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“Faulty Generalizations” and the Trajectory of Technology

September 2018 Preface

This discussion aims to draw out a common fallacy of argumentation and was written at a time when technological pessimism, primativism, and “anti-civ” sentiments were more popular than at present. Here, an argument against professional sports finds its parallel in an argument against technology. Though this work does not make it explicit, both of these arguments are examples of a kind of faulty generalization, wherein a particular manifestation of a broader concept is mistaken for or judged to be the broad concept itself.

In the first example, we see how a critique of professional sports is mistaken as a critique of sports generally. This can lead to a blanket dismissal of sports altogether and with it, the potential opportunities for educating and catalyzing the working class, as well as the potential role of sports in a liberated society. 

In the second example, we see how the deformities by capitalism on technological development are often mistaken for technology per se. Technology was a large point of contention for many years within radical circles, especially between “social” anarchists, anarchist-communists, and social ecologists on the one hand, and anti-civilization radicals and primitivists on the other. Being aware of this type of fallacious (invalid) reasoning is particularly important to the social ecologist (and ecosocialist), who will encounter many variants. Indeed, Murray Bookchin wrote in several places of this type of faulty logic (see Re-Enchanting Humanity, the first chapter of Remaking Society, and his opening statement in Defending the Earth, for example).

Whether taking one aspect of technology and conflating it with technology per se, or one aspect of society or one stratum of humanity to indict humans as such, this thinking is dangerous to the extent that it oversimplifies, obscures, and confuses a larger concept with a subset of that concept: To reject technology outright precludes its development towards liberatory and ecological ends. To claim that human beings cause ecological crisis obscures the power and class influences wielded by a small and particular subset of humanity.

Recognizing and refuting these arguments not only helps maintain theoretical clarity and preserve a higher standard of debate, but serves to emphasize the importance of the social bases from which these subsets (of technology, humanity, culture, etc) derive (a “social matrix” as Bookchin often described it).

Originally written to support a project called “Social Ecology Sonora,” the last half of this article teases out potentially liberatory aspects of technological development already in existence under capitalism. It then goes on to suggest elementary ways in which this type of technology can be leveraged in support of the liberated, ecological society and was intended to spark discussion and implementation. 

(Originally titled “The Phoenix Suns and Technology”)
Revised September 2018

With the Phoenix Suns currently limping through the playoffs, interest in professional sports has risen sharply locally. For radicals that also enjoy sports, the playoffs are a time to defend one’s politics from a seemingly glaring hypocrisy: professional sports embody the waste, excess, and class nature of advanced capitalism. Billionaire or corporate team owners pay millions of dollars to players tied to corporate endorsement deals, playing in stadiums subsidized by working class taxation, in leagues and games designed for higher viewership and ever-greater ad, tie-in, and sponsorship revenue.

Faced with these inconsistencies, our affronted radical sports fan often responds that, of course, under capitalism it is only reasonable to assume that sports would be commodified, professionalized, and used for profit and pacification. That is the nature of capitalism and its profit motive.

Indeed, it seems like a failure of one’s utopian vision to confuse sports per se, in all of its diverse manifestations, with professional sports under advanced capitalism.To support this, one can also point to the underground, local, and community sport leagues that occur all across the United States (and the world). Yet, it is reasonable that for working people interested in following sports but unable or uninterested to play, professional leagues provide the easiest way to follow specific sports or local teams.

Hopefully, these radical sports fans would also speak of the need to liberate these games from the control of the capitalist class, and that friendly-competitive, as well as cooperative sports would be a central part of the rich and diverse culture(s) of the liberated society. The radical sports fan may also point out that professional sports are enormously popular among the working-class, and therefore present a point of commonality helpful for raising consciousness.

The attitude of blanket dismissal by the sports critic (dismissal of the notion that professional sports could be used to radicalize, of the value of sports generally, etc)–this inability to “see the forest for the trees”—is a large issue for the radical left. Whether one is justified in following professional sports, the fact remains that sports per se are not inherently capitalistic, and are different than the specific manifestations of professional sports under advanced capitalism. Again, this point is clearly illustrated in the many non-capitalistic and non-exploitative forms sports have taken historically and at various levels of society currently (family, neighborhood, city, workplace, etc.).

Having taken the category of sports and discerned it from one specific manifestation of sports – that is, professional sports under advanced capitalism – allow me to turn to another example of this type of confusion: technology.

In the last few decades radicals, particularly in the United States, have taken stances increasingly hostile to “technology,” among other issues. Technology, from this view, is inherently alienating, enslaving, and unsustainable. Often, the present uses of technology are cited as support for this: weapons, surveillance, privacy intrusion, erosion of freedoms, biotechnology, genetic engineering, herbicides and pesticides, etc.

Yet, just as the Phoenix Suns and the NBA are specific manifestations of basketball under the current capitalist system, so too are pesticides, iPods, military weaponry, and surveillance systems specific manifestations of technology under advanced capitalism. Technology, like sports, like the arts, like our communities and social relationships, are a product of the society out of which they spring. For us, this society is capitalist, and it only stands to reason that the capitalist class controls the research and development of technology and the ends toward which that development strives: commodification, manipulation, profit, and the protection of wealth and power.

However, the liberatory potentials of technology – to minimize toil, allow for new forms of horizontal communication and decision-making, increase supply of the means of life, improve the degraded environment, increase free time, and allow smaller, decentralized communities to power themselves in sustainable, bioregional ways – have always been part of the liberatory, utopian vision of the left from Charles Fourier, to Marx, Peter Kropotkin, and Murray Bookchin.

As well, just as non-capitalistic “street” sport leagues exist even in countries of advanced capitalism, so too do we find technologies, and uses of technology, that can be put toward liberatory (rather than exploitative or enslaving) ends, even now under a system in which we would not expect any liberatory potential from technological development at all. This speaks loudly in favor of the need to discern between specific capitalist manifestations of technology, and technology per se. Indeed, one can clearly imagine that technology, controlled by the people of a liberated, ecological society, will look very different from the technology we see today under capitalism: items designed for user-serviceability, ease of maintenance, durability, and multiple purposes. Instead of profit or oppression, technology will be developed to alleviate toil to the greatest extent and to maximize free time. Green or “ecotechnologies” will be developed to power and produce things in a manner sustainable to the locality, and reuse and recycling of old technology would negate the need to mine additional resources.

Indeed, especially as computer technology progresses toward increased energy efficiency and smaller form factors, it is currently possible, under capitalism (though not in the interests of profit), to recycle all desktop and laptop computers in the United States and provide every resident with a small, energy efficient, highly powerful notebook computer. This alone would bridge the digital divide, providing communication and access to information for all, along with effectively halting the needless development of computer technology to create the next consumer craze. Of course, in the liberated, ecological society, this new path for technology would be taking place within the context of minimizing needless commodities and refocusing on adequately providing all with the means of life and the free time to fulfill themselves.

Even now, under capitalism, one can see liberatory uses for technology. Sustainable food cultivation methods such as permaculture, hold great promise for empowering and enriching local neighborhoods by allowing them to grow a portion of (if not all) their food from within their own communities.

The area of personal computing also holds great promise. The Linux operating system, for instance, has emerged as a challenge to Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s MacOS. Linux is an open-source project in which thousands of people from around the world voluntarily contribute to its development. Linux is free in cost, but some distributions are also completely free of any proprietary technology (see gNewSense, Blag, and Dyne:bolic). Indeed, personal computing is an arena in which thousands, perhaps millions of people, are attempting to carve out space free from corporate or governmental regulation, as well as undermine commodification and ownership of information.

Numerous examples of these kinds, and uses, of technology exist. One could also mention the recent uses of even corporate technology, such as Twitter, to coordinate demonstrations against the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, for instance.

On April 29 and 30, thousands of students marched out of their classrooms in defiance of school faculty and gathered at the capitol to show their outrage at SB1070 – the bill that has embarrassed Arizona and sharply divided the population here. This spontaneous activity, in solidarity with the (largely college) students who chained themselves to the capitol the previous day, was coordinated primarily through cell phones, text messaging, and such corporate and privacy intruding websites like Facebook and Twitter. To simply disregard technology per se based solely on its present, narrow uses by capitalism, is to eliminate one of the most exciting tools at our disposal for the creation of the liberated, ecological society.

Presently, social ecology aims to develop the liberatory potentials of technology to the greatest extent possible under the current system. Greater neighborhood autonomy can be achieved and material conditions improved (especially food, shelter, and public spaces) while being implemented in a way that builds independent, oppositional, community controlled infrastructure to counter the capitalist economy and the nation-state. In this way, we can achieve greater neighborhood autonomy and improve the material conditions of our neighbors and the working-class, in a way that is non-hierarchical, communal, and directly democratic.

To this end, let us briefly discuss some immediate projects surrounding technology that currently or easily could exist. For instance, a community technology center: Energy efficient computers made of recycled parts and running completely free and open source software (FOSS) could be available for lending, purchase, or barter. The center could have access to free, Internet connected, open-source computers that would help to bridge the digital divide and provide working communities with access to information and vital communication. Such a space could also hold workshops on computer and Internet security, how-tos, videogame tournaments and other activities. As well, the center could provide free wi-fi to the community and also serve as a gathering space for the neighborhood.

In addition, a comprehensive approach from a social ecological view to liberatory technology could see communities in struggle engage in computer and technology servicing and recycling, participation in the development of free and open source software, advocation of open formats and free flow of information to combat capitalism and proprietary ownership of information in the digital sphere, as well as strive to develop a technological consciousness that includes utilizing used and energy-efficient parts, free and open-source software, identifying appropriate technologies, and ethical computing.

Social ecology recognizes the potential to develop an ecological, appropriate, and liberatory technology, united to the needs and uses of the community, and reflective of the bioregion in which exists. It is further recognized that these technologies have the potential to decentralize, empower, and power our neighborhoods in a way that is horizontal and communal. Many of these technologies currently exist.

We are living in an age where material scarcity need not exist, but is enforced by profit-driven capitalism. While technology is not a magic bullet, it is an important tool in the quest for the liberated, ecological human society.

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