7 min read

Technology isn't (always) the solution

Why the climate emergency needs political solutions, not just shiny new inventions.
Technology isn't (always) the solution

There's a story about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. Standing in the test room when they first deployed the Trinity bomb, the first test deployment of the same kind of nuclear device that would kill 200,000 civilians in Nagasaki and Hiroshima just three weeks later, he watched the great mushroom cloud fill the sky and thought of words from the Bhagavad Gita:

I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.

Except, people who were there at the time say what he actually said in the moment was, "It worked." And that afterwards he took to the stage and clasped his hands together "like a prize-winning boxer" while the crowd cheered.

Later, J. Robert Oppenheimer had a lot of regrets and mixed feelings about his role in creating atomic bombs. But at the time, he was focussed on the question of what was possible, rather than the question of how that new technology would likely be used by the social power structures around him.

Jean-Marc Côté illustration of a future school where kids have headphones on that beam the contents of books directly into their brains
Jean-Marc Côté's 1899 prediction of what school would look like in the year 2000. Kind of looks like a Covid Zoom-school - he wasn't much wrong!

I've spent a lot of my working life building apps, websites and other software. This means that I've met a lot of tech-utopians. Tech-utopians are people who believe that new technology can cure any problem. Oh, the global financial system is corrupt? Bitcoin will fix it! We're pouring pollution into the air and it's going to make huge parts of the world uninhabitable for humans? Let's hack the planet! Our food system relies on unfathomable numbers of animals to suffer every day of their short, miserable lives? Let's use bacteria to turn air into meat!

And look, I'm as susceptible to a good bout of techno-utopianism as the rest of them. Who hasn't fantasised about how rad it'll be once we all have personal robot butlers and fully embrace transhumanist body modifications? (Me, I'm signing up for a skin pocket, like a kangaroo pouch to keep my phone in)

But the longer I've spent working in tech, the more convinced I've become that new technology alone is seldom the solution. If you want to improve the world, you sometimes do need new technology; but you also need to address the social and political forces that created that problem in the first place. Sorry.

I think of technology as the accelerator pedal in a car. It can make the car go faster, but you still have to steer the car. Politics, culture, how we organise society? That's the steering system: it determines how new technology is used. It's just as important to make sure that the car is going in the right direction, as to make sure it's moving forward. Like, if you're driving towards a cliff, going faster should probably not be your first priority.

Melvin Kranzberg, in his famous Six Laws of Technology talk in 1985, said it well:

Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral.

By which he meant, technology is morally ambiguous, but not morally neutral. Technology is invented by humans and used for human purposes (often ones that the technology's original inventors could never have imagined), so it's infused with human values, both good and evil.

Cory Doctorow once dug up this magnificent article from a 1951 Mechanics Illustrated magazine about how, in the near future, we'd all be flying private helicopters. Look closely at this glorious imagined future. Notice anything?

The sweet dolt who drew this could fully imagine a future where every family has their own private roof helicopter, but couldn't imagine a future where women also have jobs to go to (or where black people exist, for that matter).

I love this illustration so much, because it's a beautiful reminder to me about how much easier it is to imagine technological change, than to imagine social change.

This has been coming up a lot in my conversations with people about climate change: the sense that we should just be able to invent new tech that will fix the problem for us. And there are, indeed, a lot of proposed technologies on the table: machines that can suck carbon out of the air and put it back into the ground; ways to make the atmosphere, ocean or cities more shiny so that more sunlight is reflected away from the planet; better batteries that will help us to switch to electric vehicles; solar panel roof tiles; smart AI-managed electrical grids; cryptocurrencies that allow companies to more easily trade carbon credits... the list goes on and on.

We will probably need at least some of these technologies in the coming decades (in fact, climate modellers already take gains from not-yet-invented technology into account when predicting how the climate will change over the next century). But here's the thing: none of these technologies, by themselves, are enough to stop climate change from causing catastrophic damage to human lives. Because even if these technologies existed today, we'd still have the same issue we have now: how do we make sure that they are actually used? And that they're used responsibly?

It's already cheaper to produce energy by building new renewables (solar and wind power) than by building new coal-based power plants, everywhere. In half the world, it's even cheaper to produce power by building new renewables than by running existing coal plants (and that will be true everywhere by 2030). We improved the technology of renewables so much that we SHOULD have solved the problem.

But the world is still building new coal plants, and launching new fracking projects, and building new oil pipelines. In fact, just 35 banks have shovelled $2.7-trillion into new fossil-fuel energy projects since 2016.


Well, because politics, basically. Because banks invested in old technologies and they don't want to lose their money on "stranded assets". Because huge fossil fuel companies are still some of the richest in the world, and they're unable to give that up. Because we've allowed those entrenched interests to spend loads of money convincing lawmakers to rewrite the laws in their favour. Because power utilities are usually monopolies that keep some people very powerful. Because fossil fuel companies employ a lot of people, and we haven't found a good way for the gains of new technology to be shared fairly amongst a society, yet. Because trust in democracy is at record lows.

And changing these things feels really hard and boring and complicated, and can't we just rather invent new shiny gizmos that solve all our problems, please?

You've got mail! Another Jean-Marc Côté 1899 prediction about the year 2000.

I really feel like this is the most important question for us, stumbling into the 2020s. How can we fix democracy?

Honestly, I have no idea. But it seems pretty clear that it's got to be something a little more involved than showing up to vote every 4 years and yelling at the news every morning. We have to fix it, if we have any hope of solving the most urgent problems the world is facing.

And surely, it must be easier to convince politicians to change laws that ensure we keep more oil and gas and coal in the ground over the next decade, than it would be to build a whole fleet of space mirrors to deflect the sun away?

There's been so much progress. Just a few months ago, the Centre for Environmental Rights used the legal system (part of our democracy!) to successfully scupper plans to build a new coal plant in Mpumalanga, which already has some of the most polluted air in the world. And that's wonderful. But it's not enough, because there are also 80,000 people employed by the coal mining industry in Mpumalanga, and we need a better plan for them than "whoops sorry your jobs are gone now". Technology isn't going to fix that. Only politics can.

Anyway. I'm off to go and Google who the heck my local MP is. Also, what an MP is.

Wishing you your own personal helicopter,

Your buddy Sam.

Updates from Sam-Land

  • As you can probably guess from my ENDLESS RANTING about climate change (I'm so sorry) it's something I'm thinking about a lot at the moment, because I'm working on a choose your own adventure web-story about how we can survive the rest of the century. Longtime readers will know that this project grew out of a geo-engineering conference I went to last year. I'm hoping to release this early next year, so if you find climate stuff boring, you should probably unsubscribe from the newsletter, friends! I'm going to be talking about this A LOT.
  • Are any of you South Africans who are part of a corporate pension fund? I'm working on a new app to help you understand your retirement savings better. Please could you answer a few questions for me in this form? It shouldn't take more than 5 minutes. Thank you!!
  • Speaking of apps, Lettuce, our little investment-tracking app, now lets you track profit and loss.
  • I had the loveliest chat with Edwin van der Walt on the NovieGuide podcast. We started off talking about budgeting for freelancers, and then ended up getting super deep discussing how I ended up with such INTENSE feelings about financial freedom, why the money taboo exists, and what I would say to 20-year-old me if I met her. Listen to the whole chat here.