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EDITORIAL

The High-Tech Paradigm

Publicado: 2011-10-24 10:03:39

The High-Tech Paradigm

 

We, citizens of the world, have been led to believe that ever advancing High Technology is something to always look forward to. And as the century opens into ever more invasive marketing practices and policies, it has now become clear that nothing ages so quickly as yesterday’s vision of the future.

Even in the remotest corners of the world, where it sits right next to magic, technology (or its by-products) has crystallized in the mind of the locals as the only hope to scare away the lingering specter of poverty.

-Yesterday, we talked about smartphones, plasma TV and non-invasive surgery.

-Today we talk about tablets, cloud computing and social networks.

-Tomorrow we may be talking about biomechatronics, carbon nanotube bone repair and artificial intelligence… Then again, in order to be consistent:  we may as well be talking about very different things. The only certainty is: It will involve advanced applied technologies.

This is the vocabulary of the Fourth Wave: the “Hybrid Age” of human-technology co-evolution (1).

Fact has stepped beyond fiction: Since the invention of the tool as a mean to bypass adaptive evolution, science and technology have led us to the moon and back… And by proxy, even beyond. We’re becoming part of the machine, and it is becoming part of us… More than a trend, it’s a global movement. Such is its integration in leading societies that many scientists are now studying its effects on human behavior (2). Some (3) talk about the “WWWeb” as a transactive memory medium that stores information in a kind of social and collective memory. Japanese society, the leader of the Tech pack, currently has robot-pets monitoring and providing companionship to the elderly, while in the United States 75% of prostate-cancer surgeries are now robot-assisted (4).

But… As inevitably as with every other paradigm, only the bright side is exposed under the stage lights.  “Tak[ing] art as a weapon to destroy the present and create the future”(5), technology’s ministers now  artfully paint an ever evolving picture, altering the meaning of every aspect of our lives.

And all this comes at a price. As it acquires an almost sacred life of its own, the craving for technology has reached a state of self-sustaining reaction where forward flight is left as the only acceptable choice.

Now, this is not to understate the importance of technology at all, on the contrary: As it stands, it has completely eradicated smallpox, a virus responsible for the death of more than 300 million people in the 20th century alone (6). It has also multiplied by several orders of magnitude our understanding of the universe and has so far managed to keep the food curve ahead of overpopulation in many places if not everywhere.

But if it is true that the humblest person in today’s advanced societies has a way better life expectancy than any medieval king of lore, it is also true that today’s latest  “i-tech” marvel needs many exotic materials to be developed and built (7), and is furthermore inevitably condemned to become part of the recycling global burden, usually less than a couple of years down the road (8).

And while the usefulness of being 3G or 4G capable (9) is still arguably debatable for a cell phone, planned obsolescence in a car is not (10). While the ethics of mapping the human genome is beyond critic, the patenting of identified genes by laboratories is not (11). While the evolution of digital imaging technology is inevitable, the release of partial updates and half-mature expressions from advanced models is not (12).

Real breakthroughs in technology are not as common as we may think…The microscope, electricity, penicillin… Yet we see “new” products all the time, products that discreetly shorten their shelf lives with each passing generation.

In the same way that money isn’t the demon whose absence creates poverty (yet greed does maintain the economic gap between haves and have-nots), technology isn’t the demon whose exploitation leads to energy profligacy, resource depletion and environmental collapse… Consumer addiction does.

If the aforementioned example (smallpox eradication) is the result of a colossal international logistic effort, the latter two are not. A better understanding of the Universe and improved yields in food production are only the corollary of progress in an advancing society. We should not confuse the great potentials of technology with the products coming from those who steer and control its path forward. Global consumers do not really determine the path of technology; they merely follow the possible avenues of a maze traced by market opportunities.

And this is where it stops to be funny.

Welcome backstage to “Fringe Ethics”: the dark world of false needs, counterfeit solutions and individual insecurities exploitation. Hail Technofashion, the paradigm of fashion technology.

There is no such thing as an ecologic fashion and there never will be. Fashion is about looks before substance, whim before need, extravagance before function and it is characterized by the urge to switch from one item to an upgrade before the first one’s failure or obsolescence. In short, it’s about inducing the market to buy items that are at best unneeded, and at worst useless.

Clothes that will be worn only once or twice, music that will not transcend, and in the case of technofashion, smartphones that will probably not be used to the fullest of their capabilities before being replaced by an upgrade.

Some products are glaringly overrated: computerized (sometimes talking) assistant-drivers in highly priced cars, the mind boggling hundreds of TV channels of which less than 30 could ever become favorites, the ever yearly improving exercise machine made of ever more exotic materials, the miracle beauty creams containing ever more exotic tropical rainforest or plankton natural agents… And this without mentioning the plethora of ever evolving dubiously effective kitchen appliances, cosmetic paraphernalia and electronic gadgets … almost all using precious energy to be able to perform, and irreplaceable resources for their manufacture.

Some others are pure useless extravagance: a US$100,000 razor whose blades are made of artificial sapphire and the handle of 99.9 percent pure iridium. A US$ 4,000 photorealistic 3D mask and even fashion haircut motorcycle helmets that raise doubt on their performance in case of accident (13).

Let’s not underestimate low-tech whenever it can perform with low maintenance and a negligible energy cost. A low-tech solution to Somalia’s irrigation problem was implemented in the 1980’s: The Archimedes’ screw requires no exotic material, uses no electricity and isn’t maintenance prone. Yet it manages to raise water uphill under animal power to irrigate a field. Another example is fresh water contamination in India and Bangladesh. Arsenic is present in the water coming from the wells that intoxicates everyone consuming it. A low-tech solution was devised to separate the toxin from the water. It is a cheap, gravity operated bucketlike device that filters the water through a type of gravel whose natural properties are ideal for this purpose (14). Logging companies in India use domesticated elephants instead of machinery to bring felled trees to the dispatching site. This prevents the forest from being razed to allow access to the trees.

Let’s not bow to the “god” of technology for fashion sake or even for its own sake. It’s only a tool that has the unique potential of making humanity’s life on this planet ever safer, healthier and more efficient. But in order to be truly beneficial for mankind, technology should be designed with the lowest maintenance possible in mind. Access to it should be available to as many people as possible.  Efficient low-tech should be used whenever possible. Solid-state devices should be preferred over mechanical ones. Mobile parts should be avoided whenever possible. And technology should never, ever, ever be dominated by fashion.

If the world had to hypothetically end tomorrow, it’s not the technological remnants of a great civilization that later archaeologists would find, but the colossal witnesses of the Bronze Age: The Egyptian pyramids and the Great Wall of China, Petra and the Mayan steles…  Those were made to resist the assaults of time (albeit at horrendous human cost). Despite our progress hubris and our self-congratulating grandeur, it’s only ironic that all our technology is not.

 

Thierry Massihians, October 2011

 

(1): Alvin Toffler:The Third Wave”.

First wave: Agrarian and tribal

Second wave: Industrial and national

Third wave: Informational and transnational

(2): Joyce Nelson, The Perfect Machine; 1992- Excerpt:

As early as November 1969, a researcher named Herbert Krugman decided to analyze the physiological response of a person’s brain watching TV. Having elicited the co-operation of a twenty-two-year-old secretary for his experiment, he taped a single electrode to the back of her head. The wire from this electrode connected to a Grass Model 7 Polygraph, which in turn interfaced with a Honeywell 7600 computer and a CAT 400B computer.

As the TV flicked on, Krugman began monitoring the brain-waves of the subject. Within about thirty seconds, the brain-waves switched from predominantly beta waves, indicating alert and conscious attention, to predominantly alpha waves, indicating an unfocused, receptive lack of attention: the state of aimless fantasy and daydreaming below the threshold of consciousness. When Krugman's subject turned to reading through a magazine, beta waves reappeared, indicating that conscious and alert attentiveness had replaced the daydreaming state.

What surprised Krugman [ ] was how rapidly the alpha-state emerged. Further research revealed that the brain's left hemisphere, which processes information logically and analytically, tunes out while the person is watching TV. This tuning-out allows the right hemisphere of the brain, which processes information emotionally and noncritically, to function unimpeded. 'It appears,' wrote Krugman in a report of his findings, 'that the mode of response to television is more or less constant and very different from the response to print. That is, the basic electrical response of the brain is clearly to the medium and not to content difference.... [Television is] a communication medium that effortlessly transmits huge quantities of information not thought about at the time of exposure.'

Soon, dozens of agencies were engaged in their own research into the television-brain phenomenon and its implications. The findings led to a complete overhaul in the theories, techniques, and practices that had structured the advertising industry and, to an extent, the entire television industry.”

(3): Betsy Sparrow: Psychologist,University of Columbia.

(4): Ayesha and Parag Khanna:co-directors of the Hybrid Reality Institute.

(5): Eikoh Hosoe: Japanese filmmaker and photographer.

(6): http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/smallpox/en/

(7):Intel states that in the ‘80s there were eleven elements used in the semiconductor industry. In the ‘90s, there were fifteen. Ten years later, they grew to over sixty elements.”Barbara Karn, Green Nanotechnology: http://sei.nnin.org/doc/resource/green%20nano.pdf

(8): 40 million tons of technological garbage is produced every year (and the number is also growing every year). National Geographic, “The Pulse of the Earth”, 2008

(9): http://manofthehouse.com/gadgets/phones/3g-vs-4g-wireless-networks

(10): Diane Crow, 2009: http://www.canadafreepress.com/index.php/article/11010-Excerpt:

“A [] perfect example of planned obsolescence is the car industry. Originally cars were manufactured in the twenties. The cars from before WWII were still driven in the streets of London in the Sixties, during this time Volkswagen also built a cheap, durable car until it flooded the entire market. If a person was able to afford a Rolls Royce then it was considered the best buy in the world with a large re-sale value. Unfortunately, executives realized that once sales stabilized people would no longer be willing or would need to buy a new car. It would have meant millions of workers laid off and a considerable drop in profits. For the next two or three decades, the ultimate purpose in the automotive industry would be not to produce cars, but to keep workers and manufacturers busy making cars, with the only real result being that tons of steel and billions of hours of work were spent to produce cars not meant to last for very long. The whole point of this was (and still is) to keep the customer coming back even before the previous obligations toward payment and maintenance of their currently owned car ended.”

The century-old internal combustion engine is the worst example of a technology that has overstayed its welcome. It has a negative impact on the environment, its aerodynamic design is but a disguise laced with high maintenance electronics, and last but not least it serves corporate interests by keeping the world dependant on fossil fuel.

(11): Michael Crichton, Patenting Life, 2007: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/13/opinion/13crichton.html

Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, Patenting Life is Owning Life, 1999:

http://www.twnside.org.sg/title/egz1-cn.htm

Greenpeace, 2002:

http://archive.greenpeace.org/geneng/reports/pat/intrpat.htm

(12): In order to finance R&D, corporations now launch products that show a significant reduction of performance compared to the prototype, then release the fully mature technology later, effectively charging the consumer twice for the same technology.

(13): http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/

(14): Dr Abul Hussam, George Mason University. Recipient of National Engineering Academy’s 1st prize of $1 million (that Dr Hussam generously reinvested to produce filters for Bangladesh):

Water Wars documentary, 2010.


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