A further look at the Eco/techno divide

The idea that there are two opposed world views that may be characterised as ‘techno’ and ‘Eco’ is intuitive. The two belief systems are both viewpoints and standpoints that persuade their devotees which way to interpret a situation, argument or body of observation that may be otherwise either difficult to interpret or prove, or is on a knife edge in the balance of its implications. Such strongly held core beliefs sometimes allow a sliver of doubt to inform and justify a strong opinion.

As I have observed these opposing world views are rooted in beliefs. Strongly held beliefs that are distilled from direct experience, learnt interpretations and personal thought and emotion over a long period, possibly a lifetime are difficult to dislodge. At the centre, the two opposing views are based on values: what we value. Values, in this sense, are the qualities we see in things that we believe are beneficial or otherwise to our individual and collective good. Ethically and holistically, they should be inclusive also of the good of our progeny and humanity as a whole. These values may be further influenced by empathy, compassion and a sense of equality and universal good that extends beyond the human community. Whether a given standpoint regards them as important or even relevant, in addition to our naturally (and time honoured) anthropocentric viewpoint, the possibility of biocentric and geocentric viewpoints has to be admitted. A holistic standpoint will acknowledge all three though it may place differing emphasis on the implications of such extended empathy. Such tenets lead to the Eco perspective.
To return to the definition of the Eco and techno world views then, it is necessary to discuss the nature of technology and the nature of our relationship to the rest of the natural world. We are, as many never fail to point out, a part of nature. We are a product of evolution. The opinion of respected archeologists is that technology in its broadest sense is inextricably woven into our emergence as human beings and along with the capacity for reflective thought and the development of language defines what it is to be human. Thus at the very beginning, probably long before agriculture and any form of social culture developed, the evolution of the human brain was actually unlocked by the earliest technologies: fire saving and cooking, implements to kill animals and cut and scrape animal flesh and hides, the sling to carry a child.
Thus, it can be argued that there has never been a stage in the history and prehistory of humankind when technology has not been an essential means to survival as well as support to the quality of life. Some go so far as to say that the human brain could not have developed without the efficiency of food procurement and preparation that technology gave us to feed its huge energy requirement. Maybe, but in any case I am persuaded that the individual is deeply dependent on both society and technology in his or her interaction with nature and the cosmos, and that, especially now, we live largely in a technological environment that we understand largely through received culture. It would be possible to elaborate how the web of technology and culture mediates our individual and collective relationships and interaction with nature, defined as the animate and inanimate realm beyond the ‘man made’.
Which brings us to the need for a definition of technology. I suggest:
Technology is the creation of artefacts by the adaptation of animate and inanimate nature to suit human desires and purposes as perceived at a given time.
This is the broadest definition of technology I can think of and encompasses agriculture and other practical arts not always considered as technologies. The distinction I see between art and technology is that art centres on enjoyment and communication, while technology centres on purpose, but these distinctions are not exclusive. And to be clear on an important point, artefacts are adaptations of the natural order, not distinct from it. So, just as technology is a part of nature (the techno’s rational for justifying its unbridled application), nature also exists ‘within’ artefacts. Thus a hybrid plant or domestic animal might be considered an artefact and more conventionally regarded artefacts such as steel or timber, though highly wrought, still obey nature’s rules in that, for instance, they rust or rot if not maintained appropriately and their strength and other qualities are based on working with natural order rules that we have come to understand through art and science.
With these thoughts about technology in mind, let’s now return to the definition of the techno and Eco viewpoints. Perhaps it is important to point out that the Eco standpoint cannot entirely reject technology. That was where we were going with the discussion about the primeval nature of technology. The difference of worldview stems from a difference of attitude to technology , its products, consequences and its effects on the more than human world due to the potency it has attained. If technology is a product of humanity and humanity is part of nature, why the worry? To answer this question we have to see what it is about the products of technology that is different to the products of nature. The answer lies at the very heart of our perception of reality and our twentieth century belief in evolution. Both evolutionary theory and observation of the natural world suggest that change occurs over time by minute adaptations of each and every living entity to its environment and to all the other adapting species. This balance is maintained in the ‘raw in tooth and claw’ world of carnivores as well as in other species and when the balance is disrupted by the unmitigated success of some species or anther they are eventually cut back by Malthusian effects. Even so, in nature we do see extreme unbalances, but we usually refer to them as plagues or diseases.
The mindless adaptation over aeons of time that evolutionary theory draws attention to has produced an unimaginable diversity of lifeforms and it is this very adaptive diversity that is its most fundamental and valuable quality. Or at least, that is how the Eco persuasion sees it. Since technology is the product of human reason, as we said above, honed to specific perceived purposes capable of being consciously understood, which are in comparison to natural evolutionary processes (we might add too, many earth systems such as climate and tides etc.), relatively simple in their effects and directed at combating natural processes, it can also be disruptive in its effects. The amplification of these out of kilter effects through the increasing potency of technology in ensuring human survival, driving population increase and satisfying human desire, becomes the central issue of the attitude to technology in the Eco worldview.
There are two different but related effects that the Eco sensibility finds unacceptable as a result. Firstly, the replacement of the complexities of the non manmade world by the overt simplicities of the man made. These simplicities address human perception and can have an amplifying effect, but they can lead towards surrogate experience. Secondly, in achieving the technological simplicities, changes and ‘improvements’, there are collateral effects that undermine and/destroy aspects of the natural environment and living species to an irreparable extent. The question remains: does it matter, other than to the human sensibility and ultimate human wellbeing? Who/whatever beyond humanity will understand and balance the opposition of desires and appreciations-of-consequences.
Reflection will make it apparent that the discussion above is still essentially anthropocentric though the question emerges as to whether there is another view that doesn’t need these arguments that are so embedded in our human thought. It might seem that, unless there is an intelligence (or do I mean sensitivity) on earth or in the universe other than human, there is no entity to which the consequences discussed will matter and therefore outside of the human realm (the broader self interest) they have no consequence. Who/what could exercise a parallel or greater than human ethical judgement? This question might evoke notions of a deity or more abstractly a universal intelligence. However if not, it still does require a belief in a balance of right and wrong, perhaps good and evil. Can there be a mindless, non compassionate ethics? I think not.
No matter how we look at it, it seems, unless we acknowledge intelligence and sensibility outside of the human, we are stuck with collective self interest as the only motive for ethical activity of any kind, let alone ecological. Do to others as you would wish them to do to you, lest you be harmed. This may in part be sufficient to make the Eco/techno debate relevant. It is however deepened if we acknowledge that values that we have no evidence to suggest exist outside of the human sensibility should be applied by us, as ethically complete humans, beyond the human social realm. By this argument, technology and other human activities that cause severe disruption of earth- and ecosystems and/or abuse sentient creatures and/or threaten viability of species need mitigation.
These are not necessarily the core issues of the techno versus Eco debate however. They are essentially anthropocentric, but with a tendency also toward the application of ethical principles beyond the human realm. The Ecophile will favour stratagems and technologies that sustain or at least to not excessively disrupt the overriding natural order or specific living entities and ecosystems. They will prefer social activities, art forms, stratagems and technologies that sustain complexity and variety within life experience. They will prefer slow natural earth related experiences to fast artificial novelty. The techophile will find comfort in a completely artificial world tuned to his desires and preferences and perceptions. We are getting closer to a kind of definition of these two poles of aspiration but haven’t quite made it yet. . .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s