05 November 2005


(Part 1)

When we left, Deianira had stashed away among her personal effects a vial of centaur's blood. Herakles was overwrought—the bastard!—with fear that he might have been cuckolded (as opposed, say, to anguish that he had slain his friend, or compassion for his bride's late ordeal). And sure enough, very soon after this episode he went off on another mission, during which he fell for a girl named Iole, and "for love of her" [sic] seized her home town. Soon after he received a tunic from his wife, which was unusually appealing. She always had such good taste, he thought. He put it on and was soon in unbearable agony. In order to end his torments, he threw himself into a fire and was incinerated.

This was an early example of a poorly understood technology having unintended consequences. It also revealed the need for ethical testing on human subjects, or rather, that ethnical behavior in this regard would forever pose a huge obstacle to technical progress. It revealed some other aspects of technology as well.

One was that a hero like Herakles could so decisively affect the outcome of a war. He could take a city, presumably with the help of an unscrupulous prince. Even the most brilliant, courageous, and tough military man of today cannot do that; as a consequence, the soldier replaced the warrior. Another was that the choice to implement a technology was often driven by the impulse of a single person, but stimulated the response of all mankind. Deianira, whose life as an ancient woman was mostly void of choices, had chosen to implement a technology that, if successful would alter the balance of power in Greek society, even before the origins of the state! The reader can imagine how long a patriarchical ordering of civilization would have survived, if centaur's blood had the magical properties Nessus said his had. Likewise, the implementation of military technology like the bow (ironically, the weapon with which Herkules slew Nessus) and the phalanx destroyed the role of the military hero. In the Iliad, all engagements hinge on the heroic merit of a single man; in The Pelopponesian War, none do.

Bill Totten posts a lengthy essay by Richard Heinberg about the burden of technology. Heinberg quotes with praise a number of authors who might be surprised to learn they were all admired by the same person.
During the past century, books by Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, Kirkpatrick Sale, Stephanie Mills, Chellis Glendinning, Jerry Mander, John Zerzan, and Derrick Jensen, among others, have helped generations of readers understand how and why our tools have come to enslave us, colonizing our minds as well as our daily routines.
I'd hesitate to characterize Mumford's overriding theme as "how and why our tools have come to enslave us," which in fact strikes me as a stunningly asinine statement. Enslave? How does a machine exploit? No, not a man with a killing machine—how does a machine exploit? Where is the surplus value alienated by the laws of thermodynamics? This is gibberish.
These authors reminded us that tools, far from being morally neutral, are amplifiers of human purposes; therefore each tool carries its inventors' original intent inherent within it. We can use a revolver to hammer nails, but it works better as a machine for the swift commission of mayhem. . .
The only tool used to illustrate this point is the gun. There is little correlation between the presence of "technology" in a society and the presence of handguns. Afghanistan, which lacks the industrial capacity to manufacture glass, is nevertheless swimming in assault rifles. Japan has a very tiny number of handguns in private use. Likewise, I would argue battles over technology are rare. Battles are decided by technology, not the other way around.

Heinberg uses a quote by Lewis Mumford:
The inventors of nuclear bombs, space rockets, and computers are the pyramid builders of our own age: psychologically inflated by a similar myth of unqualified power, boasting through their science of their increasing omnipotence, if not omniscience, moved by obsessions and compulsions no less irrational than those of earlier absolute systems: particularly the notion that the system itself must be expanded, at whatever the eventual cost.
(quoted in Questioning Technology, edited by Zerzan and Carnes)
This is a rebuke of an ideological system, not the concept of improved technique. Why are nuclear bombs (an offspring of warfare), space rockets (a propaganda and military tool), and computers (then, of very specialized application), the only valid senses of "technology"? What about educational technologies? What about innovations in law enforcement that replace incarceration with creative alternatives? What about substitutes for pesticides in agriculture? What about the replacement of huge plants with smaller, cheaper ones? Improvements in the rule of law? Indeed, supposedly "low-tech" farming techniques adopted by organic farmers actually substitute technology for capital outlays. If you have a lot of expensive machinery or chemicals your staff cannot use well, and you replace it with cheap tools and few chemicals that your staff can use more productively than before, you have actually increased the measurable volume of technology in use. That's what "technology" means.

(Part 3)

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