Avoiding the “‘technology trap’ trap”

What is the “technology trap”?

The technology trap is, as I like to put it: “Delay, delay, delay. Why? Because technology, technology, technology.” It is the push- be it cynically, to undermine meaningful action in the present for political and industry profit, or well-intentioned, wishful thinking– to do little or nothing in the short term to mitigate climate change and hope for technological salvation in the future.

What it gets wrong:

  • Time – although as of yet unrealized technologies will no doubt have their place in a future, non-fossil fuel-based global economy, there is little reason to believe that significant revolutions in energy will come about in time to justify inaction now- due to both the scale of the energy issue and the potentially short period we have before critical thresholds may be crossed, such a threading of the temporal needle seems incredibly unlikely.
  • Method – the age of monolithic, centralized energy and agriculture propping up remote, uninvolved communities is coming to a close. Increasingly decentralized, location-conscious, diversified solutions are the secure and sustainable future.

What it gets ‘right’:

  • Imagination – in all honesty, it’s hard to get people excited about putting bricks in their toilets and changing their light bulbs (though apparently not for lack of trying). People love Big Ideas. Sending microwave beams from space? That sounds intriguing (if wildly impractical)! Although the low-hanging fruit is in efficiency, we’ve seen just how easy it can be to write off by those opposed to the message or messenger.
  • Empowerment – after the scientific case for action is made, a harder one lies ahead. If less than 450ppmv is to be achieved, given the seeming failure of Kyoto, the looming presence of China and India (not to mention Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, et al.), the decades of inaction we’ve seen in the US, etc. the prospect of making meaningful change with a wind farm here, plug in hybrids there seems to be woefully inadequate. However, as a people Americans are used to apparent hail maries in the technology department: from the Apollo program to ARPAnet to the Manhattan project to microprocessors, we’re conditioned to believe in the near-miraculous, unfortunately even in areas where such revolutions are incredibly unlikely. Ironically, many people have more faith that we can solve the problem by ignoring that which in the here and now will go a long way to solving it in favor of pie-in-the-sky future solutions that may never come to fruition.

What is the “‘technology trap’ trap”?

Because the future tech line has been co-opted so early and used so often by those seeking to prevent meaningful action, it has been increasingly easy to become hypersensitive and reactionary to any propositions that seem to focus on technology rather than massive deployments of renewables. An example of this was recently related by Colin Beavan (of No Impact Man):

So a while back I met this artist/engineer/satellite designer and otherwise genius professor from New York University, and I instantly started arguing with her. Natalie Jeremijenko was talking about technological approaches to climate change, and I just started on my rant about how we can’t wait for new technology and blah, blah, blah, hobbyhorse, hobbyhorse, hobbyhorse.

I’m sure that sounds awfully familiar to some of us. Colin continues:

When I finally decided to listen instead of spout, Natalie told me about her particular interest in the use of technology to empower people towards their own, non-governmental responses to climate change. How can technology be put in the hands of people so they can save the earth without waiting for the politicians to finally realize we have an emergency on our hands?

I think it is worthwhile to remind ourselves that while remaining wary of the technology trap, we should be wary as well to not trap ourselves in the converse. New technology is important. It is important not only because of the intangibles- the ‘gee-whiz’ thrill of it all- but because we also need to recognize that on a purely practical level, we may not be able to rely on governmental policy to get things moving as comprehensively and quickly as they need to. Technology should be, and often is, empowering.

I’m sure that many of you have noted the large overlap between those who reject the basis of (and not-uncoincidentally, centrally-planned action on) climate change and those who are suspicious/hostile to government in general. Technology as self-reliance can be a useful means of reaching this as of yet untapped demographic. Yes, of course we need to be doing everything we can at the national and international levels to encourage the widespread adoption of current clean energy, investment in future technology R&D, etc. and we really can’t succeed without them at some point, but we also need to look at how technology available now can be used and promoted in the near-term to inspire people. People that may feel more motivated to make their voices heard down the road. Jeremijenko recognizes that it’s important not to throw practical (but exciting and empowering nonetheless) technology out with the sci-fi day dreams and delaying tactics.

On a somewhat-related note:

The Sizzle Variety review is already popping up on denialist sites as a hopefully unintentional anti-global warming film, just as some worried. Although I still haven’t put together my overall thoughts on the issue (hard to do as I still haven’t watched it myself), one of the things that struck me was how right Olson was about the need to reach audiences on a fundamentally different level than AIT, but how off he seems in his approach and execution. Although some have argued that Olson just can’t let go of the “scientists are shitty communicators” angle, it seems that the larger problem with Sizzle is that it failed to fully capitalize on its bottom up, broad-based engagement of a lay audience. Olsen wanted to reach people on a different level than Gore did- to shift the focus from the intellectual to the visceral, which sounds like a great idea. However, many reviewers stated that although they felt that the Katrina segment was powerful, it felt disconnected from the rest of the film, which was itself disjointed in many other places. Many appreciated the attempts at humor, but felt that it was handled inappropriately. The problem is not that Sizzle set out to reach audiences in a different way than AIT, but that it doesn’t seem likely that it will be able to do so coherently.

Via Deep Sea News, I recently became aware of Under the Sea 3D. Its intent couldn’t be more straightforward: show the wonders of the ocean and warn about the danger climate change is and will be posing to them: These things are beautiful and precious, and they are in trouble.

Simple. Powerful. Universal.

Human beings are suckers for strange and charismatic fauna, and this is an elegant way to communicate an at times frustratingly complex issue to a huge potential audience (it will not be dependent on cultural in-jokes like flamboyantly gay producers, or national tragedies like Katrina; the basic message can be understood by children as well as adults; the format is overwhelmingly visual rather than linguistic).

I hope that Sizzle does well, I truly do. And I hope that Under the Sea 3D can do what I think is something that we can sometimes take for granted in this meta-bickering about paleo recons and daily sea ice extent, about delayers and deniers, about cap and trade versus tax and dividend, and even technology now vs. technology later.

Talk to people. Appeal to their sense of wonder. Make them feel involved.


3 responses to “Avoiding the “‘technology trap’ trap”

  1. “I’m sure that many of you have noted the large overlap between those who reject the basis of (and not-uncoincidentally, centrally-planned action on) climate change and those who are suspicious/hostile to government in general.”

    Talk about generalizing? Besides that it is pretty obvious and logical – if you are agains central planning in general it follows to question central planning with regards to climate issues.
    Consider also the lack of uniformity in the world with regards to present level of central government control. Europe in general is far more centrally controlled – resisting ‘more’ central control in one country is not the same as it not making sence in another country.

    Besides on the note of the startingpoint with technology=delay and more delay.
    A classic argument from Kyoto-supporters in Europe have been to argue action now as not ruling out more research. Both can be done. However at the end of the day when the budget is up for amendment they do not support more research.
    Why not do what we can do today with existing technology but also do research. You are stating a false dichotomy and stereotyping all ‘tech-geeks’ as opposers to global warming imho.

  2. I would recomment (Eli always does) J. Willard Rabett’s Rules

    1. Adaptation responds to current losses.
    2. Mitigation responds to future losses
    3. Adaptation plus future costs is more expensive than mitigation,
    4. Adaptation without mitigation drives procrastination penalties to infinity.

  3. Pingback: The Technology Trap « Free the Commons!

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