Easy for me to say. For whatever reason, technological innovation doesn’t thrill me. This is not a virtue but more on the order of a personality quirk. Not that I don’t enjoy many new technologies and use them, more or less effectively. But what must for many be a feeling of awe at the power, speed, size, or features of new devices is lost on me. I get it but I don’t feel it.
So easy for me to say, but that doesn’t make it not worth saying. I heard a review on Lake Affect this morning about the new I PAD, which provided me an opportunity to reflect on these sorts of technological innovations. Apple has done a brilliant job marketing itself over the years, with its supposed celebration of creativity and individuality as well as its environmentalist iconography.
Like so much marketing, this is a calculated strategy to encourage us to forget what they are really doing—that they are working furiously to turn emptiness into desire, desire into wants, and wants into needs; that they are simultaneously working furiously to make sure we don’t think about any social or environmental consequences of the mad rush for constantly changing personal electronic devices.
It appears that progressives are either especially vulnerable to these messages, or are at least as vulnerable as others who are allegedly less critical of a consumerist mentality. This is probably the case because of the way new media and communication devices can be harnessed for various social causes and activisms, whether from the electronically orchestrated Obama campaign to the website these words appear on. But the lack of critical distance from I pods, pads, and pids, phones, or ubiquitous games, videos, updates, images, and sounds, also has to do with the way that the computer and technology industries appear to be clean and green, and are happy to hide behind these appearances. Gone are the belching smokestacks or acrid tail-pipes. Electricity appears to be clean, and computers appear not to even need much of it.
But most of this is an illusion. The belching smokestacks are now mainly in China, though the amount of coal burned to fuel our computers, phones, and other personal electronics is quite distressing. But because of electricity’s impressive dispatchability, this coal is burned in someone else’s back yard. Between our computers, phones, VCRs, way back in the low-bandwidth 90s, our information technology consumed 13% of our nation’s electricity. High bandwidth, bigger screens, more vivid colors, faster processors—all of these use more energy than their older, slower counterparts.
But more significantly to me, personal electronics are perhaps the highest epitome of an ideology and system of economic growth, of institutions of finance and government that will lose their balance if they cannot stay in constant motion. The purpose of all this technological innovation, or at least its most profound effect, is to convince us to replace last year’s stuff with new stuff, to make us impatient with the size, speed, or clarity of something that was once, itself, designed for the purposes of making us impatient with something else’s size, speed, or clarity. Personal electronics are part and parcel of an economy which needs to sell new stuff, to keep “consumer spending levels” high, to sell anything, regardless of its value or impact on the world or on our communities.
More that that, though, information and telecommunication technologies create efficiencies which make it necessary for fewer people to take care of basic necessities (food and shelter) and thus for more people to spend their time on earth designing, marketing, and selling all the stuff we don’t really need—or in other words, economic growth. Unfortunately, when it comes to energy, efficiency always has one basic effect: efficiency always creates more consumption, rather than less. (For a good discussion of this see Huber and Mills, The Bottomless Well, which is in most ways a disturbingly spurious book). So as our computers become faster, our information more portable, our ability to do multiple tasks at once increases, we will invariably use more energy, all the while becoming more socially isolated, less aware of our surroundings and each other, and perfectly primed for the next technological advance.
So even as this is easy for me to say, I don’t see a clear way off of this treadmill. I may drag my feet when it comes to new technologies, but they eventually seem to become an inevitable and unavoidable part of life, even a life with one foot, or maybe only one toe, off the grid. I grew up in a family that was always the last to get whatever was new, whether it was color TV, a radio in the car, air-conditioning, a snowblower, an electric garage opener, and so on. But we eventually got them. Is their any virtue in that? Is anything accomplished by this temporary resistance?
Perhaps. A critical outlook and the beginning of an energy descent or power down may begin with ambivalence, a refusal to celebrate new technologies, a curmudgeonly reluctance to embrace the latest or the new. But it is also easy to stall at the point of critical consciousness, purified in one’s thoughts, yelling at the TV, scowling at the newspaper, or rolling your eyes at your friend’s new I-Phone.