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.
The philosopher of technology Langdon Winner refers to this dependence as the “technological imperative.” Advanced technologies require vast networks of supportive technologies in order to properly function. Our cars wouldn’t go far without roads, gasoline, traffic control systems, and the like. Electricity needs power lines, generators, distributors, light bulbs, and lamps, together with production, distribution, and administrative systems to put all those elements (profitably) into place. A “chain of reciprocal dependency” is established, Winner says, that requires “not only the means but also the entire set of means to the means.”
Winner, whose book Autonomous Technology is the seminal study of this issue, also points out that we usually become committed to these networks of technological systems gradually, not realizing how intractable our commitments will become. He calls this “technological drift.” As we invent and deploy powerful technologies for specific purposes, Winner adds, they create ripple effects that radiate unpredictably out into the culture. These influences generate a variety of unintended consequences, many of them virtually impossible to control.
In an earlier Cyborgology essay , PJ Rey pointed out that as citizens of a technological society we go about our daily business placing a significant degree of faith in the technological devices and systems we use. Faith is necessary because most of us don’t have the slightest idea how those devices and systems actually work, and we certainly wouldn’t know how to repair them if they fail. We trade, Rey said, certainty for convenience. In the process we also surrender a substantial measure of control of those devices and systems.
The historian of technology Thomas P. Hughes has pointed out that our deepening commitment to existing systems is psychological as well as practical, and that it applies as much to the people who make technological systems as to the people who use them, if not more so. “Technological momentum” is the term he coined to describe this tendency to habituation. It’s a tendency that high tech companies like Google try desperately to avoid, regularly pronouncing their determination to retain the flexibility of start-ups. The regularity with which those promises are made suggests the tenacity of the problem.
Two other dynamics that contribute substantially to technological autonomy should be mentioned. Technological convergence describes the merger of previously disparate technologies into new combinations. Technological diffusion describes the spread of existing technologies into novel, often unanticipated applications. The power of technological convergence can be seen in the joining of computers with everything from television and telephones to surgery and genetics. Technological diffusion can be seen in the spread of assembly line techniques from the manufacture of automobiles (inspired in part by the disassembly of animals in meat packing plants) to the manufacture of hamburgers. Franchising represents the extension of the assembly line concept to the manufacture of business empires.
Individually each of the dynamics I’ve named here would be difficult to restrain. Collectively they constitute a forward motion that is irreversible. I call the consequence of this collectivity “de facto technological autonomy.” By that I mean that although we can theoretically detach ourselves from the technological systems on which we’ve come to depend, practically such a detachment is impossible because it would create unsupportable levels of disruption.
Japan’s response to the post-tsumani nuclear disasters last March is an example. According to The New Yorker magazine, anti-nuclear activists there were optimistic that widespread plant shutdowns after the crisis would become permanent, but their optimism proved premature. It’s now assumed that most of the country’s reactors will re-open. To abandon nuclear power would be, in the words of Japan’s economics minister, “idealistic but very unrealistic.”
Global warming and other crises have caused many scientists and policy wonks to conclude that the only escape from the destructive effects of technological autonomy is more technology. Geoengineering envisions the application of techniques that seem borrowed from science fiction, among them fertilizing the ocean to boost the growth of CO2-absorbing phytoplankton and the manufacture of artificial volcanoes that would fill the atmosphere with clouds of heat-blocking particles.
One looks for hope where one can find it, but the problem here is obvious: Even if they did work for the purposes intended, nobody knows what the unintended results of such radical measures might be. Technological autonomy is a process that proceeds without regard to original intention.