Monday, 19 March 2018

Ursula Le Guin on Technology...and some of my thoughts

Well, the snow has descended again and I've been inside for most of the weekend, with brief forays into the garden. The cat is also rather peeved by the weather and keeps attacking me.

I've been taking the opportunity to continue my Ursula Le Guin-a-thon. This started by accident after I finished her brilliant but difficult masterwork Always Coming Home.

I went onto her Fantastic Fiction page, and started going through the books and short stories that were previously unfamiliar to me. I was surprised at how much I'd missed.

Her essays are also significant, and for me have been a useful source of alternative ways of looking at things.

Technology is one issue that I've been pondering in the wake of my 'Wild Future' posts. Many SF writers still seem to favour a basically linear, progressive approach to technology. Innovation is often welcomed for the sake of it, and I've seen environmental thought pilloried for being 'Luddite' or even reactionary.

In the course of my reading, I've discovered that Le Guin, typically, had a more subtle, complex approach to these issues. For example, she wrote:

The imperialism of high technology equals the old racist imperialism in its arrogance; to the technophile, people who aren’t in the know/in the net, who don’t have the right artefacts, don’t count. They’re proles, faceless nonentities….I have heard a man say perfectly seriously that the Native Americans before the Conquest had no technology.
From the introduction to A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (Gollancz, 1987/2011) .

The first part of this statement flags the ideological component of technology. Neil Postman suggested that we live in a technopoly, in which technology is deified and seen as a solution to all problems. This enables narratives about linear progress and the 'inevitability' of certain forms of development. Anyone who does not participate in such development will often be seen as irrelevant, backwards or even a threat. 

The denial of Native American technology is an example of this, and Le Guin requested that we take a wider perspective. To an anthropologist or archaeologist, 'technology' does not necessarily equal high-technology.  Pretty much every human culture has had a technology of some sort, and it's really simple prejudice not to see this.

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Arguments over technology often take a very simplistic line. Quite often, innovations are considered in a sort of vacuum, quite apart from the context in which they’re produced. Technology, like 'Science,' is often presented as monolithic and value-free.

A piece of kit, the argument goes, is 'neutral.' It is the uses to which it is put that determine whether it is 'good' or 'bad.' This presentation tends to exonerate the designers and manufacturers of such devices.

To give a specific example: smartphones. On a very abstract level, would be very difficult to make value judgments over the basic idea of a supercomputer-communicator in someone's pocket. A Turing machine, the conceptual heart of any digital computer, is basically a symbol manipulator that can be programmed for a very wide range of functions. In this sense, then, it is probably 'neutral' -- if we equate value neutrality with a high degree of functional flexibility.

But taken in context, a smartphone is not even remotely a ‘neutral’ device. It is a product of a capitalist, consumer society and it is built to make a profit for large and powerful companies. In judging a smartphone, you have to take into account the human suffering and serious environmental costs of its manufacture. You also need to account for the fact that these machines are designed to be addictive and assess the impacts on the user as well as their longer term social and cultural consequences.

When all this is taken into account, it’s easy to see how threadbare many of the arguments over technology actually are. The assessment of any given machine is always going to be tricky, as multiple costs are weighted against difficult-to-assess benefits. But in the end, we’re going to be a long way from an abstract argument over a supercomputer-communicator in your pocket.

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Le Guin also had thoughts on the long-range goals of technological development.  In her discussion of utopias, 'A non-Euclidean view of California as a cold place to be (1985),' she addressed the possibility of the total automation of society.

She pointed out that SF stories where robots do all the work were always intended to be satirical, and that in these stories, this state of perfection never lasted. This is surely a pressing issue for an age where total automation via advanced robotics is once more being contemplated by progressives.

Later in the essay, she acknowledged that 'technology remains...an endless creative source, but that she could not see how

...even the most ethereal technologies promised by electronics and information theory can offer more than the promise of the simple tool: to make life materially easier, to enrich us. That is a great promise and gain! But if the enrichment of one type of civilisation occurs only at the cost of the destruction of all other species and their inorganic matrix of earth, water and air, and at increasingly urgent risk to the existence of all life on the planet, then it seems to me that to count on technological advance for anything but technological advance is mistaken (p. 96).

Here, we're forced to weigh the potential gains of a totally automated society against the costs. One salient question that I have not seen addressed is the sustainability of such a society. No-one, really, knows whether it will be possible. Would a society of total automation really be politically, economically and culturally stable? Would it really solve the problems of poverty and inequality? What hidden costs might exist? And how long might such a society last?

This is actually one of the things that I like most about Le Guin's writings. She does not offer easy answers, but instead prompts more questions and urges deeper understandings. I can only hope that her work remains influential in the years to come. Onto the next book!

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