Greer’s “The Retro Future” and Technological Determinism

Previously, I talked a little about technological determinism. Briefly, technological determinism is the thesis that technology is propelled along by its own strong force, and although we can influence its development somewhat, it takes a lot of effort to resist its march forwards.

Determinism is a relatively minority view. Anyone who states that technology is a tool and that we can choose how to use those tools is probably not a believer in determinism. Yet, there are strong reasons to believe in determinism, because it has clear and observable mechanisms, such as the prisoner’s dilemma, and the fact that we have predictable instincts. These instincts are often ones that were adaptive in our past and hence guided by evolution, but have become maladaptive in the current state of excess of most resources that we require to live.

It is interesting to read some rebuttals towards determinism, and I recently read of one by John Michael Greer in his book “The Retro Future”. It goes without saying that I agree with much of what Greer has to say, especially when it comes to how we should proceed as a culture in the future, and how we should handle technology. However, Greer does speak about determinism:

When talking heads these days babble about technology in the singular, as a uniform, monolithic thing that progresses according to some relentless internal logic of its own, they’re spouting balderdash. In the real world, there’s no such monolith, no technology in the singular. Instead, there are technologies in the plural, clustered more or less loosely in technological suites that may or may not have any direct relation to one another.

This goes against the idea of technological determinism. Greer states that some technologies might have developed such as the technology required to build a bicycle but not so that we could build a radio receiver. He says then that

Strictly speaking, therefore, nothing requires all the different technological suites to move in lockstep. It would have been quite possible for different technological suites to have appeared in a different order than they did; it would have been just as possible for some of the suites central to our technologies today to have never gotten off the ground, while other technologies we never tried emerged instead.

Of course, Greer is absolutely right. Technology could have come about in multiple ways, but that in no way makes it inconsistent to think of technology as a “monolithic thing that progresses according to some relentless internal logic”. In exactly the same way, different animals have evolved on this earth in different forms, but they are all single entities that have their own internal logic to them.

The “internal logic” of technological determinism doesn’t mean that technology must evolve in a lockstep fashion in exactly one predetermined way. Rather, it means that there are forces such as the prisoner’s dilemma and human instincts (and more generally, many self-organizational principles) that act to push technology further. Technology can still act as a whole, even though different pieces may shift around causing different eventual outcomes.

I think ultimately, Greer and I end up in the same place. Later in the chapter, he says

[W]hen something is being lauded as the next great step forward in the glorious march of progress leading humanity to a better world someday, those who haven’t drunk themselves tipsy on industrial civilization’s folk mythology need to keep three things in mind.

I think at the beginning, when Greer is putting down the idea of technology as a monolith, he is more referring to the idea that progress is inevitable and great, which may be a conclusion of some that believe in determinism. In some ways, the technological organism that I talk about could be seen as the next phase of life and existence by some. In fact, many do. Some technophiles even dream of being put into virtual reality or having bodies augmented or even replaced by machine entities that don’t get sick.

However, one must not conflate technological determinism with the idea that technology is the next “great step” in the evolution of life, and that it will create a better world for all. Technological determinism is a manifestation of a self-organizing force just like that which created life, but it is in fact more like the evolutionary reflection of evil, to make a crude analogy.

So, I understand where Greer is coming from. Technology certainly is not a great thing and neither is progress. In fact, it is frequently detrimental and we do have influence over it. Yet, to dismiss technological determinism is also a mistake because it is a useful description and thesis of how technology actually comes to be. One must not fall trap into similar to the error of the social constructivists and believe that we can just recreate any sort of society at will by modifying society to modify the individual, or in this case, by modifying society to easily control technology.

In short, while Greer’s book contains excellent ideas on how to proceed with technology and while I agree with almost everything in it, I do believe that a dismissal of the internal logic of technological growth is also a weakness that makes it harder to comprehend the true nature of technology and how to handle it.

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