Resisting the dominance of technology — and saving the planet

Peer into any restaurant or social setting. About a third of the people will be checking their smartphones, paying little attention to their surroundings, or even to the people near them.

Jul 10, 2015

By Anil Netto
Peer into any restaurant or social setting. About a third of the people will be checking their smartphones, paying little attention to their surroundings, or even to the people near them.

Now, technology can be a wonderful thing but, divorced of ethics, it can give rise to all sorts of problems, including environmental ones. In Chapter 3 of Laudato Si’, the Bishop of Rome’s watershed encyclical on the environment, Francis devotes the entire chapter to the impact of technology.

Now, it might seem strange to give so much space to technology in an encyclical on the environment. After all, technology has led to so much progress over the centuries: steam engines, railways, telecommunications, electricity, vehicles, planes, medicine. Some products of technology are even things of beauty e.g. sleek slim smartphones and ultra light netbooks.

Other forms of technology, e.g. nuclear energy, biotechnology, and knowledge of our DNA — can be more controversial. “They have given those with the knowledge, and especially the economic resources to use them, an impressive dominance.” And yet, there is no guarantee they will be used wisely.

Unfortunately, this rapid technological development has not been accompanied by a rise in “human responsibility, values and conscience.” So many ordinary people are left vulnerable and exposed — our freedom is at stake — in the face of the immense power concentrated in the hands of those who have access to such technology.

In the past, we lived in harmony, and more in tune, with Nature. But now, we are attempting to extract everything possible from Nature while ignoring environmental realities. “Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational,” observes Francis.

“This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology.”

There is the fallacy that natural resouces are unlimited. But in reality, our natural heritage is being degraded while natural resources are rapidly depleted, affecting every aspect of life.

Indeed, technologicial products are not neutral. They create a framework that leads to “conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups”

This expansion of the technological paradigm has become so dominant that it has become difficult to live without technology, or for human nature not to succumb to its “internal logic.” In fact, “it has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology, of its costs and its power to globalize and make us all the same.”

What is this “internal logic”? Francis says those who are surrounded with technology “know full well that it moves forward, in the final analysis, neither for profit nor for the well-being of the human race.” Power and dominance over all is its motive.

The economy, for its part, views technology as a tool to reap even more profits without concern for its negative impact. Now, there are some who believe that modern economics and technological progress can solve environmental problems, and market growth can eliminate poverty.

Economic planners may not dare to say they support unsustainable economic policies, but they do implement such policies. Francis laments that they seem to show “no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations.” For them, maximizing profits and economic growth are all that matter.

But the market alone cannot guarantee genuine human development and social inclusion. And now, we have the trend towards ‘superdevelopment’ — a wasteful and consumerist kind of development that stands in contrast to widespread deprivation.

The problem with technology is that it leads to specialisation in specific areas. This makes it difficult to see the Big Picture; so we are unable to appreciate the “the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon, which then becomes irrelevant”.

Soon, our lives are consumed by technology and we tend to surrender to situations conditioned by technology. The symptoms of this are everywhere for us to see: “environmental degradation, anxiety, a loss of the purpose of life and of community living.”

Francis urges us to cultivate a “distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality.” Together, these will allow us to better resist the “assault of the technocratic paradigm.”

Technology was supposed to make life easier, but why is it that so many are disillusioned and pessimistic about the future?

Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble. Instead of cooperating with God in the service of the kingdom, we usurp his place.

We need to slow down and look at ways to achieve more sustainable progress — and “to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.”

We need to be responsible for the world, which is mired in “an ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity”.

We should not allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy and regard their impact on society and nature as mere “collateral damage.” To ensure economic freedom that genuinely benefits everyone, those who have greater resources and financial power must be occasionally restrained.

Technological progress to cut costs and improve efficiency should not lead to machines replacing human work. Productive diversity and business creativity must be encouraged in the economy. “For example, there is a great variety of small-scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, using a modest amount of land and producing less waste..”

Then there are whole areas of advances in molecular biology and genetics. This should not lead to “indiscriminate genetic manipulation.”

Francis acknowledges that “it is difficult to make a general judgement about genetic modification” since the practices vary, and specific considerations apply in each situation.

But he does note that following the introduction of GM crops in many places, productive land is concentrated in the hands of a few owners. Small producers gradually disappear.

“The most vulnerable of these become temporary labourers, and many rural workers end up moving to poverty-stricken urban areas. The expansion of these crops has the effect of destroying the complex network of ecosystems, diminishing the diversity of production and affecting regional economies, now, and in the future.”

Oligopolies are created while small farmers grow increasingly dependent on infertile seeds, which they have to then buy from larger producers.

So he proposes that “a broad, responsible scientific and social debate needs to take place, one capable of considering all the available information and of calling things by their name.”

A more comprehensive approach “which would require, at the very least, greater efforts to finance various lines of independent, interdisciplinary research capable of shedding new light on the problem” is needed.

If one line were to sum up this chapter, it would be this: “Technology severed from ethics will not easily be able to limit its own power.”

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