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Broken robots: technology reconsidered

I might as well be honest - my iPod Mini is falling apart. The aluminum case has been banged up for a while now, and the battery life has been steadily declining. Recently the plastic panel on top came off, and I figured it might be time for an upgrade. But then I had second thoughts: if I shell out 200 bucks for a shiny black Nano, I won’t just be buying an mp3 player. I’ll also be buying the toxic chemicals used to make it, the cardboard used to package it, the oil used to ship it from China. Suddenly, keeping the old Mini around didn’t seem so bad, after all.

My predicament is, of course, hardly unique. In an age when it’s shameful to own a cell phone that’s more than two years old, we find ourselves under constant pressure to keep up with the latest technowizardry, while the consequences of it all remain hidden to the consumer – and, all too often, the producer as well. Technological progress has given us unprecedented opportunities, many of them unquestionably good for our wellbeing. But is this progress permanent? Can we maintain the current dizzying pace of technological change while making the transition to a zero-waste society?

Ask Bruce Sterling, Alex Steffen, or Bill McDonough, and you’ll get a resounding yes. With dematerialization, cradle-to-cradle manufacturing, nanotechnology, ubiquitous computing and a gazillion other technologies in the pipeline, we’re supposedly due for a second industrial revolution that will make us even more prosperous and halt environmental destruction at the same time. Sounds great, right? Increasingly, though, verdy folks are coming to the conclusion that this cybernetic daydreaming is a little unrealistic, if not downright scary.

Here’s the thing: with bigger tools come less precision. As our technologies become more and more intricate, implicating more and more of the globe in the process, the less we’re able to completely understand them - and the more potential there is for unintended, and potentially disastrous, repercussions. Just look at fossil fuels: it’s obvious from today’s vantage point that structuring our society around ever-increasing consumption of a finite, polluting energy source wasn’t the best idea. But nobody had the mental framework to understand that back in 1850. In the same vein, today’s technofixes might easily turn out to be tomorrow’s technodisasters: Colony Collapse Disorder, the adverse health effects of electromagnetic radiation, and the disruption of global climate patterns by large-scale windfarms are just a few examples of how “good” technologies might be doing us harm in ways we don’t realize.

This isn’t to say that technological innovation is a bad thing; we’re going to have to be damn innovative, after all, to reorganize the fundamental structures of our society in a matter of decades. Technology will be a critical component of the sustainable future – but only if we can learn to control it more effectively than we do now. Last week, Karl Schroeder declared on Worldchanging that “technology is legislation”: for better or worse, it has the potential to change our lives much faster than either political action or shifts in values. If that’s the case, then our challenge is to draft that legislation much more carefully, in a way that enriches communities and biomes as well as quarterly earnings.

That means devising regulated, corruption-proof methods of quantifying ecological footprints. It means harnessing the power of peer-generated media to wrest ourselves from corporate brainwashing, and cultivate instead a culture of involvement. It means partnering with the “technologies” of biological systems to provide for our human needs with a fraction of the energy input. And it means developing efficient methods for turning wastes into resources.

But it’s not just new technologies that need to be examined critically. From internal combustion engines to YouTube, we’ve got to take a long hard look at the consequences of our current technologies, not only on the health of the planet but on our communities and psyches, as well. We seem to take it as a given that once a technology is here, it’s here to stay - but the truth is, it’s in our hands to accept or reject innovation. Technology needs us a lot more than we need it.

As we each begin to reorient our lifestyles away from mindless growth and towards mindful sufficiency, it’s time to ask if the technologies we take for granted are doing more harm than good, and to start figuring out how to unplug from those things that we can’t in good conscience justify. The answers will be different for each of us, depending on our lifestyles, values, and finances – but the important thing is that we start asking.

For my part, I’ve decided to let go of flying, television, imported produce, riding in cars, and buying things that plug in – while at the same time hanging on to my cell phone, refrigerator and laptop (which I seem to be tethered to these days). Is my response extreme? Sure, when you compare it to the current lifestyles of most of the overdeveloped world. But as I’ve pointed out before, consumerism is really what’s extreme; my techno-diet brings me a lot more in line with the way humans have lived for most of our existence.

While I feel morally obligated to reduce my personal footprint, it’s not just about abstract principles of energy and waste. The choices I’m making have very real, and very positive, effects on my daily life: the more I let go of junk technology, the more alive I’m starting to feel. Unplugging allows me to stop worrying about trivial stuff like lost luggage or being able to afford a new gadget, and pay attention to what really matters. Like eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep. Or keeping in touch with my friends and family… or designing a protective case so that my trusty iPod can last a little bit longer.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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