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Synthetic biology for everybody? What a wonderful world that would be ... at a lecture by Dr. Manuel Selg, Photo: Martin Hieslmair / Ars Electronica via Flickr.com.
Synthetic biology for everybody? What a wonderful world that would be ... at a lecture by Dr. Manuel Selg, Photo: Martin Hieslmair / Ars Electronica via Flickr.com.
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It's time to get a grip on technology!

David King

12th April 2014

The issues surrounding powerful new technologies from GMOs to nuclear power appear disparate, writes David King - but look harder and most are linked by common threads. Key among them are issues of profit, control and socialisation of cost ...

It's about power, people and the planet, and how we can create a new critical mass to challenge the forces that many groups are trying to fight in isolation.

Controversies about technology, such as nuclear power, designer babies, fracking, drones, GM food or surveillance, are constantly in the news.

Now there is a move to address the deeper technocratic forces linking these apparently disparate issues.

From May 2nd-5th, environmentalists, radical scientists, artists, trade unionists and developers of alternative technologies will be gathering near Sheffield to debate the politics of technology and create a new network to support their work.

We are calling it Breaking The Frame, and we are bringing together campaigns on the technology politics of environment, energy, climate, food, the military, work, economics, austerity, the internet, civil liberties, privacy, health, gender etc.

Who controls the technologies we have come to depend on?

The whole way our society develops is heavily influenced by technology, which of course can bring genuine benefits. But technology is almost entirely in the hands of technocratic, military and corporate elites, which use their power to select and design technologies to serve their interests and reinforce their power - it would be weird if they didn't.

But we tend to deal with problems raised by technology one by one, as if they were unexpected side effects, rather than looking at the root causes of those problems.

The aim of the Breaking the Frame gathering is to overcome this fragmented, single-issue, reactive approach - we think it's time for a more systematic and joined-up approach that overcomes the democratic deficit in this area.

The new approach will be based on bringing together the insights of different campaigns and movements sharing skills and learning from each other.

A healthy scepticism about 'technology as progress'

The gathering, which is being organised by Corporate WatchScientists for Global Responsibility and Luddites200 has sprung from the series of events marking 200 years since the Luddite uprisings.

These events have begun a vibrant new conversation, questioning accepted dogmas about technology. Contrary to popular belief, the Luddites were not opposed to all technology - that is history as written by the victors. In fact the Luddites opposed only technology 'hurtful to Commonality', ie to the common good.

They destroyed some machines whilst leaving others alone in the same workshop. The inspiration for Breaking The Frame is a healthy scepticism about the dogma of technology as progress, without denying the real benefits of some technologies.

We insist that the crucial decisions about which technologies are developed are made democratically, not just imposed by corporations and technocratic elites. 'Breaking The Frame' means standing up for our own ideas about what progress really is.

Technocracy and the environmental crisis

The need for a new approach to the politics of technology is more urgent than ever as we face environmental crisis, caused by 200 years of industrial capitalism.

Climate change, biodiversity collapse and resource crises mean we must completely rethink how we live and provide for ourselves on this planet.

We need a transition to a sustainable and economically just society. Making that transition will have to include a radical rethink of technology, because it is so central to the existing system.

But, not surprisingly, to deal with the crisis, the powers that be are trying to impose more of the same old technofixes: geoengineering,synthetic biology, nuclear power and the so-called 'green economy'.

In essence, these are all attempts to fix the problem with the same tools that created it. Ultimately the cause of the current crisis is just as much about the technocratic philosophy of domination and manipulation of nature, that developed in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, as it is about capitalism.

Technocracy and reductionism

It is that same technocratic approach, based on a mechanistic and reductionist understanding of how nature works, that is still at work in geoengineering and synthetic biology, as scientists attempt to manipulate nature at the smallest and largest levels.

For example, many of the proponents of synthetic biology - an extreme form of genetic engineering - complain about the inefficiency of evolved organisms and argue that they should be reinvented according to sound engineering principles.

With even more extraordinary technocratic arrogance, geoengineers think they can manipulate the climate system of the entire planet in order to cancel out global warming. The risks of such an enterprise, which will most likely impact most upon the South are, if anything, greater than those of climate change.

Yet corporations are already lining up to deliver these 'solutions', so they can continue business as usual. In 2009, for example, Richard Branson, who makes massive profits from his airlines, said:

"If we could come up with a geoengineering answer to this problem, then Copenhagen wouldn't be necessary. We could carry on flying our planes and driving our cars."

Meanwhile, a further series of emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence / robotics, nanotechnology and brain sciences are threatening to radically change our societies, creating risks that even normally techno-optimistic futurists are beginning to describe asexistential risks for human society.

Creating a new critical mass

In order to cope with these issues, we need a more positive social approach - it's not just about getting the right technology, it's also about who controls that technology, how and why.

It's about power, people and the planet, and how we can create a new critical mass to challenge the forces that many groups are trying to fight in isolation.

A more adequate analysis is needed which recognises the inherent flaws in the technocratic worldview as well as the effects of the overall socio-economic system.

Among the key issues we will discuss at Breaking The Frame are:

  • What does a critical politics of technology mean in the 21st century: democratic control or 'low technology'?
  • History of industrial society and environmental crisis; challenging the concept of progress through technology
  • Experiences in different campaigns and struggles
  • Alternative visions of social and technological development, and the transition to a sustainable and socially just society.

 


 

David King is a former biologist and coordinator of Luddites200.

We are still looking for offers to contribute to Breaking The Frame, and for organisations to join the list of supporters.

Confirmed speakers include Simon Fairlie (editor of The Land Magazine), Jerry Mander (International Forum on Globalisation), Theo Simon (Stop Hinkley), Hilary Wainwright (editor of Red Pepper), Danny Chivers (No Dash For Gas) and Helena Paul (Econexus).

There will also be demonstrations and workshops on craft based production, poetry, music, walking etc.

For more information visit Breaking The Frame or email luddites200@yahoo.co.uk.

 

 

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