[Paleopsych] Bruce Sterling: Can Technology Save the Planet?
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Mon Jun 20 18:42:14 UTC 2005
Bruce Sterling: Can Technology Save the Planet?
Can Technology Save the Planet?
Our opposable thumbs got us into this mess, and they can help get us out, says
futurist and science fiction writer Bruce Sterling.
Massive technological change is coming. Are we ready? Given the pace of
technological innovation we have experienced in the past 50 years, by
mid-century we will have an infrastructure as radically different from today's
as industry in 1900 was from that of 1700.
If we handle the huge transition correctly, it will be worth cheering. In 50
years, nature will be less oppressed, culture will be wiser, government will
take new and improved forms, industrial systems will be more efficient and
capable, and business will be less like a rigged casino. Purveyors of art,
fashion, and design will see what went on nowadays and bust a gut laughing in
derision. Our children and grandchildren will get up in the morning, look at
the news, and instead of flinching in terror, they will see the edifying
spectacle of the world's brightest people transparently solving the world's
worst problems. This sounds utopian, but it could soon be everyday life.
To achieve this victory, we need to understand technology with a depth of
maturity that humans have never shown before. We tend to obsess over newfangled
discoveries: the radio age, the space age, the atomic age, the computer age. We
need to stop fussing over these tiny decades-long "ages" and think historically
and comprehensively, employing technology as a means to preserve the web of
life rather than for its own sake. The Iroquois considered the impacts of their
decisions on seven generations, and so can we.
Thanks to information technology, we can already track what previous
generations have sown. According to the United Nations' Millennium Ecosystem
Assessment, a four-year research effort by more than 1,300 scientists, nearly
two-thirds of the world's ecosystems are being degraded because the human race
is living beyond its means. Without substantial changes in policies and
practices, they contend, Earth faces an environmental disaster that will
threaten all people in the 21st century. Understand this timeline, and there
are only three basic kinds of technology that are truly worth our attention.
None of them is entirely possible now. It is our task to invent them.
The first and most sensible technology is one that does its work and then
eventually rots and goes away by itself. Its core materials and processes are
biodegradable, so it's self-recycling. Writer Janine Benyus talks about
"biomimetic" technologies; architect William McDonough describes "cradle to
cradle" production systems. This means harnessing the same biochemical means of
production that built the natural world and using them to create industries,
cities, products, everything. It means the industrial use of new materials with
the sturdy, no-nonsense qualities of spider silk, mussel glue, coral, seashell,
horn, bone, and timber. It means room-temperature industrial assembly without
toxics: no foundries, no pesticides, no mercury. When an object made by these
processes is abandoned or worn out, it becomes part of the biosphere.
This is already happening, but too often in uncontrolled ways. The shell of my
desktop computer is made of aging plastic; its chips and wiring overheat and
off-gas. It's becoming part of the biosphere as I type and blast electricity
through it. And I'm busily inhaling those tiny bits of computer debris. I have
to pray that they're not slowly accumulating somewhere deep in my tender
anatomy. The designer of Apple's Macintosh died this year of pancreatic cancer.
I don't blame his Mac; Silicon Valley is notorious for its Superfund sites. The
leaders of America's computer revolution have been living in a stew of toxic
debris. That's no way to build an industry.
The second kind of technology is monumental. These are artifacts built to
outlast the ages - artifacts with the honest, solid design demanded by, say,
craftsman William Morris and art critic John Ruskin. In theory, monuments
reduce the human load on the environment because they are "consumed" only over
many generations. With no planned obsolescence, they're very thrifty, and they
never go away. Compare the quality and livability (and asking price!) of a New
York City "Classic Eight" apartment built at the turn of the last century to a
postwar pop-up in the suburbs. Look at Union Station in Washington, D.C., still
a public-transit hub nearly a century after being built - or the Louvre and
Notre-Dame, still in use some 500 and 800 years, respectively, after
As much as I like antiquity, monuments are very hard to design and build. (And
in some cases, permanence is undesirable. People sometimes want a chance to
change their minds, their locales, and their circumstances.) While many
designers have sought lasting solutions for technological problems, the fact is
that most technology isn't as durable as a great building. You can use a
century-old hand tool or wheelbarrow that performs as beautifully as it did the
day it was made, but the hope for a perfect and lasting solution also led
Dieter Rams of the German firm Braun to design a permanent player for vinyl
records. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven left monumental achievements. But a record
player? Mere hardware should be a servant to humanity, not a cenotaph.
Then there's the third kind of decent technology, a cybernetic industrial base.
Imagine a fully documented, trackable, searchable system in which the computer
revolution has permeated manufacturing, inventorying, and transporting. Every
manufactured object is bar-coded, scanned, and tracked throughout its lifetime.
Consider a Dell computer: It doesn't even exist until you place your order,
setting in motion a tightly controlled manufacturing and delivery process. (On
a smaller scale, I can keep track of my writingÑmaterial stored on my hard disk
- using a Google search. Eventually I hope to be able to Google my misplaced
car keys.) While this sounds like Big Brother, when it comes to managing the
resources that go into industrial processes, such hyper-control creates great
economic and environmental efficiency. Imagine a whirring technology that would
keep full track of all its moving parts and, when its time inevitably came,
The main advantage of this "Internet of Things" would be the ways in which it
would transform our relationships to our possessions. Emerson mourned that
"things are in the saddle and ride mankind." But in an Internet of Things,
objects are not burdensome; they are incidental. An Internet of Things would be
as different from today's industrial status quo as Google is from the 1910
Encyclopaedia Britannica. It would mean a truly dizzying world that would stun
us the way a Victorian would be blown away by television.
I have few illusions about the ways people interact with technology. So let me
be clear: Society's problems do not get solved by merely inventing new stuff.
Breakthroughs are easy to publicize, but genuine environmental victory means
annihilating some major evils perpetrated by our great-grandparents. The bad
old stuff has to be torn up and junked.
That requires changing the way we understand technology. Right now the term
technology simply means "things invented since I was born." These can be itchy
and frightening things, freighted with unknown implications for good or ill.
They're things of shock, awe, wonder, and suspicion. They're headline makers.
Technologies invented before I was born are basically invisible to me. It
scarcely matters how powerful and dangerous they are. Since I'm used to them,
I'm blind to them. I regard them as normality, the fabric of the universe.
Today nobody calls railroads technology. They are thought of as old-fashioned,
cuddly objects with praiseworthy public-transit applications. But when
railroads were young, they did most every fearsome thing we dread from new
technologies. They exploded and derailed with horrific regularity. They turned
cities inside out. They caused financial booms and panics, massive government
corruption, vast migrations, wildfires, pollution, and the comprehensive
slaughter of the American bison. Railroads were hell on wheels.
Yet railroads are still powerfully transformative, just as they were when every
red-blooded boy wanted to be Casey Jones, the insanely daring train engineer.
We still think in that flawed way, only with newer toys. (For us moderns,
technology is a synonym for computers.)
In the case of electricity and running water, these technologies are visible
only by their absence. When people nowadays lack electricity and plumbing, we
don't think of it as a normal way of living. We call it camping out, or
poverty. But electricity and plumbing are at the root of the most profound
threats to the continuity of our civilization - climate change, loss of
biodiversity, soil erosion and salinization, water-table depletion and water
shortages, exhaustion of fossil fuels, and the bio-accumulation of various
toxics in water, food, soil, and the bloodstreams of all living creatures.
Electricity and plumbing aren't evil and wrong. But we've trained ourselves to
take their presence too much for granted. We don't yet see technology as an
ancient, comprehensive, continually unfolding set of artificial processes,
spread through every level of society.
Once we fully deal with the darker consequences wreaked on our world by our
desire for pretty table lamps and nice hot baths, we'll become far more
civilized. And the technologies that can dig us out of, rather than deeper
into, the abyss will make more sense. Fortunately, environmental calamity
captures our attention better than other political and social concerns: It's
based in tangible and physical reality. Acid rain falls on the just and the
Even our civilization's death grip on creaky old fossil fuels is loosening.
Already, major European oil companies are perfectly capable of talking sense:
BP sincerely hungers to be "Beyond Petroleum," while the honcho at Shell, an
outfit chastened by fraud allegations, rides a folding bike to work and uses
fluorescent bulbs at home. ExxonMobil posts the biggest profits in the world,
but that's not a sign of health and good management; it's a sign of reckless
A clever environmental campaign would explain to the rich how much they are
suffering at the hands of old tech. A wealthy American with an environmentally
caused cancer has the same bio-accumulative toxic burden as the rest of us; the
ultimate environmental reality show would be something like Wrecked Florida
Beach Homes of the Rich and Famous. Extend that metaphor to other groups that
don't easily embrace environmental messages and you can show fundamentalist
churches ripped to shreds by F4 tornadoes, or Sagebrush Rebellion ranchers who
haven't seen a drop of rain in months. People understand suffering once it's
divorced from the abstract and imposed on them.
We need to grasp the artificial environment from a full, long-term, holistic
perspective. We can see just by looking at our own hands that we are uniquely
suited to manipulating artificial objects. Humans are especially good with fire
and edged weapons because they were discovered and invented not by us, but by
our prehistoric ancestors. Furthermore, stone tools and fire are potent and
dangerous technologies. By the standards of all other living creatures, they
are fantastic, unimaginable, and horribly deadly. Today climate change is
happening because of fire.
Stone tools and fire have also caused massive losses in biodiversity. If
mega-creatures were still wandering Yosemite and Yellowstone, they would be a
boon to ecotourism. But they're not around, mostly because Stone Age humans ate
them all. That particular mass extinction has humanity's opposable thumbprints
all over it. The ancient peoples who killed large Pleistocene animals had no
way of measuring what their technology was doing to the natural world. It's
hard for anyone to think 50 generations ahead. But we're gaining the ability to
In the era of global warming, catastrophic change caused by humans is no longer
limited to one region or even one continent. The atmosphere is tainted with
emissions from pole to pole. Grass is growing in Antarctica. Nobody can
"conserve" a landscape from planetary changes in rain, heat, and wind. The job
at hand is aggressive restoration: We need to use technology to tear into the
artificial environment the way our ancestors tore into the natural one. That
means intervening against ongoing damage, as well as ripping into the previous
technological base and rethinking, reinventing, and rebuilding it on every
level of society. We need to imagine the unimaginable to avoid having to live
with the unthinkable.
The consequences of bygone technologies are with us now; they've merely been
rendered invisible by yesterday's habits of thought. When we see our historical
predicament in its full, majestic scope, we will stir ourselves to great and
direly necessary actions. It's not beyond us to think and act in a better way.
Yesterday's short-sighted habits are leaving us, the way gloom lifts with the
Bruce Sterling has written several novels, including Zeitgeist (2000) and The
Zenith Angle (2004). His nonfiction includes The Hacker Crackdown (1992) and
Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years (2002). He is
"Visionary-in-Residence" at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena,
The Viridian Design Movement is Sterling's effort to promote high-tech,
stylish, and ecologically sound design. World Changing provides "models, tools,
and ideas for building a bright green future" and offers a wealth of Web links
to green-technology news, discussions, and resources. The Dead Media Project is
a collection of "research notes" on obsolete media technologies, from Incan
quipus and Victorian phenakistoscopes to the video games and home computers of
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