Category Archives: Morozov and Bookchin

Tools for changing institutions?

“Seeking salvation through tools alone is no more viable as a political strategy than addressing the ills of capitalism by cultivating a public appreciation of arts and crafts.”

Do you agree?

If so, are all tools that focus on individual self-empowerment while ignoring broader, social systematic problems missing the point? Are there tools that address broader “ills” in their design, or does a broader campaign always need to accompany a tool to make it a successful change agent?

A different sort of “human scale” technology

Bookchin’s ideas parallel those of Schumacher in some ways. Both call for ‘local’ technology, suitable to the needs of smaller-scales than the massive factories they mention. Bookchin seems to, at times, take his argument to a different end than Schumacher, though. At once, he proposes adapting large scale technologies to smaller-scale needs (as opposed to more appropriate technologies) and/or adopting smaller-scale technologies at the local level. He does this in a way I find difficult to imagine Schumacher promoting:

“Some of the most promising technological advances in agriculture made since World War II are as suitable for small-scale, ecological forms of land management as they are for the immense, industrial-type commercial units that have become prevalent over the past few decades. Let us consider an example. The augermatic feeding of livestock illustrates a cardinal principle of rational farm mechanization— the deployment of conventional machines and devices in a way that virtually eliminates arduous farm labor… This type of mechanization is intrinsically neutral: it can be used to feed immense herds or just a few hundred head of cattle… In short, augermatic feeding can be placed in the service of the most abusive kind of commercial exploitation or of the most sensitive applications of ecological principles.”

 I also appreciate his strong belief in the ability of communities and ‘communitarians’ to self-regulate and maintain their own ecosystems while adopting new technologies. I’m not sure this has come to pass fully, but perhaps continues to be an ideal to strive toward.

Finally, I’m reminded of our conversation a couple of weeks ago about the hobby-ification of certain once-tedious tasks. This comes up in both the Bookchin and Morozov pieces. Bookchin puts it interestingly with reference to food cultivation:

“Relieved of toil by agricultural machines, communitarians will approach food cultivation with the same playful and creative attitude that men so often bring to gardening. Agriculture will become a living part of human society, a source of pleasant physical activity and, by virtue of its ecological demands, an intellectual, scientific and artistic challenge.”

Seems somewhat prescient, though again perhaps not at the scale of enterprise Bookchin imagined.

Finally, an optimist… but…

Bookchin’s optimism shines through every page. And indeed, in the half-century that has passed since his essay was written, we have achieved several of the technological advances that he describes. Yet the political and social change that are also critical to the achievement of Bookchin’s vision (as noted by Morozov in his reference to Bookchin) have arguably not come about. Why is this? What are we missing? What would be your vision for a manner or method in which we could radically shift political and social organization toward one that would be more conducive to using technology for our own liberation? Or do you believe that such shift is an impossible dream?

“Human Wholeness”

“Human wholeness” seems to be a central theme in Bookchin’s “Towards a Liberatory Technology”. He deems the true issue in new technology as to whether it can help “humanize” society. As I discussed in an earlier blog post, it seems as if our readings can be divided into two general lines of thinking: those of “inventors” and those of “humanists”, and Bookchin seems to fall into the latter category. Tagore, Schumacher, and Gandhi all touch upon this idea of human “wholeness” and what it means to be “human”.

In addition to the theme of “humanism”, Bookchin often discusses “creativity”. He writes that technology can play a significant role in the formation of personality, and that every art has its “technical side”. Further, he mentions that “Art would assimilate technology by becoming social art, the art of the community as a whole”. Thus, Tagore may view such an idea as productive to conquering “limited reality” (which I found similar to the idea of Bookchin’s formation of “personality”) and achieving the “Creative Ideal”. Schumacher notes (from a Buddhist point of view) that it is erroneous to consider consumption more important than creative activity, and that “the less toil there is, the more time and strength is left for artistic creativity.” In a similar vein, Bookchin notes that, in a liberated society, technology will not be negated, but used to “remove the toil from the production process, leaving its artistic completion to man”. I found his quote — “The machine, in effect, will participate in human creativity” particularly interesting, as it gives notable agency and “human-ness” to technology.

While I do believe that Bookchin has a significantly more optimistic view than of new technology than Gandhi, they both share an interest in the “liberation” of man and its connection to technology. I enjoyed how Buckchin symbolized “liberatory technology” as the abolition of mining, as mining is “man’s image of hell”. Perhaps more than the other authors we’ve read, Bookchin places much emphasis on the natural world, which he claims we must reintroduce into our human experience to achieve “human wholeness”.

1) Bookchin’s vision is wrong in a sense that, while much toil has been removed from the production process with the introduction of new technology, more work has been required of workers (technology workers). He envisions that artistic creativity is, to the delight of its workers, added after the toil of work has been completed. How is this view problematic?

2) Creativity seems to be a distinctly “human” trait and a theme shared amongst many of the authors we’ve read. Can machines really participate in human creativity? Can machines be “creative”, and can they replace human creativity? (In other words, what the hell does “creativity” even mean?)

ooh, shiny!

One of the problems with hackathons is that they place too much focus on speed and novelty, leading to a hacker culture which expects us to build something quickly, then move on to the next new thing. The maker culture isn’t that much different: makers build something based on a new idea, just to try it out. In many cases, this is a good thing: innovation thrives when we push the boundaries of what we know. But when we focus more on “newer” and “sooner” we tend to skip steps, or make sacrifices which result in poor long-term quality.

It would be false to assume, however, that this mentality is restricted to hackers and makers; I think this is systemic across most human activities. We touched on some topics of power and dominance when we read Freire, and I think those themes are especially relevant here, where “newer” is assumed to be “better” and “sooner” really means “before anybody else.”

I think I am much more pessimistic than Bookchin, and I really liked this line: “We are still the offspring of a violent, blood-soaked, ignoble history–the end products of man’s domination of man. We may never end this condition of domination.” While Bookchin felt that it was possible to end that cycle through anarchy, I am not so certain.

Am I wrong to think so pessimistically of the human race? Give me some hope that we as a society can eventually move beyond “Ooh, shiny!” to some state of mind based on a better good.

Work and want in career discernment

I want to explore what makes some work lame and other work prestigious by comparing trash collection and health care. One is seen as lowly employment while the other is up on a pedestal. Environmental issues are widely ignored while our bodily comfort is given the highest priority. As a society, we miss the point that these are deeply interconnected.

Taking care of human bodies does require more formal education, but I imagine that trash collectors learn a lot on the job: what people throw away, what companies throw away, precisely what happens when things are thrown away, the environmental and health consequences of our sophisticated waste systems. Health care providers are a sought out source of wisdom, as they should be. The trash workers know that big companies send out-of-season inventory to a landfill rather than risk a dent in demand by donating it. Recycling and trash workers know exactly what materials people are good or bad at recycling regularly, but they’re not consulted about trying to improve this system that is at the heart of the struggle between man and nature.

The disconnectedness between man and nature, via our trash system impedes our attention to sustainable living, which encourages our wants. I met a kindergartener once who got made fun of for telling his class he wanted to be a trash man. His teacher put a stop to it by saying, “Hey! Can you imagine a world without trash collectors? They help keep our communities clean. Plus, they get to drive those big trucks… How cool is that!?” In contrast, I once met a premed student taking engineering classes just in case doctors stopped getting paid so much under Obamacare…

So, what if trash collectors were more empowered to participate in history? Personally, I wouldn’t want to drive a big stinky truck anymore than I’d want to stick my hands in an open wound, but I think if society did a better job of recognizing the important service in each, we could start to move away from this over arching problem of work and want.

Related: The Problem With Trash Cans

Seeking salvation in tools alone

All semester we have attempted to design tools that satisfy the perceived criteria for “alternative” technology. However, we have never failed to mention that reform does not lie in tools alone.

For example, if one wanted to design a community-driven transportation service to replace cars/taxis, one would have to consider social incentives and legislation to put in place for having neighbors have an equal time-share of having to drive their neighbors around regardless of class and wealth.

In Morozov’s article, we hear about how Lee Felsenstein, influenced by Illich’s Tools of Conviviality, tries to create a device that is easy to learn, understand, and repair making experts unnecessary and decentralizing power. He installs a handful of terminals in public spaces across the Bay allowing local residents to communicate anonymously — a truly “social media.”

If we look at the purpose of the newspaper and the role it played in decentralizing power during the American Revolution, it is one similar to that of Felsenstein’s “free speech terminals.” However, with time, political and economical systems redirected the power over the newspapers allowing people with more money and social influence to buy ink on a page.

Instead of building tools to deinstitutionalize society, Morozov believes we should try pushing reform to “secure the transparency and decentralization of power” we associates with our favorite technology.

Does this mean maker culture belongs in politics? Must every tool we design to power the people come with accompanying legislation?


Maker Culture and Che Guevera Tees

As a computer science student who has been somewhat dubious of the ‘Maker’ movement for reasons I have found difficult to place, Morozov’s criticism of the Maker movement and its ‘hacker’ predecessor struck a chord with me.   The collusion of the department of defense and a variety of corporate interests in the fostering of makerspaces, along with the very consumerist catalogs of tools which are inevitably a necessity for becoming a ‘free-spirited’ maker have always stuck slightly in my craw, and they do seem to paint a rather cynical picture of the underlying motivations for the movement.  Morozov makes a salient point about the consumers of the hacker era being convinced that by adopting certain tools they were being more revolutionary than the protestors out risking life and limb for their cause, and the same holds true today, plus or minus a couple of labels.

Yet while I am dubious of the ability of the maker movement to effect any sort of real revolutionary change in society, I also doubt that there is anything specific to the use of technology that makes it particularly prone to capitalist subversion. Is there anything particular to the application of technology toward revolutionary ends that ends with the sort of consumerist rebranding of once-sincere movements?  Or is the monetization of the hacker and maker movements simply another repetition of the same pattern that has turned a huge variety of counter-culture movements (try searching amazon for ‘occupy wall street,’ or, god forbid, ‘che guevera t-shirts’ if you need an example) into yet another stepping stone for dewy-eyed capitalists hoping to make it into the 1%?

Employees as stakeholders

The biggest problem I see with Bookchin’s vision of utopian regional production is cheap transport mechanisms for raw and finished goods. His dream of regional, community centered, holistic production cannot exist in a world where goods can be so cheaply transferred. The other thing he overlooks is the impact of economies of scale on centralization of production. The economics of scale argument is that per-widget costs decrease as number of widgets manufactured increases. Coupling economics of scale with low costs for transporting raw and finished goods inevitably leads to a centralization of production. Smaller manufacturers get squeezed out by larger players who can produce the same widget for less.

So maybe we’ll never have the small community minded production that Bookchin proposes. Imagine a firm where instead of salaries every employee received a stake in the firm’s output. Not stock like we now conceive of it, but a stake that only current employees would get. Employees get their stake when they join the company and they relinquish it when they leave. An employee cannot sell or otherwise transfer their stake. Different levels of employee would have more or less stake. It would not per se be egalitarian, or distributed equally. A CEO might have ten times more stake than a janitor, but they would all receive their monthly salary based on how much stake they had. Employees would get paid based on the performance of the firm X months previously. Where X is probably between 3-6 months depending on how tight the accounting needs to be. The firm would generate no profit; its entire proceeds would instead be paid to its employees. The CEO could still get rich, as he might have 50 times more stake than the janitor. The important thing is that everyone’s compensation is tied to the firm’s performance. They all have a stake in it.

A constitution could be written to constrain, among other things, the multiplier between the smallest stakeholder and the largest stakeholder. Maybe the CEO could never have more than 30 times stake than the janitor? Employees would regularly provide confidential feedback on their immediate superiors, their subordinates, and their peers. Using this information, and most likely a complex governing process, stake could be reapportioned at a given interval.

Could this work? It’s something of a compromise between Bookchin’s need for the workers to own the production, and the realities of global production I outlined in the first paragraph.