The most recent topic explored by the thinkers and activists who make up the Great Transition Network was “Technology and the Future”. As writer after writer posted their thoughts, it was heartening to see that almost all recognize that technology cannot provide real solutions to the many crises we face. I was also happy that Professor William Robinson, author of a number of books on the global economy, highlighted the clear connection between computer technologies and the further entrenchment of globalization today.
As anyone who has followed my work will know, globalization is of particular interest to me: for more than 40 years I’ve been studying its impacts on different cultures and societies around the world. From Ladakh and Bhutan to Sweden and Australia, a clear pattern has emerged: as people are pushed into deepening dependence on large-scale, technological systems, ecological and social crises escalate.
I’m not the only one to have seen this. In the International Forum on Globalization – a network I co-founded in 1992 – I worked with forty writers, journalists, academics and social and environmental leaders from around the world to inform the public about the ways in which “free-trade” treaties, the principal drivers of globalization, have eroded democracy, destroyed livelihoods, and accelerated resource extraction. In countries as disparate as Sweden and India, I have seen how globalization intensifies competition for jobs and resources, leading to dramatic social breakdown – including not only ethnic and religious conflict, but also depression, alcoholism and suicide.
Professor Robinson wrote that we are “at the brink of another round of restructuring and transformation based on a much more advanced digitalization of the entire global economy”. This is true, but the link between globalization and technological expansion began well before the computer era. Large-scale, technological apparatuses can be understood as the arms and legs of centralized profit-making. And while 5G networks, satellites, mass data-harvesting, artificial intelligence and virtual reality will allow the colonization of still more physical, economic and mental space by multinational corporations, technologies like fossil fuels, global trading infrastructures, and television have already helped to impose a corporate-run consumer-based economy in almost every corner of the globe.
For reasons that are increasingly evident, an acceleration of this process is the last thing we need in a time of serious social and environmental crises. What’s more, the technologies themselves – from the sensors to the satellites – all rely heavily on scarce resources, not least rare earth minerals. Some of the world’s richest corporations are now racing each other to extract these minerals from the deepest seabeds and from the surface of Mars. It has been estimated that the internet alone – with its largely invisible data warehouses – will use up a fifth of global electricity consumption by 2025.
And for what? So that we can all spend more time immersed in and addicted to virtual worlds? So that we can automate agriculture, and drive more communities off the land into swelling urban slums? So that drones can deliver our online purchases without an iota of face-to-face contact?
When thinking about technology from within an already high-tech, urban context, we can easily forget that nearly half the global population still lives in villages, still connected to the land. This is not to say that their way of life is not under threat – far from it. Ladakh, the Himalayan region where I lived and worked for several decades, was unconnected to the outside world by even a road until the 1960s. But today you can find processed corporate food, smartphones, mountains of plastic waste, traffic jams and other signs of ‘modernity’ in the capital, Leh. The first steps on this path were taken in the mid-1970s when, in the name of ‘development’, massive resources went into building up the energy, communications and transport infrastructures needed to tie Ladakh to the global economy. Another step involved pulling Ladakhi children out of their villages into western-style schools, where they learned none of the place-based skills that supported Ladakh’s culture for centuries, and instead were trained into the technological-modernist paradigm. Together, these forces are pushing the traditional way of life to the brink of extinction.
While that process began relatively recently in Ladakh, in the west it has been going on far longer, with deeper impacts. But even here, more and more people are becoming aware that the technologization of their personal lives has led to increasing stress, isolation, and mental health struggles. During the pandemic people have been forced to do more online than ever before – from classes to conversations with friends and family – and most have discovered how limited and empty online life can be. There is a clear cultural turning, visible now even in the mainstream, that goes beyond a desire to spend less time on screens. People are also beginning to reject the posturing of the consumer culture and its work-and-spend treadmill, wanting instead to slow down, to cultivate deeper relationships and to engage in more community-oriented and nature-based activities.
I see young people all over the world choosing to leave their screen-based jobs to become farmers. (This return to the land is happening in Ladakh, as well, which I find truly inspiring.) Informal networks of mutual aid are arising. Friends are gardening, cooking and baking bread together; families are choosing to live on the land and developing relationships with the animals and plants around them. We are seeing increased respect for indigenous wisdom, for women and for the feminine, and a growing appreciation for wild nature and for all things vernacular, handmade, artisanal and local. There is also an emergence of alternative, ecological practices in every discipline: from natural medicine to natural building, from eco-psychology to agroecology. Although these disciplines have often been the target of corporate co-optation and greenwashing, they have invariably emerged from bottom-up efforts to restore a healthier relationship with the Earth.
All of these are positive, meaningful trends that have been largely ignored by the media, and given no support by policymakers. At the moment, they are running uphill in a system that favors corporate-led technological development at every turn. They testify to enduring goodwill, to a deep human desire for connection.
When viewed from a big-picture perspective, the expansion of digital technologies – which are inherently centralized and centralizing – runs contrary to the emergence of a more humane, sustainable and genuinely connected future. Why should we accept an energy-and mineral-intensive technological infrastructure that is fundamentally about speeding life up, increasing our screen-time, automating our jobs, and tightening the grip of the 1%?
For a better future, we need to put technology back in its place, and favor democratically determined, diverse forms of development that are shaped by human and ecological priorities – not by the gimmicky fetishes of a handful of billionaires.
Photo: Pavel Neznanov on Unsplash
Thanks Helena, very clear and “uplifting” article, i hope that a lot of persons will understand this. I’m happy to live in such a remote area and to get rid of the hi-tech life style. Back to the basics and small is beautiful
with a lot of respect for your work!
George Price says
Thank you for raising these vital questions about technology. Discussions around what technology we really need and which ones we need to abandon, for the sake of the interconnected Life of all species on Earth, will be essential for every local community that is trying to be sustainable, regenerative, harmonious, and independent of the life-destroying human systems and cultures, as we move forward into the daunting unknown.
Roar BJONNES says
Great and vitally important article, Helena. Environmentalist David Brower said that “All inventions are guilty until proven innocent.” If we could only heed his advice. Today, new technology is introduced on the market without any oversight except for considerations of profit. Worse, the capitalist practice of planned obsolescence, when a product’s life cycle is shortened by going out of style or is prematurely breaking down, is one of the worst combinations of bad economy and bad technology and has led to an insane amount of consumerism. Due to that combination, we are literally consuming the earth. But, thankfully, there is a vital counter trend– the vibrant localization movement all over the world. Thanks for being at its forefront!
David Eisenberg says
Thank you for your continuous efforts in this work. I met you and was inspired by your work and vision in 1995 at the Ecovillages and Sustainable Communities conference at Findhorn. I was leading the workshop building the first strawbale structure in Scotland, the garden “shed” there, and took advantage of every chance I had to listen to what you had to say. I was also influenced by a number of people in the appropriate technology and intermediate technology movements, among them the British architect John FC Turner, who gave me the best definition I know for appropriate technology – that it is technology that ordinary people can use for their own benefit and the benefit of their community, that doesn’t make them dependent on systems over which they have no control. That translates to technology that enhances the local capacity to meet local needs. It is crucial to be able to view technology in terms of the dependencies required to create and support it and the dependencies created by using it. Keeping those dependencies visible is hard and extremely important so that people can grasp the chains of consequences that are connected to seemingly simple choices and decisions. Anyway, I just want to express my gratitude for you and your extraordinary work over all these years. Thank you for continuing to do it!
Piyush Kumar says
Technology is always in an adversarial relationship with Nature, as it seeks to dominate Nature. Technology is the tool used by humans to beat Mother Earth into submission.
Technology has the following functions:
1. It helps to extract more resources
2. It helps to replace Nature
3. It helps to produce mental stimulation
“Putting technology back in its place” is NOT going to happen. Technology is not the problem. There was colonization long before any modern technology existed. That’s the real problem. There is no going back, only forward. We need to hold on to past knowledge and find a path forward that bends the linear escalation of growth to a circular and sustainable trajectory. Everyone reading and commenting on this article is using amazing technology! Should we all just give that up? Or is technology helping spread globalknowledge that is needed to adjust our course?
George Price says
The net cost to life on Earth of continuing to produce these “amazing” technologies, is too great. We find some benefit from communicating through these technologies now, and in other ways, from some other technologies, but when we weigh in all of the extinctions, suffering (of all species), wars for control of resources that go into the production of the technologies and other unnecessary consumer products, etc., there is no overall net benefit. I think (based on the scientific facts about the actual depths of the present Earth crises) we most likely need to stop nearly all industrial production immediately, and use up the technological products that we have, without replacing them, while we transition into truly life-sustainable, naturally regenerative, local eco-community life systems. Maybe the communities that survive the coming collapse will someday be able to come up with new technologies that are actually needed and do not violate the natural laws of our interconnected living systems.