Why Technology Turns Toxic in an Unequal World

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* Book: The Bleeding Edge. Why technology turns toxic in an unequal world. By Bob Hughes. New Internationalist Books, 2016

URL = https://newint.org/books/reference/bleeding-edge/

"Capitalism likes us to believe in the steady, inevitable march of progress, from the abacus to the iPad. But the historical record tells of innumerable roads not taken, all of which could have led to better worlds, and still can."


1. From the author:

"I argue in this book that escalating human impact on the earth has gone hand in hand with successful encroachments on egalitarian culture, as with the neoliberal onslaught since the 1970s but extending far back in history. The issues go far beyond computers and electronics, intellectual property law, or even modern global capitalism. To get to the root of the matter we will need to wind the tape back to where it all began, when mercantile elites first acquired ‘the right’ (because they made the laws) to own whatever they needed to own and to disown anything and anyone that might be a liability; to the time when we became ‘modern’ inasmuch as we learned to stand by while others starve, and to tolerate and even to respect those who take more than their share.

We are involved in the endgame of something that began in the squalor of medieval Europe. The challenge cannot be resolved until we tackle the social failure that set it in motion: entrenched inequality, and the genteel acceptance of it." (http://www.newint.org/books/reference/prelims_bleeding_edge.pdf)

2. From the publisher:

"It’s hammered into us from birth that ‘all good things come at a price’. Today, that price looks apocalyptic, with wars, exploitation and environmental collapse in every part of the globe. Some suggest that the carnage is “a price worth paying” for technological progress. No pain, no gain.

But technology is precisely the business of minimising the costs and impacts of existence… and by whole orders of magnitude. By now, all human beings should be leading creative, leisure-filled lives in a pristine world of burgeoning diversity. So how did it go so wrong? In a word, inequality. In The Bleeding Edge, Bob Hughes argues that unequal societies are incapable of using new technologies well. Wherever elites exist, self-preservation decrees that they must take control of new technologies to protect and entrench their status, rather than satisfy people’s needs.

Bob pursues the latest discoveries about the effects of social inequality on human health, into the field of human environmental impact, and traces today’s ecological crisis back to the rise of the world’s first elites, 5,000 years ago. He argues that new technologies have never emerged from elites or from the clash of competitive forces, but from largely voluntary, egalitarian collaborations of the kind that produced the world’s first working computers.

He shows how inequality drastically reduces our technological options, and turns successful inventions into their own ‘evil twins’. From the medieval water mill to the cellphone, elegant ideas have been turned into engines of destruction - their greater economy of means perversely magnifying their human and ecological impact. A trend that can only escalate until we grasp the nettle and call time on social inequality. Any political programme that tries to arrest climate change while tolerating inequality is as doomed as trying to climb Mount Everest by the downhill route.

Finally, Bob shows that an egalitarian world is not ‘pie in the sky but our evolutionary homeland, the glue that holds societies together, and the “cradle of invention” from which all our best ideas emerge. For a sustainable world, we must stop pleading, as it were, for “a bit less rape”, and put all social domination beyond the social pale. The book concludes: ‘Let’s assume that the commitment to human equality that’s written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights means exactly what it says, and take it from there'." (https://newint.org/books/reference/bleeding-edge/)


1 Technofatalism and the future – is a world without Foxconn even possible?

Two paradoxes about new technology Humanity began with technology Technology emerges from egalitarian knowledge economies The myth of creative competition Why capitalism inhibits innovation Capitalism didn’t make computers... but took computing down the wrong path

2 From water mills to iPhones: why technology and inequality do not mix

Egalitarian hopes for computing The return of medieval economics The first modern environmental crisis An unequal society is a dangerous place for powerful ideas Water mills, and how new technology can be a curse Firearms take a European turn

3 What inequality does to people

Inequality reduces life expectancy Equality and the Soviet Union Autonomy and solidarity: the essential nutrients Inequality makes people shorter Today’s inequality will damage future generations

4 The environmental cost of human inequality

Are the rich destroying the earth? Inequality turns humans into a geological force Malthus’s mistake: not too many babies, but too much debt Ehrlich’s last gasp: technology and ‘eye-pat’ The power to choose a low-impact life

5 Ever greater impact, ever less benefit: high-tech capital’s mysterious lack of growth

‘Keep your nerve’ or ‘tough it out’ Why computers have grown nothing but themselves Inequality: the elephant in the room

6 The invisible foot: why inequality increases impact

Technology plus inequality equals meltdown ‘Positionality’ and ‘human nature’ Traffic waves and why faster is slower Computers and the positional economy: obsolescence gone mad The rise of financial services, trailed by women in old cars Putting a girl on the moon: the cost of education How ‘e-learning’ rebounded on the poor

7 Enclosure in the computer age: the magic of control

The supernatural enters everyday life: the magic of commodities Power over theW future: the magic of intellectual property Computers and the making of money The world gets smaller and hotter Closing the technological frontier (or trying to) Other routines are possible!

8 Sales effort: from the automobile to the microchip

The all-steel automobile as an energy sump How the sales effort shaped the chip Moore’s self-fulfilling prophecy: chips with everything Dictating the future The visionary turn Embracing carnage: faith in disruption

9 Technoptimism hits the buffers

The toxic deWmands of purity Obsolescence and e-waste: a total system Displacing the problem to Africa Entropy: measuring what’s possible Maxwell’s demon: the spoiler in the green growth dream Puncturing the weightless economists

10 The data explosion: how the cloud became a juggernaut

Forced migration: corporate flight into the cloud How the web became an entropy pump The cost of the dotcom bubble and Web 2.0

11 ‘The least efficient machine humans have ever built’: how capitalism drove the computer down a dead end

The buried world of analog computing Clocks: why today’s computers mostly do nothing, but very quickly Soviet computing: diversity under scarcity and bureaucracy Time-sharing: another abandoned road Competitive pressure narrows all options

12 Planning by whom and for what? The battle for control from the Soviet Union to Walmart

The benefits and dangers of centralized planning Electrification of the Soviet Union: heteronomous planning becomes the global norm Linear programming, with and without computers The curious incident of the capitalist calculation debate Connection-making and the ecology movement Operational Research and cybernetics Variety engineering: the difference between amplification and shouting

13 A socialist computer: Chile, 1970-1973

A global crisis of inequality The Unidad Popular: a moderately egalitarian program Stafford Beer and ‘cybernetic socialism’ How much computer hardware does a viable society need? Cheap, radical technology ‘War’ is declared

14 Utopia or bust

Envisioning Utopia: the world turned right way up Utopian practicalities: food and work Beauty and lower impact, from the bottom up Shrinking roads, expanding diversity Putting babies and children at the heart of the economy Shared work: Utopia’s powerhouses Community is stronger than we think: ‘Disaster Utopias’ The Right knows the power of solidarity, even if the Left doesn’t Equality, truth and the experience of being believed The ‘apparatus of justification’