Continues from: Myths of Climate 03: Apocalypse and Millennium

Prometheus brings humans fire which is needed for culture and development, and is chained to a rock by Zeus, with an eagle devouring his liver every day, until he is eventually rescued by Heracles.

The myth of Prometheus encapsulates both the idea that technology can save us, and the counter-position that technology leads to retribution or destruction.

While the two parts of this myth are usually kept separate, it may be useful to bear both in mind simultaneously.

God Like Technology

The ‘technology is always positive’ side of the duality reassures us that technology can save us. Influenced by this myth we tend to be carried away into technological fantasy, into thinking that we have solutions to problems, when we don’t know if those solutions work or not. It often promotes non-existent ‘fantasy’ technology (like clean coal, carbon sequestration, or mirrors in space, portable nuclear power stations, fusion power) as saving us from having to abandon coal fired power stations. Or it may claim potentials for existing technologies that have so far been largely unsuccessful at containing ecological destruction (biofuels, thorium reactors, new hydro power, etc).

Within the myth, we expect technology to arrive to save us, just as part of the natural order of things. Some people even argue that something like this is part of economic fundamentals; if there is enough need, then investment will occur and the technology will be invented and appear. However, this is never guaranteed, and it encourages us to forget the unexpected effects of technology, and to ignore complexity and assume we know all the interconnections in a natural system, which we cannot.

In this mode, human technological endeavour is heroic, even godlike. No radical change is needed and we can retain the status quo; we can continue as normal with a technological add on. Some writers can even move away from climate change acceptance and any tinkering with the corporatised market, by arguing that ecological degradation has nothing to do with climate change or forms of economics, and that it can be fixed by easily deployed technologies.

In the ‘technology is good’ side of the equation we also tend to think that technology is determinate, and indicates degree of advancement and proficiency – this is something of a contradiction to the technology as add on idea, but it is used in different arguments about technological superiority and usually kept separate. We often mark out history by supposedly technological periods which follow in succession, a kind of “technological ladder”: Stone Age (Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic), Bronze Age, Iron Age, Agricultural Age, Age of Print, Age of Sail, Age of Steam, Industrial Age, Atomic Age, Space Age, Computer or Information Age and so on. Each ‘Age’ is supposedly better than the last, rather than just partly the same and partly different.

This allows us to dismiss any wisdom or knowledge possessed by ‘earlier’ ages, and also makes it hard to see the complexities of reality, such as ‘Stone Age’ Australian Aboriginal people appear to have had complex systems of ‘agriculture’ which are completely different in their ways of working to European systems (see Bill Gammage and Bruce Pascoe) (Some references to the controversy over this).

Harmful Technology

The counterposition makes science the cause of all our problems. Not only does it suggest Prometheus’ punishment is more primary than his success, but it suggests the Tower of Babel with God striking down human technological presumption, or that our technology will escape and take over the world, destroying us, as we can see in many science fiction scenarios. It implies that technological presumption leads to disaster, perhaps even to the end of the world.

The dark side myth can be used to imply technologist and scientists are evil, as with the “climate change ideas only exist because of a world wide socialist conspiracy” trope. All experts can be ignored, if they don’t agree with positions we already hold.

This view can also be used to imply that people ‘down’ the ‘technological ladder’ had generally much greater wisdom and lives than we do today, which may not always be the case.

At best this side of the myth implies that technology alienates us from something essentially human, even though humans always seem to have used technology of some sort. We often hear people arguing that the internet destroys our capacity to think, or to have an inner life, when (if we were loosing our capacity to think etc) there might be many other reasons – like being fed false information for political purposes, or being so busy and nervous at work that we have no time for reflection.

One writer rebuffs the idea of using windmills to generate electricity as they are a medieval technology and make an infernal noise – reference to the sound of hell is not accidental, even if unconscious, and that implies the possibility of punishment from God. Yet I suspect the writer does not object to other noisier technologies like aircraft. But this does not seem clear to him. To be real, and of the future, technology has to look a certain way, a demand shaped by myth, or at least by films of a great future (do we have those any more?). Likewise President Trump seems somehow aware that building windmills can involve pollution, even if he seems unaware of the pollution from coal mining and burning, or he chooses not to emphasise this. Likewise with bird killing.

In this part of the myth new technology becomes seen as corrupting and inherently destructive of the social, or natural, order, and indeed it may well change those orders.

When technology becomes part of the social order, it does so as a complex system within other complex systems, and unintended consequences are routine. At a simple level it can open opportunities for some groups to consolidate or increase their social power and influence. Although this is usually only considered disruptive if people from lower groups get raised. If people from dominating groups increase their power, this may not be portrayed as a problem.

The Conflict/Paradox

What one side hears as the solution sounds to the other like a charter for further destruction. Technology is simultaneously, saviour and destroyer, potentially part of the solution but currently part of the problem. Which position we choose to argue from determines where we end up, and the alarms (intended or otherwise) we raise in other people.

However, both positions have equal possibility of being true. In this case, it is possible that putting the two halves of the myth together may help us deal with problems of transformation/transition.

Some technological breakthroughs could save us, or at least help us. And we may not have to wait for them, we already have renewable sources of energy. However, it is also true that renewables may not be able to save us, if we wish to keep using more energy, or bring everyone in the world to the energy use of the average Australian or US American. A change in lifestyle and life plans may also be required. Some people may loose wealth so as to stabilize the system, some people may gain wealth to stabilized the system. This could be disruptive and it would be easy to make people fear this change, because who knows where it will end up? We also appear to have the capacities to lower pollution and waste production, but it is difficult because it is not profitable, and profit is what counts in our economic and political system. In this case the technology is being disrupted by the maintenance of other systems.

It is also true that new technologies can be disruptive or harmful, and they may well need to be vetted, but this is not easy.

Ultimately a significant part of the problem with technology comes down, not just to the myth, but to our inability to think in terms of complex systems, and, of unintended consequences as being normal.

We have tended to deal with unintended consequences, just by arguing about them afterwards, or generally ignoring them, as with fossil fuels, with the possible exception of the London smogs. These were solved by government action, information work, and regulation. They could have continued to be ignored, there is no reason why the death of ordinary people should impinge on the souls of those seeking profit alone. Probably enough of them lived in London to accept the reforms, or feared the rise of the poisoned working and middle classes and gave in.

As the consequences of technology are often unintended and unexpected we cannot easily predict them, but part of the problem is that we do not try – we often do not seem to consider this at all.

Exploring the dynamics of unintended and unexpected consequences should be a major research project. All policy, corporate or governmental, should consider the likelihood of unintended consequences, and determine how these consequences will be looked for, and taken into account.

Technology does not escape myth.

See also: Problems of Transition 02: Technology as Fantasy