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Technological fundamentalism in media and culture

By       Message Robert Jensen       (Page 1 of 5 pages)     Permalink

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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]

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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).

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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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