Follows on from: Technology as Fantasy

Some of these problems talked about in the previous post, occur because technology is not neutral, it is born into being, and designed, within existing social relations, social struggles, ecological relations and so on. Technologies will almost always be designed, and modified, to try and maintain or intensify relations of social power, and distributions of wealth. In capitalism, for example, work tools are rarely designed to give people more simple leisure, and indeed leisure tools like the internet or mobile phone, can be used to extend work hours ‘voluntarily’. Any technology with potential, become sites of social struggle.

Technology involves social organisation

In the current world, social organisation and disorganisation exists before new technologies are introduced. Sometimes we can easily think of social relations and organisation as a form of technology. Armies of soldiers are a different form of technology, to collections of warriors. The discipline of Roman troops and troop formation, generally proved victorious over warrior bands, even though the basic physical technologies were not that much different; swords, spears, shields, armour, bows etc. The pyramids were primarily built through the organisation of human action; without that organisation, they could not have been made. Irrigation systems require co-ordination and distribution systems, which usually imply allocation of power and authority. These various systems may, in some cases be primarily religious, magical or astrological – so again magic is overtly part of the technologies application. Capitalism grew together with styles of organisation of factories, offices, labour, finance, expertise and so on. Office machines and factory machines also grew within these frameworks. Technology as a part of, or enabler of, social relations, is also deeply implicated in power relations and hierarchies, and the struggles within them.

To repeat; technology arrives into a situation in which social struggles, conflicts, failures, successes and so on already exist. The technology is designed by at least one faction in this set of complex social relations, and is inserted into them. It is not always possible to clearly demarcate a technology from the social relations and organisation that exist ‘around’ it and ‘through’ it. Technology is social from the beginning.

Maybe, in another world, it is possible the internet could have become a tool of democracy but, in this world, it was born in a period of increasingly neoliberal capitalism, and was transformed by the victors of that struggle into a commercial, data collecting set of business oligopolies. It was used in the political struggles of the world, to promote neoliberal ideologies, to win elections, to increase surveillance, to arrest dissidents, to destroy other States, to find new ways of manipulating people, and so on. Its potential to be a tool of democracy was destroyed by those who wished to use it to support their own power.

The same problem of the effect of established, or victorious, social relations is relevant for renewables. If renewables are established within social relationships which already depend on sacrificing ecologies for pofit, then it seems likely that renewables will be used to continue that sacrifice.

This is not an issue that can be answered in advance of research, However, continuing sacrifice does seem a problem.

Sacrifice of some for the good of all.

Research in India shows that people can have their land stripped away from them for corporate renewable installations (possibly through fraudulent contracts, or simply by ignoring the existing use). The installations can render the land desolate through the use of mass concrete stands. The removal of agriculture, can lead to massive unemployment and skill loss, because renewables only require a small, relatively unskilled labour force to maintain. Water, in short supply to begin with, can be taken from the public to keep the panels clear of dust. Attempts by local people to establish their own renewable networks, can be destroyed by people developing national grids, who demand local homemade grids be taken down, as they disrupt ‘proper’ grids.

Research in Australia implies that standard corporate development practices flourish, with top down imposition of energy farms (in a similar way to the way coal mines can be promoted) which alienates local people, prevents discussion of the potential problems of the development, prevents people discussing the contracts they might get for land-use, and leads to envy because some people get large payments, and others get nothing. Again, this can destroy local small town economies, because the levels of employment are less. As with the internet, democratic practices can be sacrificed for profitability.

Likewise, support for these top-down installations often seems to suggest that people’s relationship to the land which they feel they are protecting by objecting to the renewable projects, is irrelevant, when we precisely wish to maintain nurturing relationships to land and ecologies to allow transition. Strategies of development seem bound up with the idea of sacrificing people or ecologies for the developmental “benefit of all”, or perhaps the benefit of some. Renewables can take on this need to sacrifice others as easily as fossil fuels – although established power relations seem to make renewables easier to object to successfully. This idea of sacrifice may need modification, but how?

Capitalism and industrial society, have depended on destructive technologies

Capitalist economies have routinely profited from cheap energy, cheap resources (ignoring environmental effects), and cheap disposal of pollution, waste and used or superseded products. At the moment, most recycling is not true recycling, as people recently found out in Australia; much of the process involved companies being paid to collect waste and then paying third world countries to make it their problem with the recyclable produce often used as land fill. Money was made but little was recycled.

This reliance on cheap pollution and low monetary cost for ecological destruction, leads to the common point about such societies consuming more resources and producing more waste in a year than can be possibly regenerated in a year. Obviously the longer this goes on, the less can be regenerated and the more living capacity that is destroyed. Therefore, the problem intensifies.

Solar panel manufacturing in China, until recently, was driven by capitalist priorities, it was made with cheap dirty coal energy, paid low wages, and emitted harmful effluent pollution, killing rivers and possibly local people – although this latter point can be disputed. However, these cheap panels did drive cleaner manufacturers out of business.

Mess of information.

Because capitalism depends on sales, information about technology and technological quality is primarily propagated through PR, advertising and hype. These factors tend to exaggerate the quality and capacity of developing technologies, in order to diminish the attractiveness of other available, or potentially available, technologies and attract sales. It certainly was routine in the software industry for programmers to declare that company sales staff would promise potential purchasers capacities the software could not deliver, which would lead to problems after installation.

The same problems occur both with renewables and clean fossil fuels. In particular clean fossil fuels never seem to have the deliverables they promise. The promises often seem to be attempts to lock in pollution, on the grounds that it might get better at some non-specified time in the future.

We also have the problems that corporations which depend on fossil fuels, and others, try to find the weaknesses or uncertainties in theories of climate change, and predictions of what is likely to happen. As we are trying to describe complex systems, such weaknesses will always be found. Sometimes this propaganda behaviour seems to have gone against the scientific advice that they accepted for their own business survival, as when they moved storage and processing facilities to higher ground. However, they have helped delay transition, promote the use of fossil fuels, and confused people as to what they are facing in order to continue to make sales and profit, rather than to wind-back, change, or profit from transition. In this sense, these corporations really do depend on destruction.

Capitalism, like many other systems, messes with information as part of its standard modes of operation. It disrupts the flow of accurate information which is necessary for its own survival.


Without some changes to social systems, the product which confuses people and distributes its costs and harms to the populace, rather than to the manufacturer, is likely to win out. This may be especially true in a period of rapid change, in which it is hard to compare quality and harms as they become more visible over a longer period.

Technology is social, not pure and abstractly technical

Continues in:

Problems of Transition 4: Energy Return on Energy Input