Sunday, April 22, 2012

Technology, Innovation, and the Blowback Principle

A new USGS report is the latest in a growing body of documentation tying the unusual increase in earthquakes in locales across the country to the processes associated with oil and gas drilling by hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Fracking has also been implicated in the contamination of groundwater supplies with benzine, a known carcinogen. In other news, several studies have shown a new link between the use of neonicotinoid pesticids and colony collapse disorder - the widespread deaths of pollinating bees. Pesticides usually work by disrupting the chemical metabolism of insects that feed on the plants. New federal data indicate that 1 in 88 U.S. children had autism or other autism spectrum disorders in 2008, up from 1 in 110 kids in 2006 and 1 in 150 in 2002. In Utah the reate is as high as 1 in 32. Higher rates of autism have been associated with greater exposure to flame retardants, plasticizers like BPA, pesticides, endocrine disruptors in personal care products, heavy metals in air pollution, mercury, pharmaceuticals like anti-depressants, and increased age of fathers. Others merely blame increased awareness of the condition. Puberty for girls is coming earlier, as early as 10 years old in some cases. Suspected culprits include obesity, endocrine disruptors like BPA, hormones in food, and family stress. The increased use of psychiatric drugs has been posited as a cause of the dementia epidemic. And a new Swedish study linked exposure to phthalates with diabetes in seniors. Previous studies linked phthalates, which are major components of plastics, to everything from low sperm counts to birth defects. The inhabitants of the Gulf Coast of the United States and Fukushima prefecture Japan continue to suffer ill effects of the massive oil spill and nuclear meltdown, respectively.*

All of these are examples what I call The Blowback Principle. The blowback principle states that any new technology is going to have unanticipated negative consequences. The point is not to demonize all science and technology, rather it is merely to point out that no new technology when introduced into a society is free of these unintended consequences. Yet this seems to be one of the biggest cognitive blindspots of technology boosters, who see technology as the solution to every problem, full stop. In fact, technology often seems to give rise to a whole new set of problems which must then be solved by inventing even more technology, ad infinitum. Meanwhile the problems seem to never get solved, and in some cases, often metastasize or accelerate. I always want to ask those who posit a technological solution to every problem, what do we do about the subsequent problem that the solution will cause? The above examples are just a few drawn from the news in just the last few weeks. I’m sure there will be many others in the near future.

Now to be clear, my point is not that we should all just abandon all technology and go back to living in the stone age, although I’m sure that’s how my technophilist friends will interpret it. Technology often does improve our lives.  My point is that blindly trusting in some new technology or innovation to solve our fundamental problems is foolish. And not considering all the effects is also foolish. If technology is invented to solve problems but causes as many problems as it solves, can it really be said to solve anything?

In one sense, technology boosters are the ultimate optimists. For example, they look at the internet and see all the wonderful things caused by mass communication among people – the ease and immediacy of communication, the dissemination of information, the elimination of gatekeepers, the variety of expression, the social connectedness, the democratization of content, efficiency, online shopping, crowdsourcing, etc.. They don’t talk about robo-trading, cyber-attacks, child pornography rings, online stalking, identity theft, compartmentalization of media, video game addiction, fraud, viruses, spam, worms, bots, spyware, malware, and a host of other maladies that could fill volumes. Many have expressed concern that loneliness and alienation are actually being enhanced by the use of the internet. Others worry that people who do not have access will be left behind. Some have even gone so far as to suspect that staring at screens all day is causing a rewiring of our brains. Our attention spans are getting shorter and our comprehension shallower, they argue. And the internet has allowed capital and information,and subsequently work, to be moved anywhere in the world leading to major winners and losers, and we've only just begun to feel the negative fallout from that.

It’s hard to imagine a piece of technology that hasn’t been corrupted by the base desires of a species whose mind is fundamentally still on the African savannah. The biggest use of the internet isn’t intellectual discourse, it’s marketing, pornography and spam. Things like Facebook give rise to bullying; "cyber-bullying" has caused several tragic suicides, as it allows social ostracism to become even more intrusive and pronounced. Cell phones lead to ‘sexting’ and accidents caused by distracted drivers (not to mention loud, obnoxious conversations with nobody). There was an iPhone app that used new media technology like Facebook and Foursquare to allow people to track nearby single women that caused such a stir it was taken down. Already, governments allied with big corporations are seizing control of the internet and determining what we see and hear, in contraversion to the idealistic and anarchic vision of the  Web’s early founders. Unrealistic images foisted upon us in our media-saturated environment have caused entirely new psychological diseases like anorexia to emerge. Insecurity, inadequacy and status anxiety are all fomented by an advertising industry to hector the public to continually spend on new products to keep economic growth going.

Doing physical work is considered “a thing of the past” and something for people to avoid at all costs. It’s been eliminated in the name of “progress.” What are the consequences? A host of health maladies including obesity and heart disease. Was that expected? So now we're tying to invent new drugs that cure obesity and heart disease. Simply bringing back physical work, working less hours, building walkable communities, or regulating unhealthy foods are not considered viable solutions. Gee, I wonder what the “side effects” of the anti-obesity pill will be. Also, it’s increasingly thought that “clean” environments that children are raised in today contribute to allergies, since children who grow up farms are much less likely to have them. Good thing we got rid of farming along with physical work. Fortunately we've got allergy pills, with only a few side effects. Hopefully you won't get drowsy while driving. And there’s even evidence that spending time in nature heals depression and boosts mood. But we’ve got a pill for that too, only 150 dollars a bottle. One piece of innovation almost universally seen as  “good” is the search for cures for illnesses like cancer and diabetes. Yet Weston Price and others have documented that these diseases were virtually unknown in pre-agricultural societies. So even that is solving an earlier problem. Mankind's first technology, agriculture, led to sicker populations, new diseases emerging (thanks to confined animals) salinization, depleted soils, desertification, deforestation, and possibly many other ills (like despotism, war, and slavery). Even the discovery of antibiotics, considered an unmitigated success, has had the blowback effects of new drug-resistant strains emerging, factory farming, and overpopulation.


When television was introduced, people imagined all sort of benevolent, even utopian outcomes. Anyone could watch the inauguration of a president, the latest scientific breakthrough, or the dropping of bombs on civilians. It was thought that this would lead to an end to war. That it would enhance politics by making the public more informed and our political dialogue more constructive. That people would become more intelligent as educational programs taught even the lowliest laborer science, history, and mathematics. How has that worked out for us? Are we more intelligent or better informed? Is our political dialogue more enlightening? Has war stopped because we can see its effects on TV (when it's not being controlled or censored)? Turned on a TV lately? I think Dancing With The Stars is on.

Similarly utopian predictions were made for the automobile. At its base, the internal combustion engine is merely a way of moving people around using fuel instead of animals. Liberated from distance for the first time in history, it was thought, a golden age would occur as people were no longer confined to the small town they were born in or the farm they grew up on for their whole lives. Even a country farmer could now travel faster and farther than the crowned heads of old Europe in their carriages. People imagined It would end class distinctions, nationalism, military conflict, and even lead to a universal language by annihilating distance. And, indeed, the automobile has been liberating and beneficial in many ways. The internal combustion engine solved many pressing problems, like where to go with all the horse excrement. It made cities cleaner in the short run. It allowed food to be transported from anywhere. It has transformed society, as its proponents claimed. But has it been exclusively beneficial? And were the knock-on effects considered, or even imagined?

In fact, an entire book could be written about the consequences. Engines in tractors allowed less people to work on farms than ever before causing vast consolidation, since now just a handful of people could farm more land than ever before. Agriculture vanished almost overnight as a way of life for most people. Unemployment and bankruptcy soared. Consumer credit was introduced to allow people to purchase automobiles, causing banking to grow and debt to increase. Prosperous people moved away from cities and into the countryside, causing a bifurcation of society. Mechanized warfare due to the internal combustion engine caused the slaughter of millions. After the war, massive sums were spent on suburbanization to boost the economy and consumption. Policies like local funding of schools, redlining, “drive until you qualify” and the bussing of minority students transformed education and urban patterns. This in turn, caused political changes such as the removal of the commons which is still playing out. Pollution and smog became epidemic. Air pollution caused asthma cases to soar, and leaded gas caused a variety of maladies before its effects were identified. Public transportation vanished in America and people stopped walking causing obesity rates to soar. Housing bubbles formed and popped, eventually causing worldwide economic crises. Automakers consolidated and then went bankrupt, asking the public for bailouts. And enormous amounts of the nation's resources were devoted to maintaining a vast and expensive driving infrastructure that needed constant maintenance and paid for by taxes. More people are killed on the world's roadways in a typical year than in all the world's wars. And I haven’t even mentioned Peak Oil and climate change. Will more technology solve all of these problems caused by technology?

I could go on. Has air conditioning caused a political realignment of the United States as people moved to the sunbelt? Has television caused the murder rate to increase? Do video games make people more violent? Have digital effects ruined the ability to tell a good story? Does living in high rises in crowded cities increase mental illness? Is artificial light destroying our circadian rhythms? Do cell phones cause brain cancer? Jet air travel and urbanization cause pandemics to quickly spread around the world. An unintended consequence of efficiency is the increased use of whatever you make more efficient. Entire books could be written, and probably have been, about these effects.

Considering all the effects above,my question to the singularitarians and other technophiles is: what makes them so sure that future technology will not give rise to these same unintended effects? To the same blowback? Kant once said "out of  the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made." Why do they assume that suddenly our technology will all of the sudden make things straight when it never has before?

Probably the most extreme current example of technophilia are proposals to "geoengineer" the biosphere. Proponents of “free markets” like to point out that no single entity or institution has enough knowledge or wisdom to manage the complexity of a modern economy. Yet somehow people believe we have the knowledge and wisdom to engineer the entire planet to our whim and not suffer unintended consequences. That we can “manage” causing artificial changes to the environment on a planetary scale that will allow us to continue the damage caused by earlier technology. What happens if we shoot chaff into the atmosphere to cool things down and a major volcano erupts? I find it supremely ironic that often the very same people who argue against central planning of the economy will advocate geoengineering the planet itself to meet the needs of the economy.

And furthermore these technophiles claim that soon we’re going to interface our consciousness with machines, plug our brains into the internet, become cyborgs, design our DNA, travel through time, and even make ourselves immortal! They claim that not only do we have the knowledge and wisdom to do this, but that there will be no unintended consequences. Really? To cite one specific objection, geneticist Spencer Wells points out in Pandora's Seed that many of our most brilliant artists, scientists and thinkers have suffered bouts of mental illness. What happens if we gain the ability to "engineer" mental illness away? Will we lose some essential part of our minds, of our selves? And clearly having people who never die on an already overcrowded planet opens up such a host of problems as to make your head spin. The bigger and more ambitious the technology, the bigger and more irreversible are the consequences. Are we too smart for our own good?


The ends to which a technology will be put are largely determined by the type of society into which they are introduced. Francis Bacon claimed that three innovations changed the world of his time - gunpowder, printing and the magnetic compass. Although he did not know the origins of these inventions, they all came from China. Obviously they had very different effects when introduced into Europe than they did in China. The same is true considering the effects of the steam engine in the classical and modern worlds. The nature of the society dictates how technology will be used, and who will benefit. Thus when you introduce television into a capitalistic society, you get wall-to-wall advertisements, pandering, manipulation by elites, and lowest common denominator forms of entertainment. Similarly, in a society of wealthy against poor where the ruling class sees people as cows to be milked for money, it is certain new technology will be used to negative ends. For example, using digital cash: there’s currently a push to eliminate all paper money in favor of virtual money. Who controls the virtual money? Banks and the government, that's who. What happens if you run afoul of one of these institutions? What if you visit the wrong website, buy the wrong book, or contribute to the wrong cause? They’re already tracking your online movements and assigning you a "credit score" that determines what you can buy, and even where you can live or work. What happens when the elites who own the banks and run the government can zero out your balance or credit score with a few keystrokes. When all records are electronic, can they just make you into a nonperson? What happens when we get chip implants? Will they be able to read your thoughts? Will they screen for subversive thoughts? Will you be denied health insurance, or even a job because of a genome scan? Will workers' DNA be engineered for docility and pliability? Couldn't we argue that some of these technological "innovations' will make the masses easier to control and might, just might, make things worse for a lot of people?

Technology is in some sense neutral - it can make things better or worse, depending on the society it is introduced into. Technology like machines that replace workers can lead to higher profits for the the few, and higher unemployment and destitution for the many, or it can lead to higher productivity, higher wages, and more leisure for everyone. In both instances the technology is exactly the same, it is only the social and economic arrangements that have changed. You can think of society as the software that runs the hardware of technology. The hardware can behave very differently depending on the software installed. An unhealthy society will use technology in unhealthy and oppressive ways. A healthy, well-adjusted society will use it positive, life-enhancing ways. If we are not using technology in healthy, life-enhancing ways, shouldn’t we be asking whether the problem is technology at all? Technology doesn’t create such societies, people and institutions do. If society isn’t fixed, adding new technology won’t make it better, in fact it will proably might make it a whole lot worse. The internet, supposedly the great equalizer, is already being taken over by governments and corporations who use it to spy on their citizens and control what they see and hear. Will nuclear technology light schools or build bombs? Will plants be built safely or for the lowest possible cost? How will the waste and pollution be dealt with, and who will pay for it? Is it safe? Are we sure? Who is telling us? Currently we just introduce technology into society with no oversight or control, like running an experiment every time, with all of us as participants.

Permaculture, agroforestry and organic agriculture are innovative enough, but we tend to only see innovation in terms of high-tech measures like genetic engineering or new chemical pesticides. Instead of waiting for the next Facebook or something like it to put people back to work, why not just put people back to work? Shortening working hours or government job creation are considered impossible to implement because we're told that such measures will actually somehow stifle innovation. Yet that's impossible - they are innovations, just not technological ones. They're social innovations, and they solve problems directly, instead of waiting for some future technological innovation that on one can quite specify. Instead of a way to keep tractors running at all costs, why not put people back to work as organic small farmers? It solves three problems at once - our unemployment problem, our obesity problem ,and out food/environmental problem (and might even help depression, too). Instead of trying to invent a carbon-harvesting machine, try biochar, or just plant a tree. Instead of frantically coming up with enough energy to keep everything running, why not use less of it? We already waste so much with no real boost in happiness or living standards. Yet none of these innovations are considered "progress." All these innovations all have two things in common - they're not predominantly technological, and they don't boost the profits of the already wealthy. Thus we have to ask, is innovation truly what the elites are after at all? Or are they after more control power and profits in the guise of innovation? There are numerous more innovations today than we had in 1950 (no cell phones or personal computers!) Yet unemployment is much higher, and well-being lower than it was then. We’ve already created innovations like the iPod and iPad, hybrid cars, MRIs, and genetic sequencing, but they haven’t changed the overall direction of the economy toward lower-paying service jobs and un/underemployment. In fact, many such innovations have done a better job at creating jobs for China’s economy than for ours. What makes us think this won’t be as true for future innovations? People have benefited from the use of the products, but not by more jobs, better pay, more free time, etc. We've never pinned more hopes and placed more focus on growth and innovation than we do today, and yet a pervasive sense of doom hangs over society. Why do we insist that future innovation will automatically make our lives better and cure our social ills?

Science is understanding. Technology is application. Yet it seems we ignore the conclusions of science, in favor of technology. Science tells use that we're permanently and irreparably damaging the environment by our industrial and agricultural output, that oil is running out, that the climate is changing, that mass extinctions are occurring, that many chemicals are poisonous, that the world has limits, and that we cannot grow exponentially forever. Science tells us that materialism doesn't cause happiness, that inequality harms societies, that lifelong social ties are essential, and that modern lifestyles are wrecking our health. It's even showing us that gene expression can change based upon such things as prenatal nutrition and social class! Yet the only science we are allowed to implement is that which produces more technology to increase the profits of the already wealthy. Technology has already made it easier to control populations and concentrate wealth. More technology will probably not fix these problems. The only thing that will solve them is solving them. And that’s the point - Innovation is used an an excuse to let problems fester and as a miracle cure. We've already solved most of the basic vexing human problems with our technology. We have indoor heat, hot and cold running water, sanitation, antibiotics, refrigeration, adequate food and nutrition, cooking fuel, entertainment and diversions, communication at light speed, and transportation to anywhere in the world in a day. What new innovation are we truly lacking? The problem is distribution - most people still don't have access to many of these things. Or we don't have time to enjoy them. Do we need future technical innovations to solve that? And why haven't they been solved already? After all, what is the end goal of all this technology? Is there one?


All that being said, here are my 10 rules of technology:

1. If one of the assumptions behind the adoption of a technology is human infallibility, then it's probably a bad idea.

2. Just because we can, doesn't mean that we should. Will the adoption of a technology will make society better, or worse? The Amish are not anti-technology, they are just pro-choice (no pun intended). They actively decide what to adopt and what to reject based upon the effects the technology will have. If the technology conflicts with their values, they reject it. Of course, this assumes a society has values. Predictably, every social malady we find in technological societies are much less pronounced or nonexistent among the Amish. That doesn't mean we should all become Amish, just that there may be a lesson here.

3. Every benefit has a cost. What is the cost? What is the benefit? Is the cost worth the benefit?

4. Cui bono? To who's benefit is the adoption of a new technology? Who are the losers, if any? The Luddites were upset not at technology, but at the loss of their livelihoods. If the benefits and profits of the new technology had been broadly shared, would they have smashed the machines? I doubt it.

5. Does it really meet a need? If we're putting massive resources into inventing new antidepressants, shouldn't we be wondering why we're so depressed in the first place? What does it say about the world we've created for ourselves that many of the long-awaited future innovations cited by technology boosters - virtual worlds, immersive games, cybernetic bodies, etc., are all pretty much ways of fleeing from reality.

6. Is there another simpler, low tech way to accomplish the same thing? One with fewer negative consequences? With fewer side effects? With less environmental damage?

7. With apologies to Stephen Covey, begin with the end in mind. What are the ends to the technology you are introducing? Health? Happiness? Convenience? Profit? It seems like we're inventing new needs just to find some technology to satisfy them, rather than the reverse.

8. Don't think of innovation as just technology. Let's look at other types of innovation - political, economic, social, and ask if that solves our problem better than some techno-fix.

9. If a person cannot articulate exactly why they are using a technology or how it makes their life better, or if it even makes them unhappy, it is merely a status symbol, an addiction or a fetish.

10, If you think the invention of [insert technology here] will bring about a utopia, then you're probably wrong.

When people from technologically advanced societies visit primitive Amazonian tribesmen and remark that they are the happiest people they've ever seen, you've got to wonder how good technology really is at making us any happier. We feel we would be absolutely miserable without out television sets, our DVD players, our iPods, our cell phones, our cars, our computer games, our books. Would we be? If they went away, we'd miss them, but that's different. That's missing something you're accustomed to, and even that would fade in time. The human psyche is resilient and can accustom itself to nearly anything; even people who lose limbs return to the same set point of contentment. How can we say a primitive existence will make us permanently unhappy? If if a even primitive existence won't, certainly giving up a small thing or two here and there won't either. Isn't it all relative to what's around you? How can we miss what we don't know exists? Who says "I'm unhappy today because I don't have something that's going to be invented a hundred years from now?"

Consider me a techno-skeptic. A skeptic isn't anti, he's just skeptical. I'm really a fan of technology as well as a user (this is on the Internet, right?). I like DVD's, indoor heat and anesthetics. I just think we're fooling ourselves if we think that more technology and innovation is the best, or even the only solution for many of our most pressing problems. And I think we do ourselves a disservice if we think of innovation purely in terms of new technology. Do you really need that solar-powered electric coffee grinder? Technology is a teriffic servant but a poor master. Keven Kelley wrote a book called What Technology Wants, contending that technology has wants and needs of its own accord. Isn't it time to stop giving technology what it wants, and start having it give us what we want?



  1. Nice post. There's a lot here to respond to, so I'll have to chew on it for a while. I did want to pass along my post on a similar topic from a couple of weeks ago, if it's of interest.

  2. Hey thanks, great blog. And I noticed the post on Energy Bulletin too.

  3. It strikes me that your article on EB today is relative to this topic: if you introduce nuclear into a society fixated upon short-term profit and offloading externalities onto the less fortunate, rather than the kinds of tight controls and regulations required, you're going to have a problem. I'm not sure we have the type of society we need to make nuclear work. The cost of failure might be way too high relative to the benefit. Communist societies like the FSU and more recently Japan have both failed at keeping nuclear safe.

  4. That's a good point---that countries at either end of the ideological spectrum (SU, US/Japan) haven't been able to make nuclear work is a sign that it might just be too difficult given the social structures we have in place today.

    The key issue, upon thinking about it a bit more, is that all people are psychologically biased to discount the future to some extent. 40 years is a long time in the future, long enough that the issue of externalities happening in 40 years are basically unimportant to today's thinking (setting aside the issue that there will probably be less money and resources to deal with the waste in 40 years).

  5. I think the best comment to your article on EB pointed out that we cannot even maintain the US highway system after 60 years, so how can we be expected to maintain nuclear facilities and waste disposal sites for a thousand? Look at how the earliest suburbs are falling apart already. It' because our maintenance systems rely on future growth. This is detailed well here:

    This article talks about suburbia, but the same came dynamic applies to nuclear plants as well as to streets and buildings - these things are usually financed by borrowed money. If the payback on the bonds is too low, maintenance is deferred in the hope that something bad won't happen, in sort of sick type of faith-based insurance (the same one used by many US citizens for health care).

    The best idea would be to recognize that energy is necessary for an industrial society to funtion, and to make nationalized power plants exempt from financial strains by "printing" the money required to make sure they function adequately - sort of a resource-based system. Right now the government is dependant upon tax revenues from the private sector which will certainly decline as the economy deteriorates (assuming they even pay them). Such a solution would be too close to socialism to have any chance of flying in America where the private sector and current financial system are worshipped with religious intensity. People always point out that Chernobyl happened under a socialist system, but I'm not sure it's totally applicable (the SU had it's own unique set of problems). Still, politically I can't see this happening anywhere (Europe? China?)

    Nuclear power creates additional problems and blowback that are so epic in scale as to boggle the mind, like waste that lasts as long a civilization has existed and failures that render entire regions of the planet uninhabitable. We can't get it wrong, and I'm almost certain we will. I like your suggestion of failing gracefully and appropraite technology (along with conservation, of course). But of course they cannot fuel the permanent expansion required to maintain the status quo, which is really what we're talking about.


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