Madis Vasser: Subjects of the technokings
Estonians, while a largely non-religious bunch, are characterized by unwavering faith in various unproven high-tech miracles that are hoped to solve all manner of systemic environmental problems, Madis Vasser writes in a comment originally published in Müürileht.
"Let us help creators!" a letter from an irritated reader exclaimed in response to a recent article I wrote that criticized the local nuclear lobby's latest PR disinformation campaign. Even though it was not a call for blasphemy by yours truly, this kind of crusader-like reflex in the defense of the greats of the high-tech sector and the paradise they preach is a widespread phenomenon.
The situation is not helped by multi-billionaire Elon Musk who dubbed himself the "Technoking" this spring. And people knew already in medieval times that the divine right of kings comes straight from God.
It is no secret that I used to be an entrenched technology evangelist myself. However, sinning by way of reading critical literature gradually turned me into a heretic. While these ecclesiastic comparisons might seem artificial at first, parallels between the worlds of high-tech and religion have not gone unnoticed in the wider world.
University of Tartu religious studies post-graduate student Nele Dresen wrote on Postimees (Link in Estonian) that we have no hope of completing the green turn until we remain under the spell of the "technology prophets" according to which saving the environment requires turning more and more of it into cash.
Bureaucratic climate measures have for some time prioritized "penance" in the form of carbon offsetting. While faith is necessary in itself, I tend to agree with environmentalist weaned off activism Paul Kingsnorth in that our culture needs to be centered around something spiritual that is immeasurably higher and mightier than humans and our technological toys – nature.
The high-tech faith often manifests in nipping all manner of competing narratives in the bud. For example, how debates concerning energy start by dismissing anything to do with widespread changes in human behavior as "unrealistic."
Solutions can only be technological, even though most of them do not exist yet. It is akin to ruling out efforts to curb contacts between people and injecting everyone with disinfectant on the coronavirus front, as proposed by former U.S. President Donald Trump.
The analog in matters of energy is talking about unproven and dangerous nuclear technology instead of curbing consumption – while it sounds grand in PR materials, what could be its objective side-effects? The Estonian Geological Service has the same strategy when it comes to phosphorite: to emphasize first that emotions should be left outside the door and then proceed to euphorically (with emotion) praise latest technological developments when it comes to surveys and drilling. It is difficult to convince a zealot that their god is little more than an idol in the form of a beautiful 3D image.
To my surprise, I have also found brothers-in-arms among the techno-faithful who are doing smart things in other areas. For example, Roger Hallam, who is developing non-violent direct action strategies for solving the climate crisis, sees two main goals in putting pressure on states: rapid reduction of carbon emissions and major research and development in the risky and still unexplored field of geoengineering.
Jem Bendell, studying the social collapse brought on by the climate crisis and popularizing deep adaptation meant to alleviate it, thinks that somehow creating artificial clouds above the poles could buy mankind extra time. True, he limits himself to weighing one specific and nonexistent technological hack.
While one impossible delusion is better than several, zero would be better still. Yes, while we will never be able to say with certainty that small nuclear plants or a gigantic artificial climate thermostat are completely impossible, it is equally misguided to claim that sufficiently expensive and dedicated research and development prayers can make them 100 percent feasible and even desirable.
Claiming that not every problem requires a high-tech solution can infuriate the tech zealots. This could be seen in a thread on the popular "Keskkonnasäästjad" (Environmentalists) social media group where an attempt was made to separate people into "environmental people" and "tech people" who are somehow mystically unable to understand one another.
The comments quickly determined that no such distinction can be made because the "environmental people's" tech criticism stems from the works of the "tech people" themselves. Key texts are written by engineers, technologists and physicians sporting PhDs. In other words, we are all tech people, while some of us are besieged more completely by the dogmas of tech companies' content marketing.
The debate raised a new question – what to call a person who approaches every problem with a needless measure of technology. And thus, the term "tech simpleton" was coined. Tech simpletons prefer to solve all manner of issues that are often simple or pseudo-problems to start with with the help of smartphones, the internet of things, artificial intelligence or technology that does not yet exist.
The tech bubble
When running for the board of the Estonian Green Movement for the third time this spring, I gave as the problem foremost on my mind people's unmovable faith in various unproven high-tech miracles that are hoped to solve all manner of systemic environmental problems. Breaking that faith is likely an endless task.
Lending me strength are colleagues who perceive the technokings as lacking clothes, who after yet another national campaign of involvement share how air was let out of a few more utopian development papers. There is even a game called the "empty technological words bingo" sporting such expressions as "breakthrough," "growth of productivity" and "knowledge-intensity."
Play it always when an official tries to give you complicated-sounding non-answers. Perhaps this will eventually lead us to a point where national priorities include a social breakthrough, growth of happiness and wisdom-intensity.
We might not need the technokings of today who could end up as monarchs are bound to end up these days: giving a single beautiful speech, with the rest of the year spent discussing why we need to pay for their upkeep. As put by technology philosopher Ivan Illich nearly half a century ago: "Organizing the entire economy toward the "better" life has proved the greatest enemy of the good life." (Illich, I. 1973. Tools for Conviviality)
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Editor: Marcus Turovski