Update, August 2011. So far I've only filled out the transportation
section. I do plan to eventually fill out all the sections, but I've temporarily lost motivation, and I'm also not happy with the efficiency category. Contrary to popular belief, energy efficiency does not save energy. In practice, it just allows us to do more stuff while using all the energy we have available. A gain in efficiency can even cause ecological destruction by making it profitable to exploit an energy resource -- see Jevons paradox
. So instead of asking how much stuff we can do with a given amount of energy, we should be asking whether the stuff we're doing is good or bad. And that is covered in the other categories. So if I remove efficiency, I need a replacement to keep a simple ten-by-ten system, and I haven't thought of a really good one. I could also merge refusal and reversal to make room for a second new category.
Introduction and Rating System
In this age, "judging technology" means one of two things: reviewing a particular tool for how well it satisfies the consumer, or doing deep thinking about Technology as a whole. I don't think there's any such thing as "technology". Every tool, every system of tools, every use of every system of tools, is a different animal. And instead of judging a clothes dryer for how well it dries your clothes compared to another clothes dryer, we should also judge it for how it affects the meaningfulness of your life, the society it is part of, and the rest of life on this planet. The goal of this page is to inspire deep thinking about particular
I'm neither a primitivist nor a techno-utopian. I think both positions are simple-minded, and I write more about this in Beyond Civilized and Primitive
. Basically I think civilization was not a fluke, but emerged from our changing nature, so even if we could be forced back to the stone age, we would not stay there. I think human history has not yet explored even one percent of the human potential, and we should set the bar high, and try to achieve the freedom and aliveness of the best primitive tribes in a globally-connected civilization.
But we won't get there by broadly embracing "technology", any more than you will get a good meal by running through the forest popping every leaf and mushroom into your mouth. We have to learn to discriminate. My tech-rating system is intended as one step on that journey. I've kept it simple, because at this stage simplicity is more valuable than accuracy or fairness. Each technology, technique, tool, or system of use gets a score of 0-100, the sum of ten categories worth 0-10 points apiece. They are:
1. Freedom of Refusal
2. Freedom of Reversal
3. Use Autonomy
4. Make-Repair Autonomy
5. Systemic Participation
6. Manufacture Ecology
7. Use Ecology
9. Human Contraction/Expansion
10. Skill Replacement/Creation
Freedom of Refusal
The word "freedom" points vaguely at something important, but it carries a lot of baggage. Webster's dictionary defines it as "the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action." I think absence of constraint is unrealistic -- what we really want is to have the right
constraints on ourselves and others to maximize quality of life. And absence of necessity is best left to the philosophers. In The Technological Society
, Jacques Ellul argues that nonhuman animals are not free because they are ruled by their natures, but I prefer to think that being who you are
, channeling your actions directly from the life inside you, is the very root of freedom.
Lack of coercion is just a bit higher on the same root. Before you can do what you choose, you first have to clear the field by not
doing what others command. A good test of whether you are being coerced is to ask whether you are punished, or threatened with punishment, for saying no.
In most of America, there is a big penalty for not having a car: the distances are too great for walking, and the roads are dangerous for bicycling. The penalty for not having a telephone number is that you can't get a job. Without a job it's difficult to get money, and without money it is almost impossible to survive.
Of course, there's nothing in a car or a phone or a coin that says you will be penalized for not having one. And yet, this is what happens in every society where these tools are common, while nobody is penalized for not having a chair. Some day we might understand why. Meanwhile, my ratings are based on what's actually happening in the time and place where I'm writing, or in certain hypothetical scenarios. On a scale from 0-10, zero means the penalty for refusal is death, and ten means there is no penalty at all.
Freedom of Reversal
Imagine you're a heroin addict. When you first start using it, it makes everything seem wonderful. Gradually this effect wears off, and finally you get to a stage where you have to use heroin to feel normal, and if you stop using it, life becomes almost unbearable.
Now imagine that an entire society starts using the automobile. The first drivers can move like the wind. But as more people drive, they begin to get stuck in traffic, and the places they go are built farther apart. Finally you have a system where people spend as much time commuting by car as they used to spend commuting by foot, and at much greater expense. And if the automobile were to suddenly disappear, the system would crash.
I define freedom of reversal to not overlap with freedom of refusal: if giving up your car costs you your job, that counts there and not here. This category includes personal choices where the penalty for reversal is much greater than the penalty for not doing it in the first place, and it includes systemic dependence. On a 0-10 scale, ten means reversal carries no penalty at all, five means it's painful, and zero means it will cause death or total collapse.
Given that you are using a technology, the next issue is how much choice you have in the process of using it. In a car you can choose to go almost anywhere that's paved, but driving is also tightly regulated: if you don't stay within the lines you crash or get stuck, if you drive too fast or slow you get a ticket, you are required by law to have registration and insurance and wear a seat belt, and your car can be pulled over and searched for little or no reason. Almost none of this applies to riding a bicycle. Of course a car is faster, and this counts for something, but not freedom.
I don't want to split hairs about "freedom" vs "autonomy", but I do want to use whichever clunky word is closest to what I'm trying to say. External rules like speed limits seem to be an issue of "freedom", while "autonomy", which dictionaries define vaguely as "self-government", seems a better fit for limits that are built into technologies. For example, you can use a shovel to dig a hole, murder a king, threaten a bear, hammer a nail, or prop open a door -- nothing in the design of a shovel holds it back from its full potential. But you can't install your own software on an iPhone, and every new version of Microsoft Windows reduces your power to govern your own computer. On a scale from 0-10, a shovel would be a ten, and a zero would be a television set where you can't adjust the channel or volume.
A hundred years ago there were no products that said "removing this sticker voids warranty" or "no user-serviceable parts inside". This is a bad trend. If you can't repair a tool, you don't fully own it. And if you need a tool to survive, and someone else has a monopoly on making and repairing it, then they own you
Ideally you want to make and repair everything at home. But what counts as the "home"? A forager-hunter tribe can make and repair everything they need, but are they one home or many? What about a medieval manor? I'm going to define a make-repair household as any group of people who share resources and volunteer their labor. But there is a grey area all the way from a tiny gift economy, to a local barter economy, to a giant predatory money economy. The numbers on my scale represent how far into this grey area you have to go to make or repair something, and how much skill it takes to avoid going deeper into it. I give more weight to repair, to better distinguish among the very many things that we can partially repair but not make. Something that anyone can easily make, like a digging stick, would score a ten; I give bicycles a seven because they're difficult but possible to make in a garage workshop, and relatively easy to repair; and a zero would be something you don't even have access to, like the power plant that generates your electricity.
But what if you live in a society so enlightened that anyone is trusted to walk in off the street and tinker with the power plant? What if your giant economy is perfectly non-coercive? This leads to the next category...
There are only two human systems. You can find both of them at every level of technology. Primitive tribes are usually one or the other, while advanced civilizations, so far, have all been a blend. In one system, participation in power is widely distributed, and decisions begin with everyone, and rise through consensus to large-scale actions. In the other system, participation in power is limited to people at the "top", or center, and their decisions command the masses and are enforced through violence. I call this a domination system, and you know you're in one if violence is permitted for some people and not for others. Another sign of domination is secrecy, and another sign is an economy where wealth is leveraged into greater wealth.
This category looks at whole technological systems, and what political systems they have as allies. For example, nuclear power (as it now exists) requires a large central plant, which is run by an exclusive class and dispenses energy down to everyone. Fitting this with autonomy is very difficult, while fitting it with domination is natural. Solar power (as it now exists) is generated by anyone with a solar panel, and this widely distributed generation of electrical power fits a system with widely distributed political power.
I define this category to not overlap with make-repair autonomy. So never mind that you can't make a solar panel -- once you have one in your backyard, the energy comes up from you and not down to you, and you score a ten, while a typical centralized plant (even a solar plant) scores a zero. Intermediate numbers could represent centralized systems that allow some bottom-up participation, or systems like the internet, where every node is autonomous but the infrastructure is privately owned.
There is some overlap between systemic participation and use autonomy, but this area deserves to count twice.
Manufacture Ecology and Use Ecology
By ecology, I mean simply the effect of a technology on the non-human world. Does it poison streams, cut down forests, deplete topsoil, and drive species to extinction? Or does it protect these things, or even restore them? The two sub-categories are self-explanatory.
Because there are so many ecologically harmful technologies, over such a wide range, I'm setting neutral higher to better distinguish among them. So, on a 0-10 scale, a seven means it affects the biosphere the same as if humans did not exist. Lower numbers represent greater harm, and numbers above seven represent the potential for humans to justify our existence.
Right now it's fashionable to see efficiency as all-important: we can save the earth by banning incandescent bulbs and driving electric cars. But in practice, efficiency doesn't save the earth, and it can even harm the earth if it makes it profitable to exploit a resource. This is exactly what happened with coal and the steam engine. Now, with resources running scarce, what efficiency mostly does is enable us to keep living the same way. The electric car doesn't save the earth; it saves the car. Still, this is something many of us desire, and a helpful technology can do more good if it's more efficient.
I use a radical definition of energy efficiency. Instead of measuring energy consumed per unit of distance traveled, or work done, I measure it per unit of time
. This is because human life is measured in time, and if we pass time with one activity, we have less time for other activities. Conversely, if we pass distance or do work or with one activity, this increases
the amount of distance and work required for other activities, as society considers larger and larger amounts of distance and work to be normal. For example, even though an airliner is more distance-energy efficient than a car, the existence of the airliner leads to far more passenger miles and more energy consumption. If everyone could teleport with the distance-efficiency of a bicycle, in theory we could burn through the rest of the oil in a day, and in practice, we would teleport as much as we could while stretching energy consumption to its limit.
My transportation efficiency ratings are based loosely on this chart, Energetic Performance of Personal, Passenger and Freight Vehicles
, from this article, How Green Is Your Ride
. Ratings in other kinds of technology are even looser. There is potential here to be more mathematically precise, but I'd rather make rough guesses and save my attention for categories that are more qualitative.
Also, this category covers efficiency in materials and human attention. All scales are relative, measuring everything against other technologies that do roughly the same thing, with a rating of 5 for whatever is in the middle.
If the purpose of any technology is to serve humans, then what is the purpose of being human? In Star Trek
, a tech system enables us to explore the galaxy, and we think this is good. In The Matrix
, a tech system locks us in a simulated world, and we think this is bad -- even if we enjoy the simulated world!
I think the purpose of being human is expansion of consciousness, and not just learning abstractions and having diverse sense experience, but also practicing skills and sharing space with other beings.
Judging technologies for contractiveness or expansiveness is important, but complicated. An airplane cuts us off from the places we travel through, but can also take us to places we would not otherwise go. And never mind the internet -- a simple book can be used to fortify comfortable beliefs, or to show us worlds we would never have imagined.
There is a myth that "technology is neutral" and the value of any tool depends entirely on how it's used. This category is where the myth is most nearly true. So if a technology has a wide gap between the most contractive and expansive use, I might rate it with a range instead of a fixed number, or do two entries. Zero is extremely contractive, ten is extremely expansive, and five is neither, or both in balance.
There is one aspect of contraction/expansion that is largely built into each tool: Does it do something for us that we could do for ourselves, if we challenged ourselves a little? Or does it enable us to do something we could otherwise never do? A great example of the former is the escalator: while it is helpful to people who can barely walk, it is useless to people in wheelchairs, and it is mostly used by people who are not only capable of walking up stairs, but would benefit from the exercise. A great example of the latter is the airplane (unless we use biotech to grow wings).
On a scale of 0-10, zero represents something we all can and should do for ourselves, ten represents something nobody can do, and the numbers in between partly represent how many or few of us can do something, and mostly show how far a tool exceeds a function that we can do for ourselves, like adding numbers or moving from place to place.
"So what's your solution?"
I'm not the utopian dictator, and I don't think there is a solution in the popular sense, where some reform movement fixes everything in a few decades. If it's even possible for us to build a good and enduring human society, I think it's going to take us another ten thousand years of experimentation and failure. Empires will rise and fall, and tech systems we cannot yet imagine will be invented and forgotten. This text might be lost tomorrow in a solar storm, but it seems today that it might be helpful.