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Facing Reality – Reflections on the IFG’s Techno-Utopianism Teach-In

Occasionally, an acronym does the work of an entire argument. Case in point: FRED, which stands for Facing the Reality of Extinction and Doom. A good acronym need not be optimistic, and it can trade in the hyperbolically humorous, but even more than an “ism” it may provide us with a succinct formulation for confronting a much more complex problem. What FRED indicates is not necessarily a political orientation or a specific plan for action – but instead it dares to name the direness of the situation: we are in throes of the 6th mass extinction and a giant question mark hovers above our future. And though it is not specifically named in the acronym, the subtext of FRED is a recognition that “facing the reality” involves coming to terms with the uncomfortable truth that technology will not miraculously save us.

FRED, to oversimplify, may be the most succinct way of summing up the “Techno-Utopianism and the Fate of the Earth” conference, which was held over October 25 and 26 (2014) at Cooper Union in New York City. The two-day teach-in, organized by the International Forum on Globalization (IFG), brought together dozens of speakers (predominantly a mix of activist and academics) for a marathon of panels in which over and over the great heresy of our time was calmly explicated: we are in serious trouble and the desperate search for (and belief in) a technological solution is preventing us from seriously considering what steps need to be taken. Given what has been said thus far it is easy to imagine that this was a very grim affair – and yet the hall broke out in laughter more often than in it broke out in gasps or groans. Once one finds the courage to confront the seriousness of the matter at hand one is freed from the anxiety of “what if!?” and better equipped to ruminate with humor intact upon the “well, in that case, what?” Humor need not function as a defense mechanism, sometimes it can be a powerful reminder that we are human – and that we have not yet run out of time in which to laugh.

A sentiment expressed by one speaker after another was some variation of: “this is an essential conversation to be having right now.” The faith in technological solutions has taken on religious overtones and though many (if not most) people are no longer swayed by the big ideas of the past the remaining structure in which is vested great societal hope is the idea that technology will usher us into a mechanically wrought Eden. Silicon Valley will supply us with wonderfully entertaining gadgets that enable us to always be connected and ensure that we are never bored, government will become efficiently streamlined and transparent thanks to our digital doodads, and a host of new inventions will meet our rising energy needs in a clean “green” way – we will not just have our cake, we will have the cake shop, and we will not have to worry about the deleterious impact of eating too much sugar. Such hopes – the speakers consistently indicated – are bunk. Though there seems to be some growing recognition of this, a slowly simmering understanding of the fact that, as Langdon Winner put it during his presentation:

“the future has been cancelled.”

While the topic of the teach-in was the mythology of “techno-utopianism” the various panelists treated the topic of “technology” in a way that demonstrated the breadth of the subject. When we come across discussions of technology today they often seem to rely heavily on “technology” as being synonymous with “connected to the Internet” or at least to firms that are in one way or another closely identified with the Internet – but a strength of the teach-in was in broadening the scope of technological discussion to point out the ways in which the production and consumption of energy, weapons systems, and genetically modified organisms are also technological matters. The techno-utopian belief system we come across is as reliant upon the dream of machines that can “safely” extract ever-harder to reach fossil fuels as it is upon the belief that we are only one app away from achieving true happiness. Though we may primarily encounter techno-utopian ideology when it is spouted by a tech company CEO we engage with it – albeit in subtler and perhaps more perilous ways – when we buy a gallon of gasoline or buy an apple without reflecting upon the fact that “organic” was for thousands and thousands of years the only type of apple you could find.

It would require some degree of intellectual and ethical gymnastics to suggest that the teach-in was an optimistic one, and yet it would be inaccurate to suggest that the hall was just filled with doom saying and self-flagellation. If all that is taking place is that the siren song is being sounded – it makes it impossible to hear what is actually being said. Numerous speakers discussed community resistance (from broad based organizing to civil disobedience), some spoke of the values of localization, many evoked the imperativeness of recognizing the rights of nature, and a variety of models were discussed for reorienting economics in a way that would be both sustainable and attainable. The speakers eschewed simple solutions and avoided paeans to “isms” – instead preferring an assessment that acknowledged that the situation confronting humanity (the potential for catastrophic collapse) requires bold new thinking. The tenor of the teach-in may have come off as “anti-technology” to those unwilling to critically confront their own ideological reliance on the mythos of techno-utopianism, but a theme that occurred in almost every single panel was a reminder that different technologies represent different sets of values. It may have been a result of the fact that the Schumacher Center for New Economics was amongst the co-sponsors – but the image of “appropriate technology” was featured prominently in the background (or the foreground) of many of the presentations.

The teach-in was a somewhat overwhelming affair – a result not only of the scope of the topics being discussed but because of the way that the teach-in sought to fill every moment with a speaker (there were no real breaks). While the range of speakers brought an excellent array of topics to the audience, the conference might have benefited from a smaller set of speakers as this would have permitted more time for audience questions or simply for reflection (at a certain point all of the panels started to blend together). Yet – to highlight an important issue – the conference could have benefited from a more diverse set of speakers, while efforts seem to have been made towards gender parity – male panelists were still a clear majority – and though speakers came from many parts of the world (and many indigenous groups were represented), overall the group best represented on the dais was straight white men. As multiple speakers reminded the audience the threats in the years to come face all of humanity – it therefore would have been better if the speakers better represented this “all of humanity.” Granted, despite these shortcomings the teach-in was still an extremely thought provoking event.

And yet – as many speakers noted – the challenge of the teach-in may have been that those in attendance may not have been those most in need of hearing the conference’s contents. At risk of over generalizing, the teach-in’s audience seemed to be largely made up of those already in some degree of agreement with the conferences overarching themes. Some in attendance may have been specifically drawn by the chance to hear from the more prominent speakers (such as Vandana Shiva, Winona LaDuke, Ralph Nader, and Bill McKibben), but all in all it did not seem as though the audience was being confronted with arguments (and conclusions) they had not previously encountered. It is for this reason that the conference’s emphasis on localization and community involvement was of particular importance, as it provided those in attendance with a set of theoretical tools with which to continue these conversations with those who remain rather invested in the techno-utopian faith. Likewise an important takeaway was the reminder that the technological faith goes beyond the toys churned out by Silicon Valley but encompasses larger systems from food production to energy to economics.

Though there were many varieties of “what if?” scenarios being discussed at the conference (primarily: will we intelligently slow down and choose an alternative path or will we be driven headlong into chaos and calamity?) one thing about which there seemed to be little “what if?” was the recognition that change was coming. Indeed, that dramatic change is already afoot and at hand. At many points throughout the teach-in one could hear the echo of a comment Franz Kafka once made to Max Brod when Brod asked him if there was any hope, to which Kafka replied:

“Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us.” (Kafka quoted by Brod [as quoted by Benjamin, 116])

That was the governing sentiment of the teach-in, as speaker after speaker expounded upon alternative economics and local solutions. For there truly is “plenty of hope” but when we look at the trends in the world and the how religiously invested people are in the techno-utopian myth we have to consider that despite the fact that there is “plenty of hope” it may not be for us. Unless that is we can find the fortitude to come to terms with FRED – for we cannot divert our path towards a genuinely hopeful one whilst most of society remains oriented towards the mythological hope of techno-utopianism.

Granted – perhaps FRED stands for the wrong words. Maybe the challenge is not Facing the Reality of Extinction and Doom, but Facing Reality with Ethical Determination.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. (this is the source of the Kafka in Brod quote).

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

7 comments on “Facing Reality – Reflections on the IFG’s Techno-Utopianism Teach-In

  1. doughill50
    October 28, 2014

    Sorry I didn’t meet you there…I was in the front row for most of the conference (I have long legs and sitting anywhere but the front row would have been excruciating in that hall).

    The schedule was overwhelming indeed! By the end of the first panel on Sunday, when I bailed, I was exhausted. A manifestation of the “more is better” syndrome, ironically. Still, it was good to be introduced to a lot of kindred souls, especially (given that my focus has been technology theory) from the nature conservation contingent. Some of the speakers — a fairly high proportion — were terrific, I thought. Tom Butler (the guy who told the FRED joke) was one example.

    I’m curious what you thought of the turnout. On Saturday the auditorium seemed fairly full — maybe 3/4 full? — but on Sunday quite a bit less so. I expected that this would be a “preaching to the choir” kind of affair, and I’m sure that was true. I also expected that the crowd would skew to an older demographic, and that also seem to the case. What was your impression?

    • TheLuddbrarian
      November 3, 2014

      Greetings,

      Sorry to have missed you as well! Granted, the format of the conference (the packed schedule) made it difficult to find time to talk to anybody – heck, it was tough to find time to sneak out to get something to eat.

      I thought it was a very interesting roster of speakers and I appreciated the mix of perspectives (philosophy of tech, conservation, activism) – I find that these conferences always leave me with a lengthy list of books to read (which is a good thing). Though I will say that there were moments where I wished it could have stuck a little more closely to the theme of techno-utopianism. I though the whole thing was a bit overwhelming (mostly in a good way) and wish that there had been more time for the audience to engage with the speakers – but I can understand the organizers’ desire to give stage time to so many speakers.

      As for the turnout – I’m not surprised that there was a larger turnout on Saturday. There usually is a bigger crowd for the “big names” (Nader, McKibben), though I imagine that after the amount of content on the first day there were some who preferred to pop in and out on the second day. I think that the demographic was about what I had expected (I agree with your assessments), and I felt that the core of the audience was a reflection of the core of the speakers (not a criticism just an observation). I wholeheartedly agree with Mander’s point from the first session that the topic of “techno-utopianism” is an essential one at the moment, but one of the things the conference demonstrated is the difficulty of getting this argument to a broader group. I think a more diverse set of speakers (“diverse” in all ways) may have helped pull in a broader demographic.

      And yet…conferences like this are always tough, they’re a mix between the academic and the activist. At once an event for organizing and an event for lots of discourse – both are good but they can get a bit muddled in the course of two jam-packed days. I think that this may have been more effective as a series of teach-ins that would have allowed for questions, breakout sessions, and planning.
      But overall I thought it was an interesting conference. I was glad to be able to go – but I wish I had time to speak with many of the people there I would have like to engage with. People such as yourself.

      Hopefully there will be a “next time” in the not too distant future!

      – Z

  2. 24-6.org
    October 28, 2014

    Reblogged this on 24-6.org and commented:
    While we invent or brilliantly adapt to a precarious future we need to keep faith with our humanism.

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