This is perhaps the most common point of contention that people who are not well-read in techno-skeptic literature will give as to why they do not see a point in revolution. This is even a common point made by people who are techno-skeptics, but are not interested or have any faith in revolution against the technological system. This is an understandable position to hold and I used to hold it as well. It tends to be formed under a number of influences:
- The common world-view of history as a linear story that is always progressing in the direction of technological development
- A sense of learned helplessness and futility against the large systems and organizations that have control over most aspects of life
- Misanthropy towards the nature of most people and a sense that (most of) humanity has tied its noose so now it deserves to hang in it
Of course, not everyone who holds this position believes all three of these things, but the argument particularly hinges on the first point. We shall address these points in a moment as I have much to say about them, but first I must give the primary reason for which I do not find this position valid, and it has nothing to do with any of these points.
Even if society were to at some point in the future begin the process of industrialization again, it is not sensible for us to worry about that. We must deal with the problems facing our time just as they will have to deal with the problems facing their time. If society were to industrialize again, it would be some 500 or 1,000 years in the future. Just because there is a possibility that society industrializes again does not mean we should give up because the alternative is destruction. The larger the system grows, the more disastrous the effects of its breakdown will be. If we do not bring it to collapse in time, we are facing a technological crisis that entails total ecological destruction. If we carry out a successful revolution in time, then there is at least a chance of humanity, and other complex living organisms, surviving. There may or may not be a lasting ideology or sociological memory of industrial collapse that remains in society. It is up to those with the will to do something about it to face the problem, those who can be convinced of the fight for freedom and autonomy will be, and we cannot worry about those who will never be convinced. Most major revolutionary events in history have been decided by a small and dedicated group of people with a commitment to getting rid of the established structures.
Now, let us turn our attention to the first point. It is a very common viewpoint of society that history is a linear story that always progresses, especially in terms of technological development, but also in sociological development, and so on. This is particularly an axiom in Marxist ideology, but it is also held to varying degrees by the rest of the ideological spectrum. Before 17th and 18th centuries, society was affected by all sorts of conditions that were not purely technical (technique being a method of doing something which is the one most efficient way of doing it in a rational and mathematical sense, to roughly borrow the definition from Jacques Ellul). Before the beginnings of the industrial revolution, technique was only one factor in a whole range of other human factors that determined the development of a society. However, since the start of the industrial revolution in Europe, technique has actually become society. Everything has become technical and has done so by technical necessity, from war to economy to human life itself. This began in Europe and eventually spread, via European action, to the rest of the world. As noted by Kaczynski:
- In the late Middle Ages there were four main civilizations that were about equally “advanced”: Europe, the Islamic world, India, and the Far East (China, Japan, Korea). Three of those civilizations remained more or less stable, and only Europe became dynamic. No one knows why Europe became dynamic at that time; historians have their theories but these are only speculation. At any rate, it is clear that rapid development toward a technological form of society occurs only under special conditions. So there is no reason to assume that a long-lasting technological regression cannot be brought about.
As mentioned, we are not sure why the technical explosion happened, no more sure than we are about why life itself formed in the first place. To read more about the genealogy of technique that has lead us to this point, I highly recommend The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul. Of course, technology existed before the technical revolution. I shall again take Kaczynski’s distinction between two kinds of technology (there is also a lengthy and convincing analysis of this subject by Ellul, but for the sake of brevity I will cite Kaczynski)
- We distinguish between two kinds of technology, which we will call small-scale technology and organization-dependent technology. Small-scale technology is technology that can be used by small-scale communities without outside assistance. Organization-dependent technology is technology that depends on large-scale social organization. We are aware of no significant cases of regression in small-scale technology. But organization-dependent technology DOES regress when the social organization on which it depends breaks down. Example: When the Roman Empire fell apart the Romans’ small-scale technology survived because any clever village craftsman could build, for instance, a water wheel, any skilled smith could make steel by Roman methods, and so forth. But the Romans’ organization-dependent technology DID regress. Their aqueducts fell into disrepair and were never rebuilt. Their techniques of road construction were lost. The Roman system of urban sanitation was for-gotten, so that not until rather recent times did the sanitation of European cities equal that of Ancient Rome. The reason why technology has seemed always to progress is that, until perhaps a century or two before the Industrial Revolution, most technology was small-scale technology. But most of the technology developed since the Industrial Revolution is organization-dependent technology. Take the refrigerator for example. Without factory-made parts or the facilities of a post-industrial machine shop it would be virtually impossible for a handful of local craftsmen to build a refrigerator. If by some miracle they did succeed in building one it would be useless to them without a reliable source of electric power. So they would have to dam a stream and build a generator. Generators require large amounts of copper wire. Imagine trying to make that wire without modern machinery. And where would they get a gas suitable for refrigeration? It would be much easier to build an ice house or preserve food by drying or picking, as was done before the invention of the refrigerator. So it is clear that if the industrial system were once thoroughly broken down, refrigeration technology would quickly be lost. The same is true of other organization-dependent technology. And once this technology had been lost for a generation or so it would take centuries to re-build it, just as it took centuries to build it the first time around. Surviving technical books would be few and scattered. An industrial society, if built from scratch without outside help, can only be built in a series of stages: You need tools to make tools to make tools to make tools…A long process of economic development and progress in social organization is required. And, even in the absence of an ideology opposed to technology, there is no reason to believe that anyone would be interested in rebuilding industrial society. The enthusiasm for “progress” is a phenomenon peculiar to the modern form of society, and it seems not to have existed prior to the 17th century or thereabouts.
Many do not see a distinction between these two kinds of technology. Technology is just technology, whether made by a local smith or by a great industrial factory. However, this writer trusts that the reader can see the significant distinction between the properties of these technologies in their production and propagation as they relate to the discussion of anti-tech revolution. A final note in this discussion is that technological propagation was a rare occurrence in antiquity. Generally, organizational technologies remained within a specific civilization or culture and were lost upon the collapse of that culture while small-scale technologies generally survived. This is the first time in history that a society has become purely technical, and we have no reason to necessarily believe that it will become determined purely by technique again via industrialization, however as aforementioned, that will be a problem for the people of that time to deal with.
As for the second point, we have talked about apathy and learned helplessness to some extent in a previous post. However, a further discussion of misanthropy is due in a separate post altogether, as it is not pertinent to the primary topic of this post.
Stay safe – Normandie