None of this is original.

There is a long standing argument, going back at least to the early 19th Century, that complicated technologies intrinsically distance, or alienate, people from the natural world. Rather than interacting with the world face to face, as it were, complicated tech separates us from reality. It does most of the thinking and interaction and transformative work. It is like the difference between swords and missiles. They are both designed to kill. One gives you responsibility and the presence of death and what it means, while the other distances you from the mass death you are causing.

To some extent I think this argument might be correct. For example, the idea of overlaying reality with virtual images, could be the absolute instance of separation from the real world and its dynamics. We could, in theory, choose only to see days without pollution, destruction, misery or poverty, and thus cease to recognise that these problems exist. We could choose to make the world more interesting in fantastic ways, to also distract us from the accumulation of real problems which might require political action, rather than heroic questing for virtual items.

However, there is another argument that the problem is not so much technologies themselves, or the development of new technologies, but that technologies can be used and designed for oppressive or alienating purposes. For instance, industrial technology, throughout the 20th Century and now was generally not used to boost the craft, creativity or involvement of the workers in production and work, but to deskill them, control them second by second, and render them as replaceable as possible so as to increase the profit and power of another class of people who owned the tech.

Similarly with the media. We have the capacity for a ‘democratic’ and mass participatory media, but we do not have this – we have billionaire owned and controlled huge media corporations which are primarily devoted towards gaining an audience for advertising and to promote the media owner’s power and influence. We have online ghettoization into conflicting ‘information groups’ which reinforce bias and unreality (of other people of course!), which is encouraged by the algorithms set up by facebook and twitter etc. Youtube shows just tend to reuse the mainstream politicised material and exaggerate the views of the audience they want to attract – also for subscriptions and advertising purposes.

This is quite natural. Systems of social power and organisation generally aim at perpetuating those systems of power and organisaton, or increasing the rigour and effectiveness of that power, so as to benefit the dominant groups, and technology can be designed to be one of the tools in that process.

However sometimes technology can have unintended effects which may undermine dominance, produce destruction or which can be exploited by those who have to use it. This may undermine power and organisation. Thus fossil fuel use while responsible for many societies success, is likely to produce the conditions for their failure. Computers and internet, allowed the boom of new companies and new business models which have disrupted the corporate sector, and allowed new groups to participate, but the technologies have become reintegrated into that sector, transforming it in some ways and extending its power in others.

In all of these senses, technology is often a site of political struggle between dominant and exploited or oppressed groups, to use the tech as either a mode of control or a mode of ‘humanisation’.

It is for example, possible to see a struggle in energy transition. To simplify. There are those who struggle to retain: the established modes of energy production; the value of the capital invested in that technology; and the social dominance, and market influence, control over that technology gives them. There are those who seek to replace the established powers with massive wind or solar farms which retain the centralised energy and power structures of the old system, and those who seek to use renewable energy to boost the social power, independence, resilience and control of local communities who share and distribute the energy generated.

At the moment, it is not clear who will win the energy technology struggle, but governments tend to side with the first two positions. This should change. People into community energy usually now realise that they don’t just face technical problems, but the political and organisational problems of possibly deliberate resistance.

Hence the importance of the recognition that the problem may not always be the technology but the way it is used, and the power relations embedded in it.