Mushroom at the End of the World - Will Technology Save Humanity

Will Technology Save Humanity?

For the final part of Cultural Ecology 2017 we use anthropology to speculate on nine big questions about the future of life in the Anthropocene. Question #8: Will Technology Save Humanity?

The two readings are

  • Tim Ingold, “Society, nature and the concept of technology” (312-322) in The Perception of the Environment
  • Anna Tsing pp.27-54 in The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins

That we are now asking “will technology save humanity?” is a curious reversal of traditional Western attitudes. As Ingold begins “for many centuries, Western thought has been dominated by the idea that the mission of mankind is to achieve mastery over nature” (2000:312). Technology in this case is the instrument for mastering nature. “Thus society is considered to be the mode of association of rational beings, nature the external world of things as it appears to the reasoning subject, and technology the means by which a rational understanding of that external world is turned to account for the benefit of society” (2000:312).

Asking “will technology save humanity?” is an admission that something went wrong with the planned mastery over nature. As Tsing puts it: “This is a story we need to know. Industrial transformation turned out to be a bubble of promise followed by lost livelihoods and damaged landscapes” (2015:18; see also the related content Is Capitalism the Best Economic System?).

What is technology anyway?

Even if we admit that something went wrong with the idea of technology as helping humans achieve mastery over nature, does that mean we can simply reverse course and use technology to save us? Perhaps, but it would first be better to understand what exactly we mean by technology. This is no easy task, as we saw in the previous Will Machines Replace Humans?.

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  • Jessica Wilson

    Will technology save humanity?
    According to Tsing, it is impossible for any species to survive without collaborations (p.28). The invention of social and physical sciences launched us into the modern world, and has become a collaborative force that we are “contaminated” by. The issue is that technology can be both a destructive and a creative force. Thus, it is our intent in using our technology that will dictate whether or not technology can save us– and whether or not we remain in “salvage capitalism” (p. 43).

    • Good initial quotes but could use a bit more context and analysis.

  • Mary Buntrock

    In Ingold’s section on The Technical and The Social, he argues against Durkheim’s view of the distinction “between social relations and technical forces of production” which he viewed as “mutually exclusive domains” (318). For Durkheim, the act of hunting or gathering was a purely technological one as “the skilled handling of tools … as their own their technical skills” (318). Since there is no practice of sharing here, it would not be a social relation. Ingold on the other hand, believes that “hunting and gathering societies, the forces of production are deeply embedded in the matrix of social relations” (318). Ingold’s view is that without the social aspect of the relationship, the technical aspect could not exist.

    • Nice work with Ingold on Durkheim in relationship to hunting and gathering, but might do a bit more with the overall argument.

  • Madison Turcotte

    To answer the question as to whether technology will save humanity, first, we have to acknowledge the question of what technology is. Each society has a different definition of what technology is. The common westerner belief is basically that hunter-gatherer societies are primitive and simple. Ingold says though, that if westerners belittle these societies due to the “simplicity of their technology”, then these societies are equally able to “belittle westerners on account of their primitive notions of kinship” (313). This just shows that different societies have different views on what technology means. So, how can one say that technology will be able to save all of humanity, when each culture has it’s own ideas of what technology even means. Ingold states that technology and culture are the “twin pillars of the modern ideals of progress and enlightenment” and that they “confine the rest of humanity to the monotonous execution of determining systems: as technology determines practice, so culture determines thought (321). In the end, technology will most likely not be able to save humanity, all it would really be good for would be to advance societies, but does that necessarily mean they will be saved?

    • Good work linking the first and final segments of Ingold, although he is attempting to go beyond a relativistic idea of simply “everyone has a different notion of ‘technology.'”

  • Sean Tucker

    Will technology save humanity?
    On page 315 and 316 in Ingold, Ingold states that “tools or handmade instruments tend to engender techniques, machines technologies…Technique is more involved with the training of the human body and mind…whereas technology is concerned exterior things and their rational manipulation…” This is important because knowing the difference between tools and technology has help me come to the conclusion that technology will not save humanity. Using tools allows for a human to develop skills and knowledge that can be useful in order to survive and prosper. Using technology removes the core aspect of learning a skill with a tool, but increases the rate survival and prosperity. Although technology can help a society grow at a much more rapid rate, the separation of knowledge caused by technology can be dangerous. Because of the separation caused by using advance technology in our everyday lives we cannot see the effects it may have on the environment and the future impact it may have on our knowledge and skills as a whole. If we keep depending on technology to make our products eventually we will forget how to make them on our own. This could be dangerous because if something were to happen that causes all of our technology to stop working, then the human race would be crippled and would have to relearn and remaster all of the skills we once had. Over dependency on technology has also blinded us to the impact that some technology has had on the environment. We can be blind to the effects of technology on the environment as well because of the separation that technology causes (Figure 16.1). Since we are simply pushing buttons there is a disconnect to the things we are doing with technology and because we are not using our own energy it can be hard to feel the impact of what that one little button may have done. If a man cuts down one tree with an ax he can feel how much that one tree “cost”, but if a man could cut down that one tree with one finger and less energy the “cost” of the tree would feel less. This feeling would cause us to cutting down more trees with little regards to how much these trees actually “cost”. If anything technology seems to be a path or self-destruction than one of salvation.

    • Generally good thoughts here on how Ingold differentiates technique from technology. Be careful as it might be useful to get some clarification from Tsing that “nonscalable projects can be terrible or benign” (2015:42; see this student comment).

  • Otelia

    Will Technology Save Humanity?
    Technology has become a major part of our society, we would be unable to function without it. Technology has allowed us to achieve things we have never dreamed of doing, and in the future it will continue to surprise us. “My thesis, in a nutshell, is that in the societies we study — perhaps even including our own — technical relations are imbedded in social relations, and can only be understood within this relational matrix, as one aspect of human society” (Ingold, 314). The only problem with technology is that we are becoming increasingly reliant on it, this dulls some of the skills that we need in order to sharpen our brains. Instead of reading a book, we just pull up Netflix on our phones, and watch a TV show. “In the dichotomy between discursive knowledge and executive practice, no space remains for the practical knowledge (or knowledgeable practice) of the craftsman. Technology in short, appears to erase technique, rather than back it up” (Ingold, 316). In the case of global warming, the need for petroleum products in order to better our technology, and the fumes that pollute our environment in order to manufacture, and also acquire these things from the earth, could very well be the earths downfall. Technology is only aggravating the situation. But if there are going to be preventative measures taken, against climate change, technology will be the only thing we can turn to. The question is, will technology be strong enough? Instead of letting things get so bad, we should have relied on ourselves in order to better the situation before it became nearly irreversible.

    • Nice work, especially with how Ingold talks about technology erasing technique.

  • Nadja

    Will technology save humanity?
    In chapter sixteen, Ingold discusses the concept of technology and the use of tools. On page 312, Ingold states that technology in “primitive societies”, have simple technology and that the thought of having it take control over nature was not a concern. On page 313 he discusses two different views of technology. One view as he states, “Are those who claim that the essential institutional forms of society are dictated by the requirements of operating a technological system of some given degree of complexity, and therefor that social change is is driven by-and depends upon-technological changes” (pg. 313). Yet the other view states that technology has no influence whatsoever on society. I believe that technology has had an impact on society, but it has caused many problems such as malware on our computers, or the fact that its causing higher consumption of energy. Due to this, no I do not believe that technology will save humanity, it could actually could just be destroying humanity.

    • Nice job finding the diametrically opposed positions. Keep in mind as Ingold states that “two views that are diametrically opposed often turn out to be so because they are based on common premises” (2000:313). Our work is to uncover those common premises in order to avoid the often false opposition.

  • Zachary Whitenack

    What is technology anyway?
    Our use of the word technology has helped to mold our views of what is technology and how we operate that object in relation to the environment. The usage of the word takes away human activity and interaction and places it (somehow) within the device being used. “[…] productive work is divorced from human agency and assigned to the functioning of a device […]”(p. 315) Ingold also states that to make his case easiest he would say that “there is no such thing as technology in pre-modern societies” (p. 314) and this is because of the separation that occurs when there is a dichotomy that is inherently part of the term used. This being the case, I don’t think technology can be used to “save” humans, and if we were to backtrack and try and redo the same, simply viewing such items as technolgy will help to reinforce that separation between humans and the environment that the western ideology loves to foist upon the world.

    • Great question. Might analyze a bit further on how demarcating “technology” is actually a claim we make about the world (see Ingold 2000:312).

  • Allyson Quirk

    Will technology save humanity?? Ingold states on page 314 that “there is no such thing as technology in pre-modern societies.” For me, this reminds me that humanity was fine on its own without the aspect of technology. Ingold then touches upon how technology has a “control over nature” (314). Hunters and Gatherers are closer to nature than us in the Western society, yet, rapid changes, ideas, and breakthroughs don’t tend to happen in their society. That being said, as Westerners, I don’t think technology will save humanity. I do believe that without it, progress wouldn’t be made like it happens today and since we rely on it so much, in some sense technology is even deteriorating humanity.

    • Would be important to analyze this statement a bit further. For example, just after this provocative sentence Ingold states “let me add at once that I do not mean that people in such societies lack tools or technical skills” (314). So what does he mean? And are we making progress?

  • Marley Vil

    Will Technology Save Humanity?
    I do not think technology will save humanity because human thrived way before any technology even existed. I just believe it will makes it easier for human lives and also improve them. Ingold states on page 313 “The impact of technology on society may be affirmative or neutral, its formulae perspective or permissive, but in itself technology has no part in society: it is simply given as independent, external factor. Having thus been placed outside of society and culture, technology – so far as most anthropologist were concerned – be safely ignored. I totally agree with this statement.

    • Great quote on how anthropology has been able to ignore the issue of technology. But Intold is totally arguing against this approach.

  • Meagan Wright

    Could technology save humanity? When reading Ingold, he helps us understand technology as a skill. In that the differences between societies is the extent of their skill or their technology. When talking about hunters and gatherers, Ingold tells us that though their skills/technology are simple, they are able to thrive. He tells us on page 321 “as technology determines practice, so culture determines thought”. Therefore technology can’t exist without culture and culture can’t exist without technology. With that, the level of which a culture is at is determined by how much technology they use to survive (as thought by western point of view). So in the sense that technology is the amount of skill used to make a culture surivive, then yes, technology saves humanity every day.

    • May need to try reading this through again. Ingold is definitely arguing against the idea that technology is determining of practice, culture, or thought. However, he is also arguing against the idea that technology is exterior to social relations.

  • Marzipan

    As we discussed last class, Tsing blames the state of our world on capitalism, which is driven by the belief in progress, which is also explored by Ingold in his discussions of technology. In today’s reading, Ingold mentions a disagreement between those who believe technological change drives social change and those who believe it does not impact the social sphere (313). “Both sides suppose that technology can be scaled in terms of degree of complexity; they also share the assumption that technology comprises an objective system of relations among things, that is wholly EXTERIOR to the social domain of relations among persons” (313).
    Tsing allocates her third chapter to the question of scale: “scalability… is the ability of a project to change scales smoothly without any change in project frames,” and it “requires that project elements be oblivious to the indeterminacies of encounter; that’s how they allow smooth expansion. Thus, too, scalability banishes… diversity that might change things” (38). It was “the success of expansion through scalability” that “shaped capitalist modernization” (Tsing 40). Scalability, then, ties technology to capitalism. Indeed, Ingold claims that his argument can follow the same argument as has been made concerning economy, since “economic life was [also] progressively disembedded from social life” “in the history of Western capitalism” (314).
    Tsing notes that “scalability is not an ordinary feature of nature,” so “it is time to turn our attention to the nonscalable, not only as objects for description but also as incitements to theory” (38). She is careful to clarify that “nonscalable projects can be terrible or benign,” so her interest is not in any superior ethics of these projects but rather in their superior diversity. If we throw in some biological drama, diversity ensures survival, so it is a necessary condition for collaboration as she defines it: “working across difference” (Tsing 28). “Without collaborations, we all die” (Tsing 28). So no, technology will not save humanity from our current chaos, but nonscalable projects that contradict capitalism might.

  • Safay Johnson

    Will technology save humanity? I do not believe that the usage of technology has the power to save humans, however technology allows capitalism to continue. By Ingold mentioning how Marxist anthropologist Jonathan Friedman stated ” the social relations of production are not, nor can they be , technical relations”, he influenced my ideas that humans can survive without technology because they have done so in the past however humans have always had social relations with either other humans or non-human elements of the environment (318). The hunter-gatherers were able to survive without technology however it would be difficult for Western societies to progress without technology because we heavily depend on capitalism, which depends on technology.

    • May need to give this another look in relation to class notes. Are we making progress?