Follows from Transformation to Renewable Energy: General Problems

Contemporary societies have social fantasies, or myths, about technologies, which may not be helpful to dealing with the reality of transition. The biggest problem, is that we all may be in the grip of these myths and fantasies without being aware of it. We can just assume the myth is common sense and that what we are saying is obvious. Obviously I am not going to be aware of all of these myths, and even if I was, I could still be captured by them.

One reason that fantasy is important is that we cannot see the future or predict the future completely accurately. Indeed, socially, we have a bad record at this. Books anticipating the future always fail in fundamental ways to predict exactly what will happen. Weather, economic and sports forecasting is difficult, and rarely always accurate. We now understand that this arises from the nature of complex systems. Trends can perhaps be predicted, but predicting specific events is hard, especially when the predictions change behaviour.

Therefore we have to imagine the future. Imagining is essential, and helpful, but it is never constrained by reality. So when we are talking about technological transition, we are engaging in imagining and fantasy. Often imagining has guiding principles which make the results seem socially acceptable, and these principles may not be correct.

Technology is either really good or bad.

In these fantasies, technologies are nearly always forces that bring either marked good or harm. There is a large proportion of the population that seems to believe technology can solve almost any problems without bringing any harms. This is rarely so, even if it is a common part of the sales techniques deployed around technologies. There are also others who think that transition to any new technology will inevitably bring disaster.

Technology is spontaneously generated when needed.

People, including economists, often talk as if, because a technology is needed or imagined, it will be developed, and it will be developed in time, and utilised as intended, with only the results expected. This is often not the case. We still do not have skies full of flying cars, we do not have bases on the Moon and Mars, but we do have climate change, which is a classic case of a known problem with technologies being ignored, because the technologies are profitable and useful and have been built into social relations, activities and hierarchies.

Technology has no real restrictions; it is magical.

There is another tendency for people to act as if technology was magical, and that because we can do one thing, or one device can be said to resemble another, then we will soon be able to do something else, which is actually difficult or impossible. Thus again, because we could travel to the Moon, we would soon have a Moon base, or we should soon be able to colonise the solar system, or travel to another star, or something. We might think computers resemble minds, so we should soon be able download individual minds into computers. We can in theory catch CO2 emissions from coal, therefore we will soon have emissions-free coal everywhere. Thorium is a good source of energy, therefore we will soon have functional Thorium reactors. Fusion is wonderful, therefore we will soon have fusion reactors. The list goes on. And the catch is that fantasy and imagining, or trying to do things which were previously ‘magical’, probably is important in developing new technology. The problem is that even if these things were possible, and I am not saying they are impossible, it does not mean they will happen now. There are other complexities to consider, including the social relations around the technology and current technology, the limited range of human attention and application, and the success of struggles for limited finance.

Technology can also be ‘magical’ in quite a literal sense, if we define magic as a way of changing human awareness, habit, focus and so on and producing ‘non-physical’ effects in the world. Technology can change the way people perceive things and think about things. For example, we can start thinking of minds in terms of computers (software and hardware), or we can start thinking of the cosmos in terms of clocks, or information processors. People can use imagined technologies to attempt to change our view of the world and our behaviour, as when they argue that clean cheap and quick nuclear energy is available, or clean coal will soon be available, or that renewable energy is already doing a large part of the energy work, and will easily be able to replace fossil fuels with no social change. Technology often seems to be part of a rhetoric of persuasion, used to change world views and actions, and to focus attention on particular parts of reality, often at the expense of others. You have nothing to fear from total computerised surveillance if you are good.

It seems easy for humans to relate to machines as if they were animate and intelligent, especially when the machines are unfamiliar; in which case their behaviour with those machines is also not purely rational. Humans give everything meaning, and use everything to try and make meaning for themselves and others, including technology, but as usual the meanings given may not be uniform throughout society, and may be a subject of struggle and disjunction. Meaning never exists by itself, so the meaning of a technology becomes tied into a web of meaning and contrasts in meaning. The technology can be made to support existing world views, even as it slowly changes them, and affects other meanings, actions and power relations. Magical/meaning warfare is not yet dead.

Unintended consequences disrupt our fantasies.

Then there is no necessity that the technologies would give the results which were intended or expected. Technologies often add complications to the task they were supposed to perform. They give people new opportunities for action and add complexities to life, and the results of those opportunities and complexities, can only rarely be predicted in detail. Even if the problems were predicted in detail, there is only a small chance many people will accept the prediction, over their fantasy. This unpredictability, can always be disruptive, in both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ways.

For example, the Internet was predicted to bring a world of free information-literacy and democracy. However, as well as providing communication between people who would never have previously met, it has probably brought endless shopping, induced polarisation, distorted information, strengthened politics as a form of identity, provided echo chambers for any idea whatsoever, magnified fantasy, and given new forms of political manipulation and Donald Trump. It brought both (some) benefits and (many) harms, and its main harms were not expected by most analysts.

We might also expect (via the so called ‘Jevons Paradox’) that if clean coal or gas could be made to work, then we would burn more coal and gas, and cause more ecological disaster through the mining and transport of coal and gas.

Resolution of fantasy and imagined expectations is a problem.

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