by Jacob Corvidae

I never cease to love the experience of seemingly disparate interests suddenly coming together in one topic.  Shall we proceed…?

I recently had the honor of sitting at the Detroit Yacht Club (pretty!) on the lovely Belle Isle (belle, belle!) for the Free Press’s first annual Green Leaders Awards ceremony for breakfast and awards among many great people. The keynote speaker (and an honoree) was Bill Ford, Jr. of Ford Motor Company. I found him comfortably down-to-earth (as I’d heard from his employees) and genuinely comfortable with environmental issues, which was no real surprise. I liked him. However, his central message had a flaw. His essential point was: Technology is going to solve the environmental challenges ahead.

Now, there are many in the environmental world who lambaste the “technology will save us” message that Ford, Tom Friedman and many other techno-greenies advocate. Some advocate a Luddite initiative, others simply dismiss the technological fix as a morally and environmentally insufficient red herring or (at best) stop-gap. Certain nuances of that latter approach start to approximate my own opinion, but let me be clear: I also believe that technology will save us – insofar as I believe that technological development will be an essential and irreplaceable part of the solution that we must embrace and strive for in the years ahead. But I still think Ford’s basic message is off in a crucial way.

Enter the feminist writer. I’ve long been a big fan of UK author Jeanette Winterson. One of her most recent books The Stone Gods is what many would call science fiction, though that isn’t her usual genre. She herself notes:

People say to me, ‘so is the Stone Gods science fiction?’ Well, it is fiction, and it has science in it, and it is set (mostly) in the future, but the labels are meaningless.

I can’t see the point of labeling a book like a pre-packed supermarket meal. There are books worth reading and books not worth reading. That’s all.

And because of this book, she was featured last fall on a BBC art critique TV show to talk about the rise of geek culture, along with movie director Kevin Smith and comedian-geek Natalie Haynes. At one point they got into a divisive discussion about the problems (or not) with violence in much of comic-book culture (see the video below).

Winterson’s basic point (just about the comic Kick-Ass, now a major motion picture) was this:

…the thing is just full of the worst kind of dripping violence, which is a kind of adrenaline injection which means you’ll be utterly dead to life in its subtlety, its complexity, its possibilities of expansion of relationships. This is the kind of thing that’s the product of human emptiness.

To which Kevin Smith replied: “I thought it was just a comic book.” Smith and Haynes argued that this was just the culture of the medium and that the presence of a hard fighting young girl was progress. This is another debate that has raged in other places.  (Comics-god Scott McCloud points out that at least this particular conversation was a sign of progress for comics evolution).

But Winterson’s point, I believe, drives at something else. Specifically, that we must overcome the disconnects between actual life and all of the adrenaline pumping pretty things we’re presented with in today’s media. And this is what brings me back to Bill Ford.

Technology may do wonders for us in the future years. I think we’re going to see an exciting explosion of innovation and entrepreneurial successes in the realm of green technologies. As stated above, I think some of these innovations will be necessary for us to get to a tenable solution for the ecological crises that face us.

But technology does not appear from nowhere. Technology will not save us. People will. People will drive the vision and leadership to develop useful technologies (and the many social solutions we’ll need) to save ourselves.  Without people making choices, changing policies and doing the work to make those solutions emerge, then they won’t. If we keep our focus on the technology without remembering where it comes from (as well as who it’s to serve) then we run the risk of assuming that it will just emerge, fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. If that were so, we would have had major solar technology breakthroughs back in the 80s regardless of the fact that Reagan slashed funding for it.

Technology can seem out of single-human grasp, but the maker movement is reclaiming the human hand in techno-crafting,  and we would all do well to remember the necessity of focusing on people (and our ability to understand nature, as well) as the developers of the solutions that can save us.

4 Responses to “Bill Ford, Feminist Authors, and Kick-Ass, Oh My!”

  1. Penn Taylor
    16:38, 10.05.2010

    Another major issue with the “technology will save us” argument is that it assumes we have conscious social control over how technologies are used. This is simply not the case. A new technology may be intentionally developed to address a specific problem — and succeed — but have important secondary and tertiary effects. Sometimes the secondary effects negatively outweigh the primary issue that the technology was originally developed to address, and this appears to be a particular danger for technologies that operate on a large scale or are intended to address a large, persistent problem.

    Rather than thinking of technology as a potential savior, I believe it better to think of technology as opening doors to possible solutions, but understanding that it may open multiple doors, and it can be difficult to predict what’s behind the other doors. All new technology comes out of Pandora’s toolbox.

  2. Hey Penn,

    Sorry for the long response delay – the comment got held up in the ether….

    So, given this take, do you think that technology cannot be pursued toward a specific goal? I agree that secondary and tertiary uses often outstrip intended purposes of a technology, but does that negate the use of pursuing technologies for an intended primary purpose? Or does it imply a different approach of using open info sources to encourage people to take other emerging technologies to solve a problem?

  3. Penn Taylor
    12:45, 25.05.2010

    I certainly think that technology *should* be pursued toward a specific goal — in fact, I see that as the primary legitimate reason for bothering with new technology at all. The issue I see is that the specific goal is rarely the only end result. The trick is in discovering the probability of other effects before putting a technology to use.

    Open info sources are an important piece of understanding what technology currently exists and how it has been applied, allowing rational decisions about a new application of an existing technology and preventing endless re-development of the wheel. It’s humbling the number of times I’ve witnessed people struggling to solve a problem that was solved decades ago, but few people know the solution because it has not been effectively shared.

    Another very important aspect of pursuing new technologies is that they must be tested appropriately before they are released into the wild. What’s required is something akin to anthropological market testing, where the emphasis is not on price and consumer base, but on understanding *how* people use a technology and what they apply it to. Once you have a fair idea of real-world use and application, then you have a meaningful basis for attempting to discover potential secondary effects (social effects, environmental effects, etc) in advance. It’s difficult, it’s expensive, and it takes a long time, which is why very few technologies are tested in a way even remotely similar to this.

    And no technique that I’m aware of can address the problem that even if end products of a specific technology are made illegal, the technology itself hasn’t been erased — look at the issues going on in Iran and North Korea around “peaceful nuclear power.” That genie is out of the bottle for good.

  4. Hey Penn,

    once again some time gap. Sorry about that. I’ve got a tech bug to fix somewhere (assuredly one with a solution that already exists and I just need to find – as per your point above: it’s about making the info findable).

    Lots of good thought here. Are you proposing some anthropological testing independent of just releasing it to the world? It seems to me that the playing and secondary benefits discoveries happen once a product is out there and available. It happens organically and informally, but happens nonetheless. I guess the key comes back to finding useful ways for capturing that information — how to get back the “results”. Hacker spaces and things like the maker faire are a good start, but do you envision other specific mediums for such feedback capture? Or do they already exist out on the web?

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