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Technological fundamentalism in media and culture

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[originally published in Media Development (http://www.wacc.org.uk/wacc/publications/media_development), No. 3, 2008.]


While media watchdogs and bloggers probe contemporary news media for signs of bias -- from every angle, on virtually every issue -- perhaps the most important of journalists’ biases is ignored: their routine acceptance of society’s technological fundamentalism. This devotion to the industrial world’s core delusion shows up not just in stories about science and technology but in the assumptions about science and technology that underlie virtually all reporting in the corporate commercial news media in the United States.

Let’s start with definitions: While fundamentalism has a specific meaning in Protestant history (an early 20th century movement to promote “The Fundamentals”), more generally the term can be used to describe any intellectual/political/theological position that asserts certainty in the unquestioned truth and/or righteousness of a belief system. Fundamentalism shows up in history often enough, in enough places, that it seems to be a feature not of a particular culture but of human psychology -- we humans are prone, though one hopes not doomed, to fundamentalist thinking. The attraction of fundamentalism is not hard to understand; in a maddeningly complex world, such a way of thinking can offer comfort, even if illusory. But fundamentalism is better described as a system of non-thought, for as ecologist Wes Jackson puts it, “fundamentalism takes over where thought leaves off.”[1]

Journalists are conscious of religious fundamentalism and treat it as a phenomenon to be covered, even if they don’t always explore it in much depth. But other fundamentalisms -- which likely are even more dangerous than the religious varieties -- are the water in which journalists swim, rarely reported upon and usually taken as an unquestioned state of nature. This includes national fundamentalism (the belief that we owe loyalty to nation-states and that patriotism is a good thing) and market fundamentalism (the belief that market-based corporate capitalism is the only rational way to organize an economy in the contemporary world).

But it may well turn out that the gravest threat to a just and sustainable human presence on the planet is technological fundamentalism -- the notion that the increasing use of increasingly more sophisticated high-energy advanced technology is always a good thing and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology. According to David Orr, an environmental studies professor at Oberlin College in Ohio, technological fundamentalists are those “unwilling, perhaps unable, to question our basic assumptions about how our tools relate to our larger purposes and prospects.”[2]

Our experience with unintended consequences is fairly clear. For example, there’s the case of automobiles and the burning of petroleum in internal-combustion engines, which give us the ability to travel considerable distances with a fair amount of individual autonomy. This technology also has given us traffic jams and road rage, strip malls and the interstate highway system, smog in some places while everywhere contributing to rapid climate change that threatens sustainable life on the planet. We haven’t quite figured out how to cope with these problems, and in retrospect it would have been wise to have gone slower in the development of a transportation system based on the car and to have paid more attention to potential negative consequences. The point is not to look back and condemn John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and Dwight Eisenhower, but to ask a simple question: Can we learn from these mistakes?

Those who raise questions about this fundamentalism are often said to be “anti-technology,” which is a meaningless insult. All human beings use technology of some kind, whether stone tools or computers. An anti-fundamentalist position is not that all technology is bad, but that the introduction of new technology should be evaluated carefully on the basis of its effects -- predictable and unpredictable -- on human communities and the non-human world, with an understanding of the limits of our knowledge.

One expression of this view is the “precautionary principle,” which argues that instead of asking sceptics to prove that a new product or process might be harmful, advocates of the proposed new action should have to prove it is safe. A 1998 conference of scientists, philosophers, lawyers and environmental activists produced this widely used definition of the principle:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.

The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action. [3]

This idea is not new. An early challenge to greed-fueled technological fundamentalism came from the Luddites, artisans who resisted the factory system in early 19th century Britain not because they were afraid of machines but because they anticipated the negative effects of a dangerous and dehumanizing system on their communities. The contemporary use of “Luddite” as a synonym for “someone with an irrational fear of anything new” indicates how a fearful culture regards this kind of thoughtful critique. The lesson we should learn from the early Industrial Revolution is that the Luddites were correct -- by overvaluing machines we can easily undervalue people and the non-human living world.

Today, some critics of the culture’s technological fundamentalism describe themselves as neo-Luddites, an attempt to connect to the wisdom of that earlier movement. Neo-Luddites recognize that technological scepticism and the adoption of the precautionary principle would slow the introduction of new inventions -- unless a compelling need to take a risk could be justified in an open and democratic process -- and that would be a good thing. Slowing down a runaway train doesn’t magically take care of all problems, but it usually beneficial both for those in the path of the train and those riding it.

Let’s leave the train metaphor and go back to the issue of the cars on the road. The most common response to the social and ecological pathology of the car culture has not been to rethink the reasons and ways we transport ourselves, but rather to figure out how to replace petroleum so we can continue to drive, leading to the manic quest for “alternative fuels.” This has led to the promotion of corn-based ethanol, which is now widely understood to be a disaster on all fronts: it takes almost as much energy to produce as is recovered, intensifies unsustainable farming practices, and increases costs of food. [4] Technological fundamentalism -- exacerbated by the greed of private agribusiness corporations that are publicly subsidized -- created the climate in which corn-based ethanol emerged, and for years journalists yawned at the larger issues. Now we can see the depth of the technological fundamentalism in the way in which journalists start to critique corn-based ethanol; routinely such discussions come with an implicit or explicit endorsement of other biofuels, such as sugar cane or switch grass.

Recognizing that “[t]he economics of corn ethanol have never made much sense,” the New York Times editorialized in 2007 that:

There is nothing wrong with developing alternative fuels, and there is high hope among environmentalists and even venture capitalists that more advanced biofuels -- like cellulosic ethanol -- can eventually play a constructive role in reducing oil dependency and greenhouse gases. What’s wrong is letting politics -- the kind that leads to unnecessary subsidies, the invasion of natural landscapes best left alone and soaring food prices that hurt the poor -- rather than sound science and sound economics drive America’s energy policy. [5]

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)
 

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And an interesting way to frame it.  Might as... by Rob Kall on Monday, Aug 25, 2008 at 9:52:16 AM
Kudos to Robert Jensen and also to Rob Kall for hi... by Mark E. Smith on Monday, Aug 25, 2008 at 10:24:22 PM
is the only way to show  which technlogical a... by Mark Sashine on Tuesday, Aug 26, 2008 at 8:44:22 AM
Many have saying these things for decades. But it ... by Daniel Geery on Tuesday, Aug 26, 2008 at 9:12:48 AM
Comment from Ratings:   You really eluci... by Oh on Wednesday, Aug 27, 2008 at 9:54:46 AM

 

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