Reply To: Mon 3 March: Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange

Start Forums Courses Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History Mon 3 March: Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange Reply To: Mon 3 March: Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange

Author Replies # Posted on March 4, 2014 at 17:11

Archie Davies Reflection:

According to Hornborg, what is Technology?

This was a fascinating part of the discussion and lecture. Hornborg’s approach to technology is a provocative one. His understanding of technology is multiple. He understands it firstly as the result of price differentials between different parts of the world, based on different valuations of human labour time and natural space. He therefore understands technology as an appropriation of time and space by those who can afford it, at the expense of those who cannot. This leads him to understand technology as an objective consequence of global ecological unequal exchange. I find this a very useful way of reconsidering technology, and assigning it new ontological roles. It allows us to incorporate technology as an active part of analysis, and as a feature of criticism within a consideration of world systems. To this extent I think Hornborg’s analysis is extremely perspicacious and compelling.

However, I do find there to be limitations to Hornborg’s understanding of technology. The first of these is the universality with which he treates technology. His consideration is extremely useful for thinking about the steam enging in 19th century Britain, but is perhaps less helpful for thinking about a new technology for water purification, or the invention of mobile money information technology. It does not seem to me that these are examples of appropriations of time and space by some at the expense of others, and nor do they necessarily fulfil the criterias of being fetishised, which is another key feature of Hornborg’s consideration of technology.

Renewable energy technology was the subject of significant criticism from Hornborg during the lecture. Much of his analysis about the over-stating of the case for some types of renewable technology is absolutely vital to a realistic assessment of how far the current system is from being sustainable, and his clarion call that we must be honest about the causes of ecological disruption is critical. However, I do not subscribe to his ultimate conclusion that there is nothing to be gained from seeking new technological solutions to human/ecological problems. This is key to his argument that about a ‘zero-sum world’. I do not think that it is the same thing to be sceptical, realistic and scrupulous about which types of technologies can be useful for a transition to a less ecologically disastrous global system, as to say that all technology is fetish and therefore all technological optimism is misguided. This may be an overstatement of Hornborg’s case, but not much of one! (He is willing to craft out exceptions for medical and information technologies, but this does not go very far.)

In conclusion, Hornborg’s lesson that we must be analytical, critical and suspicious of technology, what it means, how it is produced and its role in the global system is hugely important. However, I would argue that his approach should be applied not to all ‘Technology’, but rather to to some technologies and to ideas of ‘Technology’ which have been historically, socially and ecologically contextualised.