You are not in control

You are not in control by Dmitry Orlov

My recent book tour was very valuable, among other things, in gauging audience response to the various topics related to the technosphere and its control over us. Specifically, what seems to be generally missing is an understanding that the technosphere doesn’t just control technology; it controls our minds as well. The technosphere doesn’t just prevent us from choosing technologies that we think may be appropriate and rejecting the ones that aren’t. It controls our tastes, making us prefer things that it prefers for its own reasons. It also controls our values, aligning them with its own. And it controls our bodies, causing us to treat ourselves as if we were mechanisms rather than symbiotic communities of living cells (human and otherwise).

None of this invalidates the approach I proposed for shrinking the technosphere which is based on a harm/benefit analysis and allows us to ratchet down our technology choices by always picking technologies with the least harm and the greatest benefit. But this approach only works if the analysis is informed by our own tastes, not the tastes imposed on us by the technosphere, by our values, not the technosphere’s values, and by our rejection of a mechanistic conception of our selves. These choices are implicit in the 32 criteria used in harm/benefit analysis, favoring local over global, group interests over individual interests, artisanal over industrial and so on. But I think it would be helpful to make these choices explicit, by working through an example of each of the three types of control listed above. This week I’ll tackle the first of these.

A good example of how the technosphere controls our tastes is the personal automobile. Many people regard it as a symbol of freedom and see their car as an extension of their personalities. The freedom to be car-free is not generally regarded as important, while the freedoms bestowed by car ownership are rather questionable. It is the freedom to make car payments, pay for repairs, insurance, parking, towing and gasoline. It is the freedom to pay tolls, traffic tickets, title fees and excise taxes. It is the freedom to spend countless hours stuck in traffic jams and to suffer injuries in car accidents. It is the freedom to bring up neurologically damaged children by subjecting them to unsafe carbon monoxide levels (you are encouraged to have a CO detector in your house, but not in your car—because it would be going off all the time). It is the freedom to suffer indignities when pulled over by police, especially if you’ve been drinking. In terms of a harm/benefit analysis, private car ownership makes no sense at all.

It is often argued that a car is a necessity, although the facts tell a different story. Worldwide, there are 1.2 billion vehicles on the road. The population of the planet is over 7 billion. Therefore, there are at least 5.8 billion people alive in the world who don’t own a car. How can something be considered a necessity if 82% of us don’t seem to need it? In fact, owning a car becomes necessary only in a certain specific set of circumstances. Here are some of the key ingredients: a landscape that is impassable except by motor vehicle, single-use zoning that segregates land by residential, commercial, agricultural and industrial uses, a lifestyle that requires a daily commute, and a deficit of public transportation. In turn, widespread private car ownership is what enables these key ingredients: without it, situations in which private car ownership becomes a necessity simply would not arise.

Now, moving people about the landscape is not a productive activity: it is a waste of time and energy. If you can live, send your children to school, shop and work all without leaving the confines of a small neighborhood, you are bound to be more efficient than someone who has to drive between these four locations on a daily basis. But the technosphere is rational to a fault and is all about achieving efficiencies. And so, an obvious question to ask is, What is it about the car-dependent living arrangement, and the landscape it enables, that the technosphere finds to be efficient? The surprising answer is that the technosphere strives to optimize the burning of gasoline; everything else is just a byproduct of this optimization.

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