If you have a moment, take a peek at these solarpunk notes from Cory Doctorow – he admits what we all know: Technology isn’t the problem. Rather, technology is a power in the hands of Big Tech actors. As Lord Acton was fond of saying: ‘All power corrupts.’ Let’s talk about what that means, according to Doctorow and what he thinks we have to look forward to.
Here’s why I’m writing this – Cory Doctorow’s notes are brilliant from a solarpunk perspective but we need to go deeper than ‘technology isn’t the problem.’ No, in order to understand his point you need a deep background on economics, capitalism and sadly most of us weren’t taught enough in school. So as a public service, let me provide some additional detail to help you understand what he’s saying, why he’s right, and why we should be paying attention.
All of This Has Happened Before And It Will All Happen Again
Ten points to you if you recognized the subtitle as a quote from Battlestar Galactica. It happens to be true: Using technology to coerce and control is nothing new. As Doctorow points out: our current use of apps to control workers like Amazon does with its drivers is the modern-day form of Taylorism.
But what is Taylorism? Taylorism is explained as follows: “In Taylor’s view, the task of factory management was to determine the best way for the worker to do the job, to provide the proper tools and training, and to provide incentives for good performance. He broke each job down into its individual motions, analyzed these to determine which were essential, and timed the workers with a stopwatch. With unnecessary motion eliminated, the worker, following a machinelike routine, became far more productive.”
Huh, okay. This makes sense on the surface – who doesn’t want their products produced at the maximum level of efficiency? The issue here is simple: There’s no maximum, no top end to reach. A fundamental principle of capitalism is the never-ending pursuit of growth, optimization, and improvement. If you aren’t growing, the logic goes, then you’re dying.
This isn’t just coming from me – think-tanks have long warned about the dangers of ‘persistent growth,’ recognizing that at some point you run out of new material, resources, or capital. As far back as 1798, Thomas Malthus discussed this Malthusian Limit – where population growth is exponential, resource supplies are linear – inevitably reaching a point of decline because growth can’t be maintained forever.
Technology Isn’t the Problem – Greed Is
While technology isn’t the problem, what it’s being used for – a means to force people to work harder and faster until they collapse – is. Doctorow’s examples – using regulatory capture, 21st-Century Taylorism, and insisting on growth over morals and ethics – remind us of cancer cells or viruses that grow and multiply until they’ve overwhelmed their hosts. Let’s be clear – we’re not the viruses or cancers – we’re the healthy cells. We’re being overwhelmed by a system that refuses to acknowledge it’s responsibility to maintain sustainability.
So what happens now? Doctorow has some ideas about that, too – solarpunk-y discusses abound in his upcoming book ‘The Lost Cause.’ In it, Doctorow attempts to answer a simple-yet-powerful question: ‘It’s thirty years from now. We’re making progress, mitigating climate change, slowly but surely. But what about all the angry old people who can’t let go?’
That’s one potential question to be answered. Another is: What if we put this technology to use to bring the CyberTaylorists to heel? That’s something I’ve been thinking about – I’m going to answer it in an upcoming short story.
I’m not saying Doctorow has all the answers but he’s certainly asking good questions. These Solarpunk notes from Cory Doctorow are worth reviewing and reminding ourselves: Technology isn’t the problem.