For the final part of Cultural Ecology 2017 we used anthropology to speculate on big questions about the future of life in the Anthropocene. One question: Will Technology Save Humanity?
The two readings:
- Tim Ingold, “Society, nature and the concept of technology” in The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill
- Anna Tsing 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?.
Updates for “Will Technology Save Humanity?”
- 2020: I revisited the Ingold chapter in a class on “Disasters” for Cultural Ecology 2020.
- 2018: Whitney Larratt-Smith at the Engagement blog writes On Tricking Ducks: Industrial Naturecultures and the Toxic Bodies of Oil Sands Country. Many of the themes regarding the impossibility of Nature/Culture binaries relate to this course:
The tailings ponds of the Alberta oil sands industry reveal a nexus of mutually reinforcing political and technoscientific efforts to congeal and reproduce the environment as a distinct realm–paradoxically separate from human social worlds, yet still subject to intensive interventions to retrieve latent capital, buried in the form of ‘natural resources’. However, the environment as a material-discursive arrangement that emerges from these efforts is never a discrete, omnipresent space (‘nature’) that achieves stable, permanent objecthood in spite of human interventions (‘culture’). Analyzing how this environment is enacted as a predictable, controllable ‘out-there’ of reality, despite ongoing events like mass waterfowl deaths and uncooperative weather patterns that disrupt such efforts, one can glimpse slippages within industrial and state modes of environmentality (Agrawal 2005) that can be seen to subvert the logics of the nature-culture binary, even as their interventions continue to reify and reproduce such paradigms.
- 2017: In an article titled Ethnography First! Promoting Sustainable Lifestyles through Locally Meaningful Solutions, Dan Podjed details how ethnographic research can guide app development toward social goals. This is perhaps an indication of how we can use technology not necessarily to “save” us per se, but to enable people to better live up to our ideals. This is also related to the idea of reuniting art and technology.
To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2017. “Will Technology Save Humanity?” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/cultural-ecology-2017/will-technology-save-humanity/. First posted 11 April 2017. Revised 3 April 2020.