As I suggested I might be doing, I’m back to the questions and thoughts that were covered very nicely a few days ago by John Michael Greer in an essay on his blog The Archdruid Report, titled “What Progress Means“.
In a great bit of perfect timing by seemingly random chance, a little item popped up before me in wading through the web.
That one isn’t included here as some random side note, and, just to be clear if you’re continuing on here before going off to read that piece, it’s not intended as a guide for people wishing to be internet trolls.
In still another bit of great timing, another item popped up in the same batch of web reading, in the blog of Ugo Bardi (Resource Crisis, formerly called Cassandra’s Legacy). The subject was the deterioration and decline of newspapers.
There’s a pretty good topic to consider, if you want to get into an examination of the question of what progress is. Raise the subject of deterioration of newspapers, which is not exactly some new revelation, and the obvious response of many people is that newspapers are somehow obsolescent, passé, old-fashioned, making way for a brave new world of innovation in serving up daily stuff for “news consumers” through digital magic of “information technology” and communication.
What happens when that stuff doesn’t work, and all the newspapers have turned to waste and disappeared, or deteriorate to the point where they effectively cease to be of any use, even if they’re still in existence?
Raise a topic of a general discussion of the words “technology” and “progress” and you’ve opened up quite a large batch of stuff to wade through, obviously. The strange thing in this, of course, unfortunately, is the way many people will respond to anything about it really simplistically, which is something Greer does a fine job examining in all its silliness. Despite the relatively simple fact that the subject of technology is immensely broad, covering all kinds of complex territory, many people seem to turn it into some strangely simplistic notion as if it’s a singular kind of thing. It’s like “technology” is some monolithic singular thing, people throwing the word around casually without stopping to ask, well, what technology?
What sort of technology, exactly?
Throw in the magic word “innovation” and you’ve got a door opened for all kinds of silliness.
The word “innovation” simply means something new, and that’s entirely separate from the matter of whether or not it’s something better, something good. If people yap about technology, well, then, what technology? If they start babbling about progress, are they talking about making things better, improving things, or just continuing along a particular path?
As it happens, right now, as I’m writing this note, I’m actually bouncing back and forth in an absurd multitasking mode, writing a paragraph or two and turning my attention to internet and computer malfunction struggles, attempting to deal with something, get something working, things failing, and going on and on with that circus. There’s a whole pile of ridiculous clusterfucks involved in all that, which would be a waste of time to try to fully itemize and describe, with all sorts of related side topic narratives associated with the various problems.
Part of the insanity in this whole general kind of thing is that many people would respond to anything about all that with some essentially idiotic thoughtless platitudes about needing innovation, about needing new stuff to “update” the previous existing stuff, when, in fact, part of the mess really revolves around newer stuff, that replaced older stuff that actually worked properly, that now badly malfunctions in all kinds of frustrating, aggravating, and just completely ridiculous ways. It’s a multi-ring circus of farce.
Turn to anything in the realm of what’s called by names like “technical support” and “customer service” these days, and that just adds extra layers of absurdity and frustration and irritation.
Now, at this point, somebody somewhere is likely to dismiss all this, maybe with the thought that this is some sort of petulant whining about a “First World problem”, or maybe an “anti-technology rant”, completely missing the point. The broad assortment of various problems I’m talking about have a general similarity to them in that we’re talking about things that should work just fine, can be amazingly useful, and end up presenting all sorts of completely unnecessary problems, by some combination of various kinds of irresponsibility and neglect and sheer stupidity.
It amazes me to see how deranged people seem to have become around the subject of technology, and really, part of that has to be considered as a little bit odd in itself, which is the idea so many people seem to have, that “technology” just means an assortment of digital electronics. Never mind that technology covers a lot of territory, many different kinds of technology, including fundamental “simple machines” concepts of the lever, the wheel and axle, and so on, up to the latest, all sorts of ideas and concepts and applications involving mechanics, chemistry, electronics.
People seem more obsessed with the latest digital wonderstuff as a kind of fetish and fashion accessory as much as anything else, along with the general state of economic madness including people babbling about “tech” and “innovation” with vague ideas that if only “consumers” go out and buy more and more disposable latest gizmos we’ll have prosperity and progress, with “innovation” as a cure for all ills, regardless of what anybody actually needs, or, for that matter, whether or not this stuff involved is any improvement, or even any good at all.
A large factor in Greer’s thinking and writing about the whole subject is perhaps the most basic defining characteristic of technology. What is technology? Really the most basic definition of the idea is taking some form of energy and applying it as inputs to devices and systems that do some useful work. That’s the whole idea, really, and obviously, that brings in the whole subject of energy. Greer is among the people who understand very well where we are in terms of our circumstances concerning energy, and orients his thinking around that. This is sensible, reasoned, and, amazingly, very unusual. I even suspect that a lot of people would regard his thinking as downright weird, which says a lot, and not that there’s something wrong with JMG and his thinking.
Greer gives the topics involved serious consideration, examining things honestly as they are, realistically and with reason and a general sensible goodwill and view of the bigger picture and long term, which will make many people undoubtedly think “my goodness me, what a terribly odd fellow!”… or something like that.
I know it might seem awfully presumptuous to guess what people might think about something in broad generalizations, but I think it’s pretty reasonable and realistic to say that a great many people regard any and all of this kind of examination and thinking and discussion in the most absurdly reduced simplistic terms. There’s something that has a lot in common with what I call bipolar political disorder, in this case, an absurd and simply stupid reduction of everything to concluding that somebody must be either “pro-technology” or “anti-technology”, and miss damned near everything on hand.
Greer discusses a lot of this very well, so I don’t want to rehash the same things he’s thought through and written out so nicely. Go read it. I do feel the need to state that much of his thinking matches mine fairly closely. As I just said, there does seem to be this tendency for too many people to cram things into simplistic binary boxes, like “pro-technology” or “anti-technology” (maybe hauling out the term “Luddite”).
It does feel an awful lot like the bipolar political disorder neurosis of needing to try to cram everything into one of two simplistic boxes of dogma and cliches and presumptions. It also smells a lot like the simplistic reductionist reactions to anything about the subject of energy resources and how we use them, like insisting that we have, and always will have, all the hydrocarbon deposits our little heart’s desire and demand, or, at least we would, if only this, that, and the other thing, or that it’s all fine, because we’ll just switch everything over to clean green renewable alternative energy, or, at least we would, if only this, that, or the other thing, and all of that shunts right back into the political circus of reality evasion.
The energy situation is, of course, completely bound up inextricably with any serious thinking about technology, and what, exactly, “progress” might entail, but, then, there’s our problem; a serious lack of serious thinking about all this, with the people doing any honest examination and thinking dismissed and disregarded as some sort of eccentrics and nuts. This is certainly one of the tragic ironies of our time, here and now, that this is the situation, while, meanwhile, people operating in some ugly mix of lying, wishful thinking, and delusions get most of the attention, in pretty much any subject area of importance.
Much of what JMG is writing about is really fairly simple sensible reasoned thinking, none of it should be some astonishing brilliant revelation. Yet, all things considered, from what I observe these days, it really does stand out. While we’re at it, this is probably a good time to direct anyone not already familiar with them to the books Too Much Magic, by James Howard Kunstler, and You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier.
Apparently, part of what prompted Kunstler to write his book, essentially a followup work to his book from around a decade ago, The Long Emergency (another bit of required reading), was having experiences going to various venues to do speaking appearances where, among other topics, he tried his best to impress upon people the urgent problems related to our circumstances involving oil. The unfortunately common result was finding that when he addressed people whose work and existence revolved around “tech” (like, if I recall correctly, speaking to Google employees), he would find himself encountering arguments from earnest characters who objected to what he had told them, saying some words to the effect of “but we got technology, dude!”.
The idea there being that somehow, new magic “innovation” and technology would cure any and all “energy issues”, completely oblivious to the obvious- technology uses energy, by definition, it doesn’t create energy. But, evidently, there are people, generally extremely intelligent and educated people, who somehow have it lodged in their heads that energy supplies are something somehow subject to Silicon Valley wonder miracle “innovation”, with the kind of delusional hubris that comes from thinking that because Moore’s Law has basically held true for a while, that it’s really a law of the universe, and will continue infinitely, even though it would be reasonable to expect that well educated intelligent technical people would easily understand that nothing can increase exponentially forever without hitting some limit.
Apparently, many people just really aren’t getting their heads around this.
I’ve always been very fond of the idea of progress. It’s important. The thing is, we have this problem of nailing down the concept… what is progress? I think that much is pretty simple, it’s about improving things, making something better. The questions and problems of what might actually improve something is, of course, a possibly tricky topic sometimes. Obviously. Still, it astounds the hell of me often to look at some things and think “well, one thing is certain, that’s not it!”.