Technoskepticism,or something like it

Found at: zaibatsu.circumlunar.space:70/~solderpunk/phlog/technoskepticism-or-something-like-it.txt

Technoskepticism, or something like it

(WARNING: Long post ahead.  Make coffee and get comfy)

I'm really pleased and excited that the simple living / asceticism / whatever
line of conversation is taking off in the phlogosphere [1,2]!  It's great to be
able to talk about this kind of thing with like-minded folk.

I'm wary of letting the conversation be dominated by e.g. rejecting proprietary,
centralised technology, because that's (i) preaching to the choir on gopher and
SDF in particular and (ii) really just a small part of the picture, and perhaps
the *easiest* part of the picture.  Nevertheless, I have a lot of bottled up
thoughts on this that I'm going to dump now in an unstructured way while they
are vaguely topical.  But I intend to talk more in the future about harder
changes associated with what slugmax suggests should be called simply "life
balance", i.e. changing the way one lives such that a minimum amount of time has
to be spent working when one doesn't want to just so that one can comfortably
spare the non-working time for things one actually wants to do.

Anyway, technology...

I don't want to be misunderstood as a luddite, or a primitivist or whatever.  I
don't think technology is fundamentally bad (though certainly neither do I think
it fundamentally good), and I don't want to abandon all technology (whatever
that might actually mean).  My goal is to carefully and consciously consider the
question of adapting particular technologies, and weigh the pros/cons against my
desiderata.  This entry will be a bunch of thoughts along these lines.

Yargo wrote a great "grumpy old man rant"[3] about digital radio and the looming
prospect of traditional FM/AM broadcasting being shut down in favour of it (cf
what has already happened with television in much of the world).  He complains,
very validly, that:

(i) this is not actually an improvement for him, because he listens to the radio
in the car or on the train where interference is a problem, and digital
broadcasts handle this much worse than analog ones, dropping out entirely rather
than degrading gracefully with a little noise that you can listen through with
some effort.
(ii) the on-paper superiority of digital broadcasts (in terms of audio quality)
is irrelevant, because very few people listen to the radio in quiet, properly
treated listening rooms using high quality speakers.  People listen to them on
the train or in the kitchen, i.e. in environments with a lot of ambient noise
and lots of distraction, so "near enough is good enough".
(iii) the whole thing is probably commercially motivated.

None of these points are wrong, but I don't think anybody seriously doubts than
AM and FM will be shut down just as analog television was, sometime in the next
decade.  This underscores a really important point that dawned on me
embarrassingly late in life, which I think is under-appreciated in general:

	Technological change is often foisted upon the public without much
	regard to whether it is wanted or not, just because it serves the
	interest of various companies involved in that technology.

It *may* also be good for the public, it may not really matter much, or it may
even ultimately be a change for the worse, forcing people to get rid of their
perfectly functional analogue radios or televisions and replace them with new
ones which don't work as well in important respoects (and, to be clear, when I
say "get rid of" the old devices, I mean pay somebody to dig a hole and throw
them in there and bury them and forget about them.  You won't have much luck
selling your analog TV after it's anounced that analog broadcasts will be shut
down in a few years, and getting it properly recycled, as best we can, is
usually something you have to pay for, and you won't want to pay for that
because money is tight because you've just been forced to buy a new digital
teleivision, so into the magical memory hole in the ground it goes).  The fact
is that it happens whether you really want or need it or not.

The inevitability of the Internet of Things is another example of this.  I don't
think I have to waste bytes trying to convince anybody at SDF of the folly of
the IoT from a whole lot of perspectives, but it's coming and we can't stop it.
Because I have bought electronic components for my hobby projects from big
suppliers like Digikey, Mouser, Element 14 etc. in the past, I get a lot of
email from these companies letting me know about exciting new products, etc.
I usually delete these unread, but just reading the subject lines is enough that
I know that many of the major semiconductor manufacturers are now releasing
components designed explicitly for use in IoT devices.  Billions of dollars have
been sunk into tooling up for the IoT by very large and very powerful
corporations.  They're simply not going to *let* that money go to waste.  They
will use slick advertising to make you want their IoT products, they will pay PR
people to discredit or marginalise the people who raise very valid criticisms of
the IoT, and they will slowly discontinue their non-IoT products so you have no
choice but to embrace it or decide to go without certain kinds of product.  And
this isn't being done because the IoT will make our lives genuinely better, it's
not even being done so companies can make money selling the devices that they
are now investing big money in making.  A lot of IoT devices will be sold at or
below cost.  This is happening because *as a side-effect* of people filling
their house with cheap gimmicky gizmos, the companies that make them will rake
in huge quantities of data about people, their lives and their homes, and *that*
is what will make them money.  You can read more about this in Bruce Sterling's
book "The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things", which, as much as I like
Bruce, is by no means brilliant, but it's cheap and short and easy to get a hold
of and does a perfectly adequate job of raising the important points, so you
should read it anyway.

Thus, even if it's probably tilting at windmills:

	Consciously and carefully choosing to embrace or reject certain facets
	of technology instead of accepting every thing which comes along is an
	exercise in your personal autonomy.

There's no moral imperative, IMHO, to reject most forms of technology if you
genuinely think they are all things considered a "good deal".  The important
thing is to actually deliberately make that choice.

Much of what I've written above makes it sound like technology is deliberately
foisted upon us by evil corportations for profit.  While this no doubt sometimes
happens, it's not the whole story here at all.  Sometimes the apparent need for
technology arises much more innocuously.  Because we recently sold just about
everything we owned and started again from scratch when moving to Finland, my
wife and I have had the opportunity to try to downsize our life quite a bit.
While getting rid of stuff before moving, we got rid of our microwave quite
early on, and quickly realised that we depended on it primarily for using as a
convenient kitchen timer.  Having to use our phones to time things in the
kitchen was an inconvenience that was thrust upon us 10 or 20 times for every 1
time the inconvenience of having to reheat something in a pan was thrust upon
us.  So we decided to just buy an actual kitchen timer here and forgo a
microwave.  It has been a very small inconvenience, and one I'm happy to pay for
the fact that I didn't need to pay for a microwave, don't need to pay for the
power to run a microwave, don't have to spend time cleaning a microwave from
time to time, and won't have to worry about disposing of a dead microwave if it
were to eventually die.  Another "standard" household appliance we *almost* went
without was a vacuum cleaner.  There's no carpet in our house here, just tiles
downstairs and floorboards in the two upper floors.  I was irrationally excited
by this: "if we don't have carpet, we don't need a vacuum cleaner!  We can just
use a broom!".  For some reason my wife really still wanted a vacuum cleaner,
and I relented when we found a very cheap second hand one by a good manufacturer
in a delightful retro burnt orange colour, because I'm a sucker for a good burnt
orange.  Anyway, the point of this somewhat rambling anecdote is that moving to
Europe provided me the first opportunity in my life to seriously entertain the
idea of not owning a vacuum cleaner.  Carpet is quite rare in Europe, and I'm
given to understand that some Europeans consider carpet kind of gross precisely
because of how impractical it is to really thoroughly clean.  On the other hand,
carpet is just ubiquitous in Australia.  I've never lived in a house without
carpet and don't know anybody who has, so owning a vacuum cleaner is
non-negotiable.  From an Australian perspective (and probably the perspective of
many other western countries), you *need* a vaccuum, as a consequence of having
carpet.  But do you *need* carpet?  Well, no.  Europe is an existence proof of
that.  However carpet is just kind of thrust upon you as part of a cultural
background of invisible and unquestioned assumptions about what life looks like,
and a certain piece of technology becomes indispensable as a consequence.

This same priciple extends well beyond the particular case of carpet, and
applies well to housing in general.  A lot of people in Australia spend a *lot*
of money and generate a lot of pollution heating and, more so, cooling their
houses using active temperature controlling technologies.  This situation is far
worse than it has to be because eveybody lives in large, poorly insulated
rectangular houses with non-white rooves, oriented in a direction determined by
that of the street, with lots of large, single-paned windows.  This makes no
sense whatsoever, but everybody's house looks like this, because that's what
their parents' house looked like, and their grandparents' house, and it's the
kind of house that builders are trained to build and probably the kind of house
that the building code assumes everybody wants to have.  Probably it *is* the
kind of house that everybody wants to have, because if you had one that was
terribly different it would immediately mark you out as "weird".  So the point
of all this is:

	The need for some technologies is foisted upon you not by profit-seeking
	corporations, but as a consequence of other unconsciously made decisions
	that are part of your cultural norms, which might themselves be entirely

So far it might not sound like I'm talking about much that is terribly serious
here, as having a degraded radio-listening experience or having to buy a vacuum
cleaner are not exactly end-of-the world scenarios.  Vacuums are actually
pretty good, as far as household appliances go, in that you can realistically
expect them to last a very long time, and they are mostly just a big electric
motor which is a well-understood and non-proprietary technology which you have
some hope of repairing or having repaired.  Certainly your vacuum is not likely
to die due to a botched firmware upgrade when its cloud server goes down (well,
unless you have a Roomba or something like it).  But of course, the potential
consequences of not exercising some conscious control over the adoption of
technology are not limited to these relatively minor things Consider the current
crisis surrounding personal privacy, brought on by a whole slew of technological
changes in the past ten years or so.  In many realms, privacy is dead or close
to it, not only practically, but *conceptually*.  People talk quite seriously
about living in a "post-privacy" world, and talk about how privacy is an
old-fashioned concept, or not even that but a weird conceptually blip, which
never really existed historically and may never happen again, but was an odd
happenstance of a brief sociotechnological window.  Whatever you might think
about these arguments, the unavoidable truth is that we are having them *after
the fact*.  We did not, as a society with our privacy in tact, sit down and
discuss the matter carefully and openly and decide that, yes, it's time to
forget about this privacy thing and move on, so let's start mass-producing
devices with tiny cameras and microphones in them which are connected to the
internet and run closed-source software.  Instead, we mass-produced those things
first, realised "oh, shit, we've killed privacy without even realising it", and
then had the discussion post-hoc and tried to convince ourselves we were okay
with the results and that the time had come.  This, of course, is precisely
backward to how rational agents would proceed.

For another example of serious consequences, see all the discussion around the
alleged influence of Facebook on the outcome of the recent US election.  Being
carefully selective about technology is important because:

	Technology often has profound societal consequences which are not
	apparent at the time of its introduction, but only really sink in ten
	years later, by which time it can be very hard to roll them back.

And, of course, there's the elephant in the room.  You can take the indented
point above and make very few changes to end up at another extremely important

	Technology often has profound environmental consequences which are not
	apparent at the time of its introduction, but only really sink in ten
	years or even a century later, by which time it can be very hard to
	roll them back.

This is perhaps even more important than technology destroying our privacy,
ruining our democracy and degrading our attention spans, because it actually
represents a potential *existential threat* to huamnity.  Very little discussion
of what to do about the fact that a century of unconstrained technological
progress has seriously harmed the ecosystems that we depend upon for our
continued survival and consumed quite a lot of finite resources seems to revolve
around making do with less technology.  Rather, we look to technology as a
solution.  Drive an electric car, rather than don't drive or drive far less.
Use solar or wind power, rather than use far less power.  Again, I want to
emphasise that I'm not a luddite, and I don't dismiss out of the hand the
possibility that new technology could potentially help us to solve some of the
problems we've created with old technology.  But it's not a forgone conclusion
that this is possible, and it's even less certain that this is the quickest
and easiest way forward compared to the alternative of simply using less of the

A big bugbear for me on this subject is the extent to which the average person
is in denial about their personal moral responsibility for the current
environmental situation.  Everyone is very keen to, e.g., decry deep sea oil
drilling or fracking, or lament the extent to which "our leaders" have let us
down by not taking action on climate change.  The fact of the matter is that Big
Oil aren't engaging in deep sea drilling because they are cartoon super villains
who just want to destroy the world.  They're doing it because they're
businessmenn and they can sell that oil for an obscene amount of money.  And the
reason they can do that is that ordinary everyday people like you and me are
living a lifestyle that is absolutely dependent upon obscene quantities of oil,
and a lot of *that* comes down to the way we use technology.  Protesting against
oil drilling and mineral mining on environmental grounds while fully partaking
in a modern technological lifestyle that is simply fundamentally dependent upon
those things is, frankly, hypocritical.  And so:

	Taking efforts to reduce your use of environmentally harmful technology
	is the surest and most direct way for you to take personal
	responsibility for your own individual contribution to the destruction
	of the planet.

Phew, that's a lot of text.  Let me try to condense my last two phlog entries
down to something resembling a concise summary of my feelings on this front:

	Technology is not fundamentally bad, but it can have a lot of negative
	consequences, sometimes quite severe ones, of a societal and/or
	environmental nature.  As such, it seems wise to adopt it with some
	degree of caution and moderation.  However, this is actually incredibly
	rare, and a lot of our use of technology is done unthinkingly, as a
	result of profiteering companies more or less forcing it upon us, or as
	a consequence of long-standing cultural norms that we tend to not even
	notice.  Taking an approach of carefully questioning the role that
	technologies, new and old, play in our life, and whether or not their
	benefits (which may actually be very minor at the end of the day)
	genuinely outweight their consequences (which may not be apparent in
	advance or without careful thought), is one way to potentially limit
	these negative social consequences, to regain individual autonomy over
	our lives from corporate interests or arbitrary cultural expectations,
	and to take responsibility for the environmental consequences of our
	lives.  Once taking this approach, and once realising that life without
	a lot of modern technology is not some unbearable life of hardship and
	suffering but simply what was a perfectly acceptable "business as usual"
	within living memory, it's hard to escape the conclusion that simply
	doing without a lot of things is a very quick and easy solution to a lot
	of tricky problems, and one which comes with the added benefits of
	saving you a lot of time and money as well.
I think that's something I can stand by.  Two things to note:

Jynx, Slugmax and I have all, early in this conversation, invoked the notion of
living this kind of ascetic lifestyle in a secluded cabin somewhere.  But
actually, absolutely nothing in my argumentation above necessitates this.
That's not to say there might not be sound economic, environmental,
philosophical, spiritual, whatever arguments for living in a cabin, but they
would appear to be wholy separate arguments from those that lead to one
reducing one's use of modern technology.  High-tech hermits and low-tech
socialites/communalists seem to be non-contradictory options, so it's
interesting to wonder why low-tech hermits seems to be an attractor in this
space.  I have some thoughts on this, but I'll save them for another entry.

Finally, what's missing from the above is a response to the question "well, why
not take this to its logical conclusion and return to living a stone age
lifestyle, which obviously avoids all major environmental, social and political
consequences of run-away technology?".  This is just an important part of the
puzzle as the first part, but it's a lot trickier to answer.  The very same
"reverse hedonic treadmill" argument I have used to suggest that it's not so
hard to roll your life back to a 1950s or even 1830s level of comfort, so we
shouldn't be afraid to do so to save ourselves from surveillance capitalism and
climate change, seems to prevent me from being able to say "I don't want to live
a stone age life because I think it would be too nasty, brutish and short".
What I want to say is that I'm seeking a hybrid timeline which minimises all the
nasty things modern technology is creating while also maximising some kind of
obviously good things, like long and healthy lives and the ability to seek some
kind of inner satisfaction through various intellectual or creative pursuits.
This seems very risky, though, as I don't want to arbitrarily divide people's
leisure activities into "worthy pursuits that it's okay to use some technology
for" and "frivolous time wasting that we should harden up and do without for
the greater good", because nothing good can come from that.  Hmm...

[1] gopher://sdf.org:70/1/users/jynx//cgi-bin/slerm.cgi%3f20171020.post
[2] gopher://sdf.org:70/0/users/slugmax/phlog/cabin
[3] gopher://sdf.org:70/0/users/yargo/glog/./t17559-dab.txt