past our eyes. Our worries are then dissolved by a constant stream of trivial updates, upgrades and new models. Even people who believe they are fighting against the evils of neoliberalism are very often at the same time devout worshippers to the Cult of Optimism. Behold the iProduct, recite the Book of Jobs, it will save the world by manifesting the Cult of Optimism.

There are untold stories about the positive environmental impact of Linux encouraging people to use the hardware, which seemed outdated to Microsoft Windows, for a little while longer. Delayed replacements that have in turn also delayed the depletion of mountains of rare earth minerals and countless lung disease incidents in 3rd world land fill scrap metal recycling boys. Ironically, even appropriately hyped downgrades can be adopted as progress and give hope to the ignorant, consuming masses. Such as the touch screen running a restrictive operating system: The iPad. Even for orangutangs.

"Hello, would you like to buy a touch screen with a locked down OS at three times the price my competitors offer it?"
I went to the "3rd world", came back and put down my experiences in a beautiful little article (I thought) - but it was turned down for being too pessimist. I discussed my new book, Ecowar - Natural Resources and Conflict, with a climate change campaigner and was told it'd be difficult to sell because to do so you need to focus on the positive sides.

Perhaps tech will "save the world" from resource scarcity and climate change induced collapse. I'm confident it will both do so at least to some extent while also make our lives increasingly comfortable. But even in this case the Cult of Optimism is working against this end, not to its fulfillment, as the ritualistic cycles of buy-and-throw-away consumption eats away the foundations of civilized existence.

I guess running two blogs, one tech one enviro, says something about the duality of man, sir?

Do you want to do something ridiculously easy, entirely free and quite symbolic that will take you a second while contributing to the above concerns in a positive way? Sign the petition 'Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Inc.: Make a conflict-free product that includes minerals from eastern Congo' at I did.
"I cannot in good conscience purchase a new phone because the gold, tin, tungsten, and tantalum that power it are destroying my home."
- Delly Mawazo Sesete
[This article is a sequel to Ecowar / Musings on optimism vs fear, innovation vs collapse]