September 4, 2009

Tech Monuments as Consumerism and Class War (Scientism 2 of 5)

In post 1 we saw how something like CERN comes about. From the scientistic point of view, society is simply another resource to be mined for its own narrow purposes. In this, it is an extension of modern shallowness and selfishness in general. At the same time it allows science itself to become the prostitute of corporate interests. So it happily works as a slave in the mine it has helped rip open. 
It’s just like the space program. Obscenely expensive toys for overgrown children to play. It’s an extreme version of the high-maintenance hedonist consumer culture. Technicians of physics who want this toy to play with are no different from a suburbanite who just needs a McMansion, a Hummer, a plasma TV.
Do these scientists consider themselves “thinkers” or “artists”? No, they’re just technicians who don’t even produce anything. Any freelance mechanic or carpenter contributes far more social value.
And what would these tinpot Edisons do without the boss man to give them their laboratories and their marching orders? Is it even possible to be a technician without spending one’s life repeatedly bought and sold? All they are is a commodity.
And then we behold an absurd “prestige” project like a particle collider, something which looks like a parody of the Titanic, which itself had made itself farcical before it even sank, what with its absurd rhetoric about being “unsinkable”. If it had been a character in the drama you would know it was going to sink.
Today we are in the age of resource depletion, of Peak Oil. Today all realistic people look at any massive capitalization and think of Ozymandias. CERN, the space program, geoengineering, nuclear power, CCS, Dubai, Las Vegas, Atlanta….these are all one spectrum of hubris. And not even the glorious if fatal Greek pride, but a snivelling, spiritual picayune brat’s pride which seeks to compensate for its puniness and paltriness through big, noisy things. Deep down it’s the same bigger-is-better, flashier-is-better consumerist mindset which got us into this whole mess.
But net entropy declares this is all vanity. We should look at a parking lot full of unsold cars (even a potemkin “market” like cash for clunkers can only go so far), or a high-rise condo with all the units unsold and empty, and then compare a high-tech toy like CERN.
Of course no one really thinks a particle collider or anything that can be learned from it is going to be of any use at all post-Peak Oil. I guess using that money for real scientific investment, say to develop better post-fossil fuel agricultural varieties, isn’t sexy enough for the scienticians.
I fear we cannot afford to waste all this money. Not one cent of it.
I don’t know what kind of science could come of such massive capitalizations which would be beneficial to the non-rich during energy descent.
I’d be willing to bet two things about CERN:
1. It wasn’t funded by private capital. (Costs socialized, including the risk of generating a black hole, however infinitesimal that may be; the guys at Alamogordo thought it theoretically possible the first atom bomb blast would set the atmosphere on fire. At least then there was a war on.)
2. Any benefits will be for the wealthy, any profits private.
As for spending billions to experimentally validate quantum ideas, why? Spiritually, philosophically, aren’t the ideas enough? It’s an insult to the real spirit of science to assume you need billions of dollars for a toy in order to study science. On the contrary, it’s the mark of a creatively sterile technician.
A creative thinker finds all he needs in nature, in the works of the philosophers, in the writings of the mystics, poets, and revolutionaries. Archimedes, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton didn’t need billions worth of technological monstrosities. All they needed was their ideas and some pre-fossil fuel tools. That’s all we need today. (Boscovitch anticipated quantum theory in the 18th century using no special equipment. The idea for black holes also dates to that time.)
The issue becomes especially ridiculous when we consider plummeting net energy and EROEI (energy return on investment). It was Newton who said he was “standing on the shoulders of giants”. And today? We have grasshoppers on the shoulder of the Statue of Liberty, and it costs an astronomical amount to lift them up there.
The “SROI”, science return on investment, is less favorable by now than Peak Oil’s EROI will ever be.
(This provides a good object lesson regarding EROEI and the prospects for tyranny to try to use force to overcome it. All the wealth transfers of corporatism are exercises in not requiring capitalism to earn its keep by actually creating value and generating valid profits. Monumental technology indulgences like the collider or the space program are similar examples of wealth redistribution upward.
So in the same way that ROI is overcome in all these cases through politically enabled embezzlement and theft, they will if they can try to overcome the EROEI ramifications of Peak Oil and resource depletion through direct force: slave labor and repression.)
Even if any of this “investment” actually produced a return, it would go only to the power and wealth structure. If the technology-will-save-us myth ever did come true, it would only be to power elite fortresses while the serfs freeze in the dark.
Do you enjoy the internet? Consider it very useful? In ten years connections probably won’t be available for the non-rich, let alone in libraries.
Of course, it’s possible that things won’t turn out this way. Check out this piece from the Washington Post. The writer is clear on the economic devastation and technological stratification likely to befall us. Yet he’s expecting the power elite, out of some newfound goodness of their hearts never before in evidence, to spread the wealth at their own expense. Suddenly, after trickle down failed everywhere else, every time, it will work this time as simple charity.
Are we going to count upon this?
Do scientism and technology any longer serve man? They do not if they rig up an economy which destroys all meaningful jobs, sets up a totalitarian surveillance system and database, and concentrates all wealth in the hands of a few, who we must then beg to bestow welfare upon the superfluous masses.
Politically, that welfare state can never exist. The rich would never contribute to it. And why would the people be willing to live like that? Free-minded human beings would not be willing.
No, if it were ever possible to beg for welfare from thieves, that would only be because the thief feared the beggar, and that would only be because the beggar was strong enough to be, not a beggar, but an avenger.
These are the inevitable end choices for the technological corporatist state as it enters Peak Oil. Enslavement or revolution.
Technology and capitalism are in the same position. Any good they were going to do they’ve long since done. They now add only delusions, oppression, and waste, and misdirect mankind from truly confronting its problems.
There is no more “innovation”. This economic crisis and Peak Oil prove that once and for all. What we need to innovate is the wisdom to constructively use what we have.
By now it’s obvious, looking at any issue, any problem, what measures could be part of the solution, or could at least help ease the impending suffering, and what just helps build the Tower of Babel higher.
Industrialized civilization will have to devolve regardless of what we do. Every class-war cent we spend on self-indulgent monster toys is not only wasted but a crime against the suffering people of today, and against all the people of the future.
We have no thinkers left, only appendages of machines. The machines themselves produce nothing but oppression. Without the fossil fuel platform they’ll produce only cobwebs.
So much wealth and time wasted……


  1. I have been enjoying your blog, but now you are starting to loose me. All your beefs are really with the monetary system and capitalism. Please leave technology out of it. I happen to like my refrigerator, air conditioner, car, computer, and Internet. All of which could be designed to use less toxic production processes, be built to operate longer than a human lifetime, and be fully recyclable when no longer needed. All of which could be powered by renewable energy. Peak Oil is not Armageddon.

    Why do you have such contempt for the CERN technician? It sounds like a much more rewarding occupation than mechanic. The only reason the mechanic exists is because the current design of automobiles is so poor and the capitalists have every incentive not to make their products more reliable and maintainable. Most jobs are a waste of human life, and having one should not be the goal of any sane person. Bring on the robots! Technological unemployment is a wonderful thing. It makes people take a deeper look at how things really work, and is an opportunity for social change.

    You talk about things in terms of their monetary value. Money is just a ruse at this point. Knowledge is power. Did you hear what Mr. Moglen was saying in his talk? Do you know who is developing the technology that capitalists use and have come to rely on? It’s individuals like myself who are the designers and the technicians. What we make is built to serve us and it is available to everyone without money.

    I agree with your main point that wisdom is what is lacking at this time, not technology, but to say that we are all appendages of oppressive machines (as a way to demonize technology?) just sounds silly.

    Comment by Karl — September 5, 2009 @ 1:14 am

    • loose = lose

      Where’s the edit button, eh?

      Comment by Karl — September 5, 2009 @ 1:40 am

  2. “Technological unemployment is a wonderful thing”.

    That probably could have been true if technological dividends had been used socially to free workers from “work” in order to have more leisure time. By now we should all be living decently comfortable lifestyles while working just a few hours a week. Wasn’t the original technopromise something like that?

    So what went wrong?

    It’s that we didn’t use the dividend for the social good. We allowed it to be feudally accumulated as excess private profit. All of our promised freedom from toil ended up being converted into the treasure hoards of a handful of the super-rich, while we work the second-longest hours ever. (Only in the 19th century did men work longer hours. By contrast, medieval times were a relative paradise of free time.)

    So even as technology by its own impulse seeks totalitarianism, it has not even delivered the material freedom it promised.

    (As for the consumerism you mention, I confess to caring nothing for that. I think freedom is infinitely more important, even if consumer tech did deliver the comfort and security it claims, at the price of the rat race everyone has to keep running. But it does not.)

    I’m sorry you don’t like this line of thought. It’s too much for me to hope that every reader will like everything I write about. For what it’s worth, I don’t intend for anti-technology to be a major theme here. You’re right that the economic struggle is a more important front. But I wanted to put these out there as well, before I got back to a more direct political critique, starting next week with a post or two on Afghanistan.

    [As for an edit button, I don’t think WordPress has that for commenters. I didn’t see any such option, nor have I had that option at other WordPress blogs where I’ve commented.]

    Comment by Russ — September 5, 2009 @ 3:42 am

  3. Russ, you have nothing to be sorry about. Its just that I have been able to understand your point of view in previous posts, but suddenly you seem to take a sharp turn into luddite land, where I am unable to follow you.

    I was making the point that technology does make my life better, and that it’s not just a tool for exploitation. I wasn’t talking about consumerism at all. In fact, just the opposite. If the tools we produced were properly engineered there would be far less production of those tools. That productive capability would be put to use making other tools, but that only brings us closer to the point where technological unemployment will force a change. I know you doubt this, but I see it happening.

    Comment by Karl — September 6, 2009 @ 12:15 am

  4. Hi Karl,

    Does it seem like such a sharp turn? Thanks for pointing that out. To me it’s not, but then I’ve been living with all my ideas for years, while I’m just now presenting them in small blocks, so to me the underlying unity is clear, but maybe not from the outside.

    The basic idea is that faith in techno-progress is organically part of faith in the “progress” ideology in the first place, and it is faith in this, with its concomitant economic (“growth”) and aggressive foreign policy implications which have brought us to such an untenable crisis.

    I also believe technology is not some neutral “tool” but has its own inertia. Even without reference to the bad intentions of corporations and the government, by its nature technology seeks domination. You don’t need to be a “totalitarian” by nature to look at technology and naturally be dragged into the mindset of “more, bigger, faster, ever more comprehensive, ever more all-encompassing”.

    What are the basic attitudes toward it? “If it can be done, it’s going to be done, and there’s nothing that can prevent it”, and, among engineers themselves, “If it can be done, it should be doen simply because we have the capability, and what happens afterward is society’s responsibility, not mine.”

    Those two attitudes, the first redolent of determinism and defeatism, the second of pure sociopathy, are both part of human nature, but both seem maximized in the presence of modern tech.

    (And as I said, that’s all prior to any bad intentions of greed, violence, will to tyranny on the part of corporations and government. But these are almost always present as well.)

    All this modern hyper-tech also depends upon the platform of cheap, plentiful fossil fuel. So as energy descent sets in, civilization is going to have to relinquish much of the techno-structure anyway, or have it forcibly rolled back.

    In this sequence the biggest danger will be the kind of ideological revanchism we’re already seeing in America’s imperial transformation. If people are still absolutely committed to the belief in infinity of things like debt, growth, and hi-tech, they’re going to respond ever more tyrannically and violently, looking for political solutions in authoritarianism and scapegoating, in order to avoid facing up to the physical nature of the limitations, and to forestall as long as possible the full consequences of these limitations.

    This is what I’ve been calling “resource fascism”.

    Then there’s the better-intentioned but intellectually just as pernicious belief that greener hi-tech will save us. But green cornucopianism is still just another doomed attempt at escapism.

    Whether the escapist attempt is politically noxious or not, it still prevents us from rationally preparing to enter the next stage of civilization: post-fossil fuel, which technologically will almost certainly be alot like the pre-fossil civilization.

    So that’s a brief account of where I’m coming from with this. If it seems like I’m being hard on the CERN guys, it’s just that since I first started reading about that years ago, long before the thing actually failed to work, and even when the economy was booming and Peak Oil was barely a glimmer in anyone’s eye, there’s always been the question of whether it was a good use of resources. Even then it looked like a luxury boondoggle.

    And the response of the physicists involved always had this tone of arrogance and entitlement, that “Who are you to question what we want? We have some ideas we want to work out, and whether or not this working out is of any significance to the world, it’s going to cost untold billions, and it’s the world’s responsibility to cough up those billions and then shut up and go away.”

    This just always struck me as exemplary of the high priesthood. This project couldn’t even be argued to provide some kind of macroinspiration to man the way they used to argue (and still try) for the space program.

    My own contribution to the critique was to point out that if a man seeks intellectual fulfillment, he can do it the way e.g. the ancient Greeks did.

    He doesn’t need all the billion-dollar bells and whistles today’s intellectual artists claim to need.

    It bespeaks an inner impoverishment. But I guess that’s another criticism for another day, though I’ve touched upon it in these posts.

    Like I said, I don’t mean for technology to be a main theme here. But I do want this idea to be part of the groundwork, so it’s as a contribution toward that goal that I worte these scientism posts.

    That even if people don’t agree with me right away on that particular point, they’ll maybe at least be more questioning of some things they maybe hadn’t questioned so much before.

    Comment by Russ — September 6, 2009 @ 4:23 am

  5. I am very glad I found your site on digg. Thank you for the sensible critique. Me and my wife were just preparing to do some research about this. I am very happy to see such reliable info being shared freely out there.
    Best Regards,
    Alt from Escondido city

    Comment by Fitzhugh — February 24, 2010 @ 2:03 am

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