Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Batteries are easily overlooked in our daily affairs, at least until they threaten to stop working. And when that moment arrives when (suddenly!) the little battery logo turns red or begins blinking ominously it sets off a flurry of activity. People rush to recharge their battery dependent devices, or anxiously ask others if they have a spare cord, lest the loss of power should turn a device (albeit briefly) into an expensive paperweight. There is an extent to which batteries are a sort of keystone for technological society, without them people would remain constantly tethered to an outlet. Beyond referring to the Internet, it seems as though the term “wireless” has as much to do with a sturdy battery as with anything else. Granted, it is one thing to power a phone or computer with a battery – but a house?
This is not an idle question, but is instead a matter that has serious implications. After all, a transition away from energy derived from fossil fuels – moving instead towards solar and wind power – benefits greatly from the availability of suitable batteries. For the sun disappears from the sky at night, and some times there is little wind, but the absence of sun and wind does not correlate to an absence of people’s desire for power. Yet if solar panels or wind turbines are linked to suitable batteries than it would seem that such storage units could hold excess energy generated through the aforementioned means and make it available when the demand for power has exceeded the supply. Many individuals find it frustrating when their phone is about to run out of power, it does not seem to be unfair to assume that people would be even more perturbed if their home were to suddenly run out of power – requiring them to plug back into a supply of fossil fuels to keep the lights back on.
Those who dream of batteries may have recently found their hopes answered by the company Tesla’s unveiling of large batteries for homes and businesses – called Powerpacks – particularly as the batteries were described as meeting the need for something to store and then make available energy harnessed through sustainable means. While the starting cost for these batteries is in excess of three thousand dollars, Tesla’s launch suggests that these prices may come down as more of these batteries become available. Yet, the focus at the launch was less about cost and more about the belief that such batteries represented a sort of “missing piece” (to use, Tesla head, Elon Musk’s term) in the transition to sustainable energy. The idea of a battery-powered utopia seemed just below the surface as Musk expounded upon a vision of a world in which two billion of these Powerpacks would be able to store as much energy as the world needed.
To sum up the Tesla launch event: people can have their cake and eat it too.
It is worth giving Tesla some credit. A switch to sustainable energy will necessitate ways of storing such energy for when it is needed, and Tesla’s Powerpacks could be a step in that direction. And yet it is worth tempering enthusiasm around the Powerpacks. While it may very well be the case that some see the transition towards such batteries as a genuine way to move beyond fossil fuels one should not overlook the fact that the Powerpacks also clearly represent one company – at least one company thus far – recognizing that there is potentially a heck of a lot of money to be made in such a transition. It is quite possible that the prices on Powerpacks will drop below the three thousand dollar price at some point; however, a vision of a world where everybody’s power is stored in a Powerpack (two billion of the things) is a world in which much more than two billion dollars has poured into Tesla’s coffers. In other words: bid farewell to the oil oligarchs, say hello to the battery barons.
Yet the true problem posed by the Powerpack – and it should be remembered that, at this point, the dream of two billion batteries keeping everything humming along is still a dream – is that they provide cover for an ideology that is ultimately unsustainable. The Powerpack may appear as a radical break from business as usual, but what these batteries represent is a promise that significant changes are not really necessary. Tesla’s Powerpacks are the continued proof of an observation made by Erich Fromm several decades ago:
“We have, indeed, an unbounded imagination and initiative for solving technical problems, but a most restricted imagination when we deal with human problems.” (102)
For that which the Powerpack addresses is mainly a technical problem – how do we continue to power a society that has an unceasing hunger for energy, especially when the embrace of ever more technology requires more and more power? This presents a simple answer: a battery, and thus Tesla has moved eagerly into the space to provide this technical fix. On the other hand, confronting the issue of energy as a “human problem” – as one that potentially threatens the long-term viability of human civilization – requires asking different and difficult questions, ones that make people uncomfortable. Questions such as whether or not high-tech and high-energy lifestyles can genuinely be sustainable even if they draw power from more sustainable methods. Questions such as whether or not high-tech and high-energy lifestyles are aiding in widespread human actualization or if such lifestyles just divide humanity into a class of consumers and a class of those upon whom the consumers stand. Questions such as whether or not the highest aim of human freedom is simply the ability to have every light and device on simultaneously. Questions about whether we are mistaking the “goods life” with the “good life.” These are not simple questions, they do not offer simple solutions, and they represent the ethical quagmire in which high-energy and high-tech lifestyles have entangled people today.
Far from being a great imaginative leap forward, the Powerpack is actually a fairly banal thing, a technical fix to a human problem. Thus, the Powerpack represents the way in which the techno-utopian ideology undergirding many relatively affluent societies is what is really rechargeable. What the Powerpack does is feed into the narrative that a technological fix is always just around the corner, and that therefore we do not need to actually change anything we are doing. Granted this focus on a quick technical fix also overshoots the scale of the human problem – the fact that these batteries will soon be available does not mean municipalities will ditch fossil fuels, it does not mean that oil companies will stop drilling, and it does not mean that politicians (soaking in donations from oil companies) will make the investments in solar and wind that will allow for an energy transformation. The Powerpack presents yet another problem to which the answer is apparently: just go shopping. Thus, the Powerpacks mean that many people can restore their faith in a last minute technological savior who pulls up in an expensive electric car and sells them a pricy battery. The specifics of the Powerpack and its eventual success are less important than the splash of the announcement that reassures people that they do not actually need to worry. Or, to quote Fromm again:
“If people are not aware of the direction in which they are going, they will awaken when it is too late and when their fate has been irrevocably sealed.” (27)
Batteries may be important tools for moving in a different direction, but the Powerpack is less about a genuine new direction than it is about keeping people plugged into an ideology in which complicated human problems are turned into matters awaiting simple technical fixes. Tesla is not simply selling rechargeable batteries, they are attempting to recharge a suspect ideology. And our present predicament is not the result of broken batteries, but a broken worldview.
The human problem is to figure out a way to stop trying to recharge it.
Fromm, Erich. The Revolution of Hope. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1968.