Taming Technology

By Howard Rheingold

Excerpted from The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog (HarperSanfrancisco, 1994)

The most important part of any technology, more often than not, turns out to be invisible. If you could peer through magical spectacles that would reveal the parts of aluminum cans that you normally don't see, for example, you would perceive lines of force connecting the contents of your refrigerator to global geopolitical conflicts.

When I pop open an aluminum can, it hardly ever occurs to me to think about the working conditions in the West Indies (bauxite is mined in Jamaica), or the costs of rejecting nuclear power in favor of other energy-production technologies (if the energy used to manufacture cans doesn't come from a nuclear reactor, it comes from one fossil fuel or another or from a dammed river). An aluminum can affects and is affected by the the cost-effectiveness of truck tires (which translates to miles-per-gallon-per-pound of cans) and the price of petroleum needed to transport all that ore, refined metal, and end-products around the world. Aluminum begins with someone digging the right kind of ore out of the earth, but the most expensive component of a can is the energy required to extract, process, manufacture, and transport it to your hand.

Profits and benefits from new technologies like aluminum foil and aluminum aircraft are visible, but costs and delayed or distant effects are invisible. What we need badly right now is a way for more and more people to see, understand, and decide collectively, through our discussions and our buying and voting decisions, exactly which trade-offs we are willing to make in return for technological conveniences. We need to find ways to make the invisible parts of technology more visible.

While an endless addictive quest for a "technological fix" is not the answer to the problem of building a sustainable civilization for billions of people on a planet with limited resources; neither, I believe, is it wise to reject the very technologies we are going to need in years to come. We need the best tools we can muster to manage the world of energy-consuming billions we've inherited. We can't discard our tools, despite their evident defects, because we need them for our survival.

How do we find new modes of perceiving technology, new ways to think about, design, and use tools? How can we develop more conscious means for democratic societies to make decisions about technologies? The next step beyond access to tools is access to understanding how to use them. In what directions does that step proceed? How do we start learning to look at the world of technology, and our places in it, in new ways? Before we can hope to achieve answers, we must elevate the level of discourse from an argument between tree-huggers and nuke-lovers. The world is more complicated than that. We need richer, more widespread, less simplistically polarized discourse about technology and social issues, because that is the only kind of environment where viable solutions are likely to emerge.

The following pages encompass a wide spectrum of opinion, from direct attacks upon technology to tech tricks from hardware hackers. Those who think about technology's broader consequences, and those who build virtual reality goggles in their garage, those who seek to influence public policy and those who want to roll their own technology, are included. Our eclectic gathering of critics and enthusiasts help us look at future technologies -- artificial life, artificial evolution, nanotechnology, virtual reality -- and at the cultural and social impact of current tools. Think of this domain as the laboratory for a thought-experiment. Maybe one or more of you who read this will help devise solutions to the problems raised here.

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