[Paleopsych] Bruce Sterling: Can Technology Save the Planet?

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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, 
recycle itself.

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 
unjust alike.

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 
do so.

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 
the 1980s.

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