Re: FYI: MEDIA & Greenpeace

Anders Sandberg (
Thu, 5 Dec 1996 16:31:31 +0100 (MET)

On Tue, 3 Dec 1996, Kathryn Aegis wrote:

> As an example of the kind of thinking that is becoming prevalent, I
> submit Kirkpatrick Sale's explanation as to why your home PC is an
> ecological disaster area and an affront to human rights:

Thanks for posting it. I think this is a rather illuminating piece of
text, since it shows some of the ideas we have to work against or
circumvent. I hope you can bear me dissecting the text:

> About computers, over which much dispute rages, it suffices
> to say that they have two fundamental, fatal flaws--quite
> apart from the fact that a great deal of pollution and
> sweatshop labor is involved in their manufacture,

How much of computer manufacture is still done in sweatshops? I have the
impression that they being manufactured more and more using automation
(which of course would be seen as promoting unemployment in the third
world). The pollution part is semi-true: it takes resources to make
computers, and they are not all that clean, but if is of course much less
than the resources and pollution needed to make cars. Since these are
somewhat true statements, Sale starts leading the reader down the path of
'yes, that is true, yes, that is true,...' to his desired conclusion.

> some real
> risks to health and bodily function are connected to their
> operation,

Which of course is true for every single device invented - from the
fire and millstone to the Internet.

> considerable deskilling and job displacement result
> from their corporate use,

This is a very important argument, because it both seem obvious, is hard
to respond quickly to and gets at an emotional nerve - unemployment,
deskilling and displacement feel BAD. I have no intentions of arguing if
it is true or not, but it is easy to state as true.

> and increasing surveillance and
> invasion of privacy attend their proliferation.

This is another "obvious" argument, which doesn't have to be true
(Cypherpunks are snickering and sharpening their PGP toolkits).

This initial diatribe is a good rethorical move. It almost dissmissively
mentions a lot of drawbacks that are easy to accept, and quickly moves
the reader to the two points he is really making, having established some
"truths" and made them hard to respond to by not dwelling on them.

> First, in the
> hands of the large centralizing corporations and bureaucracies
> that devised and perfected them in the first place, and in
> service to the goals of production, profitability and power,
> computers are steering the world toward social inequity and
> disintegration and toward environmental instability and collapse,
> and doing so with more speed and efficiency with every passing
> year--regardless of how many people on the Internet believe they
> are saving the planet.

Yet again the same technique of semi-truths and half-lies quickly moving
the reader along. He completely ignores/misrepresents who really designed
the computers people use (or more importantly, who designed the *way* they
are used) and why they were developed - the IBM PC was developed to make a
profit, but *how* was uncertain even for Big Blue, computers just sold.

His view is surprisingly similar to some alarmist books about the computer
revolution written in Sweden in the late 70's, and seem to see computers
more as big mainframes than distributed networks (Kevin Kelly would say he
is thinking in terms of industrial society, where control is paramount,
rather than in terms of network society, where communication is central).
Centralized control by computer seems to be much harder to do today than
previously, although big organizations still can do a lot of things using

The section about 'steering the world' is rather unsupported, and seems
to imply that it is the computers' fault, rather than the people who use
them. Still, he has a point: as things move faster, things can change for
good or bad much faster, so they might become more unstable. But that is
a system problem, not just due to computers.

> Second, computers interpose and mediate
> between the human and natural world more completely than any
> other technology--they are uniquely capable of reproducing
> another nature through biotechnology and many virtual ones--and
> are the instruments that primarily energize the technosphere
> that not merely distances this civilization from nature but sets
> it at war with nature for its daily sustenance.

This is IMHO the rethorical core of his argument, and it is interesting.
The first part is essentially about values: do we want to live in the
natural world or in the technological (cultural) world? He sees the
choice as obvious, and I suppose many of his readers do too, because
nature has become a very positive word today.

My friend Henrik said: "The goal is to leave nature behind, so we can walk
in it and find it pleasant". If you have to toil to farm the earth most of
the time, or live in constant fear of pestillence and starvation, you will
not have the luxury or even inclination to see it as beautiful, vibrant
and worth preserving as it is.

The part about the technosphere at war with the biosphere is plain wrong;
so far neither sphere needs much of the resources the other needs (the
exception is humans, we need material for the biosphere). The reason the
technosphere damages the biosphere is more a question of it getting in the
way or being incompatible with the more dynamic technosphere.

> Next to that it
> is quite insignificant whether some individuals find that the
> values of a technological society--speed, ease, mass information,
> mass access, and the like--are served and enhanced by such
> machines.

This is IMHO the most dangerous part of this text, in a subtle way. He has
presented his case that computers are bad in many ways (and made a
convincing case to many readers), and now he dismisses anybody positive to
computers (and technological society). This creates a "Us vs. Them" meme,
where the reader is placed on the side of the ecological angels. The
environment is so important for all of us that any (misguided or selfish)
opposition must be ignored so that the World Can Be Saved. This promotes
a dangerous collectivism that unfortunately is easy to spread among
environmentally conscious people.

To sum up, I think we need to understand the reasons people oppose us,
think about them and the facts (not all opponents are wrong, after all),
and develop useful counter-memes or research better counter-facts.

Anders Sandberg Towards Ascension!
GCS/M/S/O d++ -p+ c++++ !l u+ e++ m++ s+/+ n--- h+/* f+ g+ w++ t+ r+ !y