A couple of weeks ago I posted an entry on technological autonomy. It made the point that a nation’s commitment to advanced technologies can result in a situation where its economic well-being is directly counter to the physical or psychological well-being of its people. The point I’d like to make today is that the commitments of corporations to advanced technologies can become similarly antithetical.
The example in that previous post was Japan’s commitment to nuclear power. Here I’ll consider two examples involving specific consumer products: the international sale of sports utility vehicles and the international sale of snack foods.Both examples raise an important definitional question: Which is the driving force, technology or capitalism? It’s a hard question to answer because at a certain stage of development the two are so closely intertwined that it’s often impossible to separate them. On the one hand, the spread of global capitalism would clearly be impossible without mass production technologies. On the other hand, capitalism is clearly the economic model most responsible for the development and exploitation of mass production technologies.
The historian David F. Noble has argued that technology is “the racing heart of corporate capitalism,” implying that capitalism directs the enterprise while technology supplies the motive force. I think you could just as successfully argue that the opposite is true. The best solution is probably to say that the relationship between technology and capitalism is dialectical, or symbiotic. Sometimes technology stimulates capitalism, other times capitalism stimulates technology; in advanced technological/capitalist societies neither could exist without the other. From either perspective an expansion of influence becomes a priority that overwhelms every other consideration, which is another way of defining a condition of de facto autonomy.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that what the scientists are saying about global warming – that we are headed for all manner of catastrophic changes in the environment unless fossil fuel emissions are drastically reduced, immediately – is accurate.
Also for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the world’s political leaders and the citizens they represent are sane, and that, therefore, they would like to avoid those catastrophic changes in the environment.
Assuming both propositions to be true, it would seem reasonable to ask ourselves whether it’s possible to take the necessary actions that would forestall those changes. In order to answer yes to that question we will need to overcome a series of challenges that can collectively be described as technological autonomy.
Technological autonomy is a shorthand way of expressing the idea that our technologies and technological systems have become so ubiquitous, so intertwined, and so powerful that they are no longer in our control. This autonomy is due to the accumulated force of the technologies themselves and also to our utter dependence on them. (more…)