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Technology Ideology: Green Criticism and Consumption Studies, Part 11

I’m back from a fantastic MSI Conference on Service Innovation and Design in Palo Alto. I met a great group of people and learned about some truly fascinating projects going on at IBM, Boeing, Wells Fargo, McDonald’s, Vans, ING Direct, and Yahoo, not to mention connecting with  design people like the IDEO masterminds Diego Rodriguez and Mark Jones. It was stimulating and enlightening and crossed disciplinary boundaries–everything a conference goer or planner could hope. Hats off to Peter Lawrence and Mike Hanssens for putting together such a top-notch conference, and to Earl, Donna, Michelle, Marni, and all the MSI staff for pulling it off with their usual friendliness and efficiency.

If you haven’t checked out the Corporate Design Foundation and their amazing, invaluable publications, @Issue, which I’ve subscribed to and found a very useful teaching aid since 1999, then I urge you to check it out via these links. Peter Lawrence runs the place and does broadening and publicizing work that is paving the way for increasingly productive discussion and collaborations between the worlds of Innovation, Design, and Marketing.

So, let’s get back to this ideological analysis. I think that an analysis of technology from a “green critical” lens is of some general value, and I’m also presenting it here as an example (albeit a flawed one, I admit) of a bricolage technique that is attuned to subjective, intersubjective, and collective contexts, as per my discussion of Consumption Studies as a method.

I’m going to have a lot more to say and share about this topic of technology ideology very soon, but for now, let’s look at what I wrote about the topic back in September of 1999 when I first wrote and submitted this piece…..let’s tune into day of techno-yore, and listen in as our humble writer begins to weave his turgid aca-tale….

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A critical perspective, such as that of critical theory, is an additional perspective necessary now in order to unpack these consumption meanings as a form of ideology that might have negative consequences for human (and non-human) well-being. This is a first step towards the (also utopian) aim of critical theory research programs that, as Murray and Ozanne (1991, p. 129) explain, engages in “social critique” that “aims to help people envision a better society.”

We should start by asserting that the promise of technology to help build a better society is, in some -perhaps many-circumstances, being fulfilled. Information technology is enabling many of the blessings (as well as the curses) of technoscientific capitalism to penetrate to the far corners of the globe, albeit rather selectively, favoring richer over poorer, literate over illiterate, industrialized over industrialized cultures and groups, and often helping to amplify some of the distances between these groups, the so-called “digital divide.”

However, the perspective that privileges high technology consumption as the exploration of a utopian frontier of human perfection maintains itself by a logocentric process that largely excludes contradictory perspectives. This exclusionary process leads to a pressure that Leiss (1990, p. 10) terms the “technological imperative,” the headlong drive to develop and adopt new technologies that can serve as an excuse for avoiding our collective “need to make reasoned choices about our future.”

The range of contradictory positions that could be considered against the technological imperative position is almost infinite. For tractability, this social critique will limit itself to a position that high technology consumption has aggravated crises of consumption by “driving us farther from reality…and from each other” (Borgmann 1999; Rosenblatt 1999, p. 15). Specifically, this illustration’s critical perspective, inspired by a combination of critical theory and green (as in ecological) criticism, suggests questioning: (1) the idea that the frontiers of social reality can or should be so easily decoupled from the “natural” world in which human being is ensconced, and (2) the particular relations of power that serve as the basis for the industrial ideology that promotes this move towards the cyberspatial frontier.

A disembodied and disconnected perspective is hinted at by the purely textual character of the Sun ad. As purely symbolic, it contains only the efficient all-business precision of ink on paper: no photographs, nothing recognizable from the biological or natural world. It suggests the extraction of pure content from messy context, the dehistoricizing and depoliticizing of technology in science fiction and business imagery, in which it offers a social reality “virtually” filled with the pure and limitless satisfaction of needs and desires -a space we are told is/sold as utopian.

Topping its late-mover competitor Microsoft, Sun’s headline suggests that, as with the American migration westward, and with Star Trek’s more cosmic movement, society is in the process of mass exodus from the physical realm to the more evanescent worlds of cyberspace. We must move along with it, quickly, quickly. “All aboard!”

Yet the move into virtual reality seems natural only as a progression of Western culture’s increasing disconnection and distancing from nature (Borgmann 1999, Leiss 1990).

For every pound of product manufactured in the United States, at least 32 pounds of waste is created (Hawken, Lovins and Lovins 1999). On the consumption side, the average American directly or indirectly uses 125 pounds of material every day, or about 23 tons per year (ibid). Americans waste more than a million pounds of material per person per year (ibid).

Infotech industries, despite their “virtual” “information” aura, play very important roles in this process of pollution. “Current processes used to manufacture both semiconductors and printed wiring boards [essential to high technology equipment] consume large volumes of water, solvents and other gases” (Eisenberger 1996). Dangerous gases such as perfluorocompounds are used in the manufacture of silicon wafers and the majority of these gases are released to pollute the atmosphere, where they have a lifetime of ten thousands of years (ibid). Portable computers and yes, even our beloved iPods and cellphones, frequently use environmentally risky substances such as cadmium and lithium in their batteries (ibid). Because of rapid technology changes and fashionably short life cycles, still functioning computer and telecommunications equipment is frequently consigned to landfill dumps where those elements will leach into the environment.

Environmentalists argue that we are reaching the limits of the biosphere, and that industries such as the computer industry are largely unable to clean up the polluted and despoiled mess it has already made (Rosenblatt 1999). Global warming is an accepted reality, yet most of the solutions to its impending dramatic climate change are technological in origin, such as hybrid or electric vehicles.

To our Western twenty-first century mindset, expressing such concerns about limits is almost embarrassingly chicken-littleish, divorced entirely from any sort of revolutionary or utopian drive -completely not sexy. These nonrational emotions and status consideration profoundly affect our decisions. In the “networked age” that Sun Microsystems likens to the coming of New Jerusalem, science fiction and information technology have brilliantly merged in social directions the fantastic, the desirable, and the development of new products.

In a potentially dangerous development for our species, envisioning cultural alternatives to the ongoing and increasing consumerist onslaught of high technology and other consumerist production now proves incredibly difficult.

Similarly denaturalizing, in many cases information technology consumption seems to lead to a contraction of ourselves as embodied physical beings. Seeing the world as only information, or information as the only world can lead to a dangerous degeneration of both.

In hacker culture, in some sense the backbone of much of Internet culture, the body itself is generally regarded as inferior and crass: it is considered “meat” (Davis 1998). Seeking cyberspace as final frontier reflects this ultimately mystical longing for the ecstasy of bodily transcendence. Yet even while it is imaginatively attached to 3D virtual worlds and avatars, the worthy successors to the nineties virtual goggles and gloves, or to floating international space stations (aptly named “Freedom”-there’s that theme again), humanity’s future undoubtedly will remain for a long time as part of an intricate web of life on a shrinking planet with some hard-and-fast natural limits.

Philosopher Albert Borgmann (1999) finds that, in fostering a disconnection with the natural world and our own bodies, information technology consumption is aggravating “a hidden sort of suffering” that follows as we slowly obliterate and disconnect our sense of self and being from the physical and natural reality of which we are inextricably a part.

It is the misery of persons who lose their well being not to violence or oblivion, but to dilation and attenuation. They suffer when the moral gravity and material density of things is overlaid by the lightness of information. The Fear is that people are losing their character and definition in the levity of cyberspace. The engagement of reality is the proximate remedy for this condition, and yet many of us find it hard to face up and to be faithful to persons and things (Borgmann 1999, p. 232).

Business institutions’ embracing of the heady ideology of technological futurism and its concomitant technological imperative draw from a long history in which consumers have been prompted into passively accepting the general contours of an industrially-envisioned future.

Bringing the future to life” has become simultaneously the crisp mandate of business and the dreamy technomantra of consumption, but this was not always so. In fact, it used to be the domain of religion, then Kings, then government. Business’s whimsical rhetoric of technological futurism might be traced to its success at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, billed as “the first fair in history ever to focus entirely on the future” (Franklin 1980). By 1939, the religion of technology had become the ideology of capitalist business, a powerfully legitimate and utopian justification for the now-inexorable rise of business as a social institution (Leiss 1990; Noble 1977, 1999).

What the 1939 World’s Fair rendered abundantly transparent was that the history of envisioning socially utopian futures, which had its origins in progressive left traditions, religious sects, and the prognosticatory subculture of science fiction literature, had been almost wholly appropriated by elite business (and military) interests (Davis 1998, Ross 1991). It remains entrenched there through futurology, taught in many of our marketing classes today (mine, at least) as strategic or scenario planning, “a science of systems analysis created to facilitate military and industrialized planning and fully institutionalized today as an instrument for acquiring strategic military or corporate advantage” (Ross 1991, p. 170).

By the time the digital nineties had arrived, a critically important form of rhetorically legitimizing the operations of the business elite had become institutionalized. As Hamel and Prahalad (1994) put it in Competing For the Future, businesses must create the future by envisioning and colonizing it through “constantly searching for, investing in and mastering the technology that will bring unanticipated benefits to humankind” (Hamel and Prahalad 1994, p. 321).

The rhetorical ends behind technology production are powerfully motivating (and mysterious), but the established means owe more to technocracy than democracy.

Franklin (1980, p. 121) argues that the World’s Fair exhibits illustrate how the business of planning the future is to be enacted: “It is the corporation that plans and builds, while the people are purely passive, comfortably watching the creation in motion as mere spectators.” I can’t help but think of people locked into an EPCOT ride, being moved through a corporation’s vision of the future as it one day will be. Gift, promise, spectacle, and burden.

Leiss (1990, p. 5-6) outlines four false notions, termed “idols of technology” that have formed around modern society’s enthusiastic commitment to technological progress.

  • First is the notion that “modern [i.e., competitive, productivity-driven] conditions compel us to make our values and institutions conform to” technologies.
  • Secondly, that “our commitment to science and technology marks a qualitative break with all previous human history.”
  • Third, that “every technological breakthrough is presented as a triumph for humanity in general,” allaying concerns over equitable distributions of costs and benefits.
  • Finally, that the undeniable achievements of science and technology have led to “an attitude of arrogant superiority towards all other ways of interpreting the human experience,” and that technoscience has become the ultimate arbiter of values, social justice and ultimate meaning.

The Sun Microsystems ad, with its staccato world history, inevitability, technomantra and golden age, suggests such a ride. High technology businesses reinvent business. Other businesses follow along. Society is transformed.

As consumers, we roll on by, our cities increasingly theme-parked, our bodies and lives increasingly industrial experiences.

Rapidly propelled, our networks autopilot us in competitive vehicles, into cyberspace’s final frontier.

With its innate appeals to egoism and its constantly changing fancies, there seems little any of us can do except strive to keep up. Despite its communitarian rhetoric, in its major thrusts there seems little room in this prefab and commercially colonized version of digital utopianism for democratically-planned technological development and production.

This is not to suggest a one-sidedness to the social debate over technology. Ever since the massive social and political upheavals of the Industrial Revolution, there has been a psychology of regulated fear surrounding technological production and consumption. But these anxieties have been largely and successfully managed, through the spindoctor marketing of optimistic science fictional daydreams and the fashionable social glorification of technological aptitudes.

Our corporately-launched cultural visions of the Future (both our personal, possible selves and our societal future worlds) are intimately interlinked with our expected technological consumptions. Reflected in the mass consciousness of popular culture, our cultural visions of the future oscillate between two poles.

On one end are the courageous, risk-taking, naively optimistic and progressive technofetishizations of Enlightenment spirits such as Bacon, Gernsback, Star Trek, and the corporate elite. On the other are the gritty, unintended-consequence-laden, nasty, brutish, technological dystopias seen, for instance, in Blade Runner, Alien, RoboCop, Johnny Mnemonic, The Matrix and hundreds of other popular cultural texts (including, ironically, Gibson’s Neuromancer). Overhwelmingly, utopia and dystopia alike seem to envision a future of exponentially increasing technology, and less contact with the natural world. Yet, if we are democratically to forge a future that can contribute to the achievement of social and ecological betterment, neither of these fictive futures presents a viable guide.

Who bears responsibility for a remedial vision to counter the limitless and competitive growth-driven (il)logic behind high technology consumption? It is certainly unfair to excoriate society and business’s view of future perfection as a totalizing one completely devoid of social and ecological considerations, and simultaneously to exonerate the individuals emplaced within such confining social structures. Yet the gainful lessons history suggests are that, as Ross (1991, p. 134) demonstrates, science and technology are hegemonic ideologies in their own right, intimately tied up with the corporate military-industrial-media organization of power (see also Aronowitz 1988; Franklin 1980; Noble 1977, 1999; Rosenblatt 1999).

As members and incubators of the business elite, business researchers and scholars sell themselves, their colleagues, their clients, and their students on a utopian ideological logic of market orientations, needs satisfaction, brave innovators and early adopters, elite scenario planning and strategic future visioning.

As members of an elite group, we each have opportunities to insert ecological considerations, human potential issues, and social democratic thought into our dialogs about strategic planning and new product development, and into our many consumptions.

We need to question the fashionability of technology, and its role in social dominance locally and globally. We need to question the rapid and planned obsolescence of all things technological, and interrogate the sources and resting places of our technologies. We need to question the alienating lifestyles and identities prompted by our travels in cyberspace.

We need to question, on a human and planetary scale, the foundations and consequences of our technologically utopian trajectory, and the exclusionary processes by which it maintains power.

By first questioning the role that these consumptions play in our oppressions and sense of disconnection, we can begin to open doors to disempowered and marginalized groups, individuals and issues, and can help them to be heard, democratizing and ecologizing the process of deciding on the shape and feel of the future. Consciously problematizing the previously unconscious lure behind the lore of technological utopianism, we need to begin envisioning and enacting wiser social alternatives.

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