According to Hornborg, what is technology?
The seminar with anthropologist Alf Hornborg yesterday was fascinating. I think we can gain a lot as students of environmental history from his insights on inequalities and power relationships. His ideas seem highly relevant to me, not only as a student but mostly as a citizen of the world who tries to act and live as ethically as possible.
Here, I choose to address Hornborg’s definition of technology. First, it is very important to note that Hornborg distinguishes two different types of technology. He says that there is the kind of technology related to the science of art and craft-making like the knowledge that enables Indigenous Amazonians to build blowguns (it shall not be forgotten that etymologically “technology” means the science of the art) and another type of technology that relies upon money relationships and that he calls “machine fetishism”.
To him this blind faith in the machine – characteristic of our current societies – conceals the truth about modern slavery. When wealthy people use their laptop, they do not think about the time and resources that have been stolen from other people’s lives in order for them to benefit from this time-saving engine. The technological object embodies the unequal exchange between those who can afford it and those who cannot. Hornborg reminds the 21st century technological optimist of the sad truth about technology. Technology is not a means to save time and space, this idea is an illusion – it only enables to save time and space for a tiny fraction of privileged people on the planet. For the others, its mere existence signifies paying the cost of their human lives and their own resources.
The issue is that when you buy a computer you do not realize that its existence was enabled because Chinese workers in Foxconn jeopardized their own health in order to assemble the toxic pieces together in a cruel factory. Neither do you realize that once your computer no longer serves you, it will be sent to an e-wasteland somewhere in the middle of Africa contributing to more land degradation and health issues. All of these harsh realities are hidden in our machine fetishism.
Hornborg made a really interesting point when he said yesterday that there is no such a thing as a “fair-trade”. When one corner of the world steals time and natural resources from another, how could that ever be called fair? Technological objects are just one more example of global unequal exchange in what he calls a “zero-sum world”.
I find Hornborg’s ideas on technology fascinating. Thanks to a course entitled “Environmental justice” that I took when I was a student at UC Santa Cruz, I have ceased being a technological optimist for some years now. Still, I believe that a locally-built technology which would rely more on ingenuity than on the massive robbery of time and resources from other people could help make our lives easier.
Finally, I do not believe that one corner of the world benefits from industrial technologies while the other loses – I guess we are all losers in this game. The wealthy Westerners who indeed save a lot of time and space thanks to smart phones, airplanes, Ipad… may think that their gains are too precious to be abandoned. But when we think about the health and psychological long-term troubles caused to the avid high-tech consumers, we come to realize that it is not a zero-sum game but indeed a lose-lose situation in which we are stuck.