s/r home  | issues  | authors  | 55 contents

Synthesis/Regeneration 55   (Spring 2011)

Confessions of a Technophobe

by Henry Robertson

Hi. My name is Henry, and I don’t own a cell phone.

This reactionary stance is getting harder and harder to maintain, so I feel compelled to examine my motives. They’re not simple. They’re a mixture of principle and personal psychology. It’s not just age. I’m pushing 60, but there are people much older than I who are more tech-savvy.

It’s not because I’m a loser. Really. I’m an important person doing good things for the cause of sustainability. Maybe I should get with the program. This is the electronic information age. It’s how we have to work — phoning and driving and flying and laptopping. This modus operandi is a short-term, high-carbon investment in a low-carbon future.

When are we going to get down to the real thing?

The personal

In part, it’s fear of my own incompetence. I’m not a practical or mechanical person. Technophobia isn’t so much fear of technology as fear of myself. Anyway, buying and mastering all this electronic gear feels like an imposition on me. I didn’t ask for all this. I was doing fine without it.

I can see the advantages of cell phones, but I hate the way people use them. After all these years I still find it strange to see people walking down the street talking to themselves. Some can’t go three minutes without checking their cell or Blackberry. Is something wrong with me or them?

…the internet encourages people to live in an unreal world, gaming while the planet burns.

I’m tired of being constantly subjected to conversations, not to mention the occasional screaming argument on the bus or train. Cell phones have certainly increased the amount of talk in the world. I don’t think that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s the main reason people seem too busy for the political action and self-transformation that need to be done. Similarly, the internet encourages people to live in an unreal world, gaming while the planet burns.

Is it really more distracting to hear half a conversation than to overhear two people chatting with each other? An experiment by psychologists at Cornell University found that hearing a “halfalogue” (one side of a dialogue) impaired the cognitive function of subjects performing tasks on the computer, while hearing a whole conversation did not. Halfalogues were never normal before, so we notice them; or maybe we just want to hear the whole story.

The principle of the thing

The paperless office — we all know that’s a myth. Modern electronics are supposed to be part of the sustainability revolution. But this is big business, and big business — the kind that aims at exponential growth compounding year after year — is not sustainable. There are billions, maybe tens of billions, of cell phones, PDAs, desktop computers, laptops — the whole panoply. This sector of the economy is the fastest growing consumer of fossil-fueled electricity. A lot of materials go into making those gadgets. A lot of pollution comes out.

A lot of materials go into making those gadgets. A lot of pollution comes out.

These devices have some pretty exotic inputs. Their capacitors are made using tantalum, which is found in the mineral coltan. A lot of coltan comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The militias in eastern Congo finance themselves with the mining, smuggling and extortion of coltan. The Congolese army, unable to defeat them, settles for a cut of the profits. Coltan is a blood mineral.

Rare earths have been in the news lately. The rare earths are a set of 17 elements used in electronics, electric car batteries and wind turbines. They’re concentrated in a handful of countries. For the time being, China has cornered the market on available supplies and is threatening to cut its export quotas. This has the makings of a trade war, and maybe even a war if competing countries get desperate enough down the road.

Electronic devices obsolesce fast and have to be thrown out or recycled. Old computers are sent to Asia, where unprotected workers rip into the innards and are exposed to toxic components like lead.

Someone remind me how this differs from the capitalist exploitation of old.

What are we waiting for?

Activists enthuse about the organizing and communication capabilities of the new technology. How much better off we are than in the days of the rotary dial telephone, snail mail and the mimeograph machine!

It’s an arms race, and our corporate opposition still has the big bucks. We’re running just trying to stay in place.

Malcolm Gladwell said, “The revolution will not be tweeted.” He may want to revise that after the events in Tunisia and Egypt. What remains to be seen is how those peoples will replace their old regimes starting from such an amorphous beginning.

I don’t know what revolution Gladwell meant, but I know the one I mean. It’s the one that leads to a world where we’re not stealing resources from future generations.

It’s an arms race, and our corporate opposition still has the big bucks.

I say “we” advisedly. We may not have much choice in the matter, but we’re all complicit. The corporate globalized growth economy hides its dirty work, but it gets exposed. We know it’s there behind the façade of advertizing. Still, we take the conveniences and sometimes very real benefits it offers, goods and services that would have been the envy of kings, queens and tycoons less than a century ago. We’re (I’m) reluctant to give them up. They bind us with chains more comfortable than self-reliance. A lot of lip service gets paid to this revolution some of us are now calling for. It’s an odd sort of revolution. As the British journalist George Monbiot put it, “We must riot for austerity.”

Downsize, localize, power down.

In that world we may not be maxed out on our credit cards, we may not be manically “excited” about everything, but if we get it right and avoid another dark age, if we adjust our expectations to reality, we can be satisfied and even happy.

Oil is getting harder to find and more expensive. This trend will accelerate. Before long the era of mechanized agriculture will be over. What machines can no longer do for us we’ll have to do for ourselves — grow our own food. Need a job? Try farming.

There’s the real phobia we face — low-technophobia.

Henry Robertson is an environmental lawyer and activist in St. Louis. He drafted this essay in longhand.

[4 jun 11]

Synthesis/Regeneration home page | s/r 55 Contents